PEBKAC: Staying Connected in Africa

This column originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of About This Particular Macintosh.

Greetings from Rwanda! As this issue goes to press, my wife and I are in the African republic finalizing the adoption of our third child. We’ve been here for two weeks, and have up to another week in Kenya to look forward to. (Procedural muckety-muck with US Immigration; not everything can be processed in Rwanda.)

Staying connected with back home and the larger world has been a challenge. We each brought our iPhones, but they’ve been locked in airplane mode since we boarded our initial flight out of Dallas. We checked with AT&T about using them internationally, but the costs of doing so were just too great. Thanks to a Facebook group devoted to adoption in Rwanda, we learned it was relatively cheap to buy a simple phone for texting and local calls. So we set our sights on doing that.

Our first full day in-country we performed our first currency exchange and immediately sought out one of the myriad cell phone sellers. And when I say myriad, that’s not an exaggeration. Take those half dozen or so cell phone kiosks you see at an average American mall and multiply it by a few hundred. Thousand. A few hundred thousand. (Okay, that may be an exaggeration, but it seems that every where you look there are booths or larger stores devoted to selling mobile phones.

Mobile is huge here, as it is in much of the developing world. A mobile infrastructure is much easier to build out than a wired one. Everyone here has a mobile phone. Not many people have a land line. Heck, even the Executive Secretary of the National Commission for Children (under the Office of the Prime Minister) has her mobile number on her business card. And that’s all. (And yes, this means that we do, in fact, have a business card from the Executive Secretary of the National Commission for Children.)

So, mobile phone acquired, along with two SIM cards, each with about nine US dollars worth of time and texting, total cost: US$35. Why two SIM cards? Turns out this no-name phone from China or Korea or wherever has two SIM slots. There are two mobile providers in Rwanda, the original MTN, and the relative newcomer, Tigo. It’s cheaper to call internationally, especially to the United States, on Tigo. Most everyone we’d be in contact with in Rwanda is on MTN. So the dual-SIM card capability would benefit us greatly. (An eight-minute phone call at 4 in the afternoon, Kigali, back to Dallas cost about 300 Rwandan francs, or 50 cents US.)

On every street corner, in every other empty space of a strip mall or building, there are men and women selling cards for time and data on MTN and Tigo, usually under yellow umbrellas of the former and purple umbrellas of the latter. They are fairly aggressive, but not obnoxiously so. They won’t hesitate to come up to ask if you need to buy, but back off quickly if you decline. It’s very cutthroat, however, as the percentage they receive from each card sold is their livelihood. They won’t hesitate, once a buyer has been identified, to try to sell over one another to earn that percentage. While we haven’t had to engage in an on-the-street purchase, our local attorney has, and it was interesting to watch.

So far as Internet access is concerned, we brought my 11-inch MacBook Air, plus an iPad 2, which has proven handy for watching US TV episodes previously downloaded when your only choices in the hotel room are Al Jazeera English and a sports channel that shows nothing but football (soccer, fellow Americans). Our hotel has Internet access in the room, usually served via wifi from a router mounted out in the hallway. Unfortunately, that wifi hasn’t worked since the day we moved in. Enter a wired connection and Mac OS X’s Internet Sharing feature.

Though I always carry a 25-foot Ethernet cable in my pack, I heartily accepted the hotel staff’s offer of a cable to plug in with. I consider the Apple Ethernet-to-USB adapter for the Air to be one of those “better to have and not need, than need and not have” pieces of kit, and it indeed saved our bacon. With the MacBook Air plugged in, it was off to the Sharing pane in System Preferences, and after turning on Internet Sharing, our iPad and iPhones could access the outside world over wifi. Problem solved!

Well, kind of.

Two days prior to the writing of this piece, our hotel’s connection went down about 8:00 PM local time. And has yet to resurface in our room, despite the tech sitting at the front desk, plugged in, forty-eight hours later. So while we were happily checking in on Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail in the mornings and evenings, that was no longer possible, wired connection or not.

So lunches and dinners have been spent at places with known free wifi, and the staff of two institutions now recognize us on sight. Just this evening, while eating steak kebabs and sambusas (local version of the meat-filled, deep-friend pastry), the Air was on the dining table, purchasing tickets through KLM’s web site for our flight to Kenya. (And zapping some spam from my e-mail inbox.)

So while staying in contact with our family back home, and with our friends around the world, hasn’t been as easy as back in Dallas, it has not been an insurmountable challenge, either. The people of Rwanda have been very friendly and accommodating, and we have, to a degree, fallen a little in love with our newest child’s homeland. We will certainly return in the years to come.

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