I came to Guinea with a lot of “ideas” or maybe “ideals”. Things I thought I’d do, ways I thought I’d act, feelings I thought I’d have — you try your hardest to come in with no expectations, but let’s face it. You’ve been applying for a year. You’ve had many days and nights to ponder on your future. Well, after four months in country that mental infrastructure is slowly being disassembled and rebuilt from the ground up. One of my grand idea(l)s was living “off the grid”. Cutting off the itch to pull out my iPhone, open up the Facebook app, scroll through the nonsense. Stop all desires for SnapChat, Instagram, and Candy Crush right in their tracks. I came to Guinea without a computer — I was that committed. “In a country without electricity, why would I need the Internet?”, she thought. “How would that even possibly be accessible?”
I clearly underestimated human ingenuity and the universal love / addiction of social media.
It didn’t take me long to realize how important the Internet is, especially for someone like me who is comfortable manipulating it and can use it to it’s full potential *dusts off my e-shoulders*. Peace Corps sends us e-mails. We are required to fill out forms online. Even in the Bush, we’re expected to be connected. So I used a (large) chunk of my settling-in allowance and purchased a Techno P5. It’s an amazing smartphone — thanks China! And for 2,000 FG I can connect to the Internet for one hour. It’s slow, but it works. The flaw in my plan was revealed when I realized for only 25,000 FG I could go online anytime I wanted, all month. My image of an off the grid, stoic lifestyle quickly disintegrated with that purchase.
Old habits, more truthfully dubbed old addictions, die hard.
Instead of forgetting Facebook even exists I find myself captured more than ever by the tiny, red notifications. 113 of you liked my newest profile picture, as of last frantic check. At home, I’d feel vaguely flattered and remark internally about how fucking awesome I am. Some vain passing thought as I went about my day and flipped my weave in the mirror (Wait — I’m getting my two worlds mixed up). But here? Every notification, like, comment, message, blog view, e-mail — it goes straight to my heart. It comes across as evidence that I’m being thought of by those I’ve moved away from. 113 people say my face and thought of me and even clicked “like”! They still like me! You like me! You remember me!
Yes, it sounds desperate but loneliness will do that to you.
I underestimated my need for that connection. When I pull out my fancy phone, turn on my data, and load Facebook that small conversation with my best friend from college is much more to me than simply about her 2nd grade student whose pinecone drawing looked remarkably phallic — it’s keeping a connection, despite the differences and distance between us. And for only 25,000 FG — that’s about $3.50 a month folks. Who can really deny slipping back into the cushy smartphone life at that price? I may have pictured my life here differently, but you know what they say about people who make assumptions…
And I’m not the online one aboard the tech train in Guinea. I frequently find myself sitting around with a group of Guineans, staring at them all as they stare at their phones, entrenched in some intricate text message conversation with one or several unnamed third parties. I yell at them in French. Parlez avec votre bouche, pas votre main! But they laugh, continue, and probably tell this third party about the crazy American across from them. And we all return to our technologically-induced silence. Unfortunately this cellular obsession is universal. Here we are, in a country where the majority live on less than $1 a day and there is no electricity in most areas.
Yet everyone has a cell phone, you can buy phone credit nearly anywhere, and phone charging centers (powered by gas generators) are among the best entrepreneurial opportunities in-country right now.
Connection. A human desire. A love of texting. Social media. I’m certain that there are dissertations out there explaining why it’s so addicting to us as Homo sapiens but it’s not something I fully understand. I feel it though. When I get a new blog comment, an e-mail from a far-off friend, a Facebook notification. I see it in my English students who ask me to translate the words in random sappy Hallmark photos they received in the middle of class. And I laugh at it, without fail, when I remember that we are in a country that survives without electricity but Allah Forbid you don’t have at least 3 cell-phone numbers to cover your butt when you’re in an area where one service works better than another.
So when you think of me in Africa, erase the lions and giraffes and tribal images. We’ve got goats and chickens here, and I’ve seen my share of iPads. I watched TV on a flat-screen last night and I see kids on a day-to-day basis with more swag than America could even dream of. We fetch our water, we charge our phone batteries off generators, but we’re just like you.