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What is a smartphone in Yaoundé?

p.awondo6 December 2019

Marina and Angel teaching their grandmother how to use WhatsApp

More than 19 months after the beginning of my fieldwork in Cameroon, I find myself coming back to the questions that I set out to answer when I first arrived at the fieldsite: what is a smartphone and what does it do to middle aged people’s lives as they are experiencing a new socio-cultural and economic dynamic?

The data from the field is rich, and there is a multitude of ideas that jostle in my head. In this blog post, I’ll explore three possible answers:

  • The smartphone is a social object more than it is an individual
  • The smartphone is only smart because applications and their uses make it so.
  • Smartphone use among retired people should be explored in the context of being linked to the inversion of the roles involved in the transmission of knowledge: for the first time, it is older people who are having to learn from younger generations (the so-called ‘digital natives’).

Although these are only provisional conclusions, they may reflect similar findings in other studies looking at smartphone use among retirees and older people.

The smartphone as social object

It may seem surprising to make this observation. The smartphone is considered to be a personal and individual object first and foremost. Debates around the emergence of the first mobile phones (which eventually evolved into smartphones) have tended to emphasise its individualising dimension. With the emergence of social networks, the social dimension of phones and smartphones became more prominent. However, the basic question of why people use phones brings us back to the social and socialising dimension: ‘we need a smartphone because we want to call people, to be in touch, to receive news’, say my research participants. Despite the material dimension of this individual object, it remains above all a social object. My informants get a smartphone at the initiative of a person, a group, or because of aspirations that are situated beyond the individual. The smartphone is thus a ‘community object’, helping to reinforce reconfigurations of kinship (family groups, friend groups and others). This is all the more true in relation to the continuous popularity and increasing influence of social networks. For example, many retirees I spoke to in Yaoundé who were initially reluctant to own a smartphone were eventually offered a device by family members or their loved ones. Sometimes they ended up acquiring a device for themselves in response to pressure from relatives to ‘join the family Whatsapp’ (an expression that has become commonplace in Yaoundé).

Apps make the smartphone

In Yaoundé, the youth we met and talked to seem as ‘obsessed’ with phone brands as anywhere else in the world. Fueled by a flourishing second-hand market on Kennedy Avenue (the centre of digital and smartphone life in the capital), their preferences seemed to reflect the biggest current players on the smartphone market: the Apple-made iPhone, Samsung, and Huawei.

The majority of retirees in the city are disinterested in the race to buy the latest gadget, even if they are more likely to have the means to buy these. Retirees have a more utilitarian vision that often determines their phone choices – a significant number receive phones from relatives without necessarily having a say in what the phone type or brand might be, thus making them dependent on the choices of relatives who sometimes incorrectly anticipate that they don’t need “sophisticated technology”. Although partly true,  older members of the public can get caught up in spending time staring at their smartphone screens just as easily as younger ones. For them, it’s the use of apps that ‘makes’ the smartphone:

What good is a  smartphone if you can’t have WhatsApp, YouTube, Google or listen to BBC Africa or FRI?[1]” is a question I often heard. In Yaoundé, people in their middle age and older often have more than one phone – a ‘simple phone’ for voice calls, and a ‘real phone’ for apps including Whatsapp, playing music, looking up information and ‘another life without relationships’ , as pointed out to me by a 65-year-old mechanical engineer I met in a sport group.

The phrase ‘un vrai téléphone’ (a real phone) has become common in Cameroon and means at least two things: a phone that is truly a branded one, and a phone with the ability to do things. The possibilities offered by apps, such as playing a video or getting in touch with friends are what make a smartphone ‘real’. When talking about smartphones, people in Yaoundé will first ask what the phone’s brand is, as well as what it contains in it in terms of applications and other features. It is also ‘who’s in the phone’ that’s important too.

“Digital native” and historical inversion

Daniel Miller recently pointed out that the emergence of the smartphone and more broadly of the digital, has resulted in a sort of reconfiguration of the relations between social groups. For the first time, older people in Yaoundé are no longer the ultimate repositories of knowledge, its circulation and organisation. Obligated to learn from young “digital natives”, retirees in Yaoundé face a situation of historical inversion. Without necessarily impacting social hierarchy in general, this inversion invites these groups to weave new social links.  Retired people faced with this situation that I spoke to said they were “embarrassed by the dexterity of the youngest”, but “amused by this situation”. A majority of informants believed that the hesitation to join social networks for example is linked to the feeling of not having mastery of this technology.

A 59-year-old high school teacher tells me: “…there is a real need to fill the technological gap between generations. My generation hasn’t even mastered the computer, and now they have to master the smartphone.”

Despite his age, he refers to older people as ‘their generation’, with the implication being that older people have to learn from the youngest, which is a challenge for all of Cameroonian society.

When they weren’t learning how to use technology by themselves, most of my research participants said that the best teachers were their children and grandchildren. There are direct implications for this in terms of intergenerational relations. This current moment of tension between “seniors” and younger generations is also being reinforced by political and moral tensions in the country – thus, the dynamic of the interaction between them when they are learning from each other is interesting in that it reveals something about current Cameroonian society.  Older generations learning from the young means they are in effect forced to adopt collaborative behaviors instead of perpetuating the more traditional hierarchy represented by seniority.

[1]Radio France International

Fare insieme: making and doing things together in Milan

Shireen Walton6 November 2018

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

In Italian, the word fare, means to do and to make. Doing and making appears to be a fundamental aspect of community life here in this inner-city neighbourhood in Milan’s zone 2, which constitutes the locus of my fieldwork. A number of activities, events and organisations I am involved in entail inter-generational and cross-cultural mixing, including retired Italians from Milan and the south of Italy, and foreign migrants and their children. These interactions centre around the sharing of skills and knowledge; from Italian language learning to a variety of artisanal crafts, and forms a subtle yet significant part of how social capital is shared and acquired here.

One particular hub for this is the Centro Multiculturale; part of a non-profit organisation, La Città del Sol: Amici del Parco Trotter, established in 2009 to support the wider community life of the state school in Parco Trotter, with which it is associated.

The school-community in Parco Trotter, Milano. Image: La Città del Sol: Amici del Parco Trotter

The Centro Multiculturale is run by community volunteers and teachers, envisioned and operating, year in year out, as a social space (‘spazio socialità’) for women, including mothers of children of the school and the broader neighbourhood. Housed in a small unassuming building in a corner of the park next to a main railway line, the Centro runs Italian classes for foreigners, a weekly sewing group, as well as a weekly open drop-in meeting where women of all ages and backgrounds participate in a range of activities, do exercise, drink tea, and learn about a range of bureaucratic aspects pertaining to life in Italy such as medical facilities and healthcare.

Centro Multiculturale, Parco Trotter. Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

The ethnographic make-up of the Centre sees a blend of ages, backgrounds and ethnicities (mostly Egyptian, as well as other nationalities such as Peruvian, Indonesian, Pakistani, and Tanzanian), including retired, middle-aged and more senior Italian women volunteering as Italian language teachers, sewing instructors and exercise class instructors, shifting between roles as facilitators, teachers and participants. The general spirit is one of fare insieme – making and doing things together.

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

Through the Centro, the different women experience a blend of social and personal purpose, including, notably the passing on and sharing of skills. Anna (70), Italian, retired, explained how the social make-up of the group and being around younger people in such a dynamic environment at her age ‘keeps me young and alive – it gives me a good feeling’. Coming to the Centro twice a week comforts Anna in her retirement, where she lives alone and her children are grown up and are busy with their own lives. Dahlia (35) from Egypt explains how the cucito (sewing) group at the Centro is a significant event in her week. ‘It means something for us to be together here. Many Mothers are at home all day with young children alone. It can get terribly lonely. Here there is the chance for us to meet and be together, practice a skill and share our time. Of course we are also here to get better at Italian!’ The issue of language learning and usage is a fundamental element underlying all the activities at the Centro.

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

All this is not to paint either a rosy or otherwise picture of integration in Italy; in some instances this kind of cross-cultural social care flourishes despite challenges, while in others it struggles to contend with deep-rooted political resistance and paradoxical and problematic logics. Anthropologist Cristina Giordano addresses these kinds of tensions exquisitely in her 2014 monograph Migrants in Translation: Caring and the Logics of Difference in Contemporary Italy based on long-term ethnographic research in Turin[i]. Giordano’s work describes complex relationships of care between Catholic nuns and foreign female sex workers from Eastern Europe and Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa, accounting for the different womens’ personal alignments and institutional ideologies, caught between religion-inspired notions of altruism and social care, discourses of purity, and moral judgement.

At the Centro in Milan, older Italians share craft-based practices like needlework to younger people, who appreciated the care and attention involved.  This is especially pertinent given the current, xenophobic and populist political climate. What is most interesting here is how the different ages, life and technical experiences of the women work together, in the present context, while laying social and cultural foundations for the future.

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

References

[i] Giordano, C. (2014). Migrants in Translation: Caring and the Logics of Difference in Contemporary Italy. University of California Press.