March 4, 2011
Posted by Rollo Roming
The morning after I arrived in Liberia, in 2007, I watched a mob beat a man bloody in the street. He was a cell-phone snatcher, they told me. It was brutal, but understandable: a cell phone was the most valuable thing many Liberians owned, or at any rate the most easily snatchable, and after post-war purges the new police were young, scared, and seldom seen.
At the time, Liberia was the only country in the world whose capital city had no municipal electricity. Yet most people I met seemed to have a cell phone. Where did they charge them? For many, the solution was charging stations: roadside stands run by small entrepreneurs fortunate enough to have generators. You’d drop off your cell, get a ticket in return, then come back in a few hours to claim it, fully powered.
Mobile-phone technology is like fire: as soon as a society gets it, it can’t imagine life without it. In the current issue, Ken Auletta writes about the Sudanese billionaire Mo Ibrahim, whose former company, Celtel, brought the cell-phone boom to Africa, where the number of cell phones “has grown from fewer than four million in 1998 to more than four hundred million today—almost half the population of the continent.” Despite their expense, inconvenience, and even danger, they’ve proven invaluable in Liberia, a country entirely without landline service, where people need all the tools they can get to face the overwhelming task of rebuilding from nothing. Among their uses, Auletta writes,
The phones have created jobs—presently, the company that Ibrahim started has more than five hundred thousand scratch-card outlets—and infrastructure. Migrant workers who leave home for distant jobs can stay in touch with their families. Businesses can talk to customers and suppliers, and employees in different offices can speak with each other. Farmers now compare prices before selling their produce. The nearest doctors can be located. Mobile banking has been introduced. During elections, people have taken pictures documenting vote fraud or intimidation with their mobile phones and sent text messages about possible improprieties.
Auletta also discusses the utility of cell phones to demonstrators in the recent wave of uprisings against African dictators—one problem that Liberia, mercifully, doesn’t currently have. And the cell-phone nuisances that do plague Liberia aren’t exactly unique. The other day my wife noticed that a cop was newly stationed at our Brooklyn subway stop, and yesterday she asked him why. “Cell-phone snatchers,” he said.
Photograph: Rollo Romig.