Nairobi Calling (Don't Hold Your Breath...)

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Nairobi Calling It's automatic. You pick up the phone, punch a few buttons and the call goes through. Most times I bet you don't even think about the mechanics of using the phone — like driving a familiar route home from work, it's simply a habit. You certainly don't congratulate yourself on getting through when you hear a friend or colleague at the other end of the line. Why should you? Phones just work. Or at least they do in some parts of the world.

In Kenya, it's a different story. Some days, calls go through first time. Other. Days. They. Don't. You punch the buttons and nothing happens. Try again and there's a buzzing. Third time lucky, you say. But a recorded message tells you that all the circuits are full and asks you to try again later. You do. Over and over. Finally, and sometimes it can take more than 20 attempts, you hear the sweet sound of the exchange clicking through to the number you just dialed and the music of the phone ringing at the other end. There's always a struggle if the person you're ringing is out. You don't understand, I've found myself telling numerous secretaries, I've just dialed this number 20 times — the boss has to be in!

It's a problem of supply and demand. There are simply more phones than there are lines in Kenya, where some of the telephone exchanges, are still old-fashioned analogue jobs. Indeed, you have to count yourself lucky just to get a phone. A recent study commissioned by the United States Agency for International Development found that 120,000 people were waiting to be connected, some of them for more than a year. Many people try to speed things up by slipping a few dollars to the Telkom officials in charge of giving out new numbers. When I tried to get my first line connected just over two years ago, the technician told me it would take up to three months — unless, of course, I paid a "facilitation fee" of $100. I told him I would think about it and then, for some strange reason, I was connected the next day anyway. When he dropped by later that week he seemed quite upset that someone had actually done their job without me first paying the bribe.

Phones here have been known to be so bad that journalist colleagues use satellite phones to call across town. And they're at their worst when it rains. Many of the old copper lines simply can't cope with wet weather. When a two year long drought broke earlier this year, Kenyans thanked God. At long last they could have regular power and water again. They were less pleased when whole suburbs of Nairobi lost their phone lines for a month. Thus affected, I rang Telkom Kenya, the state-owned monopoly, from my one working line every few days to get updates on the progress of their repair work on my main line. After a couple of weeks, the manager in charge of my suburb took to blaming the weather for the slow progress. You can't just blame the weather, I said. "You're right," he said. "It's also incompetence. Massive incompetence." Now that's honesty.

The arrival last September of Kencell, the first privately owned phone company in Kenya, has helped. It's only licensed to sell cell phones but because many business people rely solely on their cell — whose digital switching makes calls go through a lot more quickly — and that eases the load on landlines, making them easier to use. (Unfortunately, the increasing popularity of the Internet is clogging the system up again). Patchy cell phone coverage should get better, but until the landline system is privatized, the service to average Kenyans won't improve much. Neighboring Tanzania and Uganda have both partially privatized their phone systems and seen big improvements. Sure, it's still a luxury to own a phone in east Africa — but if Kenya is to have any chance of boosting its economic growth, then getting through to a number across town needs to become automatic.