Prominent and affluent Kenyans who operate without mobile phones

An exclusive club of prominent and affluent Kenyans have resisted the mobile phone revolution and can only be reached either through the age-old landlines or through acquaintances, bodyguards, drivers and other aides. GRAPHIC | NATION
An exclusive club of prominent and affluent Kenyans have resisted the mobile phone revolution and can only be reached either through the age-old landlines or through acquaintances, bodyguards, drivers and other aides. GRAPHIC | NATION

It is probably easier to reach the Pope on a mobile phone than one Mr Zeke Waweru, a senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi. The Journalism lecturer belongs to an exclusive club of prominent and affluent Kenyans who have resisted the mobile phone revolution and can only be reached either through the age-old landlines or through acquaintances, bodyguards, drivers and other aides. I pitched tent at the School of Journalism to not only understand how he copes without the gadget but also to find out the troubles his colleagues and students endure trying to reach him. Unfortunately, Mr Waweru was in the lecture hall when I came calling so I decided to wait for him at his office on the fourth floor of the Education building. How wrong I was for once he was through with his class, he left for the day and since he does not own a phone, I had no way of reaching him. Come day two and a colleague tipped me that he was expected at the Senior lecturers’ common room so I strategically waited nearby. He never showed up. The hassle I went through to meet Mr Waweru for an interview mirrors the difficulties one has to endure to reach people who  do not own mobile phones by choice. Those close to Mr Waweru say he usually has a fixed schedule and they know where to physically find him. But for most people, once he steps out of the office, he cannot be traced until the following day when he reports to work. However, sometimes he can be reached through a friend’s or colleague’s mobile phone.



Unlike other Kenyans who do not own mobile phones because they cannot afford it, his is a case of a man who has given technology a wide berth. A friend told Lifestyle that the veteran lecturer “hates the disruptive nature of mobile phone technology”.  Mr Waweru is among a group of high-profile Kenyans who have managed to resist the intrusive wave of mobile telephony more than two decades after it reached this part of the world. Retired President Daniel Moi has, for instance, retained his old manual landline phones to keep in contact with friends and family. The retired President’s long serving Press Secretary Lee Njiru said Mr Moi’s status has over the years played a big role in guiding his communication. “It is not necessary for statesmen to carry mobile phones in their pockets. Their operations are funded by government. There are people employed to undertake such functions, both locally and internationally. There are aides to do it and when he wants to communicate with anybody, he has people to help him,” he says. Prof Amukowa Anangwe, who served in Moi’s Cabinet between 1997 and 2002 and currently a lecturer at the University of Dodoma, Tanzania, does not remember ever seeing the former President with a mobile phone. “Moi was a landline man. In general, most of these prominent people resisted the mobile phone revolution, choosing to stick to landlines,” he says.


Mr Moi’s successor, President Mwai Kibaki, also falls in this club. One has to go through numerous aides to reach him, which is never guaranteed as he chooses when and who to speak to. Sourcing this story, we had to endure a whole month trying to reach the former President. It is an exemplification of the secluded life he leads. An aide to Mr Kibaki said the motivation is that the retired President believes there is value in scarcity. He rarely engages in phone conversations, even with family, said the aide. He is a believer in face to face engagement, he added. “Real class in his (Mr Kibaki’s) generation,” he says, is displayed through “a minimalist philosophy”. He says for Mr Kibaki, any interaction on phone, including mobile money transfers, constitutes intrusion into his private life. Mr Nicholas Biwott, the ultra-powerful minister in the Moi government, is famously known for his disdain for mobile phones. Prof Anangwe, who served as the secretary general in New Kanu under Mr Biwott says: “Biwott never carried a phone. If you wanted to get him, you would call the driver or the bodyguard or his long-time aide, William Chepkut. Whoever was with him at that particular time would pass the phone to him. More often than not, he would be readily available to talk to you. If he was not by any chance available, they would take your message and pass it to him and he would always call back. Biwott was a very courteous man despite what some people say about him.” Prof Anangwe’s views are echoed by Mr Nick Salat who succeeded him as secretary general of New Kanu: “It is not that he does not own a phone, it is only that he doesn’t carry one, his aides carry it for him so if you want to reach him, you will reach him through them. Why carry a phone yourself if you have people to carry it for you?”



It took Lifestyle days to get in touch with veteran lawyer John Khaminwa, another prominent figure who does not carry a mobile phone. When we first made a call to his law firm, it was his secretary on the other end. It turned out this was her personal line. She promised to get “Daktari” to speak to us as soon as she got a hold of him. She kept her word. “By nature I like people being employed and I find a lot of satisfaction when I create the jobs. There used to be a small class of people called telephone operators but when these mobile phones were brought, I thought of them and had a discussion in my office to try and discourage the idea of mobile phones,” Dr Khaminwa told Lifestyle. Telephone operators, a common department in most offices, were rendered obsolete by the new communication technology. The lawyer told Lifestyle that the nasty experiences he had with landlines contributed to his lukewarm attitude towards the technology and telephones in general. “During the time when Moi was in power, we used to be insulted very much on phone. You would be at home, happy with your family and then somebody rings to intimidate you, telling you to stop pursuing some of the cases you were following, mostly concerning human rights and the constitution. For some time, I uprooted it (the landline) and didn’t have a telephone in my house,” he says. He, however, admits that it is hard to completely do without a mobile phone today but one must schedule themselves in such a way that they do not waste so much time on it. “The danger is that you may find yourself not doing any substantive work at all,” he says. Communication expert David Katiambo argues that while for some it is a way of controlling their private space, for others it is their reluctance to adopt new technology.


“You realise that a mobile phone can be a nuisance. Those who choose to avoid them are a small clique of Kenyans whose communication is done by aides. Their interaction with the gadgets is limited,” the lecturer at the Technical University of Kenya says. Dr Khaminwa says that he keeps in touch by giving out cell phone numbers of his employees and family members to potential clients. “I would rely on people around me, of course I still do,” he says. An aide to Mr Simeon Nyachae reveals that the Nyayo-era minister is among those who do not miss the luxury of owning a mobile phone. “You have to go through those around him to talk to him,” he says. Mr Nyachae’s son Charles, however, says his father owns a mobile phone but the way he uses it has popularised the narrative that he does not own one. “When he wants to reach you, he will switch on his phone and call but he then immediately switches it off. He is fine with it and that’s what matters,” the former chairman of the Commission for the Implementation of the Constitution told Lifestyle. This completely contrasts with the vast majority of Kenyans who cannot do without the device. Numberless are the occasions when leaving a phone at home amounts to crisis. Life almost stops as people have been accustomed to getting news via their phones, making financial transactions, interacting on social media, paying bills, ordering taxis as well as other real-time uses. The higher consumption rate has seen an equal upsurge in uses of new forms of reserve charge such as power banks to ensure the gadgets are on 24/7.



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