July 4, 2007

The Day of the Phone

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Today was the day of the phone. At breakfast I met two American girls who had just arrived. One of them had previously completed a study abroad while in undergrad here in Nairobi, and the two of them were visiting Kenya together for only 10 days.

As I had not quite spent much time within the heart of the city, I decided I should spend the day walking about with them, as Katie (the study abroud girl) would have a rather decent understanding of this place. However I needed to call the NRC to make an appointment with their shelter manager.

Yesterday I had purchased a SIM card for my phone. There are two major carriers: Celtel and Safaricom, safaricom being the cheaper. With all phones in this country you purchase a phone, purchase a SIM card, and then purchase minutes of phone time at 1 shilling per minute (about 10 cents). Well, I had purchased a Safaricom card, inserted it into my phone, entered the pin number and received a glaring message asking for another number. Apparently phones purchased from carriers in the states are locked so that I would need to pay my American carrier a fee to use the phone services in this country. Not good.

I went downtown with the girls and stopped at Safaricom store, asking them to fix my phone. The sales woman told me that I need go to the Safaricom Care Center, which was only 3 blocks away. I walked to the Care Center and discovered a MASSIVE line and that I would have to pay T-Mobile a big fat fee. Although I do not have much traveling experience, I have had enough to realize that the solution to any problem is to tap into the existing social capital, which is quite removed from the eyes of the foreigner. So I hit the pavement.

I walked about 2 blocks and then cut down a couple alley ways toward River Road, the shady side of the city. I thought that my first option would be to purchase a Celtel card (as that was the agency my phone automatically roams with) from some sketchy place, and if the new card doesn't work, see if they can "fix it."

I eventually found some dark little hallway with a couple guys selling cell phones. There were no white people around, few people spoke English, and I knew I was finally getting into "real" Nairobi. I asked one guy for a Celtel card. Another fellow handed it over for a 100 shillings after which I popped it into my phone and attempted to activate it. As to be expected, it wouldn't work.

I looked at them, held up my phone and said its locked. They took it apart and could tell from my the serial number that it was an American product. One of them looked at me and said that it will not work without a pin. I said I would like them to fix it. Another man took the phone into his hand and said for 2000 shillings and 2 hours he would have it working. I said that won't work – 2000 shillings is too expensive and I need it now. I said I will buy a new phone from someone else for less. They argued that I have a "very powerful phone" and anything cheaper will not work as well (which is true, as mine is a G4, it will work on any frequency). At this point he said "How much you have to pay?" …I always hate that position. What is too much or not enough? I said I can pay 1000 (15 dollars). He said to wait a moment then he took the phone and went out the door.

I knew he would return with my phone as they could make more money from me by providing a service than by selling an object. Also, surrounded by dozens of phones, it is less likely that they could sell my device any time soon. It was in their favor to "fix it."

The man returned in 10 minutes. He stated that he will have it fixed in 45 minutes for 1,200 (I suspect he added the 200 for himself, or is paying some other person 200 and keeping 1,000). I agreed.

I met the girls back at some overpriced tourist restaurant called Java's, and an hour later picked up my phone.

It works perfectly.