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Searching for a signal in rural Mozambique


If I HAD to pick a religion, I think I’d choose Buddhism.  However, I’m not totally free of want in Mozambique, so I wouldn’t be a good Buddhist.  It’s not that I miss amorphous American “stuff” at all, but I miss my family and friends.  I miss American culture.  Three months living in Mozambique will do that to you.  Three weeks living in a teacher training college where directions to the school involve the phrase, “Turn off the paved road at kilometer marker 71 and keep driving,” doesn’t help much either.  I decided it was time to try and get a phone call.

The school has a public phone that receives calls, so I got the number from the phone and e-mailed it to my sister.  “Call!  I miss you and I’m bored.  P.S. I’m a terrible Buddhist.  ~Love Kolby”

It’s a 9-hour time difference to Tempe, so I had to get up at 6am to wait by the phone for the call.  Actually, waking up wasn’t a problem.  That sort of thing isn’t a problem when you’re in bed by 9pm every night.  It seems the lack of a movie theatre, a stage for live music, or any gathering point of any sort except for mosquitoes and snakes were all minor architectural oversights when they built the school in an empty field in the middle of nowhere.  Something about money or whatnot, I forget.  What I wouldn’t trade for just one night at Four Peaks Brewery on the patio talking with my friends!  I stood next to the phone for an hour watching the other teachers walk by.

“What are you doing?” each would ask.

“I’m waiting for a phone call from America,” I would reply each time.  The phone call never came.  Two days later I sent another e-mail to my sister. “Try calling again, miss you, love you.  Still a terrible Buddhist.  ~Kolby”

Again, I woke up at 6am and waited.  Again, no call came. Again, teachers walked by and asked, “What are you doing?”

“The same thing I did two days ago,” I replied, my patience wearing thin, “I’m waiting for a call from America.”  After about an hour the school Director came walking by.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Same thing as I did two days ago, I’m waiting for a call from America.”

“It’s not going to come,” he replied.

“No, it is will come eventually.”

“No it won’t, the phones here don’t work.  The Japanese with the development money who built this school insisted that they buy them for us, but it costs too much money to keep them working.  They sure look nice though, don’t they?”

It’s not that I didn’t get a phone call twice that bothered me.  Ok, actually that did bother me some, but that’s not the main thing that bothered me.  The main thing that bothered me was that I’d stood by the phone twice while people walked by and saw me, sadly waiting, for a phone call that would never come.

“Why didn’t anyone tell me, everyone saw me standing here?!” I asked the Director.

“They don’t know the phones don’t work, they all carry cell phones.  You should get a cell phone,” he suggested.

Now, the Peace Corps has a rule.  The rule is, live at the level of the locals.  Live like they live, do what they do.  In most places that means reed houses and cold bucket baths outside.  But I, on the other hand, am working at a teacher training college and the “locals” around me carry cell phones.  So, that settled it, I’d buy a cell phone.  But I couldn’t buy any cell phone; I had to buy a cell phone comparable to the cell phones the Mozambican teachers carried.  So I watched.  The Nokia 5110i, clipped to your hip like a gun to show your rising social class in Mozambican culture.  It’s not a good cell phone mind you, but it’s a cell phone all the same.  You’ve seen it.  Everyone’s seen it.  It’s the big one with the changeable faceplates that plays games. And I bought it.

Two days later I’m walking around the school grounds like an idiot.  Turns out we are on the very FRINGE of cell phone coverage for cheap cell phones.  Where we’re at, two grasshoppers standing side-by-side on a fence could block cell phone coverage for miles down the road.  For $40 more, which I had, I could have bought a better cell phone and had better coverage.  But no, I have to live like the locals!  I had to buy the “local” cell phone.  I have to live with a weak signal.  So, now I’m walking around the school carrying the phone in front of me like a “Nokia Divining Rod”.  I’m not looking for water though; I’m looking for four signal strength bars.  I’m looking for cell phone coverage.

I walked on the 5-foot cinder block wall that goes around the school.  Standing on the North wall got me two bars.  That’s not good enough though, so I searched on.  I tried standing under power lines.  I tried standing away from power lines.  I tried standing next to the main highway.  I tried standing under metal poles in the vain belief they might act as an oversized antenna.  None of it worked.  About that time a fellow teacher saw me wandering around, “Nokia Divining Rod” in hand.
“Looking for cell phone coverage?” he asked.

“Yup,” I replied, none too happy I hadn’t sprung for the extra $40.
“Try the middle of the soccer field, just to the right of centerfield.”  And I did, and it worked.  Four bars, a full signal.  I put a giant X on the dirt field so I wouldn’t forget the location of this Sedona-like vortex of cell phone coverage.  I had to stand on the X and face North or South, but not East or West.  If I faced East or West my head blocked the cell phone and I lost the signal.

Having found the cell phone vortex of the school I ran inside to prepare for my call.  By now it was dark outside. I put on good shoes for the snakes, long pants for the bushes, and repellant for the mosquitoes.  I was ready to get my phone call from my sister; and it came.  I stood on the X in the field talking and smiling the whole time.  I am not YET a good Buddhist.

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