Sunday, November 27, 2005

Sorry, Wrong Number

Ghana has embraced the cell phone like nobody's business. My personal unscientific survey estimates that everyone in the country has at least one. And they all have intricate ring tones set to the highest volume. It's a booming business here- there are cell phone stores all over the place, and here you don't have to 'sign up' for cell service if you don't want to. Ted and I have a regular billed service with Areeba, but Cooper has what most Ghanaians have, which is a phone with a 'sim card'. You simply go to the service provider of your choice, tell them you want to purchase a startup kit and they give you a tiny micro-encoded card that slips into your phone and gives you 'units' of time and a phone number. Your units are good for a set period of time- usually a couple months- and your phone number stays with your phone. When you run low on units, you go back to the service provider (which could be a box on the roadside with a shade umbrella emblazoned with the cell provider's name protecting the sales clerk from the equatorial sun) and purchase more, slip them into your phone and you're topped up. We aren't sure exactly how much time a unit is- something less than a minute, but fifty bucks got Cooper enough units to last all of November, December, and January.

What this does, unfortunately, is create a booming business in cell phone theft. If you want a cell phone, and steal a cell phone, all you need to purchase is a new sim card and voila! you have a working, untraceable phone. It's illegal to talk on them while you drive but if you are using one in a car as a passenger you have to hold it with your left hand to keep it out of reach of a passing pedestrian who could snatch it from your grasp.

Now, walk with me over to the cultural corner and have a seat. Today's culture clash is over phones and phone manners. One of Ghana's main commodities is wrong numbers. We aren't sure if it's careless dialing or incorrect switching, but the outcome is the same- way more wrong numbers than calls from people you know. Add into this the Ghanaian norm for telephone conversations and you have a recipe for frustration. Ghanaians, when calling each other, don't identify themselves. They simply begin speaking and assume you know who it is. This is difficult when you know the person, and of course, impossible if you don't. Now comes the really fun, spiffy part- when you answer a phone in Ghana, and a Ghanaian is on the other end, the conversation inevitably goes like this:

You: Hello?
Caller: Hello?
You: Yes?
Caller: Hello?
You: [sigh]
Caller: Yes, Hello?
You: Who would you like to speak with?
Caller: Hello?
You: HELLO! Who's calling please?
Caller: Yes, [insert one of three local languages here as long as it isn't English]
You: You have the wrong number.
Caller: Wrong number?
You: Yes.
Caller: This is the wrong number?
You: YES!

At this point, the caller either begins speaking to someone on their end or simply hangs up.

Count to fifty, look at phone, hear phone ring. Same caller, same routine, except "You" is not quite as polite or patient this time. Or the possible two more times the same caller will try the same number without the success he craves. We worry for the national mental health, knowing that Einstein defined insanity as repeating the same thing over and over expecting a different result.

A variation on this routine is the Dial and Hang Up Game where you dial a number, let it ring once, then disconnect. If you have your phone on silent or leave it home while you go out, you will be treated to a long menu of missed calls that reads like this:

024 3356 989
5 missed calls

027 34001 22
3 missed calls

024 484 6672
5 missed calls

We have not sorted this game out yet at all.

The final culture clash comes with the timing of these calls. While you will receive them all day long, you have to be ready for them to start before dawn- Ghanaians are not slugabeds and if they are awake, it's an appropriate time to call family, friends, and wrong numbers. To save myself from these early birds (and incidentally from family members who can't do the time zone math) I turn my phone off every night as I get in bed and don't turn it back on until Cooper leaves for school.

Once I have to establish contact with Cooper because he's out of the house, I'm fair game and Phone Olympics begins anew each day. Woohoo! Will I miss these little encounters when I'm gone? Only time will tell. ;-)