My best source of information on Malawian culture is a taxi driver named Alex. A year and a half and many rides after meeting him during my first week in Malawi, our initial discussions about how he uses his phone as a business tool have evolved to cover the news of the day and many aspects of Malawian culture. Now he knows a great deal about Medic Mobile and my interest in culture, technology and innovation, and recently he offered me a real gem.
In Chichewa, the dominant indigenous language in Malawi, the phone pictured to the right above is widely referred to as a Mosewalelu or simply Mose for short. Literally this translates to “the Moses of today” or in the shorter version, simply “a Moses.” The notion is that this was the first type of phone available to the common man, and that like Moses this technology is liberating a people from the cruel yoke of poverty and oppression and leading them to the Promised Land. This almost universally Church or Mosque attending population aren’t quite calling a cell phone a modern messiah, but it’s a lot like that.
The back story involves a Malawian musician who wrote a song naming Malawi’s president Dr. Bingu Wa Mutharika as Mosewalelu. Much has changed economically for Malawi in the last few years, some of which President Mutharika has played a direct role in (such as a somewhat controversial but massively popular fertilizer subsidy for small plot subsistence farmers), and other changes which have been led largely by private companies (including explosive growth in mobile telecommunications). It was during Mutharika’s first term that mobile connectivity rapidly scaled up to cover a majority of Malawi’s predominantly rural population, and about the same time that the two telecoms began selling these Hauwei and ZTE phones for as little as $12 USD. I can’t claim to know the whole story, but somehow the public mind shifted the term Mosewalelu away from the president, instead connecting it to these ultra low cost phones. As Alex said “This was was the first phone for every man, before there were phones but it was only big men or organizations, now we can every man have a phone like this (gesturing upwards with hand as if seizing something substantive).” In my experience working with subsistence farmers who volunteer as community health workers, somewhere approaching or exceeding half the population do not yet have phones. They do have almost universal access to a mobile phone, at least for emergencies, via spouses, relatives, or neighbors. To say the least, these ultra low cost phones made mobile telecommunications an industry with mass appeal in Malawi.
Friends and colleagues frequently ask me for a massively abbreviated sketch of the mobile landscape in East Africa so I often use an analogy with the role that cars have played in American culture. Mobile phones and cars both confer a very concrete power through mobility – either mobility of the person or the ability to communicate long distance. The Mosewalelu plays the role of the model T as the first point of mass access and therefore the route to mass appeal. Before mass access, cars and mobile phones largely remained culturally obscure like yachts and other toys of the elite. Many North Americans would call the Nokia 1680 pictured center above a low-end feature phone, but in Malawi this phone has massive sex appeal like a 1960s Masarati Roadster or Shelby Cobra. Such elite versions are only available to an economic elite, but the status they confer interestingly relies on the fact that they are seen as the better version of a Mosewalelu, the elite version of a technology that everyone is already discussing. And of course like the well designed yet economical Volkswagens and Toyotas there are the well made mid-range phones like the Nokia 1208 on the left.
After hearing this fascinating story from Alex I approached a number of other Malawian friends and invariably they recognized the term and laughed. “How does a Zungu (white person) know what you call this?” Too often Malawians find that their foreign colleagues care little about their language and we tend to be sadly apathetic if not antagonistic about social phenomena that reference religious practice (North Americans and Europeans are usually fascinated by traditional ceremonies, religious or otherwise, but we seem to think we already know too much about Christianity and Islam). Learning about this term was really fun and it underscored my frequent perception that you can’t really understand a technology until you understand the social circumstances surrounding its use.