Nigeria lives, breaths and depends on cell phones. From Bower’s Tower, the tallest point in Ibadan, you see reception towers covered in satellite dishes soaring above the sea of tin roofs. Landlines are not common, in fact very rare. In Nigeria, it is expected, almost compulsory, to have multiple cell phone numbers–a different one for each of the networks you use. The U.S. is fast approaching this level of cell-phone reliance that has been present in Nigeria for years. The wireless communication system here is so extensive and cell phone protocol so fascinating (to a foreigner at least) that I think it deserves an in-depth explanation on North of Lagos.
Let me paint a picture of one of my experiences to introduce cell phone culture. Imagine a conference room with four American students seated at a table surrounded on either side by eight University of Ibadan professors. In the space occupied by the Americans, the table is clear. In front of each professor lays between two and four cell phones or a man purse which probably contains the cell phones. The department head is talking, welcoming the Americans to campus and suddenly the familiar Nokia ring tone sounds. The department head continues talking, as if unaware of the loud melody and vibrations. The professors immediately reach for their phones, each placing a hand atop his collection of phones to see if he is the culprit and if so which phone is actually buzzing. The guilty one is soon identified. He lifts up his phone, scrutinizes the number and picks up, all while the meeting is very much happening. He talks for less than a minute and places the phone back to its resting place, in between the Blackberry and other Nokia model. This continues to happen and has happened at every meeting I have attended here. Even the person conducting the meeting will pick up and no one seems to mind. Of course, this is not absolute, exceptions of polite behavior exist sha.
There is no place a Nigerian won’t answer a cell phone. A movie theater, a live play, an important meeting, a classroom. The only place I have not noticed cell phones is in church, but maybe I am just going to the wrong church. Rejecting calls is futile because the caller will keep calling that number and then move on to your next number. Not answering one of your cell phones is a serious matter in Nigeria. To add to matters, the caller cannot leave a voice message because voice mail is, like landlines, extremely rare. Only one cell phone number, in over 75 numbers I have called had an option to leave a voice message. This speaks to the fact that Nigerians favor face-to-face communication. Our words are in our eyes, as a Yoruba proverb says.
Nigeria uses six cell phone networks. The most commonly used are MTN, Glo and AirTel (previously Zain). Etisalat, Starcomms and Visafone are the others. Starcomms and Visafone are the cheapest to call the U.S. Depending on which network you use, the first four numbers in your phone number will differ. MTN will always start with 0803, 0806 or 0703.
Nigerian cell phones networks mostly work on a pay-as-you-go system. You do not go to the network store and sign up for a 2-year contract like you do in the U.S. Prepaid monthly plans do exist too but are not as ubiquitous as pay as you go. Here, you buy any phone you like from one of the hundreds of retailers around, decide which network you want to use, buy a SIM card from one of the many sellers on the street and bam, you’re connected. But not so fast, you need to purchase credit, what is known in the U.S. as minutes, before you can make any call. Running out of credit, buying more credit, cutting calls to save credit are all part of everyday life for a Nigerian. Buying credit is easy though. Virtually every other stall you see on the road side sells it and you always see people standing in traffic or outside busy places selling it. Credit comes in denominations of 100’s. You can buy a card for N100, N200, N300, N400, N500 and N1000. Each credit card has scratch code you dial into your phone and call in order to recharge your account.
Credit is a coveted thing. Calling within networks costs around N20 per minute. Cross networks calls are a bit more expensive. A in-network text message at any time costs N5. After midnight, calls are free. Remember, N150 is equal to $1. The costs vary for every network and for the purposes of this entry I don’t want to explain all of it in detail. It might seem like this plan is less expensive than the system we have in the U.S. but money spent on credit adds up quickly. Before I know it, my N500 card is kaput and I am hearing the Glo automated voice telling me to “recharge your account.”
To circumvent spending thousands of Naira on credit, Nigerians resort to flashing people. No, women don’t go around lifting up their shirts to everyone they want to call. Flashing means dialing a number and hanging up right when it starts to ring. It is a message to whoever you are calling that I don’t have credit, or I don’t want to use my credit so call me back!!! It is annoying. Some people are chronic flashers. You see phone numbers posted on walls around Ibadan with the words “no flashing” underneath.
Nigerians are just as addicted to their phones as Americans. Everyone wants a Blackberry or a phone that can at least browse the Internet and play music. iPhones are rare here. Blackberry and Nokia dominate. You can even buy a bootleg Blackberry in the market that performs well (for a little while at least) for N6,500 or about $43. People call them Chinko Blackberry’s because they are made in China.