Chris Blattman

Voicemail for Africa

I have yet to visit an African country where, in the space of a 20 minute conversation, your colleague doesn’t answer her phone four times. People will answer a call in a middle of a large meeting and carry on conversations.

This cultural sensitivity of mine might be unfounded, and thoroughly Amerocentric, but I simply can’t believe it persists as a polite social norm in any society. Methinks the culprit is voicemail; I have yet to see it offered by any mobile company.

I think I’m going to start a wristband campaign.

25 Responses

  1. Reading the many comments, I’d just suggest not getting fixed on nationalities, but looking around us, looking at our own behaviour. I am surrounded by people who text during meetings, while someone is presenting, while you are sitting with them (how different is that from the phone). At least the phone rings, the texting happens all the time without even a sound (that disturbs both owner and the other party). You see the other person fidget all the time, taking quick glances at the their cell phones to see if some email has arrived. If someone seems to be getting 4 calls within 20 minutes, I would politely suggest meeting at a less busy time and preferbly a venue that is suitable to me.

  2. Sometimes, it is a quality of caring for everyone…including the one on the phone. I am an occasionally guilty member, (I see the caller and try to gauge the urgency, and try to do a quick response – to at least say I will call the person back) and hope the other person with me will understand. This happens on the phone, when you put one person on hold to talk to someone else. Hopefully your caring does not mean disrespect and is not misuunderstood. If someone wants “quality time” :-), maybe they need to decide (1) to simply put cell phones on “silent” not eveb “vibrate”, go to a place where even landlines are not close.

  3. In America, instead of answering a phone during a meeting or in midconversation, you look down at your blackberry and respond to e-mails/text messages despite someone speaking directly to you. It may just be a clash of cultural norms but both are annoying, if you are in a conversation with someone in person, give them your attention. Hopefully globalization will universalize this norm

  4. I’m in India too — today’s meeting was interrupted no fewer than 4 times. I’ve even been invited to lunch by a person who had a phone conversation for the entire meal. Maybe I’m just bad company.

  5. Why can’t you keep quite on some topics, they make you look just foolish and arrogant…

    why can’t you just try to exercise your patience and give some peace to everybody else’s patience by trying to understand some different logics? Give different people and places their right and reason to have different logics and just forget about selling them your life style for once.

    Just go and grow yourself, step out for a cup of coffee, go to the rest room, or just meditate…. you can adapt to this one only, can’t you? Or, maybe, just assume that you hate Africans and leave them in peace…


    1. Just a reminder on the comments policy. This is a place for civil discourse and comments like these cross the line. There is a valid point here, but a civil way to say it.

  6. I’ve been to meetings in India where the person leading the meeting would stop the meeting to take a call. Voicemail exists, but it costs extra, and as other commentators have pointed out, calling back uses your minues. Still – people should just text.

  7. I was just asking one of my field officers this question in Kenya this morning… he says it’s because the menus are too difficult to navigate on Safaricom. It takes too long to retrieve a message!

  8. Ben hit the nail on the head in my book. If you answer the phone, you’re using their minutes. If you call someone back after a voicemail, it costs you.

  9. Here in Cameroon we have voicemail but it is never used, I think that one of the main reasons people would rather interrupt a meeting to take a call is because if you divert the call to voicemail you will have to a) pay to check your voicemail (if you know how to use it) and b) pay to call the person back.
    People would far rather answer the call then and there and put the cost onto the caller’s bill than to spend their own credit calling back later.
    I guess the one good thing about calls here is that they rarely go over a minute due to the exorbitant cost of calls and the way billing is done here!

  10. Safaricom and Zain also offer voicemail — but neither advertises the service too much. Still, I don’t think the lack of voicemail would be the reason — afterall, most phones will tell you who tried to call, and many people will send texts anyhow. I would chalk it up to a simple cultural norm. There is no stigma against taking a call in the middle of a conversation. Perhaps this is because mobile phones are still seen by some in Africa as a sign of prosperity or importance, and using one during a conversation or meeting signifies that you’re a person worth getting in touch with?

  11. Vodacom and Celtel offer voicemail in DRC, but, as in the above cases, no one uses it (and I’m pretty sure it costs extra, though I’ve no idea how they charge with the pre-pay system.

  12. That’s strange… I find this to be more the case when I visit America than Africa… maybe I just notice it more in the U.S.

  13. It is certainly not limited to Africa. Answering your phone regardless of on-going conversations is also the standard in Afghanistan, where I live. I suspect it has something to do with the cultural fascination with mobile phones, and the (perhaps subconscious) desire to demonstrate one’s importance.

  14. I have also observed been irritated by this phenomenon, but I disagree that it has anything to do with voicemail. After much frustration, I’m inclined to conclude that what is, as you say, Amerocentric, is the notion of demanding somebody’s “undivided” attention. In the 3 African countries I’ve lived, I’ve found that I’m much more sensitive to interruptions in general–conversations, meetings, privacy, etc.–than are my local friends and colleagues.

  15. Like Kwaku and NG wrote, voicemail is very available. The problem is that people want to talk to the person they call, and so do not bother to leave a voicemail message. The idea is that it costs money to leave a message, so why do so when what you want to do is talk to the person you are calling. There are even Nigerian networks that warn you before the call is forwarded to voicemail so that you can stop it from being forwarded.

    There is probably a need to sensitize people about the use of voicemail. But much more than that, there is a need for people to know that it is simply discourteous to carry on phone conversations during a meeting.

  16. Kwaku: it’s true! When I’ve had Ghanians call me in the US, there’s often confusion when they get the voicemail message… I always feel vaguely guilty, even. My phone in Ghana claimed to be able to do VM, but it never seemed to work..

  17. haha. I was just about to comment that we have Voicemail in Ghana but I see someone beat me to it.
    We tried voicemail for a few days on the house phone but we had to let it go because no one left a message. Many were confused as to why “white people” were picking up our phone and asking for a message lol.

    1. that’s hilarious. I had the mirror image experience. In Tz, I use Zain and the first message is in Swahili. As soon as my friends hear the ‘Samahani … ‘ they turn off, assuming they have a wrong number. I’m learning swahili and speak a fair bit, but definitely don’t have the pitch perfect pronunciation of the Zain person.

  18. Perhaps it costs minutes to call your voicemail (prepaid model)? Maybe picking up a call puts it on someone else’s bill rather than letting it roll to voicemail, calling voicemail, then calling the person back. That’s a lot of minutes!

  19. I was on a panel at a conference in South East Asia where a fellow panelist dropped underneath the cloth-covered table in order to talk on his phone with discretion. Progress perhaps.

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