It sounds absurd. The episodes I’ll narrate will prove it. In 2006 during my first year, first semester at Makerere University around the month of October when most students’ pockets were running dry, necessity gave birth to free sms (short phone messages) via the Uganda telecom lines.
The procedure was quite lengthy and elaborate, but nothing would stop students from using the so-called ‘group sms’.
The news of this discovery had spread like bush fire more especially to the first-year internationals who were many. At 4,000, it was the cheapest line at the time. Students were always busy ‘smsing’ dates, group discussion appointments and numerous good night wishes among other sense and nonsense. Fortunately or unfortunately the principle that has been applying on earth since Adam sinned took its course. Subscribers started to pay for the service they had used -nothing is got without sweat.
Text messages started failing to go through. The first impression one made out of it was to top-up. Paying for debts started. The account balance reflected what one had topped up till one made a call. They (utl) would deduct their money. Most of my friends started to complain that their money was disappearing from their lines. Upon checking the balance, most read negative figures. Some of these figures were as astronomical as Ushs 50,000. Any top-up went to clear this debt. Normal calls were blocked. The customer care would remind one to top-up so that the service should be availed. Those who realized that they had huge debts just threw away their line and bought others.
However the unsuspecting ones who had little debts paid off. It was painful since they bore debts which they didn’t fully benefit from. For instance a friend cleared a debt of Ushs7.000, in which most of his smses were sent by friends’ customers of other lines. The mere lack of communication when your phone is in sound mode but you can’t top-up because you have a debt to clear causes anguish. Such anguish is that which can’t be quantified in shillings. The lack of communication at the time cost others money and more time. The off-budget expense of buying another line and the discontinuation of communication with friends who didn’t realise their friends’ new lines appear insignificant but it’s costly.
Too soon to remember
Freebies make one remember nothing and forget nothing. Soon, after the utl fiasco, came the Celtel’s one network. In particular, it was an experience of international students who had come to Uganda with their Kenyan or Tanzanian lines.
This time I was a culprit. It’s not that there wasn’t loading at all, it required one to load in order to access the services. One thousand would send more than 100 sms. The impulse spending didn’t bother me like the mental and psychological work load it placed on me and others. Some people took the opportunity to harass others. A friend of mine started getting smses with sexual overtones. The sender imposed as a long-forgotten lover who was reminding him of her existence. He was wretched by the constant flow ‘of sms’ and the sexual messages they carried. The number was a strange one so he couldn’t suspect where smses were coming from. No amount of sympathy could help him.
Every dog has its day. Mine came at last. I started getting similar smses, apparently from a girl. Soon ‘she ‘took it to a higher level by using sensational language. Whenever I would fix my line, I would be welcomed a message box full of unread texts. I didn’t know ‘her’. I do neither deal with strangers nor need a lover ‘she’ was offering to be to me. Efforts to make out who it was hit a hard rock.
From the onset, I suspected this to be a boy playing tricks on me. The person kept my phone so engaged that I wondered how much time one would afford for a ‘smsing’ me every other five minutes. My acquaintances accused me of having an affair with someone they didn’t know about. I hypothesized it must be a student from the school of education since they are known to have a lot of time for such things and like either hooking or being hooked (getting a lovers).
I was prompted to use a different line. Hardly had I enjoyed a moment from bother when the texts took my other line by storm. Religiously I kept on deleting them since they would fill-up my message box within a short time. I felt uncomfortable with their content. I wouldn’t wish anyone to see them. This would have adversely dented my reputation. The sender went on with the unbearably vulgar language. ‘She’ would call me unutterable words. I called the customer care but they didn’t have an idea who the person could be.
Lastly, a friend sent me a message about something we had been discussing using the same number of the ‘insulter. To my bewilderment, I learnt that his roommate got my number from him and proceeded to pummel me with all kinds of insults. He had done so despite being advised not to do so to people who weren’t his friends. I was left speechless. I wondered why I had to pay for the free texts with such strong psychological torment and degradation of self esteem. I haven’t asked him anything about it. For your information, my guess about the insulter was right. He is a student studying BA in Education. (S)he is a teacher in the offing, entrusted to shape our children and society. We need good intervention here or we perish.
Recently, history has mutated if not repeated itself. A friend walked into my room. He grinned before pouring the latest invention: Safaricom’s free messages. Enthusiastically, he explained how one could change the message centre number to +256700000088 to enjoy the services. Past experiences have taught me enough for me to jump into such freebies. My conscience said ‘No’ to the offer. Within no time the services jammed. This time round, even after resuming to the previous centre number, most of them experienced difficulties to sms, top-up or make calls.
You may think this is over. During the Easter holiday, I received a message from my friends. They advised me to change my centre number to +1705796306 to send free texts. Since once bitten is twice shy, I assumed I hadn’t seen the text. The friend persisted. He sent more texts on the same. A biblical principle swept me into nonconforming with the band wagon: Pay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar (Mark 12:17). This reminded me of another experience I haven’t shared with you. I once sent a text over the internet to a good friend of mine. After she received the message, she interpreted it out of context. I got a heartening reply. Since that day, our relations have never been jolly as before.
As I was penning this article, Tom, a neighbour of mine came in lamenting that his Kabiriti phone could not sent smses. He wanted to use my phone to call the customer care for assistance on the issue. After the long process, he learnt that someone had interfered with his message centre number all in pursuit of free messages. When I asked him if he had been enjoying Safaricom’s free messages he replied, "This time, I decided not to change since it hinders effective communication. They have made me to lose a job." He regretted the event. Being an engineering finalist his friend had got him an electric wiring job. Unfortunately, the friend used the defunct free messages services to send his message of acknowledgement. The message was never delivered.
A lecturer once told us that humans have an inherent tendency of gambling. This makes us vulnerable to the free things. We always desire to get a lot and give nothing.
Take it or leave it, free things have their price. Are you ready to pay it? There is time to take and time to give. If you are just taking now, don’t complain when your turn to give comes.