Mo­bile phones haven’t changed Maa­sai lives – yet

But they’re hav­ing a big in­flu­ence on the sa­van­nah

African Independent - - NEWS - TI­MOTHY BAIRD

MO­BILE phones are ev­ery­where. In fact, they might be nearly as com­mon on the African sa­van­nah as they are on Amer­i­can sub­ways.

With the ex­plo­sion of mo­bile tech­nol­ogy in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, a com­mon nar­ra­tive is that phones are trans­form­ing poor peo­ple’s lives. Phones, the story goes, re­duce the ef­fort re­quired to search for in­for­ma­tion and make com­merce more ef­fi­cient.

As tech­nol­ogy has spread, so has re­search on its ef­fects. With sup­port from the Na­tional Ge­o­graphic Com­mit­tee for Re­search and Ex­plo­ration, I study how Maa­sai pas­toral­ists in Tan­za­nia re­spond to var­i­ous is­sues, in­clud­ing bio­di­ver­sity con­ser­va­tion, glob­al­i­sa­tion and tech­nol­ogy.

I and oth­ers are learn­ing that mo­bile phones are chang­ing lives but per­haps not as much as some might think. re­searchers have found phones help fa­cil­i­tate so­cial con­nec­tions for Fu­lani and Bo­rana herders, re­spec­tively.

But ef­forts to lever­age phones for broader eco­nomic gains are ham­pered by il­lit­er­acy and limited cel­lu­lar cov­er­age.

An­other study from Kenya found Sam­buru herders don’t rely on phones dur­ing drought pe­ri­ods. It’s risky to move herds in search of wa­ter and herders fear be­ing mis­led by in­for­mants about where valu­able re­sources are.

Re­cently, col­lab­o­ra­tors and I in­ter­viewed hun­dreds of Maa­sai in north­ern Tan­za­nia to learn how they use mo­bile phones. In 2010, half of the house­holds in our study area used phones. Now vir­tu­ally all house­holds do.

As one of our re­spon­dents com­mented: “The phone is one of the best tools we have ever seen.”

In our new paper, Joel Hart­ter and I de­scribe how Maa­sai are in­te­grat­ing phones into most as­pects of their lives.

Like ear­lier stud­ies, we found Maa­sai use phones to sup­port tra­di­tional herd­ing ac­tiv­i­ties. Herders call each other to lo­cate re­sources or no­tify oth­ers when health emer­gen­cies arise.

We also learned they use phones for other ac­tiv­i­ties, such as get­ting in­for­ma­tion that helps them farm.

Rain-fed agri­cul­ture poses a dif­fer­ent chal­lenge in this semi­arid re­gion where rain­fall is highly vari­able.

Un­able to move fields to wa­ter, Maa­sai try to co-or­di­nate their plant­ing with the on­set of the rainy sea­son.

This is a pre­car­i­ous propo­si­tion each year. But with ba­sic phones, Maa­sai call ex­pe­ri­enced smart­phone users who can down­load weather fore­casts. De­mand for these few in­di­vid­u­als is so high they’ve be­come like medicine men.

In ad­di­tion, phones help com­mu­ni­ties man­age per­sis­tent con­flicts with wildlife. Ele­phants, ze­bra and bush pigs can dev­as­tate agri­cul­tural fields.

And li­ons and other preda­tors can threaten live­stock and peo­ple alike. Maa­sai now use phones to com­mu­ni­cate about wildlife and avoid con­flicts or re­duce their con­se­quences.

Phones are also draw­ing Maa­sai into less tra­di­tional ac­tiv­i­ties. Young peo­ple use phones to play video games, store mu­sic and flirt on What­sApp and Face­book.

Our re­spon­dents also told us some peo­ple are us­ing them to lie, cheat and steal.

As the Sam­buru herders of Kenya found, Maa­sai peo­ple also lie to call­ers about the lo­ca­tions of for­age or wa­ter.

Young brides use phones to ar­range ex­tra­mar­i­tal ren­dezvous. And crim­i­nals can use phones to lure vic­tims to “meet­ings” to am­bush them en route.

Maa­sai have strong tra­di­tions sur­round­ing lend­ing and gift giv­ing; re­quests for a loan or a gift are typ­i­cally made in per­son.

Peo­ple seek­ing as­sis­tance can use a phone to call ahead be­fore pay­ing a visit. Some­one who doesn’t want to help can lie and say they’re not around.

As tra­di­tion­ally spir­i­tual peo­ple, Maa­sai can be su­per­sti­tious about phones.

Re­spon­dents in our stud­ies have de­scribed in­stances of witch­craft, where peo­ple re­ceived calls from mys­te­ri­ous num­bers and in­stantly died.

They also ex­pressed grave con­cern about the fact that they, just like other phone users around the world, feel phan­tom phone vi­bra­tions.

Taken to­gether, these is­sues seem to have weak­ened com­mu­nity ties among Maa­sai.

In ad­di­tion to de­scrib­ing how Maa­sai use phones, we also wanted to see if peo­ple use phones to com­mu­ni­cate with more types of peo­ple or more types of in­for­ma­tion than they do face to face.

In one of the most cited pa­pers in so­cial sci­ence, Mark Gra­novet­ter found “weak ties” with ac­quain­tances were more use­ful for find­ing and se­cur­ing job op­por­tu­ni­ties than “strong ties” with close friends and fam­ily. The value of weak ties is that they pro­vide new types of in­for­ma­tion.

We thought phones might be help­ing peo­ple to ex­pand their weak ties and broaden their hori­zons.

What we found in­stead was faceto-face com­mu­ni­ca­tion was more di­verse among the Maa­sai than phone-based com­mu­ni­ca­tion, even when con­trol­ling for fac­tors like age, wealth and ed­u­ca­tion.

These find­ings are well aligned with those from other stud­ies of phone use in de­vel­op­ing com­mu­ni­ties.

Gen­er­ally, phones sup­port long-stand­ing, cul­tur­ally in­grained ac­tiv­i­ties – they don’t trans­form them. One change, though, is that phone use am­pli­fies is­sues of trust and dis­trust. – The Con­ver­sa­tion

Brides ar­range ex­tra­mar­i­tal ren­dezvous. Crim­i­nals lure their vic­tims to take meet­ing and am­bush them

• Ti­mothy Baird is an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of ge­og­ra­phy, Vir­ginia Tech


WHAT’S UP, BROTHERS: Young Maa­sai men wait for the start of the or­di­na­tion of their age-group leader in the vil­lage of Mbirikani in Ka­ji­ado, Kenya. Cell­phones are chang­ing the lives of the Maa­sai but per­haps not as much as some might think.

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