Of cellphones and airtime in the hood

Torn Apart: BOYD PHIRI
IT IS no longer a secret that everyone in the hood owns a mobile phone, forget about the lies some cellphone owners peddle on their communication tools.
In short, cellphones are part of life in the hood. They are held in people’s hands all the time, subjected to all kinds of abuse, including soliciting for kaloba (soft loans) from well-known shylocks in the hood.
Cellphones have also come in handy for sex workers. The devices help call girls, especially those who prefer to conduct their businesses in the comfort of their bedrooms to keep a list of contacts of their loyal customers.
Yes, a good record is important in every business undertaking, except that sex workers do not submit their income tax returns.
Retired sex workers would tell you that without cellphones in the past getting a customer on the streets at night was dependent on pure luck, which is why on a bad day some women ended up having encounters with ghosts.
Of course, with contacts of regular clients on phone, the chance of a sex worker coming across unfamiliar beings is reduced.
Needless to say, the partnership between man and phone in the hood is unbreakable.
If marriages were like this, no couple in the hood would wash its dirty linen in local courts.
Over 20 years ago it was a status symbol to own a mobile phone, but not anymore.
Even igo igo (street vendor) has a mobile phone, to borrow one local musician’s social commentary on the cellphone mania.
However, although a cellular phone seems to have struck some kind of equilibrium in the social sphere in the hood, one thing remains imbalanced.
Forget about the attraction for expensive phones, one thing is true, those who sell physical airtime scratch cards know the purchasing power in every location in the hood.
One day I ventured into this down-trodden township expecting to find K20 airtime scratch cards, which I thought would be quicker to load in the phone.
But when I approached one vendor, I found her selling only K1 scratch cards. I asked her why she only had K1 scratch cards, her response was “Bambili kuno ba kwanisa chabe ku gula ya K1,” meaning “Most people here can only afford to buy K1 scratch cards at a given time.”
I didn’t want to conclude that the small quantities they like buying only give them paging power, but the young lady was able to say it confidently.
“Ba gula ya paging chabe benango,” meaning “Others just buy in small amounts for paging purposes only.”
Well, I had no choice but to buy the K1 scratch cards, which meant me spending a long time scratching one card after another to load airtime in my phone.
You can imagine the impatience I had loading airtime from all the twenty scratch cards.
Had it not been for the vendor who volunteered to do the scratching and calling the pin numbers for me, I would have just loaded a few just for that moment when I needed to make an urgent call and load the other cards after supper at home.
Why didn’t I just look for other vendors selling K20 scratch cards elsewhere within the area? Maybe I thought of giving the young lady some business, maybe it was the fear of not finding another airtime vendor in that area.
However, my experience confirmed later that people’s buying power in the hood determines the price category of scratch cards vendors would mostly have at a time.
Of course, you don’t expect a vendor near a shopping mall to have more K1 scratch cards than K20 or K10 cards.
Similarly, you don’t expect a vendor selling physical airtime cards near Intercontinental Hotel in Lusaka to have scratch cards priced in K1 denomination only.
Nevertheless, whatever the differences in airtime buying power, everyone in the hood has a cellular phone and as they say, communication builds bridges.

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