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New media: Communication in Africa

When her mobile phone rings, Bettina Frei glances at the display. This phone is reserved for calls from her Cameroonian friends. The ringtone is often already a message in itself. Cameroonians use new media in creative ways.

For instance, they design ringtones to exchange messages free of charge. A ‘beeping’ ringtone that rings briefly and repeatedly at short intervals means ‘call me back’. One short ring can simply mean ‘hi’. Other coded messages are possible, depending on what people have arranged to use beforehand.

The actual call is always made by the person who is believed to earn more money. ‘So if someone is frequently asked to call back, that person will be perceived as fairly wealthy,’ explains Bettina Frei. It’s customary to ask emigrants living abroad to call back, because the assumption is that they earn more than their peers at home.

New media: Five universities and one research project

Bettina Frei is an ethnologist at the University of Basel and is currently writing her Ph.D. thesis entitled ‘Passages of Culture’. Researchers at five universities in Europe and Africa are involved in this study, which looks at media and social change in various African societies. Frei has been studying how the inhabitants of Bamenda, a city in Cameroon with a population of around 400,000, are responding to new media such as mobile phones and the internet.

Her colleague Primus Tazanu is exploring the same issue from another perspective. The Cameroonian ethnologist is studying how his fellow countrypeople who live abroad keep in touch with friends and family at home. It’s a situation he has experienced at first hand, for he spent several years living in various European countries. Today he works at Freiburg University in Germany. ‘Primus and I are working on the same subject but from different angles,’ says Bettina Frei.

New media open up new horizons

‘Keeping in touch with Cameroonians who go abroad is very important for those who stay behind,’ explains Bettina Frei. Many people dream of going abroad, especially the younger generation. New media, particularly the internet, are important tools for many young people, who are relatively well educated. ‘However, they tend to use the internet in different ways than their German peers,’ says Frei. For instance, search machines are not the method of choice when they need information. Many prefer to post their question on social networks, where personal contacts and relationships play a strong role.

‘Cameroonians expect their friends and relatives abroad to keep in touch,’ she continues. New media help to maintain a connection even over long distances. But this remoteness can also cause misunderstandings and problems. ‘You often hear people complain, ‘Why don’t you call me more often?’’ Even distant relatives or old school friends expect a call back from someone living abroad as soon as they leave a coded ringtone message.

The reason why emigrants are expected to pay for these calls, and to support their friends and relatives at home financially, is that many imagine the West to be a world full of opportunity where everyone is much better off.

Talk to us about new media

How did you keep in touch with friends and family back home while you were in Germany? How do you feel about the opportunities offered by new media? Discuss with us and other alumni in the comments below.

November 2011

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