When you leave your house, in the city, to go home ( that famous line from Sitawa), back to where grandma resides, customs change. The well-adjusted Kenyan would never walk into their grandmother’s house with empty hands. That is just rude. One has to come bearing gifts.
Until a few years ago, I would always show up in the village with a Nakumatt bag full of goodies. The standard fare consisted of bread, margarine, tea leaves, cooking oil, wheat flour and a highly valued pack of sugar. Things have changed a little. You are still expected to bring all of the above but for extra blessings, you would be advised to add in some phone credit.
The mobile phone has become a technological sensation in the rural areas far beyond expectation. Supposed illiterate peasant grannies with no formal training experience are capable of manipulating a phone with the right incentive. They may complain about the numerous functions on a cell phone or how complicated the instructions appear but transfer some money by Mpesa and competency greatly increases. The mobile phone has changed life as we know it in the sleepy villages. The cost of communication used to be free. Now it is a privilege that everyone wants to afford. Receiving a trans national phone call is a big deal. It is an indicator that you know someone prominent across seas capable of affording the cost of long distance call and a matter of great status.
Phones have created a sort of informal village cash remittance system that allows rural confined relatives to benefit from the generosity of their blood relatives in the diaspora who are graded by their ability to remember those ‘at home’ by sending something ‘small’. For the longest time, phones functioned as receivers as the cost of patching a call were prohibitive and the credit-strapped became expert ‘flashers’. No one made a call, when they could simple send an urgent ‘please call me’ message.
Nowadays, every functioning grandma has a mobile phone. It is the one sure way of keep up with the Joneses and joining the prestigious ‘digital’ class, a world apart from backward ‘analogue’ world. These communication gadgets are simply essential items. The context of a smart phone in the village is a little different. My grandmother considers her basic Huwaei incredibly smart. It is a bank account, a torch, a radio, a message box, an alarm and for others, collateral at a drinking den when one is short on cash.
Some urban folk would argue that mobile technology is not a priority in the village. They insist that rural folk have more pressing needs. This include access to clean drinking water, electricity, proper roads to take their farm goods to market, good quality seed, modern soil testing techniques and cheap fertilizer. Yes, they need all that and some phone credit.
The mobile phone has gained an irrefutable position as the must-have status symbol in far flung places where lightening is about as close as anyone would get to see electricity at work. Which why when you visit rural market centres, phone charging facilities are busy outlets. When phone calls gone unanswered it is mostly because, “Simu iko charging’. Villagers have even evolved new vocabulary to express their digital savvy. Phrases like ‘credit, sambaza, Mpesa, charging,mteja are very common usage words. In the once tranquil church services, a cacophony of ringtones constantly interrupt the flow of the service. On one occasion, a pastor stopped midway through a sermon to receive a call. His short response was, “I will call you back. I am preaching”. No one seemed particularly offended.
The last time, I called home, the conversation had moved up a notch. Grandma wants to know why her phone is not smart enough. Apparently, there are a couple of grandmas in the village with camera phones that display real pictures on a small screen and they cannot stop showing off. She wants one too and while on the subject, “Do I have to remind you to send your grandmother some credit?”