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Sunday, July 26, 2015

Ode to my Cell Phone

If you’re an American reading this, you probably have a smartphone.  Smartphones are perfectly suited to the American way of life.  You can look up the closest Thai restaurant that offers a student discount, read reviews to choose what to order, place an order, and have your phone analyze satellite traffic to provide the most efficient route before giving you GPS voice guidance to drive there, all within 2 minutes.  In America, cell phones make life easier.
My cell phone makes my life easier in Senegal, too.  Though it could not be called “smart,” it is perfectly suited for my environment.

My phone is tough.  There are no carpeted floors here in my Pulaar village.  If you’re lucky, your hut floor is poured concrete – if not, it’s packed laterite.  Dropping an iPhone here could be fatal to it, but not to my brick!  There’s no touchscreen to crack, no sensitive camera lens to dirty.  I’ve dropped it dozens of times.  Babies have played with it like a hammer.  I’ve tossed it across the compound to my tokara when she’s asked to use it.  Though primitive, it’s been a tireless champ, the Nile crocodile of cell phones.

The battery lasts forever.  My brick never leaves my side.  I’m a texting fiend, and I talk on the phone far more than the typical villager.  Even so, I only have to charge it every few days.  Most people in my village get by with charging their phones once a week or so.  When the battery does need to be charged, it’s easy to do so.  Find someone with a solar panel, drop it off, and pay 100 CFA (about 20 cents) when you pick it up later.
My host brother Oussaman got a solar panel a couple months ago and he's been rolling in business.
It has a built-in flashlight.  Those of you that don’t understand how useful this is have probably never lived without electricity.  It’s really goddamn useful.
It has a built-in radio.  This is less useful than the flashlight, but still nice.  I can't get any channels on it in my village, but it would probably work in a larger city.  I've seen people with wire attached to their phones (like antennae) and headphone jacks in their ears, so presumably that works too.

The games are on point.  It came equipped with Snake, Rapid Roll, Cricket Cup, Sudoku, and Forbidden Treasures.  I still have no idea how to play Forbidden Treasures (ironic...) but the other games are great.  I favor Snake, but play the other games regularly too.  I probably never would have learned to play cricket if it wasn’t for my phone and my ample free time.  Hidden Peace Corps perk!
Looks like nostalgia...
It's well adapted for a chronically broke person to use.  Cell phones here are recharged with purchased cards, each worth 1000 CFA ($2, but a lot of money in village).  The cards can be purchased from any boutique.  You scratch off the foil, type the numbers into the phone, and - voila! - you have about 30 minutes talk time. 

If you're broke, no worries - there are no monthly fees, no contracts, no mandatory scheduled payments.  If you can't afford credit and need to talk to someone, you can send them a text that says "Merci de me rappeler" (please call me) for free.  The text recipient will see the message and call if they have credit.  If your phone does have a fatal accident, it's easy to get by while waiting for money for a new one.  The SIM cards are removable and transferrable to any other phone.  One of my neighbors hasn't had a working phone for months, but she puts her SIM card in mine sometimes to greet her family in Mauritania.

It keeps me updated with other volunteers and admin. Text message alerts, called CPAs, come in frequently.  These messages are great for keeping all volunteers in the loop about grant deadlines, safety and security issues, or administrative updates.  They were especially useful during last year's Ebola epidemic.  It was good to know that if something happened involving Peace Corps' position in Senegal, we would all be notified at the same time instead of relying on diluted gossip through the rumor mill.  Volunteers also get free volunteer-volunteer calling, which is the best thing admin could have done for our mental health, in my opinion.  Not a day goes by that I don't talk to someone in my Peace Corps family.
You can send money with it.  I haven't utilized this feature, but it's been a lifesaver for my host family.  A Western Union style system called Wari is really popular here.  If you send someone a Wari, they just have to take their phone (with confirmation text) to a Wari station (they're everywhere, there's one 4k away from me), show the person working your ID, and collect your money.  It's so easy.
The computer, iPod, and tablet I brought to Senegal from the states have all fallen prey to the harsh environment here.  This is where electronics go to die.  I have a friend who's gone through two kindles, a camera, an mp3 player, and two laptops.  However, the brick cell phone is still as functional as the day I got it, and I'm thankful.