Mobile phone? No thank you!

Going through the daily newspapers today, I bumped into an interesting article done by Justus Wanga that talked of why some people would prefer to lead a life without a mobile phone in the current world where it has seemed to become a necessity. Here is the piece:

 

It is probably easier to reach the Pope on a mobile phone than one Mr Zeke Waweru, a senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi.

The Journalism lecturer belongs to an exclusive club of prominent and affluent Kenyans who have resisted the mobile phone revolution and can only be reached either through the age-old landlines or through acquaintances, bodyguards, drivers and other aides.

I pitched tent at the School of Journalism to not only understand how he copes without the gadget but also to find out the troubles his colleagues and students endure trying to reach him.

Unfortunately, Mr Waweru was in the lecture hall when I came calling so I decided to wait for him at his office on the fourth floor of the Education building. How wrong I was for once he was through with his class, he left for the day and since he does not own a phone, I had no way of reaching him.

Come day two and a colleague tipped me that he was expected at the Senior lecturers’ common room so I strategically waited nearby. He never showed up.

The hassle I went through to meet Mr Waweru for an interview mirrors the difficulties one has to endure to reach people who  do not own mobile phones by choice.

Those close to Mr Waweru say he usually has a fixed schedule and they know where to physically find him. But for most people, once he steps out of the office, he cannot be traced until the following day when he reports to work. However, sometimes he can be reached through a friend’s or colleague’s mobile phone.

LANDLINE MAN

Unlike other Kenyans who do not own mobile phones because they cannot afford it, his is a case of a man who has given technology a wide berth. A friend told Lifestyle that the veteran lecturer “hates the disruptive nature of mobile phone technology”.

Mr Waweru is among a group of high-profile Kenyans who have managed to resist the intrusive wave of mobile telephony more than two decades after it reached this part of the world.

Retired President Daniel Moi has, for instance, retained his old manual landline phones to keep in contact with friends and family.

The retired President’s long serving Press Secretary Lee Njiru said Mr Moi’s status has over the years played a big role in guiding his communication.

“It is not necessary for statesmen to carry mobile phones in their pockets. Their operations are funded by government. There are people employed to undertake such functions, both locally and internationally. There are aides to do it and when he wants to communicate with anybody, he has people to help him,” he says.

Prof Amukowa Anangwe, who served in Moi’s Cabinet between 1997 and 2002 and currently a lecturer at the University of Dodoma, Tanzania, does not remember ever seeing the former President with a mobile phone.

“Moi was a landline man. In general, most of these prominent people resisted the mobile phone revolution, choosing to stick to landlines,” he says.

Mr Moi’s successor, President Mwai Kibaki, also falls in this club.

One has to go through numerous aides to reach him, which is never guaranteed as he chooses when and who to speak to.

Sourcing this story, we had to endure a whole month trying to reach the former President. It is an exemplification of the secluded life he leads.

An aide to Mr Kibaki said the motivation is that the retired President believes there is value in scarcity. He rarely engages in phone conversations, even with family, said the aide. He is a believer in face to face engagement, he added.

“Real class in his (Mr Kibaki’s) generation,” he says, is displayed through “a minimalist philosophy”.

He says for Mr Kibaki, any interaction on phone, including mobile money transfers, constitutes intrusion into his private life.

Mr Nicholas Biwott, the ultra-powerful minister in the Moi government, is famously known for his disdain for mobile phones.

Prof Anangwe, who served as the secretary general in New Kanu under Mr Biwott says: “Biwott never carried a phone. If you wanted to get him, you would call the driver or the bodyguard or his long-time aide, William Chepkut. Whoever was with him at that particular time would pass the phone to him. More often than not, he would be readily available to talk to you. If he was not by any chance available, they would take your message and pass it to him and he would always call back. Biwott was a very courteous man despite what some people say about him.”

Prof Anangwe’s views are echoed by Mr Nick Salat who succeeded him as secretary general of New Kanu: “It is not that he does not own a phone, it is only that he doesn’t carry one, his aides carry it for him so if you want to reach him, you will reach him through them. Why carry a phone yourself if you have people to carry it for you?”

JOB CREATION

It took Lifestyle days to get in touch with veteran lawyer John Khaminwa, another prominent figure who does not carry a mobile phone.

When we first made a call to his law firm, it was his secretary on the other end. It turned out this was her personal line.

She promised to get “Daktari” to speak to us as soon as she got a hold of him. She kept her word.

“By nature I like people being employed and I find a lot of satisfaction when I create the jobs. There used to be a small class of people called telephone operators but when these mobile phones were brought, I thought of them and had a discussion in my office to try and discourage the idea of mobile phones,” Dr Khaminwa told Lifestyle.

Telephone operators, a common department in most offices, were rendered obsolete by the new communication technology.

The lawyer told Lifestyle that the nasty experiences he had with landlines contributed to his lukewarm attitude towards the technology and telephones in general.

“During the time when Moi was in power, we used to be insulted very much on phone. You would be at home, happy with your family and then somebody rings to intimidate you, telling you to stop pursuing some of the cases you were following, mostly concerning human rights and the constitution. For some time, I uprooted it (the landline) and didn’t have a telephone in my house,” he says.

He, however, admits that it is hard to completely do without a mobile phone today but one must schedule themselves in such a way that they do not waste so much time on it.

“The danger is that you may find yourself not doing any substantive work at all,” he says.

Communication expert David Katiambo argues that while for some it is a way of controlling their private space, for others it is their reluctance to adopt new technology.

“You realise that a mobile phone can be a nuisance. Those who choose to avoid them are a small clique of Kenyans whose communication is done by aides. Their interaction with the gadgets is limited,” the lecturer at the Technical University of Kenya says.

Dr Khaminwa says that he keeps in touch by giving out cell phone numbers of his employees and family members to potential clients.

“I would rely on people around me, of course I still do,” he says.

An aide to Mr Simeon Nyachae reveals that the Nyayo-era minister is among those who do not miss the luxury of owning a mobile phone. “You have to go through those around him to talk to him,” he says.

Mr Nyachae’s son Charles, however, says his father owns a mobile phone but the way he uses it has popularised the narrative that he does not own one.

“When he wants to reach you, he will switch on his phone and call but he then immediately switches it off. He is fine with it and that’s what matters,” the former chairman of the Commission for the Implementation of the Constitution told Lifestyle.

This completely contrasts with the vast majority of Kenyans who cannot do without the device. Numberless are the occasions when leaving a phone at home amounts to crisis. Life almost stops as people have been accustomed to getting news via their phones, making financial transactions, interacting on social media, paying bills, ordering taxis as well as other real-time uses.

The higher consumption rate has seen an equal upsurge in uses of new forms of reserve charge such as power banks to ensure the gadgets are on 24/7.

TEAM DIGITAL

Even for those who own or regularly use mobile phones, there is an increasing trend where they restrict times of the day they can use it in what seems to be a tacit admission of the concerns raised by the reluctant class. Some have adopted a “phone-free weekends” to dedicate their time to their families.

It could be a generation gap but those close to President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto say they have retained the phones they had before coming to power — probably because they have considerable presence in the social media. The duo campaigned on a platform of technology adopting the title “Digital” team.

Mr Kenyatta is, for instance, known for making calls to catch up with friends to the chagrin of old bureaucrats working at the Office of the President.

Their feeling is that the President could be exposing himself too much. Mr Kenyatta also directly calls his Cabinet secretaries to keep abreast of events.

Lawyer Gibson Kamau Kuria who was among those Lifestyle initially listed as not having a mobile phone says such Kenyans are very few today.

“The Mobile phone is a working tool, you cannot be efficient without it,” he says.

An interesting trend is fast emerging where the elites and ruling class with smartphones also keep one or two non-sophisticated handsets, sometimes referred to as “mulika mwizi”. They say the need to beat authorities who want to eavesdrop into their communication is the motivation. Security experts say it is not easy to infiltrate these basic phones to get information. They are not alone, worldwide, there are celebrities who have also managed to shun technology against all odds. Here are a few examples:

Elton John

The British music legend has in several media interviews admitted he does not own a mobile phone. His social media accounts are run by his staff. During a talk show appearance in the US he was asked rather sarcastically, “You can afford a phone, right? I just don’t want one,” he replied

Vince Vaughn

The American actor and producer once told MTV he did not told own a cell phone, and did not like receiving calls. Instead, he had developed a habit of “borrowing” friends’ phones whenever he wanted to make a call, making it difficult to reach him.

Sarah Jessica Parker

The American actress known for her role in the series Sex and the City does not use a cell phone to make or receive calls but prefers e-mails.

Casey Affleck

The actor was once quoted in Forbes magazine to have thrown his cell phone into New York’s  Hudson River because he was worried that using it could cause cancer. He reportedly later bought another phone.

Warren Buffet

In 2013, the billionaire American business magnate and investor showed Piers Morgan, then at CNN, his phone: an old Nokia  flip phone considered ancient in comparison to the modern smartphone. “This is the one Alexander Graham Bell (the inventor of the telephone in the 1870s) gave me,” he joked, before adding. “I don’t throw anything away until I’ve had it 20 or 25 years.”

Christopher Walken

Christopher Walken isn’t necessarily against cell phones. He even states that he finds them fun, but he doesn’t own one. Whenever he does a movie the producers will give him one so that they can reach him but he always gives it back at the end of filming.

Karl Lagerfeld

You may not recognize him by name unless you are a fashionista but he is the designer behind Chanel. He does not embrace technology because he has different priorities. He doesn’t own a cell phone for this reason and only owns computers because he finds them aesthetically pleasing.

Tom Cruise

It’s rumoured that Tom Cruise doesn’t use a cell phone and that it has something to do with his involvement with scientology. After all, he knows just how easy it is to tap a cell phone because he has reportedly asked the church to do just that to Nicole and Katie. Katie even had to use a disposable cell phone in order to make arrangements to get away from Tom during the divorce.

Tyra Banks

It’s unclear whether or not Tyra has her own cell phone now, but she gave up her blackberry because she found herself addicted to it. She used it so much she had physical pain related to her constant use of her phone.

Mikhail Prokhorov

Mikhail Prokhorov is a Russian billionaire who does not have a cellphone. He writes all his correspondence by hand and doesn’t even own a computer. He says that the computers and Internet have too much access to information and there is no way to filter it.

Shailene Woodley

It may surprise you that the star of Divergent (a movie based in a futuristic, dystopian society) shuns technology. She states that she doesn’t own a cell phone nor does she like them because they take away one from social interaction.

 

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KENYA’S CASE:

The country lacks water and toilets in some areas but not phones

One-and-a-half decades after the mobile phone started to become widely available in Kenya, device ownership has surged to an impressive 88 per cent, according to the latest government statistics.

And with this spectacular rise in ownership so has been the number of services accessible by mobile phone.

By comparison, only 23 per cent of households have improved toilet or latrine facilities that they do not share, 40 per cent of rural households spends more than half-an-hour in search of clean water and only 46 per cent of Kenyans have access to piped water, according to a recent study by Nation Newsplex and the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Nevertheless, the mobile phone in Kenya has graduated from being a status symbol in the early 2000s, and an exclusive “toy” for the rich a few years earlier, to a gadget of necessity. It is no longer what your mobile phone can do for you but what it cannot do.

Today you access your bank account, hail a taxi, send money, interact on social media, send and receive e-mails, file a work report, shop, book a hotel room, pay bills, monitor your heart beat, chat with you friends, listen to music, search for property and even take pictures or videos. It is all part of the global technological revolution.

“It has been said that it is not coincidental that the most valuable media company, Facebook, produces no content; the world’s biggest taxi company, Uber, owns no vehicles; and the world’s most valuable hospitality company, Airbnb, owns no hotels,” says Mr Dennis Makori, the chief executive of OnPhone Group, by way of showing how technology has changed the world.

Analysts say the trend will continue and that instead of fighting innovation, local businesses and the government should adopt to the new age that the global economy is moving into — with the smartphone at the centre of it.

Data from the Kenya Bureau of Statistics indicate that Kenya’s Internet penetration stands at 54.8 per cent of the population, or 22.3 million Internet users, which is 14 per cent higher than the global average of 40 per cent. This is attributed to access to smartphones.

And with more phones in people’s hands and an increasing Internet penetration, digital commerce has also grown.

Mr Makori says innovations such as mobile money transfer and the low cost of acquiring and operating a mobile phone filled a gap that had been left by the state-owned company Telkom, which focused on landlines, and the banking sector that locked out many potential customers.

Kenya’s case was done by Vincent Achuka.