Mobile phones in Africa: borders and horizons

Remarks offered in response to papers presented at the conference ‘Mobile Africa Revisited’ at the Afrika Studiecentrum, Leiden, Netherlands, February 2013






We often open newspapers to see colourful graphs on the newest figures about access and spread of mobile telephones in Africa. These figures are then usually celebrated as a positive development that promises to do everything from deepening democracy to contributing to social and economic development. (Even the Economist and Time Magazine have recently brought themselves to proclaim that ‘Africa is Rising’!)

But this research project has told us that to understand mobility and technology in Africa we have to be attentive to the complex and often contradictory intersections between access and use, mobility and stasis, connectivity and regulation.  This project has therefore wisely sought to strike a balance between questions of access and impact on the one hand, and appropriation and adaptation on the other.

The concept of the border that Heather Horst mentioned in her keynote speech is a very useful one to capture the contradictions and complexities of mobility and technology in Africa. A border namely suggests the imposition of divisions, of material inequalities, of distance, of conflict. But it also evokes images of movement, of new opportunities, of alluring horizons. The border is the place where people clash, but where they also negotiate; a space where they leave loved ones behind, but then  go on and make new connections. The border is a place where people become numbers, where they are reduced to visas and passport stamps – where they are processed with great effect. But it is also the place where people embrace, kiss, say hallo and say goodbye – a place of intense affect.

The border, therefore, is a place of transmission and transgression. Let me explain what I mean by these two terms, transmission and transgression.

In various papers at this conference we heard how mobile phones facilitate the entry of people in new countries and regions, gave them information needed to stay safe during conflict situations, to mobilize themselves as activists in political and social protest. Hans-Peter Hahn also pointed critically to the euphoric discourse of ICT4D approaches that promise economic and developmental opportunities to Africans if only they can get better access to information. (Maybe one aspect that could have received more attention is how mobiles also enable people to interact with mainstream media, uploading information to news sites, empowering them to produce news rather than just consuming it, and creating alternative public spheres) This is the moment of transmission in mobile phones.

But we also heard how mobile phones helped those who crossed the border keep in touch with those they left behind, how phones can serve as repositories of memory, reminding them of the faces and voices of those back home, help migrants negotiate the vagaries of new systems and rules, undermine hierarchies, and provide those left behind with symbols of identity and a connection between the local village to global modernity (Hahn). These are the kinds of uses of mobile phones that  we can call the moment of transgression. And although the dominant view of the transgression facilitated through mobile phones might be a positive one, we have also been reminded at this conference of the negative aspects – mobile phones can assist people in transgressing laws when they aid criminal activity (Hahn), or when they spread hate speech messages in times of conflict (Maloney), or when these phones assist state surveillance (Sali) or amplify social and material inequalities. And in recent times there has also been allegations of mobile phone companies themselves being complicit in illegal activities (MTN in Iran). The exploitative rates by these companies in African countries may also be seen as daylight robbery of another kind.

And while transgressing borders may bring the initial euphoria of freedom, there is often a high emotional price to pay. (Henrietta Nyamnjoh’s paper dealt with this in detail). Once one border has been crossed, others appear, or the borders are re-affirmed in new ways. The Cameroonian migrant Michael in yesterday’s moving film embodied the sadness and longing that might be momentarily relieved by mobile communication, but also, paradoxically, intensified by the reminder that they are out of reach. In paper after paper presented at this conference, from Haiti to Angola, from Cameroon to Chad, we heard that mobility means yearning back while looking forward. Heather Horst referred to this dual process as ‘embordering’ and ‘dis-embordering’. Mobility can lead one into limbo, a state of in-betweenness. Perhaps to an extent we can also see migrants not only connecting with the homeland, but also (re)constructing the ‘imaginary homeland’ in Salman Rushdie’s words. Social networks like Facebook present migrants with opportunities for identity construction in a third space (as we’ve seen in Imke Goossen’s paper). In Michael’s words: I am not in Africa anymore but I am not yet in Europe either.

So mobile technologies can facilitate transmission and transgression. A lot of debate here and in the literature focused on whether to emphasize  transmission or transgression – on ownership or usage; on control or appropriation; on regulation or domestication. In other words – do we privilege the structural or the social?

But in discussing this distinction, the notion of a border as a metaphor for mobility and technology again comes in useful.

So here is my thesis:

The idea of the border invites us to think about different dimensions at once  – the border is something that cannot be thought of as an either/or, but can only be thought of as both/and – a border always has two sides, it divides at the same time as it connects, it includes and it excludes. So our study of mobile phones should similarly seek to understand these technologies as contact zones – mobile phones are sites of connection and contestation. We cannot think the one side without thinking the other. In thinking through these various moments of mobile communications, we would benefit from not only taking a comparative view, but also a historical one. As we heard in several papers on the history of communications in Africa (from Walter Nkwi’s paper on letter writing in Cameroon to Charlotte Connelly’s discussion of the difficult politics of capturing history in a museum) , borders come into being through historical processes, and understanding those histories could also give us a better grasp on contemporary developments. And while we study the empirical use of mobile phones, we should remain attentive to the various discourses around mobile phones – not only how people talk with mobile phones, but also how they talk about them (as Hans Peter Hahn pointed out). Academic discourse on the mobile phones should also be interrogated in this way – how people talk about mobile phones (e.g. ICT4D) might display broader attitudes towards Africa itself.

These contradictions remain at the heart of discussions of mobile technology and have often divided observers into two camps of cyber-optimists and cyber-pessimists, who respectively accuse each other of over-estimating or underplaying the transgressive political power of mobile technologies. But from what we have learned from the field thus far, to which this project has contributed in no small way, we have to accept and embrace these contradictions and dualities. Complexity and ambivalence, rather than simplistic euphoria, might just be a good passport with which to approach the mobile borderland.



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