Things are not what they seem

Pretty much every day in Africa, you’re forced to realise that *everything* is more difficult. At the same time, it’s often hard to really convey what that means in practice, to those who haven’t experienced it, but here’s an example.

I need internet access to be able to work. There’s a few internet cafes here and there, but it’s inconvenient to use that as my main source of access. They’re not too expensive, about a euro or so per hour, but access quality varies.
The obvious choice is to use 3G, or whatever passes for 3G in this neck of the woods.

Niamh, through her country director’s boyfriend, learnt of cellphone company Comium offering internet access. She was told access is with a device colloquially called ‘bunny ears’, which would mean I would have to buy extra hardware to go online. Inconvenient, but nevertheless potentially worth it.
The Comium office is a bit down the road, so yesterday I walked over. At the main entrance, no less than three receptionists stared at me as I walked in. I was standing right in front of their desk, but after the staring I was also conveniently ignored. “Hello”, I said.
“Hello sir.” Pause.
“How do you offer internet access?”
“You have to go next door.”

So I went next door. Walking in, a large office with counters, of which some were staffed. Nothing happened for a minute or two, until, seemingly nothing having changed, one staff member said “Yes?”
I walked over: “How do you offer internet access?”
“You have to ask the guy at the end.”
So I went over to the other end of the row of counters.
“How do you offer internet access?”
“I will call someone for you.” And she yelled someone’s name.
“Ok. In the meantime, can you tell me whether the service you offer is 3G?”
“No, it is not.”

The guy walked over.
“Hello sir.” Pause.
“How do you offer internet access?”
Writing things down on a piece of paper, the guy started to explain to me what the cost were of their different services. The deal isn’t great, but isn’t bad either. Downside being that using one of their modems was a requirement. The modem, incidentally, which didn’t even remotely look like a set of bunny ears.
“So what service do you offer? Is it 3G?”
“Let me ask our technician.”
The technician came over.

“Hello.” I said. Pause.
“Is the service you offer 3G?”
“Yes it is.” the technician said.
“No it is not 3G.” The earlier person reiterating it was not.
“Is it 3G?” I asked again.
“Yes, it is 3G.” The technician responded.
“So, I can use my own 3G modem?”
“No you can’t. You have to use ours.”
“But why? If it is 3G, I should be able to use my own 3G modem, no?” Upon which the technician feigned hearing someone calling his name, after which he walked away, not to return.

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The modem they require you to buy is 200 USD.

So, today, I went over to the Zain offices. Zain is a huge, originally Middle Eastern, network provider. Their African division was recently bought by the Indian Airtel. Niamh managed to discover their head office is on a particular street in the middle of town. She also managed to get me a bike, many cudos to her, even before my arrival, so I was off, biking into town today.
Halfway there, close to Niamh’s office, I checked my map to see where I was exactly. Then, not on the map, but on the road sign right in front of me, I spotted the name of the street the Zain office was supposed to be on, some 5 kilometers away from the street with the exact same name in the middle of town.
Puzzled, standing on a street corner, some army recruit walked by, with a huge smile on his face, and started chatting to me, first saying my ‘parking’ was very inconvenient. At first not sure whether he was just being chatty friendly or about to slap some cuffs on me, I remained a bit aloof at first, but, deciding it was the former, I asked if he knew the Goal offices.
“Ah, my goal!” Upon which he started to tell me where he was going.
This took several minutes, but halfway through his story he added that “… and then I walk past the Zain office…”, which was unexpected, but valuable information.
I was gonna go down that road too, even though it was steeper than the Mont Ventoux.

Struggling up, giving up, and walking the rest, I did indeed, covered in sweat, reach the Zain head office. There, reception claiming there was a sales office, they called down some bloke for me who first set up internet access on my phone.
An hour later, when I was about to head out, I discovered that although internet was working, the Java apps were not able to access the web.
The boy was called down again to help me out. But he seemingly had no idea as to how to solve the problem.
“We are doing our utmost to solve this issue.”
“So you know what the problem is?”
“It might be something with the Java settings.”
“Might? Like what? What settings?”
“I’m not really working on this. I’m now doing other things.”
“Ok, so how do I contact support. What’s the number of your helpdesk.”
“The helpdesk is not able to deal with things like these.”
“Ok, so whom do I contact about this.”
“There’s Alvin, at the store downtown…”
“That’s great that you have a guy downtown, but can I call support? That would be easier for me than going downtown.”
“Let me give you his number.”
“You’re saying that in the whole of Sierra Leone, Zain has one guy who’s responsible for connectivity issues on cellphones?”
“Well, I used to be…”
“But you are no longer working on this, right? So you have only one person who’s responsible in the whole of Sierra Leone?”
No response.
Needless to say, my java apps still can’t get online.

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Before the above happened, the same bloke gave me a printed list of fees for using their mobile internet service. They’re very clever in not calling it 3G, as it’s EDGE, like the stone age of mobile internet access, but does allow you to go online with a typical 3G modem.
When purchasing their 2GB package (to be used within one month, or lose it), I asked three times if I needed to do anything to actually use the service. Each time, I was told that, no, it should work straight away, that is, it would take maybe an hour to start working, but I wouldn’t have to do anything. Just put the sim card in my modem and that would be it.

So, when I got home, three hours later, it didn’t work. In fact, the sim card didn’t even register on the network, meaning the sim card wasn’t just not activated for mobile internet, it wasn’t even possible to use the cellphone network with it.
I called the guy who ‘helped’ me at the Zain office.
“Ah, you see, that’s why I told you to come in with the modem.”
“Listen, I’m getting a ‘registration denied’ message. The sim card hasn’t been activated.”
“You need to come in with the modem.”
“How can the problem be the modem? There is no network available. When it says ‘registration denied’, doesn’t it mean the sim card can’t register on the network.”
“Can you come in with the modem?”
“Can you at least check if the sim card has been activated?”
“Ah. Ok.”
“Great. How long do you need for this?”
“Maybe 20 or 30 minutes.”
“Will you call me back when you’ve found out?”
“Thank you.”

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Two hours later, I still hadn’t heard from him. And his phone was turned off.

So I called the Zain helpdesk. Who gave me another number to call. Where no one picked up the phone until the 3rd time I tried, some 20 minutes later.
“You need to take the sim from the modem and put it in your cellphone and text ‘100MB’ to 800.”
“But I already paid for 2GB. I don’t want 100MB, I want 2GB.”
“This is how it works here in Sierra Leone, you need to text ‘100MB’ to 800.”
“Listen. 2GB is 2000MB. I already paid for 2000MB. I don’t want 100MB.”
“Ah. 2GB is 2000MB?”
“And on top of that, I’m getting a ‘registration denied’ message, which to me means that the sim card hasn’t been activated.”
“Ah. I see.”
After which back and forth of details followed which Lance was going to use to trace down the details of the sim.

Lance called me back twice, asking for more details, until he finally managed to speak to the person who sold me the sim card in the first place.
“Take the sim from the modem and put it in your cellphone.”
” I was told the sim will be registered today. It should happen in the next 30 minutes.”

It took another 14 hours. Then I had to get the settings right.
Luckily I’m not dumb, at least not too much, so some experimenting later, I was online. With a glorious 3kb per second, well, when lucky, I was now able to utilize the information superhighway to my benefit.
For those less tech savvy, this is like going back to the days of dialup. It seems that the only remotely reasonable internet service available in Sierra Leone is vsat, a satellite dish on the roof, costing exorbitant amounts of money.
Zain, for their mobile internet service, offers packages of up to 5GB per month. That’s a bit like opening a restaurant and offering all-you-can-eat stale hamburgers for the price of 10 Big Mac menus.

The end result is that, instead of using the Zain modem, I’m going online in one of the city’s internet cafes. Zain’s service is not practically usable, except for perhaps browsing WAP enabled sites on your cellphone. And even there, connections time out regularly.

When I was in Ireland for two weeks, I walked into a Vodafone store, talked to the clerk for less than 5 minutes, walked out with a sim card which the clerk had preloaded with 5GB. At home, I inserted the sim card in my modem and started using it straight away. No hassles.