Is a mobile phone better than shoes on an African child’s feet?

During my most recent trip to Ruhanga SW Uganda  I was handed a letter by the older sister of  the girls that my friends and I sponsor. The letter was from their mother. In the letter she thanked me for supporting her children, wished me good luck and asked if I could buy her a mobile phone because her last phone had been stolen. At the time of getting her letter I had caught up with the girls and noticed that they had no shoes and had spoken to their teacher about getting a message to their mother so that we could arrange to go shopping. Although the teacher had agreed to arrange this and ask the mother to meet at the school, nothing came of it.

I then had the chance to see the girls’ mother on the last day of term and the issues of shoes came up, she told me she had no money to buy the shoes, I agreed to give her the money for the shoes the following day as I felt this was more important than a mobile phone but she did not turn up to collect it.

I was a little surprised. Did this mother value a mobile phone over shoes on her children’s feet?

I told my travel companion about it and her response-

Ida you are wrong, a mobile is a necessity in this part of Africa

Oh, how so?

Well I have observed that people can order produce by telephone, call village meetings, order a taxi etc and all this activity puts money in people’s pockets. I can’t imagine how hard all that would be without the use of a telephone

Hmmm, did she have a point? I set out to test her views on twitter and these are answers I got back

SwaziSecretsSwaziSecrets@ethnicsupplies No easy answers here – does she need the phone to generate business income for her family? To buy them food?
BeautyofRwandaBeautyofRwanda: no they are not! #OnlyOneBasket@Ethnicsupplies: Are mobile phones more important than shoes on children’s feet in africa?”
TheMumBiTheMumBi: RT @Ethnicsupplies: Are mobile phones mo important than shoes on children’s feet in ? << yes.. mobile phones are access. SHoes depreciate

I asked @TheMumbi if I could explore her view with her. Why did she think access was more important than shoes on a child’s feet?

MumBiMumBi@TheMumBi: @Ethnicsupplies its like having money in the bank vs on hand. Bank.. means officially recognised, access to credit/loans a job vs $ to spend>> there are an extended lifeline and opportunities. People even hire out phones e.g like a public phone.
Saif SiddiquiSaif Siddiqui@SaifSiddiqui@Ethnicsupplies yes. She can rent the fone for an income also. Become a local std office. Microfinance other people through call credit etc

Don’t think me naive, I entirely get it mobile phones have become a lifeline in rural Africa, they offer a window to the outside world and this post is really about getting  a conversation going on the role of mobile phones in the development of rural Africa.

Another point this incident raises is one that anyone involved in development should stop and think about. WHO DECIDES WHAT IS A PRIORITY WHEN IT COMES TO DEVELOPMENT? Do we involve the end user in the planning and development of development programmes or do we simply give them what we think they need and expect them to be grateful? I certainly got caught out on this one. I do promise to get a mobile phone to that mother!

Please do add your voice/views to the conversation!

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