English is the dominant global language of the world, it is the language of power, and control. But it is not the only language, and different people have different levels of command over the use of the same language. It is interesting to watch how this happens, often in unexpected ways, for example by the arrival of Chinese cell phones here in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
I recently bought the cheapest smartphone I could find, when it seemed my primary phone had been burned by excess voltage coming out of the electrical sockets in rural/provincial Tanzania (Kigoma). It cost about $50 USD brand new, and is the popular Chinese mobile phone manufacturer, Tecno Mobile. I should have listened to my Tanzanian friends though. Even the poorest Tanzanians try to stay clear of these cheap Chinese phones infiltrating the continent, and try to buy a Korean Samsung, or a used iPhone instead. They know it is better to wait and save up for the $100 Samsung or the $200 used iPhone, than settle for a nugget of plastic, metal and coltan that will ultimately be the same as burning $50 in a dumpster fire. For the first week, the cheap Chinese phones usually run well enough, but soon, operating the phone is like slogging through quicksand.
The notification preferences were particularly strange. It started out with operating system updates I didn’t initiate, and then I began receiving notifications for ‘news’ like “Shocking Video!! Real Mermaid Is Captured On Camera Doing This” and “Some Reasons Why Eating Plums Twice A Week Is A Good Idea For Your Health” in a continent where plums are still an imported expatriate supermarket luxury item. Other ‘news’ stories include “Unbelievable!! Lady Fell In Love With A Tree And Got Married To The Tree,” or the notification I received about the young man who impregnated his mother and they are now getting married, or the woman who reveals how she shared her husband with her mother. See here, “Woman Gives Birth to Twins But One Is A Snake.” Or five common foods I could eat that could cause sudden death. “Man Explain” why he attacked a girl– because “Her Sister Dumped Me After Deceiving Me To Dump My Wife.” 🤔 These are default notifications.
This isn’t to say phones sold in the U.S. and Europe aren’t also filled with propaganda and trash. But given my experience of living in the U.S. and Tanzania, the amount of sheer garbage in the English language is astounding in Tanzania. Neo-colonial and neo-imperial multinational companies fill these cheap phones with preloaded ‘news’ apps while they rob us all blind, and pollute the planet until the oceans and air we breathe is more toxic than the outputs from a Bangladesh fast-fashion clothes factory. There will always be enough people who are entertained enough and laugh enough. And there will always be enough social engineering to distract and overwhelm people enough with life itself that the rich and their mega corporations, whether from China or elsewhere, will continue to dominate the earth.
Tanzanians are acutely aware of how the Western and Arab worlds have interacted with them historically, and they also might believe their own neighbors could deceive them to sell their soul. Africans also know that China isn’t much better than a witchy neighbor, or the United States. Generally, China is seen as a ‘lesser of two evils,’ like choosing between a cow dung sandwich and a road kill cat covered in vomit. So nevertheless, the cow dung sandwich it is. For now. And, lesson learned. The $50 extra bucks for a used Korean Samsung is worth it.
Then there is that English problem, which I first mentioned above. What better place for domination and bullsh*t news to spread in English than from a Chinese phone in countries where English is not the spoken or dominant language, yet nearly all have a desire to learn that language. And perhaps English lessons in Tanzania via Chinese smartphones isn’t much different from the tabloids that used to be stacked at checkout counters in America during the 1990s. The problem is that the most easily accessible English language reading material in Tanzania is garbage articles of digital tabloid ‘news’ apps pumped through cheap, poorly functioning smart phones that barely hold a charge. And darn it, my phone battery died again…
~Just a thought. But don’t take my word for it.
Christina Lauren Quigley is review editor and web developer of Ethnography.com and vlogger at Laurelin the Other. Christina is a 2019-2020 Fulbright Scholar Alumna (Student Research Program). She began working and writing as an ethnographer–anthropologist in the mountains of northern California as an activist alongside Native American Mountain Maidu communities. Christina has also been known to work for minimum wage in America, selling booze to ordinary Americans at a neighborhood liquor store to further study cultural transmission of Americans’ methods of coping through alcohol and illegal drugs.
Once bewitched, Christina fell under the spell of Congolese rumba music, and lived at the shores of Lake Tanganyika in East Africa to research the ways that music culture diffuses across boundaries from eastern DR Congo to Tanzania and crosses secular–religious spaces. Christina is a Swahili speaker and holds an MA (Music) in the anthropology of music culture at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and a BA (Anthropology) focused on culture, society, and medical anthropology at California State University, Chico.