Report on the Mobile Africa Revisited Conference

By Inge Ligtvoet & Catherina Wilson

In 2008 the Mobile Africa Revisited programme started at the African Studies Centre in Leiden. Mirjam de Bruijn, Francis Nyamnjoh and Inge Brinkman led an enthusiastic team of researchers in an interdisciplinary and comparative study on mobile telephony and communication in Africa. On 14 and 15 February the programme’s broad and interdisciplinary team presented their research findings to the public during the conference Mobile Africa Revisited. Control and navigation: People searching to reach their goals in an ever more (in)flexible world. About a hundred people, from a large variety of backgrounds, visited the conference and listened to presentations by MA and PhD students, senior researchers and experts from other fields (museums, businesses, etc.). Although the conference marked the end of the research programme, it also provided the audience with new ideas and inspiration for further research into the appropriation of ICTs in Africa and beyond.

The conference was opened by Ton Dietz, director of the African Studies Centre, who by emphasizing the importance of the study of ICTs in Africa, congratulated the research team with their successes. Francis Nyamnjoh then contributed to the opening of the conference by introducing the research programme to the audience, arguing that the study was mainly based on the assumption that media and communication in itself are powerless and that it is its use and its users that need to be studied to understand its importance: “ICTs have as much power as social actors give to them”. The appropriation of mobile phones in African societies has created new forms of connections and disconnections, for example through marginality, in conflict, in diaspora communities and in rural-urban ties. Nyamnjoh ended with some comments on the deep and rich methodology that was used in this research, which was enabled by its interdisciplinary and qualitative character and researchers from Africa and the Netherlands.  

The first case studies that were presented approached the appropriation of ICTs from the angle of media and conflict. Djimet Seli, Boukary Sangaré and Inge Brinkman introduced the audience to different parts of (post-)conflict Africa and the ways in which the mobile phone has become an asset in the lives of the people in these societies. Master student Boukary Sangaré’s presentation on communication issues in Douentza (Mali), with examples in the context of the country’s current occupation by the rebels, was a very recent and urgent example of the need of the study of ICTs in conflict. This presentation argued, like those of the other speakers, that the study of mobile phones should not assume a certain impact, but should rather look at the appropriation and mutual shaping of the meaning of ICTs in African societies.

This idea was also touched upon in the presentations of the debate after the lunch break. In this session, Naffet Keita and Khalil Alio approached ICTs and mobile telecommunication from a historical point of view, in the context of Mali and Chad respectively. Walter Nkwi historicized the conference’s main theme even more and took the audience to earlier forms of communication technology. He delved into the Buea National Archives and surprised the audience with a presentation on 20th century letter writers in Cameroon.

Before Heather Horst’s key note speech, the audience migrated to the film room in the Faculty of Social Sciences to watch a documentary made by Sjoerd Sijsma and Mirjam de Bruijn. Ties through thin air  amusingly introduced the participants of the conference to two Cameroonian families, living in Cameroon and the diaspora, and the ways in which they remain in contact. There were a lot of laughs, however as the documentary progressed the meaning of mobile telephony for globally dispersed families and the purpose of new forms of communication within the preservation of family ties also portrayed its downsides.

After a long day Heather Horst, who came all the way from Australia, kept the audience awake with an inspiring lecture on the use of ICTs on the Dominican-Haitian border. Mobile telephones are used by Haitians to maintain social relations back home, while at the same time providing the opportunity to follow up economic opportunities in the border region. Besides mobile communication, Horst introduced the audience to a variety of other forms of cross-border mobility, like language and currencies. She also shared some of her research tools such as the ‘portable kit study’. Inspired in the material anthropology, this kit elicits discussion by studying the contents of the bags of travellers: coins, cell phones, pictures. Her key note was inspirational and opened up new doors for research in the domain of the study of ICTs, communication and society. It left the participants of the conference with many new ideas, which were discussed over drinks and diner in a lovely Indian restaurant in the center of Leiden.

After a good and restful night the conference started early on the second day. Tangie Fonchingong, Fatima Diallo and Hisham Bilal commenced with their presentations on the interrelations between politics, society and (mobile) communication. Bilal reflected on the role of network companies within society and politics in Sudan: a work he will most definitely dig in deeper over the course of his PhD project and which is very important as the audience missed studies on the companies within the projects presented so far. The studies of Fonchingong in Cameroon and Diallo in Senegal gave insights into the complexities of mobility within border(ed) regions, arguing that migration and mobile communication enables negotiation over local politics.

In the second debate of the day Henrietta Nyamnjoh spoke about the emotional implications of the use of new ICTs. She argued that being reminded of people back home through the mobile phone brings about emotional responses among Cameroonians in South Africa who miss their family members. The mobile phone has so become an emotional asset. Oka Obono suggested in response to her presentation that the mobile phone might even create new emotions that we have not yet fully understood or given a name. Imke Goossens also touched upon emotions in her presentation on the use of Facebook by young Angolans living in South Africa, and how it contributes in the construction of new (African) identities.

After the lunch Hans-Peter Hahn and Charlotte Connolly spoke about the material side of mobile telephony. They tried to not only look at the functional side, but see the phone in its physicality; as a device. Hahn argued that the mobile phone has become an essential asset of globalization and obtaining one has become a ‘duty’ for many in African societies. In this sense phones create new problems for the people. He touched briefly upon rumours surrounding the mobile phone in the African context, like the ‘death calls’ in Nigeria: people thought they could die if they picked a call from a certain number. Connolly represented the London Science Museum where they will open a permanent exhibition on mobile telephony in Cameroon in 2014. She gave the audience an insight in the process of acquiring objects from Cameroon and the decision-making about which objects would make it into the exhibition.

The conference was closed with a final discussion by Oka Obono, Herman Wasserman and Heather Horst who summarized the presentations and discussions of the two days. They stressed the importance of studying the mobile phone in the context of appropriation rather than access and impact. Questions were raised about methodology: how do we study the social and material aspects of mobile communication in Africa? They argued that the subject of the mobile phone gives room to the study of emotions, like fear, sadness and happiness. The study of mobile communication should be creative in its research methods, but also in its output. The conference showed clearly that not only academics are interested, but that the results should be shared with museums and the media. Heather Horst rounded up the conference by enthusiastically stating that it raised more questions than answers. There’s enough work for all of us in the field!