Author: Charlotte Hawkins
In many ways, mobile phones have allowed people in Africa to overcome the limits of state bureaucracy (de Bruijn and van Dijk, 2012: 12). To further credit the versatile potential of mobile communication, and the need for it, these limits have recently started closing in on mobile phone use in Uganda with two particularly contentious issues. Firstly, an embargo has been issued on SIM card registration to ensure the validity of existing data following a spate of unresolved kidnappings. Secondly, President Museveni has proposed a tax on social media use in order to address the deficit. WhatsApp, Facebook, Skype, Twitter and Viber are all targets for the proposed daily fee of 100ush for all simcards using such “over the top” platforms. According to the President, social media is used only for ‘olugambo’ or ‘gossip’. He has exempted internet use for educational purposes, as “[i]t is like going to the library using the encyclopedia or referring to the dictionary. These must remain free”.
During fieldwork in the Ugandan context of intrinsic kinship (Whyte & Whyte, 2004: 77) and “scattered families”, I have observed many instances in which social media is used for more than ‘olugambo’, which itself is more than fruitless. As Tanja Ahlin notes in her study of migrant families’ care of elders through ICTs, phone practices are “not only about communication, just as remittances are not only about sending money” (2017). This frames an overarching question for my on-going research in Uganda; what are “over the top” platforms used for other than gossip? Many people have shown me how WhatsApp groups are used to circulate information –
I’m told that even the news of this proposed taxation reached 15,000 people in 10 minutes; “if anything seems to be relevant and effecting the lives of people directly, the messages tend to go very fast”.
WhatsApp groups also appear to be commonly used to share information about health. As one interviewee told me, he is part of a group with friends who are Doctors and teachers, “any information one of them gets, I get it here”. Or another, who recently found out the nutritional content of beetroot and bananas through his WhatsApp group and has started eating more of them. Or the hospital staff, who have a forum on WhatsApp for sharing information about patients and medical supplies, supporting health workers to do their jobs efficiently. As one message about the benefits of lemon peel circulated on WhatsApp recently stated, “thank goodness for Social Media…Pls forward to lots of friends”.
 https://www.independent.co.ug/mtn-stops-sale-of-new-sim-cards/, accessed 03.04.18
- Ahlin, T., 2017. Only Near Is Dear? Doing Elderly Care with Everyday ICTs in Indian Transnational Families: Elderly Care with ICTs in Indian Families. Med. Anthropol. Q. https://doi.org/10.1111/maq.12404
- de Bruijn, M., van Dijk, R., 2012. Introduction, in: de Bruijn, M., van Dijk, R. (Eds.), The Social Life of Connectivity in Africa. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
- Whyte, S.R., Whyte, M.A., 2004. Children’s Children: Time and Relatedness in Eastern Uganda. Afr. J. Int. Afr. Inst. 74, 76–94. https://doi.org/10.2307/3556745