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“The good news of it”: religion & mobile phones

charlotte.hawkins.1711 December 2019

This blog post draws on four interviews about phone use in Go-down (my field site in Uganda), specifically where people discuss using them for religious purposes. The instances that follow show that the phone is sometimes incorporated in moral discourses with reference to religious beliefs; specifically, the individuals cited here expressed concerns around younger people’s phone use and their excessive messaging, categorised as ‘bad’ and improper, whereas preaching or sharing religious knowledge via the phone is considered ‘good’. Aspirations to own a smartphone have also been expressed in relation to faith.

Man walking in south-west Uganda on Good Friday, 2018. Photo by Charlotte Hawkins (CCBY)

Global media, the internet and its influence is sometimes described as ‘dotcom’, younger people today as ‘the dotcom generation’ or ‘the children of dotcom’. Often it is said by older people who are referring broadly to modern developments. Papa, who is Born Again, described dotcom as “like the New Testament, something recent…modern, jumping from the old to the new”. He thinks it can be used in both positive and negative ways, “it helps when you use it well…it even helps us to preach the gospel to people on WhatsApp”. He has an app with the bible on his phone, taking passages from there to forward to his contacts. But he says that he uses his smartphone mostly for Facebook, to keep in touch with people at home in DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo) and see their pictures. He also listens to preaching on the radio through his phone, specifically on ‘Voice of America’, and to hear about the news in Israel: “You know it is better to know about is Israel because we are in the end time. If anything happens there, you get it in the prophecy of the bible, the way we are walking”.

A Born Again pastor similarly described the good and bad ways of using the phone in religious terms. He is concerned about young people’s use of messaging, particularly when they are supposed to be concentrating on something else, but he is glad that it offers another platform to preach, describing this as the “proper” way to use a phone; “we appreciate the good news of it”.

Assistants to the Imam in the primary mosque in Go-down agree that phones can be used in ways both supportive and detrimental to religion, depending how someone chooses to use them:

Nowadays, people have these phones, but phones nowadays would not be bad in our religion. Because you can be connected to somebody, somebody might ask you for a verse, or ask you any question. Now the problem which we have in our religion, other people… use it in a bad way, there is the problem…when you are back biting someone, it is very bad.

Imams use their personal phones to share their knowledge of their religion via Facebook, and when people call them for advice. If they don’t know the answer, they use either google, their Qu’ran app, or a book called Hismul Muslim to find out or to ask others with knowledge. These apps also help them with their daily recitation, providing the text, as well as translating Arabic texts to English.

Not all participants in Go-down own their own smartphone or mobile phone. Often, they are shared within families. Aleng, one of my research participants, is hoping for a smartphone of her own, and she hopes to learn how to use the internet. Her pastor often posts on social media, so she wants to connect with that. In the meantime, she mostly uses her phone for calling, typically contacting ministry to find out if there’s anything she can help with or participate in. Recently she called because she wanted to send her seeds to the Church to be anointed before planting them: “you anoint when you want God to quicken something”. Her daughter has a smartphone, and she sometimes relays messages back from the family WhatsApp group, but otherwise she feels everything is within her reach. “My God is a miracle God; he will give me a smartphone at any time”. She feels that dotcom is God-given, “these things come, you know God is the offerer of wisdom. If God has allowed such thing to come, it has the negative part of it and the positive part, so it depends on someone using it”. She is glad that it can be used for gospel.

Signs in a primary school in Go-down; ‘Always be God Fearing’, ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom’. Photo by Charlotte Hawkins (CCBY)

 

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