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How to find a smartphone in Yaoundé

p.awondo14 February 2020

I arrived in Yaoundé on the evening of the 5th of February 2018. The next day, I went to a café in the city centre known to be one of the few that only serves local coffee and local sandwiches, with an emphasis on the ‘local’ label. For example, the café serves a ‘mboa burger’. The ‘mboa’, a term that comes from the Douala language (one of 170 recognised national languages), means ‘the country’ or ‘the land’. They also serve a ‘bissap’ juice and a ‘Foumban chicken sandwich’, the latter named after a city in the Western region of Cameroon from which the coffee served in the café originates. Foumban is also a city that is highly regarded for its agriculture and livestock.

I watched the street from inside the café. The street below is called ‘Anne-rouge climb’. It’s a pretty busy street, with shops on both sides selling clothes imported from China and Turkey. There is also stationery, micro-finance establishments and telephone shops. Here and there, ‘telephone credit’ sellers are sheltered under mobile phone operator-branded umbrellas, each one a different colour. The umbrellas that represent the South African operator MTN are yellow, the ones that represent the French operator Orange are (unsurprisingly) orange, while the local operator Camtel has blue umbrellas. Throughout the city, we find these colour codes wherever a credit seller (locally called a “call box”) sells credit, even if the seller is selling credit from several operators at the same time.

Different mobile phone operators’ colours in Yaoundé. Photo by Patrick Awondo

Different mobile phone operators’ colours in Yaoundé. Knowing that the “call-boxes” also sell other products as I myself am Cameroonian, I asked a coffee server if one of the sellers on the street below had SIM cards for sale. He answered yes. Having finished my coffee, I approached the first “call-box” asking whether they had  SIM cards.

“Do you want an Orange or an MTN card?” the seller asks.

“Whatever”, I said, “I just want a SIM card”.

A few minutes later, I had a new SIM card.

“If you want an Android phone, you just have to go down the street. Below, you will come across Kennedy Avenue. There are shops and phone sellers all over there. Whatever type of phone you want, you will find it there.”, he added.

The seller had anticipated that I would then immediately ask where I could quickly find a phone. In Yaoundé, and in the rest of the country, the “Android” phone (that is to say a phone equipped with the Android operating system), is the expression which is equivalent to the word smartphone. So if you ask a Yaoundean whether he or she has a smartphone, he or she will not answer you or will ask what a smartphone is, but if you refer to “an Android phone” they will immediately answer, quickly listing the different brands of Android phones.

I went down the “Anne-rouge climb” in the direction of Kennedy Avenue, following the instructions of the “call-boxer”, and then stopped at the crossroads of this very famous street of Yaoundé. The avenue is famous for its trade activity, which is mainly oriented towards the trade of computer products and smartphones. Here and there, on the pavement, a wide variety of items are on display. These are mainly products of Asian origin. Among these shopping streets, many young men in their late 20s or early 30s seem to be the main ‘players’ in this market. Hundreds of people come and go, and these young men challenge, hold your hand if necessary, offering you many products to choose from. There are smartphones of all brands; from the best known ones (iPhones, Samsungs, Huaiweis, Tecno, LG) to the least known, more obscure brands.

Man selling phone credit in Yaoundé. The South African mobile phone operator MTN is represented here by the yellow umbrella. Photo by Patrick Awondo (CC BY)

Kennedy Avenue, Yaoundé, Photo by Patrick Awondo (CC BY)

Some of the young traders have also got clothes on offer – everything from jeans and sports shoes to ‘city shoes’, costumes, shirts. Others have got chains and watches for sale. To promote their products, they present them as valuable items that only ‘travellers’ (voyageurs) know about. The category of the ‘voyageur’ is a category which in this context underline the fashionable dimension of the products , as well as their quality. If the traders treat you as a ‘voyageur’, they are trying to underline the quality of your clothes as much as the expectations linked to this status and its appearance. The ‘voyageur’ is demanding with regards to quality, which he or she supposedly knows about because he comes from Europe or elsewhere, but also because he is able to pay. The category is not in the least related to travel – it is a characteristic that one is supposed to reflect, as well as a commercial category, one that works to flatter the customer and raise the trader’s chances of getting a ‘higher bid’, as it were.

A young man calls me and asks me if I want a ‘real phone’. He emphasises that those offered on the street are for the ‘little ones’.

‘You are a big man, come and I sell you the real options’, he says.

By this, he means that the backyard and in the small, cramped shops that are in the small corridors of the avenue, is where the ‘real’, original products are. He adds : ‘Outside, it is the “bulk products” that people are selling. Since you haven’t found anything, because I’ve been watching you for a while, that means you’re looking for options. So I’m showing you a real phone with options.’

A few minutes later, we cross the street, followed by children who asked us if we could spare any change. In the dark corridors of a quite unsanitary-looking building, we arrived at a small shop where second-hand laptops of all brands were stored, as well as second-hand phones and a few USB drives, computer chargers, central units and discs. The young man introduced me to the seller, stressing that I am looking for an ‘option’. The seller, a man in his forties, took out 4 smartphones from under his small counter – two iPhones (a 6 and a 7), one Samsung Galaxy and a latest generation Motorola phone. ‘Voyageur, since you want the options, here’s what we have … but if they are not good, I can call for something else. We have everything here, but across several stores.’, he says.

Mobile phone seller in Yaoundé. Photo by Patrick Awondo (CC BY)

After paying 80,000 XOF (around €122), I came out with a used iPhone 6 that I quickly tried to test by introducing the SIM card I had bought at the call box earlier. It should be noted that in this business, there is no guarantee. The only real guarantee is often to establish a relationship with the seller and locate him and his partners in order to be able to return in the event of a problem.

What I have just described is a mundane scene from the city of Yaoundé. Kennedy Avenue is the centre of the life and traffic of the smartphone and the telephone more generally. People who want to buy a smartphone, whether new or used, would first go to this part of the city. It is a place recognised for the possibilities it offers, located in the heart of the downtown shopping district and considered locally to be the heart of “telephone culture” and digital life.

Below is a short video showing the phones that might be on offer in one of Yaoundé’s mobile phone shops:

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