Cell phones in Botswana

I know it’s hard to believe from the guy who collects shiny objects from a particular fruit company, but this has been my cell phone for the past 16 weeks:


Nothing fancy. Previously used. Had to relearn how to type using T9. But it works.

I got this phone from a friend, but Amanda bought a similar cell phone for 99 Pula which is the equivalent to ~$15 Canadian. A pay-as-you-go SIM card for the phone cost 10 Pula (~$1.50) and came with 10 Pula credit (so it was essentially free). Depending on the time of day and who you are calling, it costs about 1 Pula (~15 cents) for a minute of airtime or 4 text messages. You can buy top-up cards from street vendors in 10 or 20 Pula denominations or you can add more money at the cell phone shop. (If you didn’t already think so, this really makes cell phone contracts in Canada look like a real rip-off!)

As a result, everyone in Botswana has a cell phone. And I truly mean everyone. Even people that don’t have running water going into their homes will have a cell phone. It also means that text messaging is the primary way people communicate. A study at the children’s HIV clinic is trying to leverage this and use cell phones as a way of educating children about the importance of taking their HIV medications. They are also using text messaging as a way of sending direct reminders that it is time for their next dose.

While it may seem fairly advanced that everyone is using a cell phone, unfortunately, cell phone etiquette is virtually non-existent. Phones will ring and people will talk everywhere including movie theatres, restaurants and offices. I have seen residents and staff physicians sending text messages while in the middle of a conversation during morning handover. I have even seen someone answer their phone and start talking while sitting in the chair directly beside someone giving a Powerpoint presentation!

As much as I would like to say that I like the simplicity of my cell phone here in Botswana, and it has reminded me how little you actually need to communicate, I would be lying if I didn’t say that I’m looking forward to being back on my iPhone full time when we are home in a couple days.1

  1. To clarify, my iPhone would have worked just fine here, but while we have overall felt very safe, we haven’t wanted to carry anything valuable with us on a regular basis. I also did not want to have to use my iPhone as my primary phone at the hospital. As a result, the iPhone was used over wifi only and the above cell phone became my regular phone for phone calls and text messages.