Africa is moving fast with its communications infrastructure. Mobile services are cheap, too: you can top up your prepaid cellphone with just 2000 TSH (EUR 1) at a time and the network I use costs just 2 euro-cent per SMS or between 0.75 and 9 euro-cent per minute for a national call. But we’ve still got some way to go.
Receiving SMSs two days after they were sent (or not at all) can be a useful alibi sometimes – like when avoiding the persistent messages I get from a male colleague I probably shouldn’t have given my number to. But otherwise it adds to the generally-present sense in Africa that you never know for sure if something has worked or will work or if plans will actually materialise.
It’s also a bit inconvenient when it extends to work – where most people prefer using mobile phones to landlines. Internet access is either a bit slow or very slow. Internal e-mails don’t always reach their destination, although I’ve discovered that some of my colleagues don’t actually use e-mail very often, or they prefer to use a yahoo or gmail address over their official work address – perhaps because the latter is less reliable.
So – as someone working in communications – I’ve had to rethink a bit the way information can best be shared. Things I would automatically do online in Europe (online survey tools, news sent as an e-mail newsletter or posted on the intranet, requests sent by e-mail…) aren’t so relevant here. I now understand why in this day and age the European Commission is still sending print copies of their publications to developing countries. A Dutch expert here working with the Ministry of Natural Resources – one of the few who answers my e-mails – tells me not to be surprised that most colleagues don’t respond. After all, he says, it’s not really how they communicate. The minutes of meetings are fairly meaningless when shared by e-mail, and only when the paper copies get passed around and signed by every participant, do you know that they’ve been read and understood and agreed on.