Wednesday, February 27, 2008

phone call from abroad

At 4:00 this morning, I received a phone call. From “Unavailable”. The first time, the rings cut short and I thought it was a mistake. The second time, I picked up.

“Hello?” I said.

“Allo? Daouda?” came the response.

Oui! C’est Daouda!” I exclaimed.

You see, Daouda was the name given to me by the people in Kérouané. It’s quite common for Peace Corps Volunteers to adopt or receive new names from their village as part of the welcoming process. “Daouda” is just the Arabic form of “David” (it’s a palindrome in Arabic, too, just three letters da-wa-da, which is exciting). My new family name was Camara, which is one of the dominant family names around there.

The phone call was from Sery, the father of the family I had lived with. He is a blacksmith and farmer; his forge, a low hut with a bellows in the middle, was just behind my hut. Since today is Wednesday, I expect he was about to head down to the market to sell the tools he had made. Annie had told me she would try to arrange a phone call from Sery, when she described the weird alternate-reality Kérouané where everyone carries cell phones, old men in their boubous and kaftans shouting “Inike!” into their (or their grandchildren’s) phones.

If this doesn’t make sense to you, the notion of a rural town in a third-world country suddenly becoming equipped with cell phones, consider the following: when phones first started being used, there was a lot of physical infrastructure that had to be installed. Precisely the sort of thing developing countries had no manpower or use for. Now it just takes building and powering the appropriate kind of tower—no digging to lay down cables or anything like that. Why did cell phone use arise so much more quickly in Guinea (or, say, India, where some of the same effects held)? They weren’t already invested in the old technology. Plus, there are lots of people working right now to bring the “information gap”, which has been predicted to be at least as important in hindering development in this era as the “income gap”.

Sery sounded quiet and tired. We just talked for three or four minutes, mostly exchanging greetings. Greetings are an essential part of maintaining relationships in West Africa. At the time Annie and I were serving there, it seemed like such superficial conversation. But every society has glue, and some vocabulary that forms part of that glue. It’s just rude to cut the greetings short. I wanted to be able to talk more, but I hope the time we had was meaningful to him. He said he received the notes I had sent (via Annie), and he asked about Hannah, whom I had mentioned in my letters. He said his family was doing well. He asked if I could still speak Malinké (which I probably could, but not well enough to use it over a phone). It was sort of an incredible experience. I just thought I’d share it with you.

1 comment:

jhb said...

Wow! How cool is that? I have often thought of Sery and what a kind and gracious host he was to you and to me for my short visit there. It us good to know he and his family are well...

Cell phones in Kerouane - makes sense, but I wonder how they keep them charged up? :-)