Mobile Phones: The New Talking Drums of Everyday Africa? (Book Review)

I have been reading up on mobile phone use in developing countries recently for a couple of papers. One of the few books entirely devoted to the issue is “Mobile Phones: The New Talking Drums of Everyday Africa”, edited by Mirjam de Bruijn, Francis Nyamnjoh and Inge Brinkman from the African Studies Centre in Leiden and published in 2009 in cooperation with Cameroon’s Langaa group.

The book takes an anthropological and historical perspective on the role of mobile telephony in a wide range of (sub-Saharan) African societies. It includes chapters on the call-box business in Cameroon, a traditional healer’s use of the mobile phone, and the ‘biography’ of a mobile phone in Tanzania, to name just a few.

One chapter of particular interest to me, and which proved to be highly disappointing, is Thomas Molony’s account of a Tanzanian wholesaler’s non-use of mobile telephony. The author first outlines how traders of perishables in Tanzania use mobile phones to transmit supply and demand information, a field that is well researched in a range of quantitative studies (see Aker, 2008, 2010; Jensen, 2007). He also looks at the efforts farmers had to undertake in 2004, when Molony conducted his research, to access mobile phone networks (a situation that has certainly improved since then).

Despite finding that mobile phone usage was already wide-spread among wholesalers in 2003 (when it was considerable more expensive then today), Molony then singles out one trader who, at that point, refused to use a mobile phone to argue that “the telephone may be considered unimportant because personal relationships are formed during meetings conducted in person”. On this still successful wholesaler, he writes that

while not having a mobile phone may make his jo hectic and he may lose some friends alng the way when he is unable to sell farmers’ consignments to his many contacts in Dar es Salaam, his visits to farmers ensure that he is known localy, and crucially, recommended to emerging farmers”.

While the importance of face-to-face contact for trust-building should not be underestimated, I was disappointed with this conclusion which stands in seeming contradiction to most of the preceding chapter. Moreover, the author ignores much of the relevant literature, in particular Overå’s (2006) very similar, great research on wholesalers’ use of mobile phones in Ghana.

This ignorance of related empirical literature has bugged me throughout the whole book. There is a great deal of references to other anthropological studies, but in the end, a lot of anecdotes still doesn’t make up for the need of quantitative evidence. Another issue is that much of the research the chapter are based on was conducted as early as 2003. In the history of mobile telephony, the six years that are between data collection and the book’s publication in 2009 are a lifetime, and many of the observations might well be outdated today.

“Mobile Phones: The New Talking Drums of Everyday Africa” provides some interesting qualitative research from a great variety of countries and a range of different viewpoints. I also like the fact that it includes at least some chapters by African researchers, who are often greatly underrepresented. However, in the end, I felt that the book lacks a quantitative component to assess the relevance of the phenomena described.

Mirjam de Bruijn, Francis Nyamnjoh, & Inge Brinkman (editors). Mobile Phones: The New Talking Drums of Africa. 2009. Bamenda: Langaa.

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