As I write this, you’ll most probably be having that omnipresent gadget on your ear, or you’ll be “fingering” it. And, again most probably, you’ll be oblivious to the fact that the gadget has been around for a long time. In case you haven’t yet cottoned on, the gadget to which I make reference is the mobile telephone, cellular, cell, hand phone or whatever moniker you prefer to assign to it.
And it saw the light of day on 3rd April 1973. Scientists had been working on the idea for a long time, especially in USA, until John F. Mitchell, Motorolla’s chief of portable communication products, made a breakthrough in 1973. Martin Cooper, who was in Mitchell’s team, remembers sophisticated New Yorkers gaping at the sight of him making a call while walking in the street on that day, 3rd April.
But you’ll be astounded that the thingamajig has been around all those years. This because, you’ll recall, the first time you sighted it here in Kigali – and nowhere else in Rwanda – was 1998 or thereabouts. 25 odd years after it had hit the streets of New York and no one in Rwanda – in many parts of the world, for that matter – had played around with it yet. Even in rich first world countries where they’d seen it, few were enthusiastic about jumping onto the mobile-phone bandwagon. They could afford not to; landline phones were everywhere.
However, in Rwanda as in Africa generally, the number of landline phones was limited and countries could not connect all parts of their surface areas. These new widgets would have come in handy but they were even more expensive. At their inception, a handset went for $3,905 in USA, which meant that, in 1998, in Rwanda it cost over a million Francs.
So, only an extravagant government would bother look for a company to host a commercial automated cellular network. Yet Rwanda, which was as frugal as they come, had the audacity to coax a South African company to provide such a network, convincing them that they’d make a profit. What exactly was in the head of our leadership?
The first generation of mobile phones, apart from costing an arm and a leg, weighed close to four kg. The “brick”, as it was known, was a grotesque thing that carried an antenna as long as half your arm.
It reminded you of another contraption that was called a cordless phone (not to be confused with a cell phone; it operated in a short range) that had come earlier. It had an antenna as tall as those found on communication vehicles. Before the arrival of the mobile phone, this monster of a communication invention was king, but strictly for the moneyed.
I remember seeing such a cordless contrivance in Gisenyi. It belonged to a chattering, potbellied gold smuggling Congolese whose shrill voice broadcast his conversation to everybody within a radius of a kilometre. He had “spent ten thousand American dollars, repeat American,” shouted he, and his “merchandise” was not going anywhere “unless he got a million, un point, un trait”. He seemed not to clinch the deal, however, and he dialled someone else and started that noisy haggling all over again.
Still, I was impressed and thought, minus the noise, the gadget could be put to good use in my line of duty. So, when back in Kigali someone suggested the thingamabob at 1m Francs, I fell for it. My employers, however, being level-headed and knowing of the impending arrival on the Rwandan market of the more flexible cell phone, must have laughed at my simple-mindedness. I never got an answer to my request.
And it was as well. The cell phone was soon here in Rwanda, once the South African company, MTN, agreed to partner with Rwanda and provide the network. They’d feared the idea of going it alone, sure it’d make no returns. And, indeed, at first their fear was borne out as few Rwandans could afford the cell phone and its subscription. Slowly, however, mobile phone ownership rose as the cost fell and, equally, the size and weight diminished. By 2010, you could get a mobile for as little as 2000 Francs and a phone’s weight was in grams. Almost all Rwandans owned one.
MTN was reaping profits by the millions and it spread tentacles from Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya down all the way to its homeland. Today, it has been invaded by competitors but, still, it has not gone the way of Motorolla. It is still singing praises to the day it set foot in Rwanda. But for Rwanda, it’d have remained cocooned in South Africa eternally. Does it remember to thank the country that begged it to buy into the idea?
But our lingering question is elsewhere: who in our leadership, looking at that costly heavy “brick”, got the bright idea that in the end it’d free the tongue of every single Rwandan and simplify their other activities in communication, health, agriculture, banking and much more?
Personally, I can take a guess. Can you? Ati Rwandans are gagged? Give me another!