Off the Grid
On Wednesday, the cell network in Rietoog went out during a thunderstorm. Outages like this always worry me, because I remember how the electricity went out for two weeks last rainy season and we were all reduced to eating peanut sandwiches and hanging around the Cloete’s whenever we could see that they were cooking outdoors. Or the time the water went out for an equivalent amount of time and we ran around placing buckets under gutters. It’s not that we’re utterly dependent on these things, but that we’d rather not go through the hassle of hauling buckets of water around or through the hazards of navigating a dark house in the evenings. I guess you could say my room mate and I are lazy rural people.
Since our land line was damaged last summer (the telecom people told us that the part needed to repair the line is no longer made, anywhere, and thus we will never have a land line again), the only connection Rietoog has to the rest of the world is through cell phones. We don’t even have a post office. And we love our cell phones. My colleagues and I do our banking on cell phones, buy airtime and internet time on our phones, and even send money to friends and relations through the network. Even my internet connection goes through the cell network.
This isn’t unusual. Every PCV I know in Namibia has a cell phone and network at their site, and every adult Namibian I know has one too. Cell phone usage here has a distinct Namibian flavor. Calling plans are rare; usually people just pay as they go. At the end of the month, as people run out of money before the next pay day, my Namibian friends will start to give me missed calls to try and force me to call them back and pay for the call myself. Of course, I also do this whenever I need to call a member of PC staff. More often then calling, we send text messages (smses), with entire conversations composed out of 160 character exchanges. Since sim cards are cheap ($1 US) people often have multiple numbers. One of my colleagues has a jealous girlfriend who makes him change his number every week so he can’t give it out to other women.
When the network went down I thought I would be the only one who cared (after all, network only came to Rietoog in the last 5 years). But I was surprised to find my attitude relaxed in comparison to my colleagues. My room mate threatened to go into town and only return when the network did. She also told me that ”if we don’t have network, I want the rest of the country to not have network.” I heard many people make ultimatums such ”if it is not back up tonight, I will just die.” After about 24 hours rumors started to fly. The learners told me it would be back up in a week.
I am deeply skeptical of these small town rumors having heard multiple false rumors about myself (including, recently, that I was a Swiss volunteer). I decided to investigate, and went to a parent to confirm. She had heard the rumor from a drunk man in the shebeen, which diminished the credibility of that particular piece of information. After everyone had worked themselves up into a nice frenzy the network came back up this afternoon.