Cell phones in Africa: Trading monthly contracts for scratch-off cards

This is my first-ever post giving a snapshot of daily life in West Africa. I look forward to many more interesting moments to share.

The day I arrived in West Africa, a friend who picked us up from the airport bought credit for a temporary cell phone so that we would have a way to communicate until I got my smartphone set up for service. He knew that, for me to buy a new SIM card for the local network, I would have to show identification and register the card as part of anti-terrorism laws in the country. Now, in this part of Africa, there aren’t cell phone service plans – you buy a scratch-off card with a code, then you dial a special number and enter the code. The cards can be bought all over the place. But not everyone who sells the scratch-off cards can sell a SIM card and do the registration. My friend, thinking ahead on our behalf, asked the guy selling credit just down the road if he could register SIM cards, too. The vendor said yes.

So a couple of days later, I walked up to his shop with two phones (mine and my wife’s), ready to get connected. When I arrived, I was told he was gone to the mosque for prayer, and he’d be back soon. So I sat down on a short wooden bench in the shade of a tree and waited for a few minutes. When he returned, I learned two things : first, that he only spoke a few words of French, and so we needed to find a bystander to translate from French to Zarma ; second, that what he meant by « Yes,» he could do the registration was that he could walk me a couple of streets over to someone who could do it. So we made the short walk – to find that the agent in that office was not there at the moment, and was supposed to be back in an hour. So we started walking back to his shop. About halfway there, however, a boy came running up to tell us to come back, because the agent had returned early. So we trudged back to that store, and waited as the agent recorded the information from my passport onto the appropriate forms.

The next step was to walk back over to the first card-seller’s stand, where we could install the SIM cards in the phones and I could buy the credit needed to start making calls. This went fine for the first phone. But when we opened the second phone, we discovered that it took a min-SIM card (okay, I should have remembered that earlier, but…well, I didn’t). So the outsourcing and improvising resumed : The latest bystander-translator assured me that they could cut the card down to the right size, and it would be no problem. So another bystander took the card, jumped on his motorcycle, and rode off to find the neighborhood’s expert SIM-card cutter. I went back to the wooden bench under the tree. Sure enough, in a few minutes, the moto came buzzing back up the street with a smaller version of the SIM card, and when we put it in and powered up the phone – it worked !

Both phones were now on the mobile network. All that was left was to pay for the cards, get a few thousand CFA* worth of credit for each one, and start scratching off my codes. (Actually, that process, as simple as it appeared, required a bit of coaching from my friend later in the day.) After a minute of pointing and saying numbers in French, we figured out the appropriate payment and change. Before I left, the vendor had yet another bystander-translator tell me that when I needed to recharge my phone, I should come back to him to buy more credit. And really, after all that, he deserves my business.

*CFA = West African Francs; 595 CFA = $1

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