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 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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