Thursday, June 19, 2008

My Cell Phone Brain Trust

Practical information on mobile phones and grocery shopping in Lilongwe that might be useful for the growing number of students, volunteers and others who are heading to Malawi.

With a little help from new friends in Malawi and other chums around the world, I am sorting out my cell phone issues. Just one remaining question. Why can't I receive SMS (text messages) from the U.S.? I can send them to US phones but they can't reply. I can send and receive within Malawi and to and from South Africa but only to the US. Frustrating, especially since I will probably not be able to access the Internet very much, if at all, in another week or so. Sorry, Mom and Dad!

Very little documentation about Malawi's mobile networks come with the SIM cards I bought. Celtel is a regional network and Telkom is the national Malawi network—redundancy is a very good survival mechanism I'm learning.

So waitresses and hotel staff have been my incredibly helpful tutors in the finer points of phone management. To add airtime with prepaid cards (700 Malawian Kwachas or US $5 for 500 units) for Celtel you dial *136*PIN from the card, then # and send; for Telkom it's *111*PIN from card, then # and send. To check airtime on Celtel is *137# and for Telkom it is #123#.

For a while there, text messaging wasn't working too well within Malawi either. But a very nice clerk at the Celtel shop realized the phone number for the message center hadn't been entered properly and she entered it for me. (The documentation rather unhelpfully suggests you call your provider for this number.) Sure enough, messages went through much more reliably after that.

But still no texts from the US. I sent an e-mail to Nieman Fellows around the world asking for ideas. That's when I learned I could send and receive to South Africa.
Piecing together what I learned from those emails and from Muhammad from Minnesota at dinner last night, it looks like international texting is an extra service you have to pay for in the US and it is expensive. Sounds plausible but if I were in the US, I would call to my service provider to verify that. Strange to think that Malawi is ahead of the US in this area of telecommunications!

Depending on which network you're calling, phone calls are about 50 cents a minute. Texts are 10 cents per message. So far Celtel seems to give you more options. I have also verified that actual phone calls from the US do come through—although that is sure to be expensive and useful only for extreme emergency. I've heard that there is a Malawi long-distance calling service but I haven't looked into that.

Things You Can Buy at ShopRite in Lilongwe
The Shop-Rite in Lilongwe is quite a find. If you happen to forget a toothbrush, you can buy one here. Also Colgate, Aquafresh, Mentadent, Macleans and Dentazyme toothpaste. But not Crest for some reason, at least not today.

Here is a sample of some of the other things you can buy: two-liter bottles of water, the ever-present Coca-Cola, ice cream, whole roasted chickens, various cuts of meat, fresh fruits and vegetables, powdered soup, canned spaghetti, Gillette shaving cream, lint brushes, hair brushes, nail brushes, bike pumps, hand pumps for car tires, small suitcases, Huggies, Pampers and Jolly Tots nappies, Johnson's Baby Powder, various kinds of shampoo (including Head and Shoulders and Pantene), towels paper napkins, plates, pots, pans and electric kettles, shoe laces, large Citronella candles, spray cans of Doom and Raid (insecticides, useful for spraying the inside of your tent or budget hotel room against mosquitoes—but remember to stay out for at least 30 minutes), a few AA, C and D batteries.

A small selection of candy: Safari nuts (salted peanuts with or without raisins), Snickers Bars and Chips Ahoy cookies.

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