I could say it’s good to be back, but I wouldn’t mean it. I have just spent a week on a working trip in Tanzania, a country so rich in natural beauty and human warmth that it made the return to a frozen, snowbound Britain rather hard to take.
Air travel has contracted the world alarmingly and modern communication tools have developed to such an extent that it’s sometimes possible to feel you’ve hardly been away at all. It’s not been uncommon recently to have phoned someone back home and discovered I’m more abreast of the news than they are. Nevertheless, where I was – in the most remote parts of rural Tanzania – it wasn’t difficult to feel… well, remote. I visited villages where they pick tea all day (for 4p for a kilo of leaves) and often live without electricity and only limited access to water.
Yet even in the smallest collection of homesteads, there’s one thing that is ever-present: a mobile phone shop. And sometimes there’s a station where you can pay to charge your mobile. And often a place where you can use your mobile network to send and receive money, or pay for goods and services (such transactions now account for a third of neighbouring Kenya’s GDP).
It is in an environment such as this, where smartphones are more a feature of daily life than running water, that you truly understand what a transformative piece of technology the mobile phone is. In more developed countries, we either take mobile telephony for granted, or find its all-pervasiveness rather annoying. But here, I quickly came to the conclusion that the mobile phone stands alongside the motor car as the most important invention of the past 200 years. It gives its users freedom, helps them connect with the outside world, and, when it is more than three hours down a dirt track to the nearest town, can make the difference between life and death. My natural feeling, seeing the omnipresence of the Vodafone logo in Tanzania, was that this is another depressing example of cultural imperialism. But this brief exposure to a different way of life has certainly changed my perspective.
Talking of cultural imperialism, I don’t think even McDonalds or Starbucks can compete with the English Premier League. Within minutes of landing in Dar es Salaam, I’d seen too many Chelsea, Arsenal or Manchester United shirts to count. Every game, it seems, is live on TV. The Africa Nations Cup was taking place, but the taxi drivers were most interested in the match between Stoke City and Sunderland. At a market, I had my picture taken with Julius, a fellow Manchester City fan. And, at my hotel, a barman was keen to tell me how long he’d been supporting Arsenal. Given the ubiquity of NGOs out here, it was understandable he should make a mistake when referring to Arsenal’s new teenage sensation, a young man he called Alex Oxfam Chamberlain.
Simon Kelner was in Tanzania investigating support for the Daraja project which publishes two newspapers in Iringa and Njombe
This piece was originally published in the i Newspaper