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April 5th, 2006

I stopped by Dr. Dicks' office before class today to see:
  1. If he had heard from Misti. ("No.")

  2. How the "mass exodus" is going from folks enrolled in ENG 675 for the Fall to the section in the Spring. ("There is no mass exodus, unfortunately. There's barely a trickle.")

  3. If I agreed to move to the Spring section, is there any chance that I can take one of the first courses of the Ph.D. program this fall, even if I won't apply to the program until next Spring? ("No.")


Class was interesting today. We read an article about mobile telephones in South Africa. Some interesting excerpts:

On this dry mountaintop, 36-year-old Bekowe Skhakhane does even the simplest tasks the hard way.

Fetching water from the river takes four hours a day. To cook, she gathers sticks and musters a fire. Light comes from candles.

But when Ms. Skhakhane wants to talk to her husband, who works in a steel factory 250 miles away in Johannesburg, she does what many in more developed regions do: she takes out her mobile phone.

"It's a necessity," said Ms. Skhakhane, pausing from washing laundry in a plastic bucket on the dirt ground to fish her blue Nokia out of the pocket of her flowered apron. "Buying air time is part of my regular grocery list."

She spends the equivalent of $1.90 a month for five minutes of telephone time.

Before [getting her phone], Ms. Skhakhane communicated with her husband by letter. She waited weeks for a response. The nearest public telephone, outside a little shop more than 10 miles away, has been broken since March.

Ms. Skhakhane said she considered the $1.90 a month for a phone card to be money well spent. "I don't use the phone very often," she said, "but whenever there is something I really need to discuss, I do."

Villagers in the two jungle provinces of Congo are so eager for service that they have built 50-foot-high treehouses to catch signals from distant cellphone towers.

"One man uses it as a public pay phone," said Gilbert Nkuli, deputy managing director of Congo operations for Vodacom Group, one of Africa's biggest mobile operators. Those who want to climb to his platform and use his phone pay him for the privilege."

On a continent where some remote villages still communicate by beating drums, cellphones are a technological revolution akin to television in the 1940's in the United States.

Africa has an average of just one land line [phone] for every 33 people, but cellphones are enabling millions of people to skip a technological generation and bound straight from letter-writing to instant messaging.

Although only about 60% of Africans are within reach of a signal, the lowest level of penetration in the world, the technology is for many a social and economic godsend.

One pilot program allows about 100 farmers in South Africa's northeast to learn the prevailing prices for produce in major markets, crucial information in negotiations with middlemen.

Health-care workers in the rural southeast summon ambulances to distant clinics via cellphone.

One woman living on the Congo River, unable even to write her last name, tells customers to call her cellphone if they want to buy the fresh fish she sells.

"She doesn't have electricity, she can't put the fish in the freezer," said Mr. Nkuli of Vodacom. "So she keeps them in the river," tethered live on a string, until a call comes in. Then she retrieves them and readies them for sale.

William Pedro, 51, who deals in farm and garden plants, said he tried for eight years to lure customers to his nursery in a ragtag township near George, a resort town on South Africa's southern coast. Only when he got a cellphone two years ago, he said, did his business take off.

"White people are afraid to come here to my place in the township to buy plants," Mr. Pedro, who is of mixed race, said as he stood outside his makeshift greenhouses. "So now they can phone me for orders and I can deliver them the same day."

The Nigerian network cost 2.5 times what it cost to build the South African network because of lack of infrastructure But demand is so intense that MTN (another major African mobile operator) is adding hundreds of new base stations.

Their trucks get stuck in the mud. A crane is out of the question; it takes 15 to 20 men to haul each satellite dish into place with ropes. Base stations must be powered by generators. Each morning, executives send instant messages to employees containing the latest rate for the plunging local currency.

Despite all that, Vodacom Congo has 1.1 million subscribers and is adding more than 1,000 daily.

One problem remains even in the age of cutting-edge cellular technology: How does an African family in a hut lighted by candles charge a mobile phone? A bicycle-driven charger is said to be on the horizon. But that would require a bicycle, a rare possession in much of rural Africa.

In Yanguye, as in other regions, the solution is often a car battery owned by someone who does not have a prayer of acquiring a car. Ntombenhle Nsele keeps one in her home a few miles down the road from Ms. Skhakhane's. She takes it by bus 20 miles to the nearest town to recharge it in a gas station.

For 80 cents each, Ms. Nsele, 25, lets neighbors charge their mobiles from the battery. She gets at least five customers a week.

"Oooh, a lot of people," she said, smiling. "too many."



Robert was at the house when I arrived home from class, and we headed to K&W for dinner.



Dancing was pretty festive tonight. We had a decent number dancers, and the crowd was a little "frisky." I drank too much.

Robert drove us home. Thank you.

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