I remember the excitement that washed through my house the first time my uncle brought home a cell phone. I think it was a Motorola. Mind you, this was as recent as the early nineties when cell phones were the preserve of rich or "important" people (or at least, this was the case in Ghana). Every phone call my uncle received was met with renewed excitement from the children, as we longed for a chance to press that cordless gadget of mystique against our ears and speak into it. Heck, even the answering machine that had been installed in the house a few months ago was still viewed with considerable awe, how much more the scintillating cellie?
Today, Africa has the fastest growing cell phone user population in the world. The exclusivity of cell phone usage in Ghana has been well and truly shattered for sometime now. Every one has a cell phone now- from the fish monger at the sea to the illiterate grandmother residing in some remote village in the hinterland. And many of these users are communication experts in their own rights and can run you through a crash course on the modern phone's specifications such as bluetooth technology and camera megapixels- things that the average user in America probably doesn't even care about. But just how expensive is it to talk on a cellphone in Ghana?
Back in America, before we signed up for a cellphone plan, we queried about 1000 minutes-per-month bundles, roll-over minutes, unlimited SMS or picture messaging, free intra-network calls, signal strengths. (Verizon, Can you hear me now?) But in Ghana we don't have that luxury. Cell phones operate on a pay-as-you-go basis. MTN, Africa's biggest network, offers some "executive" usage plans, but those are still unheard of among the vast majority of users. A seven dollar recharge card on the MTN network in Ghana allows a user to talk for about forty to fifty minutes. MTN is cheaper compared to most of the others, but the rates are still expensive. As for the quality of service, I think MTN takes the cake as being the most unreliable network (maybe that's why they're the "cheapest"), with dropped calls and jammed networks happening to users more than a few times a day. (OK, I refuse to digress on MTN's account.)
When I came home from the USA in 2008 and heard that MTN allowed free calls after midnight, I chuckled at the idea and wondered who in their right senses would stay up till midnight just to enjoy free calls. After half a decade of enjoying virtually endless talk-time from cellphone carriers, one takes certain things for granted. After spending a year here in Ghana, it all makes sense now. I am now a dedicated user of the free night calls, dubbed "Anajo y3 d3," a Twi phrase which literally means "Night is sweet." (Quite an innuendo, especially since there is a late-night adult radio program with that same Twi name.) In short, cell phone rates here are very expensive so we users are glad to get a little break every now and then.
The newest telecommunication company to throw its hat into the cellphone providers ring in Ghana is Zain. And boy, did they create a huge buzz before the official launch. The Zain company organized a huge concert at the Accra Sports Stadium to create further awareness about its services and it featured American artistes Wyclef Jean, Eve and Mario. Zain also gave Ghanaians the option of pre-registering their self-chosen phone numbers. This was a great strategy that allowed users of other cellphone companies to still maintain their old numbers, with the Zain "026" prefix code, of course. I personally subscribed to Zain, but I got a little turned off because their much-vaunted pre-configured mobile internet service was not working on my cell phone, so I still use good old MTN. Maybe I'll use Zain again if they bring in some radically new promotions or packages. Option is a beautiful thing, and with the advent of more cell phone companies, the competition would force a decline in the overpriced rates. Who knows, we might soon get free weekends like they have in America. I wonder what catchy tagline would be attached to that freebie.