Ga Duniya

see the world

A Cell Phone in the Bush

A nomadic herder in the rural market, texting.

Back when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer (said in an old lady voice) there were no cell phones in Niger. Heck, there were barely cell phones in America. I remember we would hear about how “everyone back home has a cell phone,” and we’d vow amongst our hippy-selves that we would not conform to this uber-modernization of our former lives. But of course that only lasted as long as it took us to remember how to drive.

Still, life in Niger when I was part of the community was remarkably undeveloped. Pictures of village life from the first group of volunteers in the ’60s looked almost identical to how it was 40 years later. We all lived in mud huts with no electricity and no running water. Our bathrooms were holes in the ground and we battled with scorpions, spiders, and mice. While a lot of that holds true for current volunteers, one thing is notably different — cell phones.

Every volunteer has one.  For me, it’s hard to fathom how different my service would have been if I could have spoken to a teammate more than once every couple of weeks when we’d meet in town. Or if I had more frequent access to family and friends back home than waiting for letters (yeah, email wasn’t so prevalent then either) or relying on someone who was currently on the phone with someone in America to “pass the call” on to my loved one and ask them to call me at the hostel. It was amazingly complicated.

The thing is, I kind of liked the remoteness. In a way, it was the understanding that it was just me and God alone in the bush that made me determined to survive whatever Niger threw my way.

But I am thankful for the advancements in technology. Illiteracy meant that I could never exchange letters with my dear Nigerien friends. I never would have believed that someday it would be easy to talk on the phone with Dogo and Madou from my home in America. And, as a result, I’ve been able to send them money for food when they really needed it.

Two years ago I spent a week back in the village. Just before sunrise one morning I awoke, wrapped a pagne around me in the cool air and walked to the front step of the school that I had built when I lived there. I turned on my cell phone and anxiously waited. Soon, a text message from my husband appeared from the other side of the world. Eight years earlier, as I watched the villagers mix mud and cement to construct the rural schoolhouse, the farthest thing from my mind was that it’s steps would someday be the site of the strongest cell phone signal in the village.

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