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.


  1. Well maybe Gamcell should go back to free sms to be on top again... Just maybe!!!!
    Man you left out the D10,000,000 prize africell is about to give away and the three cars comium is to give away too. One thing i like about their competition is they are not only competing for better network but who is best at enriching the people with money, cars, compounds...

  2. Patience, Asem - getting there - remember this is only Part 1 :-) This post actually got prompted by the 10 million dollar competition, so we're definitely going to cover that.

  3. cool.. didn't even notice the "part 1" bit of it. Maybe was thinking about "you know who". :)

  4. Hi Amran. The essay is quite an interesting read. Just a little correction: before the sim was introduced, Gamcel used to provide lines for mobile users and there was a billing system at the end of every month. I can remember people carrying very heavy Motorola mobile phones which they could charge just by placing them on the charger. even the detachable batteires could be charged to replace the worn out one by the end of the day.
    Quite interesting indeed!!!

    Cherno O Barry

  5. Aha - thanks Cherno. I missed that particular development. :-)

  6. Ooooh that was good. Brought back smiles and memories. When is part 2 coming ? Cant Wait. I also remember the old phones before GSM, you had to be very rich to have those though.

  7. mate been a while between posts, so good to see you writing again.

    when I came to The Gambia I left my mobile phone in Australia with my brother using my account. Little did I know that it would be the easiest and cheapest way to communicate with friends over there.

    It was in the time when SIM cards for Gamcel only became available once every 6 months or so, and I spent the best part of 2 days lining up to receive one. It was a funny but great experience, the only toubab in a line about 400m long waiting to get a SIM card.

    I then had to go and buy a mobile, when I returned home i brought that Nokia 1100 with me, and my mother still uses it to this day.

    Almost a reverse of your story, with relatives bringing phones into The Gambia

  8. True - there were the long lines as well. Different from nowadays, when you can get free sim cards by simply showing up at a concert.

  9. really? free sims at concerts! haha that doesn't happen in australia!

    A few months after returning home to Australia I won a new Nokia phone off a bottle of Pepsi. It seems Pepsi, Coke-a-cola and McDonalds are the ones who give away phones and SIM cards here

  10. Hi Amran,

    I love your blog.
    I find your writing interesting and the way you go about it truely genial.

    Keep it up.

    Rohey Samba-Jallow