Once Upon A Time

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You met a girl outside Kenya Cinema. She wore baggy stonewash jeans. She – left handed – scribbled her telephone number on a scrap of paper you borrowed from a shop inside. “Is this a four or a nine?” you asked her pointing at the last digit. She said it was a four. The Lord gives you a stunning smile with one hand and takes away your handwriting with the other. You folded this paper five times and stuffed it in that very small pocket over the main front pocket of your jeans. Nothing gets lost there. The following day, midmorning, you stepped into the only telephone booth in your neighbourhood and closed the door. It felt like being in a mummy box. You unfolded the paper and dialled the number. The phone rang numerous times without being answered. Back then a telephone would ring as long as you allowed it to ring. You sighed and waited for two minutes then tried again. After five rings there was a click in the line.

“Yes?” Growled a male voice.

At this point you were presented with two scenarios. First, there was a chance you could have been given a number to a morgue and the gentleman speaking was a mortician whom you had just interrupted sawing through a cadaver’s skull. This could be a practical joke she does on chaps who ask for her number in the streets which,by the way, was the only place to ask for numbers because this was pre-internet. The other explanation could just be that the grumpy guy was actually her father who happened to have taken the day off because of a toothache or a broken wrist. He sounded large and – quite possibly – violent. Someone who hated when babies tagged at his beard. You immediately realised where she got her handwriting from; it matched her father’s temperament. Either way, the best thing to do at this point was to hang up and try again later – depending on how fast a broken wrist could heal.

You called a landline.

The landline was tricky. You never knew who was calling until you picked. And you never knew who was going to pick. It was all left to faith and chance. The landline had one ringtone; loud and shreaky. It rattled your bones, reverberating through walls and doors in little seismic shocks. It didn’t have a missed call facility, so if someone said, “but I called you twice last afternoon,” you’d have to take their word for it. Or not. If someone said they’d call at 3pm, you’d have to hang around and wait, sometimes staring at the phone intently. Sometimes there would be static in the line, especially if it was a long distance call; little crackling sounds, like the sound of crickets in mating season. A long distance call, in this case, could even have been someone calling from Mombasa. (Assuming you are not reading this from Mombasa).

It had its gems, though. You didn’t have to charge it. So that inane question, ‘do you have a charger?’ was never necessary. Neither did you have to buy a screen protector. And there was no newer version each year that folk would line up for. People had one phone their whole lifetime. One of the greatest beauty of landlines was that it didn’t allow for passive aggression. You could slam the receiver down to show your displeasure and end a terrible conversation. The other person would be sure it wasn’t the network or call drop or whatever. They’d know you slammed the phone on them. It was a good outlet, one that therapists would have encouraged now. Slamming down the phone was the zen of the 80s, not sitting cross legged in a forest eating oats. It was always cathartic, you always felt better after slamming a receiver down. It was the 90s equivalent of the ‘f’ word. Or the middle finger emoji. Oh, and the phrase, ‘to tap’ had a whole different meaning in that era. It meant to make a call illegally. Tap that phone. Can you imagine the evolution of language?

Not long after, vanity was born in the form of pagers. But only shady people called them that. They were beepers. Google them; small little contraptions the size of a matchbox that went off with messages. The folks who had beepers – important men with important jobs – went to Carnivore and wore moccasins and blazers with massive shoulder padding to carry the heavy weight and responsibility of coolness. Note, beeping someone was still cool then. Not so now. Come to think of it, I only remember men carrying pagers. Never saw a woman carry a pager.

You strapped it on your belt and you swaggered about. It would go off and the important person would peer at it with a creased brow then excuse themselves to find a phone to call from. My brother-in-law had one. So did Bobby Brown. It looked so important to have a pager. So busy. So engaged and connected and productive. And cool.

Then came the mobile phones. When I say ‘came’ I mean to Kenya. I-G mobile phones. You must have seen the I-G cellular phones with Pablo Escobar in Narcos. Big ugly things with antennas. This phone was so heavy it would get tired lying on its back so people sat it on their bottoms, like you would a seven-month baby learning how to sit. In any case, it was as heavy as a baby. Can you imagine the luos who had these phones then, seated at a table, each person sitting his phone down on its ass asking you to address the phone first? It might have looked like a space program – a table of rocket launchers.

The chaps who had beepers called them – rather snobbishly – ‘cellular phones.’ It’s like telling a waiter, ‘do you have a smoothie with musa acuminata in it?’

‘A what?’

“A musa acuminata! I’m sorry, didn’t you read any book? That’s a banana in lay dialect.’

There is never any need to call something by its scientific name. Or use latin. Or prinkle your skinny french vocabulary in a conversation (Ivory?). Well, unless you carried a pager at some point in your life.

Then came the 2G mobile technology. I think this is when I bought my first mobile phone; a Nokia 5110. It was 4,999/ a special offer by Safaricom and came with a line and 250 bob airtime, perfect, seeing as I was working in a lab and living on a shoestring budget in a small house without curtains or a bed. It was blue in colour. I was proud of that phone. It had an antennae longer than my epiglottis but, then again, so did most phones. I’d wedge it in my front pocket and swagger about. ‘I’m sorry, what’s that poking me, Biko?” Me: “Oh, nothing. That’s just my antennae.”

The phone had a strip of network and battery running on either side of the small screen. It weighed 170gms. For perspective, an adult hamster that is pregnant weighs that much. It could only keep eight dialled numbers, five received numbers and five missed calls. Who cared, I didn’t get that many calls anyway. It was also generous enough to give me about 250 names to save in my phone-book. Anything more you’d have to save the names on a piece of paper. There was no way I could have exhausted that.

Oh, and my ringtone was William Tell, in case you are wondering.

The battery, on standby, could last for 120 hours, easily. That’s going to Mombasa back and forth 24 times! Great if I was a truck driver. If I wanted to send an SMS I had 160 characters to do that. No beating about the bush, fellas, you got to the point because SMS was something crazy, like I dunno, 10 bob? It required one to have great editing skills. All words in the sms had to earn their keep. Also, note there were no emojis. If you want to say you were mad, you had to say you were mad – no red faced emoji. People wrote what they meant. Or they just sent 🙁 or :-|. And nobody sent nudes. For that you had to use the post office.

The Nokia 5110 was a toughie. Your girlfriend could drop it from the 6th floor in a moment of rage, and it would still ring. A horse could stomp on it and pee on it and it would still work. It had games too; memory, snake and logic. I liked snake. It made these sounds that made me giggle whenever the snake ate the mark.

One night, a week after I bought the Nokia 5110, two miscreants robbed me off that phone at gunpoint. I had not even exhausted my complimentary airtime. I became phoneless for two months before I got a Nokia 3110. Then I got a Nokia 1100 and a 3310 that I used for a while. Jack Bauer also used the 3310 for a while, breathing heavily in it as he chased down terrorists.

Big phones were fashionable, then they stopped being fashionable. Small phones became fashionable. Then they stopped being fashionable. Then sleek flip phones became a thing. And slide phones. In all these mixes there was the Blackberry that was for the elite. Then it became a jungle of phones that could do all these things and represented all these things.

The most underrated phone is the kabambe. If you are reading this from Milan, kabambe, – not pronounced kaw-ba-mbee – is a small phone that does what my Nokia 5110 did. In other words, it’s multi-talented; it can survive a nuclear attack, you can bury it in the ground for six months and you might still find it working and it shines harder than a headlight. It also fits anywhere – which means it doesn’t have self esteem issues. It’s for people who are truly busy, folk who don’t want to waste their time sending emojis or videos. The kabambe doesn’t die on you. Maybe that should be their slogan; we don’t die on you. It’s also unsightly. There is no kabambe that one looks at and goes, I can match this phone with my new shoes. It’s not an accessory.

Until now. There is the Neon Ray Pro. It’s a kabambe that just got a passport. A kabambe with a Youtube channel. It’s 4G. It’s for your shamba guy who has to send you pictures of all the chicken that died mysteriously in the night. (Because it has a camera). Or your domestic manager who is trying to send you the colour of the baby’s stool for you to determine if they are ill or they took too much pawpaw. It’s for the blue collar who are plugged into the new age. Or for you, if you live a double life. And you can pay it slowly, 20-bob everyday.

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68 Comments
  1. Aaaahhh the good old days, I remember our estate booth, He/She stood their like a heart guardian who listened to all our “love” and heartbreak stories and guarded them till “death” he/she was the only booth and the only thing next to this guardian of the heart was the main gate……………no one hanged around he/she unless you were waiting for a reverse call or you are making The call………..

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    1. The phone had a strip of network and battery running on either side of the small screen.
      It would take me two paragraphs to put this down…but Biko does it sooo easily!! I smiled when i read that because my phone had that too. Maybe I need a class, thank you Bikoman

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    2. You must be new here or probably missed the Lights on caption at the beginning of the article. Sometimes Biko pays bills……we understand know what has happened on such days.

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  2. At the time, I had gone to visit my grandmother in Othaya during school holidays and in that village my grandfather’s youngest brother and his wife were the only ones who owned a phone in that village and after time my dad had called to see if he could possibly get a hold of me and my brother, his wife at this point asked me if my father owned a phone and I said no, when we got home my father had a phone, I felt I could go back and tell her that my dad now owns a phone.
    Good old days.

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  3. I don’t mean to sound like an ass kisser but bruh! This one is literally lit. A kabambe can survive an explosion with the same magnitude as the Beirut explosion….sorry guys , too soon?..ok too soon , my bad

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  4. I’m reading this when I should be studying for an economics paper, but damn! It was worth every minute. I’m laughing so hard, because the only way I experienced the importance of the old phones is through books, movies and oh, my mum’s phone when I was still in primary.
    Awesome read as always.

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  5. I Remember my teacher had the Sony Ericsson that looked like two remotes taped together with a pencil for an antenna. Taking it out of his pocket was a task on its on. It had this loud noisy ringtone that made the whole class jump, him included. When he jumped to the door and put it on his ear, it looked like John Rambo placing a bazooka ready to launch.
    We used to call it the booth.

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  6. The landline was tricky. You never knew who was calling until you picked. And you never knew who was going to pick. It was all left to faith and chance… sigh the good old days…

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    1. Clearly you had the presser phones. Kuna zile the government phones green in color and the round face for dialing from zero to one you couldn’t tap that way a kifuli/padlock was put on those. and a box for the presser ones. Now we knew how to tap both. zero 1 tap all the way to 10 taps for number 9 ooohh the good old days.

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  7. The first time i used a telephone booth was the day i finished High school. I went straight with some coins, it was solo, no one was using it. I dialed my father’s phone number, just to try and find out how it worked. He picked. He had a “Pablo Escobar’ kind of phone, big with a huge antenna. He was the area chief. I didn’t know what to say, but then, i was now an adult, i kept telling myself. “Ja earth!” I gained courage and told him i was done with school. “Good, now come home,” he roared from the other end. He was visibly angry. Maybe he was expecting a call from the DC while I was here bothering him with nonsensical news about completing school.

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  8. The millennial here will complain about this piece coz they are used to tapping ‘other things’…I remember tapping calls with a spoon or those tiny five bobs glued together, I remember calling the operator and asking to be transferred to the office of the vice president (I wish this was still possible)…..fast forward 2011 I inherited a Nokia 110 from my old man after he had used it for about 118 years n to date it has never died on me, it works as though I bought it yesterday. By the way nani ako na charger pin kubwa?

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  9. Tapping .. A favourite past time in high school on Satos. That booth had a queue longer than the ones at Tom Mboya Street in the evening.
    Jack Bauer … Spent many sleepless Fridays and Saturdays binging on 24.

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  10. Back in 2003 i hado to excuse myself to go to the washroom at Tamasha just because my Siemens phone had antenna the size of the thumb finger.

  11. “Kabambe doesn’t have self-esteem issues” hehehe
    I need to get me a Kabambe.

    Quite an entertaining and nostalgic story.

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  12. “And nobody sent nudes. For that you had to use the post office.”— Imagine waiting this long for nudes..

    The title could’ve been, Once a PHONE a time! .. Thinking out loud.

    Also maybe Neon Ray Pro ni Nokia 3310 imeomoka??

    Nice article Biko..

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  13. The year is 1999, the phone is Siemens c25, the network is kencell my dad on his monthly visit to the village brought with him what would become the center of all attention. We always heard they existed but here it was, in our own home this went on to re-affirm what was always whispered in low tones across west Kanyamkago, Uriri division, Migori District, that even though unlike other city people from neighboring villages that came home in their Nyamburko (Peogeot 504) and didnt have their kids go to Kolwal or Bware primary schools,my dad was still a very important man in the city.

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  14. Me niko huwa sicomment apa
    But leo nacomment
    You are supposed to make me happy and weave fairy tales for me .. saa story ya ule kijana alikuwa anacall mdem imeenda wapi.., I feel cheated. Lately umekuwa ukianza story mzuri inaenda inachange katikati.., me mpaka nikiona umeanza kuchange story me uscroll mpaka down. Gimme A good story.

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  15. Overlooking the product endorsement….

    You took me down memory lane. You didn’t speak about the house phones that could be locked, with a padlock So Ninja skills had to be employed to call out… Inhouse tapping… Because a locked phone could only receive calls.

    Also the reverse calls that we would make and then some would be declined esp if it’s the paro who picked it and you just wanted to beat stories with your friend.

    True, we had to keep phone dates. Or else you hang dry.

    And also those shiny one shilling coins came in handy. The dull ones sometimes could not be sensed by the machine

    And how street boys could also illegally block the phone with a piece of carton box so they pull out all the coins that didn’t go through….

    Yaani these are all the trials we went through to stay in touch

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  16. First, there was a chance you could have been given a number to a morgue and the gentleman speaking was a mortician whom you had just interrupted sawing through a cadaver’s skull. GROSS!

  17. Nostalgia.

    Going back in time always feels like swimming in warm water…. Waiting on a call on the phone booth was an essential art.. And then there was a technique of making the booth ‘spit’ coins. That was our preoccupation over lunch breaks at school

  18. For sure this is a once upon a time story…it’s like living in the days of dinosaurs… evolves too many memories.. the pagers were for doctors …..

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  19. I am glad I can use emojis to express my emotions after reading this. You’re lucky you were staying where the network was good.

    I remember back in the village where we only had specific locations where we’d locate the network. People with such phones would command respect around the village.

    Times have really changed☺

  20. Biko you are just hilarious! You’ve taken us down the memory lane! Things have become much easier now. You can beat around the bush since sms characters now arent limited! Hahaha and take lots of selfies!

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  21. SAtire and more ,,,, Biko in any other form of our imagination……..now the queues at GPO and the money changers……20 bob note for 17shilling coins… whose black market?

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  22. Those phones were the bomb. Our phone was black, then the next one was cream. Sometimes our folks placed a huge padlock to ensure we didn’t spend hours chatting with friends. Things were much simpler then, streets much safer, and countries in the West seemed like faraway ‘heavens on earth.’
    While I enjoyed recieving phonecalls then, I will happily avoid chatting on my mobile now. My phone is almost always on silent. If you need to talk, then you must make an appointment, so that I can look out for your call. I get upset if someone calls to say, ‘I just called to say hi!’ I’m in the same group as people who prefer that one texts or emails. I’m careful about who has access to my WhatsApp. I don’t want calls unless it’s very very important. Family and close friends..yes. Folks who call to say they’ve sent cash, or transferred it to my account..a resounding yes. Companies calling about bills or responding to my queries..yes.
    In other news; left hand Mwende the siren should reach out to Biko. He probably misread the number, not her fault.
    Younguns should normalize not sending nudes. Before you send that nude, ask yourself if you’re comfortable enough for all and sundry to see you ‘in all your glory.’ People are not loyal, they’ll screenshot that and send it out into cyberspace if your relationship turns sour.

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  23. And nobody sent nudes. For that, you had to use the post office…..haha.
    I registered for the Master Class and am yet to get a reply????
    Cost, time…brochure..anything?

  24. Haha…the post was hilarious. Thank you for taking us through down memory. I remember my first phone was a Nokia(i can’t remember the model number) with a simple browser, it had a memory slot and was slightly longer than a Nokia 3310 and weighed less. Unfortunately lost it back in 2012 after being mugged. I really felt bad as it was my first phone and used it since I was in high school…smh. Anyway, I still own a Nokia Lumia but the Os crashed after Microsoft & Nokia stopped producing phones. I am forever a Nokia fan.

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  25. This guy can take you for a ride…
    You keep reading on hoping he can finally say what he actually wants to say, only to realise you were being taken for a ride

  26. You reminded me of the time after the August 1998 bombblast,I was working with one of the govt parastals.The organisation was trying to get in touch with the CEO without success as he was out of Nairobi and didn’t have a mobile phone.As soon as he came back,an emergency Board meeting was called to approve funds to buy him a mobile phone.Indeed some of those monstrosities were quite big and real status symbols.

  27. The Lord gives you a stunning smile with one hand and takes away your handwriting with the other.
    Those were the good old days of the call box

  28. Two storiesi we wait for the girl at Kenya cinema. And Stone washed (savco) jeans.

    The way at which i lost my 3310 is a story to this day I have not found strength to tell.

    Biko may words never fail you coz every week we wait.