We Malawians love our phones


Shortly after moving to Switzerland, I decided to give Anastasia, my new friend and workmate, a phone call. It was weekend, you see? Geneva has no claim whatsoever to being a lively city of any sort, even at its best of times, and on weekends it is very dead.

Of course, if I may digress further, I would say Geneva is the extreme opposite of our cities here at home. I consider myself an Area 18 citizen, and there, at any one time, there is noise in some form or another. If it is not a man shouting at the top of his voice that he is selling usipa, tomato, onions, zitheba za nyemba, cabbage, rape, Chinese, etc, then it is some church folk singing joyously as they invite lost souls to come for salvation. On weekends, someone is always marrying someone else and so there is endless noise from engagement or send-off parties.

In Geneva, such noise is prohibited by law. It has been banned for centuries and during the times of reformist John Calvin, it was worse. Music was then prohibited after sunset, which is why the city’s motto is post tenebras lux or “after darkness, light,” because all the people were expected to do after dark was to praise God.


And so, my going to Geneva several years ago meant I had moved from one extreme end to another and the silence was deafening.

My family was then in Malawi, waiting for me to find a house. It is not easy to find accommodation in Geneva – you can take months if you are not lucky. They have peculiar rules. For you to be allowed to rent an apartment, you must show three months’ payslips. You must also get an attestation from a designated office certifying that you are not on a list of people who have a history of defaulting their debts. Anyone who fails to settle their bills – rent, telephone, water, electricity, medical, anything – is put on the list. Once there, you are no longer considered as having capacity to rent accommodation.

For new arrivals, therefore, it is hard to meet some of these requirements, especially that of three months’ payslips.


As I looked for a house, I sublet from a Brazilian woman a small apartment of one bedroom, a living room, kitchen, toilet and a balcony so small it resembled a landing pad of a toy helicopter.

The size of the apartment was of little concern to me. It was the silence that bothered me most. There was no one to talk to and calling my family back home could only be occasional as it was costly.

That was why, one Saturday morning, around eleven o’clock or thereabouts, I called Anastasia. All I wanted was to chat.

Me: Hi., Anastasia. How are you?

Anastasia: I’m fine, thanks. What can I do for you? Is everything OK?

I was taken aback by that response. The question, “What can I do for you?” always makes me feel like an intruder who should only raise his hand if in need of help.

“Nothing,” I said. “I just wanted to say hi.”

“Are you sure?” Anastasia continued. “Please, do not hesitate if there is anything I can do for you.”

Over the next weeks, any friend I called answered their personal mobile phone with the same business-like attitude. Make no mistake: when these friends and I met in person in our office corridors we chatted a lot, joked and laughed to tears but on phone, they all seemed to read from the same script. Without anybody telling me so, I learnt my lesson: In Europe, you have to call someone if and only if you have specific business to dispose of.

Indeed, as the years passed by, I hardly ever heard anybody’s mobile phone call during working hours.

Here at home, that is not the case. We call each other any time to simply chat. It is not unusual, even during working hours, to get a call that goes like this:

Caller: Hi. How are you?

You: I’m fine, how are you?

Caller: I’m good. Mwasowatu.

You: Ndilipo.

Caller: How are things?

You: Things are OK. And you?

Caller: Things are fine. Hehehe, a Arsenal mwakwapulidwatu.

You: We were just unlucky. We’ll win this Sunday at Crystal Palace.

Caller: Crystal Palace will beat the daylights out of you.

On and on the call goes.

We Malawians love our phones.

Ten years ago, when I was working for a parastatal in Lilongwe, I used to be appalled during serious management meetings. In almost every meeting, you would be disturbed by the ringing of somebody’s mobile phone. The person would answer, lower themselves to just below the boardroom’s conference table and say, “I’m in a meeting. I’m in a meeting.”

Man, I would say to myself, if you knew you won’t be taking calls because you would be in a meeting, why didn’t you just switch the gadget off? Or put it on silence, for God’s sake? Surely, whoever is trying to reach you can try again later, no?

We love our phones so much that they cannot be switched off even in the middle of doing important things. Three years ago, a sports programme presenter answered his personal call live on air on MBC television.

When I raised this topic on my Facebook wall, Harris Chimangeni, based in the United Kingdom, commented: “I have been working in the UK for four months now. Our office is a nine-cubicle seating space. I have never seen any of my co-workers picking up calls on their cellphones during office hours and I tend to wonder: Who do we Malawians keep talking to all the time?”

A report by the International Telecommunications Union says on average Malawians use more than $12 (almost K9,000) a month on mobile phones. This is more than half of what an ordinary Malawian earns in a month. Probably, 80 percent of that airtime is spent on trivia.

For comparison with other countries, here is snapshot:

Cheapest: Macau, China – 0.11 percent of average monthly earnings; Hong Kong, China – 0.18 percent of average monthly earnings; Denmark – 0.19 percent of average monthly earnings.

Most expensive: Malawi – 56.29 percent of average monthly earnings; Madagascar – 52.55 percent of average monthly earnings; Central African Republic – 51.63 percent of average monthly earnings.

Cheapest in Africa: Mauritius – 0.79 percent of average monthly earnings; Tunisia – 1.62 percent of average monthly earnings; Botswana – 1.64 percent of average monthly earnings – Source: ITU: Measuring the Information Society Report

Officially, therefore, we are a country that spends the highest proportion of monthly income on our mobile phones as compared to other countries in the world.

I guess that is a record to be proud of.

Anyway, whether people decide to spend a fortune on airtime it is their business but use of phones during meetings and working hours needs to be minimised to focus on the business at hand.

It would seem other organisations are already doing this. Hassan Baleke Mwenitete, also commenting on my wall, wrote: “In our organisation, during meetings, phones are switched off or put on silent and collected to be stored in one place. You can only have access to your phone during breaks.”

It looks like that is the way to go. Otherwise, productivity will suffer.

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