Sunday, April 20, 2008

Notes from TV Land: An Evening Spent Watching GRTS

You can tell a lot about a country by what they show on their National TV,
- Source Unknown

Hour 1: There are a group of children on TV. They are standing in neat rows, looking straight into the camera, backs straight (probably a teacher-enforced rule: occassionally one of them slumps, before looking at someone or something beyond the camera and hurriedly correcting their posture). A mic is set in front of the rows of children - at what we can only assume is a pre-agreed signal, one of the children comes forward, and stands in front of the mic. Slowly, lifting both hands into the air, he starts to sing, bringing the hands now together, now apart, in time with his song. "Baa...Baa...Black....Sheep", he sings elegiacally (for lack of a better word), pausing significantly after each word. There is an expression of deep thought on his face, which when we look closer seems to contain his whole life story: here is a kid who probably tops the class every year, and is teacher's pet in all the classes, and gets elected to become class prefect without fail every term. We can see in his frown and the seriousness with which he takes himself a tattle-tale, a kid the other kids pick on, at break-time, and who goes running off to tell the teachers and earn the other kids a caning. We can see this also in the lines of deep antagonism in his brow. Offsetting this, we can hear, in the mournfulness of his voice, and the sad echo of his clapping hand-swings, that he would give it all up - the teachers' love, the top grades in class - to become one of the gang, to be allowed to play football with the other kids at breaktime.

He stops singing at this point, and we realize he has come to the end of the first line (the one ending "yes, sir, yes, sir,"). He pauses, hands raised in mid-clap and soon we know why: it is to give the others - the ones standing in would-be-neat rows behind him - to repeat his song, in varying levels of mournfulness, synchronising their claps. He studiously waits for them to finish, looking straight into the camera all the while (as if waiting for you to break a school rule so he can run off and tell teacher). They, too, come to the end of the first line, and he picks up again, at last finding his stride, his voice settling in and even developing a few extra chords, high notes which were not present in the first line, variations on the basic "baa baa black sheep" melody, signs of his rapidly-increasing confidence. "", he sings hoarsely, dragging out the words, and when he finishes that line the chorus again picks up, repeating him word for word, vowel-drag for vowel-drag.

There is a screen transition, the diagonal wipe from the top so beloved of bad Powerpoint slide-showers, and the whole scene is replaced by a new one. It is the same group of kids, though now the person who was leading (the studious most-probably-a-prefect most-probably-only-wants-to-be-loved kid) is nowhere in si...oh wait - there he is, in the back-row, behind the tall girl with the blue bow in her hair. His place has been taken by a new kid, who appears to be telling a joke in Pulaar. This new kid seems completely different from the first one, as far as life histories are concerned (or at least, life-histories-as-can-be-read-in-the-faces-of-people, in as much as that is an inexact science): there is a smile trying to escape his mouth via his left cheek, he is a bit taller, he seems to be glowing (as compared to the other kid, and for lack of a better term), and, on the whole, he seems to be a whole lot happier: doing middling to well in class, but also getting along well with his buddies (and, as far as the first kid is concerned, probably not jumping in and bullying him with the other kids on the playground, but also probably not actively trying to get them to lay off either). This new kid pauses every few seconds, and the other kids behind him make various forced-sounding throat laughs, before he continues. At the end of his story they do the throat-laugh thing again, but for longer and showing considerably more teeth, giving the impression that perhaps they are really laughing this time, even.

Hour 2: There's a woman. She is advertising some form of bottled water. You are drawn to her mouth, and the movement of her lips - even when she is not on-screen you can still see those lips in your mind's eye, the way she keeps talking nonstop, on and on and on and on. And on. And on. She is advertising a new kind of attaya, claiming it is healthy, and genuine (you don't know what this means: genuine attaya). Her partner is a tall man with an Adam's apple that bobs up and down as he talks. The ad sticks to the usual person-with-problem-meets-person-with-solution (PWPMPWS) pattern, the man with the Adam's apple being the PWP, and the woman the PWS. The ad ends.

A new ad: the same woman again. This time she is advertising bottled water. It is the same pattern as the last ad (again with the guy with the Adam's apple), though this time the woman concentrates more on the healthy aspects of the water. She takes us on a tour of the water factory, ending it with a scientist in a white lab coat holding up a meter - the camera zooms in on illegible markings on the meter, which she assures us means the water's the healthiest you could get anywhere. The scientist's expression stays neutral all through her presentation, an anti-life-story-as-read-in-people's-faces measure. Finally there is a shot of her and Adam's-apple-man on the street, each carrying a bag full of plastic water bottles (of the brand in question, obviously), singing happily, clapping and dancing. The ad ends.

A new ad: again the same woman. She is advertising for a phone company now. She is talking loudly on her cellphone, walking down the street, when she bumps into a stranger (really Adam's-apply-guy pretending to be a stranger) on the street. The "stranger" almost falls over, and in a fit of anger turns around when he regains his balance, and grabs the front of her grand-mbubu collar, bringing his face
close to her, and inquiring in no friendly terms what the meaning of this is. The ad then begins to show classic signs of belonging to the PWPMPWS pattern, as the woman starts to harp on about the good cellphone service she is getting, the unbeatable prices, etc. They are joined by a younger woman dressed in a black work suit, who mostly stands around and holds her jaw-bone whilst they speak, presumably in various stages of amazement. Finally they are all three smiling and laughing, in joyous reaction to the information the woman just gave them about the cellphone company. The woman goes back to the person she was talking to - who we discover now was all this while on hold - and bids her goodbye: we discover it was an International Call, and the woman could literally only afford to do this (i.e. leaving an international call on hold, which no one in real life ever does) because the cellphone company's rates are so cheap. All laugh, sing, dance. Ad ends.

A new ad: The same woman. Adam's apple guy. . Carry out ad in typical PWPMPWS fashion, perhaps deviating here and there for effect.

Repeat the above about twenty times.

By the end of the hour we feel the empty feeling you feel when you feel you are intimately familiar with someone without knowing a thing about them, not even their real name. We feel this about the Woman and, to a lesser extent, Adam's apple guy. We don't feel this about the jaw-clutching young woman - her passive participation in the ads leaves us strangely unmoved (which is in stark contrast to the mixed feelings - not altogether non-violent - we now harbor about the Woman and A's-a guy).

Hour 3: The public announcements service is on. The first section is about people. First a picture is shown, taking up the right part of the screen. The left part is then filled with text. The announcements about people fall under one of two categories: 1) Birthdays, 2) Obituaries/Charity. One way to distinguish between the two is the music that plays - for the former a "Happy Birthday to you" sang in Christmas Carol fashion, for the latter slower, sadder music: recitations from the Holy Quran if Muslim, church hymns if Christian. Another way to distinguish is that the first category includes more pictures of young people, the majority still probably in primary/high school, whilst the second is mainly made up of more adults and older people.

After the people section there is the public notices. There is one about a warning from the power company to people who still owe them money to pay up or get disconnected. There is another about an auction of used cars that took part in some race across some desert, for charity. A third calling people to a general meeting for something or the other. The background music is tinkling, Christmas-Carol-y in feel.

Afterwards a program schedule comes up, yellow text against a garish red patterned background, announcing "The News" as the next program item.

Hour 4: The lights go off just as the news starts. The lights come back on just as the news ends.

Hour 5: We turn off the TV, and sit down with our notes, wondering exactly what the past 4 hour's worth of programming would tell someone from outside about the country. Finally we go off exhausted to bed, and promptly fall into a nightmare starring the Woman, A's-a guy, and the most-likely-a-prefect kid.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Cellphone Wars: Part 3

It was the middle of the dry season. The sun was hot, life was slow, and thrilling rumors were circulating in the Gambia about a new cellphone company. These rumors were made up of hushed, fragmentary words whispered in back rooms all over the country - words like: "brothers", and "blood feud", and "fight to the death". As the weeks progressed, the rumors started to get a little less amorphous, and even began to resemble certain facts in the real world: a certain building, made largely of glass, on Kairaba Avenue (situated about two minutes down from the Africell building); large truck-fuls of boxed equipment delivered to this building in broad daylight; page after page of job ads in the papers. The job ads gave a name to the company: Comium. The rumors gave a backstory: the founder of Africell - the rumors ran - had a brother with whom he had originally begun the venture. Once, they had been friends. Then they had fallen out, becoming involved in a bitter feud, and the second brother had split off from the first to form his own cellphone company. And, as he had left his brother, he had vowed to follow him into every country he went, forming a rival cellphone company and stealing the market from him. The rumors - as rumors tend to go - were not very clear about the reason for the feud. The company itself was remarkably tight-lipped about everything - except for the job ads there was no further communication from them to the general public.

Finally they launched - a glitzy media event attended by the President himself, and quite a number of other important persons. As usual, new features were promised, the network was lauded as the best ever in the country, customers were told they would be more satisfied than they ever had been. Within a month of opening, Comium had introduced free late night calls, running from 12am to 6am every day, between Comium subscribers. This was almost as big an event for teenagers* as the Gamcell free SMS had been - they bought comium lines in hordes, having three- and four-way chats that lasted all night. "What's your Comium?" suddenly became the hip teenage phrase. Whilst it certainly made Comium's SIM cards get bought, on closer examination it wasn't as big a coup as Gamcell's free SMS had been - most of these teenagers did not use their Comium lines as primary phone lines, only putting them in at night for the free calls, and removing them again the next morning to go back to their Gamcell and Africell lines, which were the lines they actually spent money on. Every night, Comium's network and resources were used by thousands of yakking teenagers, who did not buy credit**, or give anything back to Comium in exchange. Comium had not really been involved in as extensive a marketing campaign as Africell, at the start. But now it found itself having to compete for attention just as much as the other networks, in order to get paying customers.

And so the cellphone wars began in earnest. Both Gamcell and Africell started offering late-night phone calls for their customers. Gamcell offered a "friends list", which allowed you to call your friends for less, or even free. Comium started an MMS service, allowing you to send pictures and other media files to phones***. Africell put up even more billboards, and started a radio program where you could get a new SIM card simply by calling up and saying something cheesy about them. Gamcell took people on pilgrimages to Mecca and Rome, and gave out food during the Ramadan. Africell gave away a car. Comium started radio and TV programs, and gave away money and cars. Africell got a young, local singer to do all their jingles for them. Gamcell got a young, local singer to do all their jingles for them ("Nancy Nanz")****. Africell hired even more young models for their (incresingly-sophisticated) ads. Gamcell started hiring young models for their ads*****. Africell offered cars as prizes. Gamcell offered cars as prizes. Africell offered free international phone calls for a day******. Comium offered cars as prizes. Comium offered a million dalasis. After thinking about it for a bit, Africell offered ten million dalasis.

This is the current state of the cellphone market. In the end, one starts to feel that all this money spent on marketing could perhaps have been spent on, e.g., making the cellphone networks better, and more inter-operable******* and charging less for calls. This would not bring immediate returns on investment, like the endless marketing does - Gambians, like everyone else, like their shiny things and their instant gratification - but in the long run it would have far more of a positive impact on communications in the Gambia.

The other problem is that the country's cellphone market is simply too small to fully support three different cellphone networks. Not too be too melodramatic about it, but one will have to die, eventually. Which of the three that one will be is still entirely undecided, and will depend greatly on the decisions they make now, and how much of the market they capture.

* most adults won't stay up that late, given the responsibilities of the adult world, even for free phone calls

** Funnily enough, this was made possible by another Comium feature - you could own a line forever and not have to buy credit.

*** SMS only allowed you to send black and white pictures and text. MMS allowed full color - even snapshots taken on your phone a moment before. It - perhaps due to the lesser market penetration of Comium, and the fact that the majority of phones in the country are not MMS-capable - has not caught on as much as SMS has.

**** Nancy Nanz, unlike the Africell jingle-girl, went on to launch her own pop career, releasing an album and becoming a local celebrity.

***** Comium, right from the beginning, used foreign-looking models with too much make-up on their faces for their billboards, making it hard to identify with a Comium ad ("hmmm...there's something wrong with her face - I wonder what it is") as compared to, e.g., an Africell one ("hai! It's Musa Balajo d! Didn't know he did Africell ads") (the bracketed being the thoughts of someone looking first at a Comium ad, then an Africell one). This has started to change recently.

****** you had to go to Africell HQ, and stand in a long line with other people, grumbling about how the person currently hogging the line was rude and selfish to not give other people a chance

******* There is currently a Government body, PURA (the Public Utilities Regulation Authority) which forces the cellphone companies to play nice. Nice here meaning the thing you do when you passionately hate your little cousin, and get the greatest pleasure from hitting his pasty snot-face, but your Mum and Uncle are sitting there, so you smile (more a grimace really), and gently pat him on the back, all the while thinking what you'd like to do to him. It's still prohibitively expensive to make inter-network calls, and SMSes sent between networks are not even guaranteed to get there until like 24 hours later.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Cellphone Wars: Part 2

Marketing in The Gambia can be roughly divided into two epochs: the pre-Africell period (also known as the "stick a few billboards on the Banjul-Serekunda highway, do a few spots before the one-o-clock news on rajo gambia, hope we get noticed" period), and the post-Africell ("keep throwing everything you have at the wall - some of it will invariably stick, and even if it doesn't you'll at least get noticed") one. When Africell first opened up shop, they had the unenviable position of having to dislodge a firmly established market leader, and convince thousands of users to switch phone lines (with all the headaches that a change of numbers entails*). They reacted in (what would soon come to be regarded as) typical Africell style: throw enough marketing resources at a problem, and it'll go away.

All businesses are set up with one goal in mind: to get you, the customer, to hand over your hard-earned cash to them, for assorted goods and/or services. Except for the most unsophisticated ones, all businesses try to hide this fact behind layer upon layer of fuzzy advertising wool, pretending that they in fact love you and are in fact, for your money's worth, going out of their way to provide you with far greater service than could be reasonably expected, really, and that none of their competitors would ever even think of providing you with (just in case you're thinking of switching). Before Africell, most Gambian companies didn't really try very hard to hide this "money flows one way" fact from their customers - some (usually the ones which had monopolies) even seemed to be purposely flaunting it, providing terrible customer service (the only reasonable explanation you could come up with for some of the things these companies got away with).

From the first, Africell were everywhere. As is evident in the first two paragraphs of this essay, they built a myth around themselves, doing everything so big and with so much class they turned everyone into gushing fans, and left no space to mention a certain other cellphone company. Orange started to rival green as the color you could see everywhere you went in the country. Models** (usually teenagers or young people) were hired and put into situations where they were happily using their mobile phones, gazing enraptured into the tiny backlit screens in varying states of bliss - these situations were photographed and plastered on billboards on all the major highways in the country (including the ones leading from the airport, an important lure for people coming into the country), and as ads in all the local newspapers. Every week a new feature came out, with corresponding billboards and ads in all local media (radio, TV, the papers). There were competitions, including the famous million-dalasi one, all held with much fanfare and much "for the first time in the Gambia"s. There was the "Face of Africell" media event on TV, probably the most watched Gambian television event since "Maria De Los Angeles" gripped the nation in its soap opera-tic claws every Tuesday night. Local causes were sponsored - from Nawetaan teams to youth associations. T-shirts were printed and given out free. Numerous competitions were held. Faster than it takes you to charge your mobile phone, Africell had created a convincing image of itself as the rich but kindly Uncle who came to your house bearing presents every week when you were a kid (even though, unbeknownst to you, this "Uncle" was actually the landowner, visiting to get weekly rent money from your Dad), and cast Gamcell as the crummy, dyspeptic Uncle with false teeth who was always giving you a cuff around the head, and then taking you into a headlock and not letting go until you started crying***.

Gamcell tried to retaliate in style, stepping up the number of ads they had on TV, half-heartedly putting up a few billboards, even coming up with new slogans for their services ("Yaay Boroom"****). They donated to a few causes, more for the spirit of the thing than anything - when it came right down to it, Africell's marketing machine was simply out of everyone else's league.

Had they started out equals, Africell would perhaps in the end have overtaken and eventually subsumed Gamcell. But Gamcell's early start and deep entrenchment from the beginning went well in its favor, and whilst the number of Africell subscribers grew***** every day, Gamcell's established customer base, who had gotten used to their numbers and saw no reason to switch (or else were deep-pocketed****** enough to get two phones). And so the two companies existed in a state of stalemate, both claiming a greater amount of subscribers than its competitor, both offering new services on average once every month, from talktime credit bonuses to answering machines which fielded calls whilst you were asleep.

In the thrilling final episode: A new cellphone company comes to town; The auctioning of the people's mobile phone service of choice; "hearts and minds"; the future

* Getting a new SIM card is the least of your worries, when you get a new line: you have to transfer all your old numbers over to the new one, not exactly as straightforward a procedure as you would think; then you have to inform everyone you have given the old number about the new one (the only way to do this being to call/SMS each and every single one of them your new number). It didn't help that right from the beginning cross-network (from Africell to Gamcell, and vice versa) calls were prohibitively expensive, and cross-network SMSes were simply impossible, so much so that switching from Africell to Gamcell, e.g., meant you also lost all your Gamcell buddies who didn't have Africell lines - they stopped calling you, and you them, because neither party could afford it, and friendship really isn't worth those kinds of prices.

** The Africell Model, like the Bond Girl, is a much coveted position, which explains why all those grins on all those model's faces on Africell billboards do not look fake in the usual fake-model-y-grin way.

*** this despite the fact that when it comes right down to it, notwithstanding what either company will tell you, to the average cellphone user (i.e. one who uses her cellphone to call, and send SMSes (i.e. 95% of cellphone users)) there really is no noticeable difference between the two services.

**** "Yaay Boroom" = "It's Yours"/"You are the owner". Compare this to Africell's slogan: "Jerejef" ("Thank You"). The former thrusting (forcing almost) itself into your lap, the latter simply and modestly acknowledging that you are the reason for its success, and smiling and thanking you for it, and then inviting you out to party.

***** Originally, with Gamcell, you had to register to get a SIM card, filling a form containing your details. Once Africell started treating the SIM card as a completely disposable object, of course, registration went straight out of the window - you could get a SIM card anywhere, anytime, for free even, if you wanted.

****** Deep-pocketed here referring both metaphorically to a high-enough purchasing power to maintain two phones at once, but also literally to the fact that you had to have deep pockets to carry around two phones, unless you wanted to keep them clenched at all times, eventually giving yourself a painful clawed-hand condition.

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Gambian Cellphone Wars: Part 1

In the beginning, there were no cellphones.

Back then, the only way to talk to someone was either on a land-phone, yelling at them through the fence that separated you (if you were neighbors), or walking - running if they owed you money - over to their house. (If they were mobile at this time then you were pretty much out of luck - you did this complicated thing where you first called their house, then their grandmother's house, then their best friend's, then their girlfriend's, each time just missing them, until you gave up and just went out on the streets to see if maybe you could meet them face to face). A few people had these little devices they strapped to their belts called "beepers", but these never truly caught on: they made annoying sounds, and had these tiny screens you had to peer into to read messages (they couldn't do audio - apart from the annoying beeping, that is) whilst holding the beeper at an awkward angle because it was strapped to your belt.

Then Gamcell came along, opening the first cellphone company in the country. The Nokia 3310 had just come out. Fat and unfashionably laughable by today's standards*, back then it was the height of chic, and dead proof that you were both rich and stylish. People who had one made sure they used it every chance they got in public, yelling loudly into it and gesticulating wildly with their free hand whilst those around them looked on in wonderment and awe.

Most technologies take a while to proliferate, down here. The computer, much lauded as it is with being the device which will bring development to the country, is only slowly being adapted, especially outside the urban areas (perhaps due to things like lack of a constant electricity supply, and cost). Ditto the Internet (you can't have the Internet everywhere without widespread adoption of computers). No such hurdles for the mobile phone, the brave little device that could, to leap over: within a year of its introduction almost everyone in the country had one**. You need two things to maintain a mobile phone*** service: the phone itself, with a sim card from the service provider; and talktime credit to be able to make calls (receiving calls is free). Sim cards and talktime credit were cheap enough that most people could afford them; the mobile phones themselves were a bit more expensive, with even the cheapest ones (the much-abused but patient 3310s) being out of the reach of Modou "typical Gambian salary earner" Njie. So the buying of mobile phones (as with everything else down here that is too expensive) got outsourced - relatives abroad suddenly began to be woken up in the middle of the night by messages on their answering machines, or SMSes on their phones, saying things like: "Hello Lamin I hope you are well I need mobile please buy me mobile". The thing to bring home when you came on holidays suddenly became a pack of mobile phones wrapped up in cellophane, one for each relative, and one for your mum. Most of these mobiles brought over were ones that had been bought (cheap) on service plans, and were locked to whatever service provider's network they had been bought from. In reaction, a hundred mobile-phone-unlocking shops sprang up: on the highway in Banjul, in deep, secret corners of Serekunda, on Westfield - everywhere you went there were signs. "We Unlock Mobile!!!". "Mobiles! Unlock! Here!". "All Your Mobiles". These shops ran a brisk trade, as thousands of (locked) phones got sent to the country in answer to all the requests. The answer to the question "What is your number?" stopped starting "2-2.." or "4-9-" or any of the other land-phone area codes, and became "9-...", for everyone. The time of the mobile had come.

Then Gamcell introduced SMS, free of charge, limited only by the number of messages your (aching) thumbs could type in a minute. The teenagers and youth took notice. Calls were still relatively expensive****, especially since this particular demographic was largely unemployed or still in school, but here was a fast and quick method of talking, equivalent almost to a call, yet with none of the disadvantages (you were, for example not required to reply when someone SMSed you; you had time to think carefully of each reply before you sent it; and - even more important - you did not have to pay for it). Phone SMS inboxes filled up and were erased and filled up again several times each day. Teenagers sent each other and archived "love" messages - cut out of popular songs and TV shows, and mixed and matched to "earnest teenage love" perfection*****. Chats [as SMS sessions were called] would span whole days, ending when one participant went to sleep, and starting right up again where you left off the next morning. In school mobile phones were hidden inside text- and note-books - as the boring teacher droned on and on about geography, you'd be having a chat about the club last night, and did you see what Amie was wearing, stopping every now and then to meet the teacher's eye and nod as he asked "Do you hunderstand?". Relationships and friendships were forged and broken, and re-forged, all by text. Girls no longer had to contend with jealous parents over the use of the phone line to talk to guys - now you could give your mobile phone number out, and talk (and SMS) as much as you wanted, with complete privacy. It sparked off a mini-revolution, in teenage interaction******. Teenagers lived in daily fear of Gamcell cutting off the free SMS service, and starting to charge for it - there were rumors everyday that this was about to happen, and fervent prayers that it wouldn't.

Meanwhile, in the adult world, mobile phone usage was still gradually increasing. Gamcell rested on its laurels - it had a monopoly, after all, and absolutely no competition; everyone loved it; cellphone lines were going to overtake land lines any day now - what had it to fear? Unbeknownst to it, competition was just around the corner. And when it came, it wouldn't be a tiny el-kart, chugging along behind Gamcell, picking up its remains. It would be a steam-roller, threatening to run over and crush it to the ground. Never again would it dominate the cellphone market as it had done in the early, glorious days. The Cellphone Wars were about to begin.

In the thrilling Next Episode: A new cellphone company; a threat to the King; "blood brothers? and how they fight!"; The advent of Total Marketing; Gamcell's Rallying Cry... and more...

*Like with every other lifestyle-affecting technology, there are various levels of snobbery involved in owning mobile phones in the Gambia. Nowadays to be seen with a 3310 - or, even worse, one of the large, almost-brick-size Ericson phones which predate it - is considered so uncool as to make you almost an outcast, both amongst teenagers (unsurprisingly) and adults (more surprisingly).

**For a while a Gamcell advertisement ran on GRTS showing both a fisherman and a salad-seller-woman at the market reaching for their phones to make calls to stem emergency supply problems. The point presumably being to show that even salad-seller-women and fishermen, generally considered by everyone to be embedded somewhere in the lower threads of the Gambian-society-as-knitted-fabric metaphor, could not only afford to possess these devices, but: a) could fill them up with enough talktime credits to solve their day-to-day problems without going bankrupt in the process, as people feared at first would be the major disadvantage of owning one of these, and b) could use them anywhere (the fisherman being in a boat at sea when he found he had to make the call).

***mobile phone = cellphone. Usually just shortened to "mobile", locally.

**** In this period, though you could receive calls for free, you still had to recharge your phone with talktime credits at least once every month, or your line would be disconnected, leading to a surge in D50 talktime credit sales (the lowest you could get) at the end of the month, when salaries got paid, and then a slump afterwards, as everyone went back to just receiving calls instead of making them.

***** "in d garden of paradise", one such message would run, "i walk lst nigt
and see all the trees. but ur tree was shinin brightest of all. i love u".

****** One day anthropologists are going to study the effect that growing up with constant access to communication by mobile phones had on Gambian society.