23-05-2022 by Freddie del Curatolo
When I arrived in Kenya 32 years ago, I thought that the African people were a walking people.
There was little traffic on the coastal roads, but on either side of it I constantly saw parading the varied and colorful humanity whose habits, features, clothing, ways of relating, and so much more I still do not tire of glimpsing.
They walked, almost all of them barefoot, because that's what they did for the world to remember them, because every other means of transportation created in the meantime was a luxury.
There were no status symbols then. Only narrow needs. For men the ultimate goal was a bicycle, for women a sarong to cover their bare breasts.
Eight years later, before they returned to Italy to go through the rigmarole required to become professional journalists, Kenyans had already become cyclists.
They were a people on two wheels, consuming pedals more than flip-flops. Those who could not afford a Chinese or Indian bicycle were transported by boda-bodas, who sweated for 20 shillings each way. For those who had managed to buy one, the next goal was to abandon the old mud hut and be able to afford a brick house.
When I finally returned to live in Malindi for good, in 2005, I found the social evolution of homo "pedibus calcantibus" and homo "pedalibus ciclantibus" with hundreds (now tens of thousands) of motorcycles around the town and millions throughout the country.
Before long, the most sought-after and coveted item would become what is still now the status symbol for Kenyans: the cell phone.
The International Mobile Network Operators Association GSMA report, released last week, indicates that Kenya is one of the nations where cell phone use is most widespread and entrenched. A people on their phones.
You might say, the whole world now uses smartphones as a natural extension of their limbs, hunched over walking and preferring them to books, newspapers, movies and vis-à-vis meetings.
Kenyans do much more: the GSMA report reveals that more than 1 in 3 citizens use mobile money transfer services on a daily basis, and half of them have no other financial deposits. In a single word, cell phones as ATMs.
In villages where there is no electricity at all (25 percent of Kenya) it is sporadic (15 percent) or residents cannot afford to pay the bill (another 15 percent), the cell phone also becomes television (news mostly, but also Youtube channels for which, as with whatsapp, there are special offers for a few shillings a day) or radio, especially for the many who do not have smartphones but antediluvian little boxes for a few dollars.
The cell phone is often propped up in the center of the house or hut and lights up the dark hours, speaks through religious preachers, politicians, soccer commentaries or various barkers. It keeps company with gossip broadcasts and music and entertainment programs. Not to mention that social networks such as tik-tok in Kenya are all the rage, with the dream sooner or later of being able to monetize their channel and earn even the minimum to make a living. It is used by boda-bodas (now definitely only motorcycles, no one rides bikes anymore except for a few nostalgic old people or young people who want to keep fit) and tuk-tuk drivers to take rides, wobbly kiosk owners to create with app-sites programs posters of dance nights with palm wine and chapati to advertise that look like going to Honolulu, askarians armed with headphones to keep from falling asleep (who then fall into the arms of the "Orpheus" app anyway), kids playing video games on their way to school, and one in three adults betting online on English soccer matches.
The last thing people do with their cell phones, as is now the practice almost everywhere, is call someone.
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