Mobile Phone: A virtual home for citizen engagement and entertainment
The Namibian President, Dr Hage G. Geingob, declared a state of emergency for six months in March 2020. Additionally, he started with the country’s lockdown of two regions i.e. Khomas and Erongo. Citizen movements were restricted, though in stage 2 the restrictions between in-country’s regions are relaxed and most of the businesses are now operating normally, provided that they are adhering to the health regulations in place. The main aim is to contain the spread of the coronavirus in Namibia, which seems to be working well for us as we only have few active cases now.
During the lockdown, some people, especially in towns remained in their houses with no or limited physical interactions with their colleagues, friends or relatives since they travelled out of the locked regions. Boredom is one of the yielding outcomes of the lockdown. The only medium that served as a unifier and allowed engagement to take place is a mobile phone. Though, some citizens have televisions and radio in their houses, many got attached to their mobile phones as means of communication with their colleagues, relatives, friends and other acquaintances.
Despite poor network connectivity, radio and television frequencies in some regions in Namibia, citizens used mobile phones to read, send, discuss, advise, update and mobilise each other about Covid-19 outbreak and its consequences. It is through mobiles that citizens were exchanging videos, audios, text messages and images/pictures, which in turn served as entertainment and engagement platforms.
Additionally, through mobile phones citizens shared jokes and other life stories by even updating themselves on what they were currently doing and how they were coping with the lockdown. In essence, mobile phones served as homes away from home for most citizens. For those that are employed most of them were using their mobiles to check their emails from work; attending online meetings via different virtual platforms such as Zoom; submitting reports and other weekly progress reports to their immediate supervisors.
Though most of the citizens used mobile phones to play games, at the end, it turned out to be a digital library for them as they have learnt new skills in the process. Business-minded individuals used these devices to advertise various products and services that they can offer to their clients. In addition, they also got an opportunity to engage their clients/customers virtually by answering questions posted to them.
Mostly, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and Linkedln are some of the platforms observed to be used during this time of the pandemic. They are not only used as information dissemination platforms, but sites for entertainment, community of practice, skilling and re-skilling. Indirectly, digital literacy took place as most of the citizens had to learn how to use certain keys on their mobiles as well as how to use their mobile phones as tools to do business, maintaining a closer relationship with their relatives and creating content that can be read by the public.
Security wise, these devices afforded citizens opportunity to report crimes, corrupt acts and gender based violence in their communities. For citizens in the education sector, the device afforded them an opportunity for e-teaching and e-learning, though the digital divide and digital illiteracy affected them. In the banking sector, both clients and banks used this device for mobile/cell phone banking purposes. All transactions ranging from sending, receiving money and purchasing of goods and services were made possible by mobile phones. Though, long queues were observed at several ATMs when the government distributed the grants, all notifications with regards to this grants until the transfer of money to citizens was done via their mobile phones. This served as a wakeup call for us that mobile phones are slowly becoming part of our living. Moreover, political and traditional leaders also used mobile devices to inform, update, educate and sensitise citizens by sending SMSes while in return citizens are using them to access information on emails, social media pages, messenger and other platforms. The use of mobile phones did not only bring and raise social benefits for individuals and the society at large. There are a lot of unacceptable behaviours, which are not in line with our societal norms and values. To certain extent some citizens abused their fellow citizens’ rights by bullying them, calling them different names, sharing confidential information, intimidating one another and intentionally spreading untruthful stories or information with the main reasons only known to them. These types of behaviours might be there due to the digital literacy level or competencies of our citizens, as they may not know what to share and say on virtual platforms and what not to share.
It also led to addiction, as some citizens are now addicted to sit in front of the television, listening to radio via their mobile phones or reading emails or alternatively checking notifications and statuses on their social media pages. This might also lead to a further problem of not giving the necessary attention to their relatives or colleagues as their attention is taken up by virtual engagements. Hence, utilisation of mobile phones as a digital weapon to kill boredom and intermediary for remote working should be done with care to avoid creating more societal problems. In addition, I observed that, most of the employers failed to give digital counselling to their employees before they actually embarked on the digitalisation of their services and implementation of teleworking (remote working). Not only counselling, but a full survey of the number of people in possession and able to utilise these devices as teleworking devices. A wrong hypothesis was used, that since most of the employees are university graduates and own mobiles, they would be able to use them for work purposes effectively.
The issue here is, mobile phones made our life easier and entertained during this supposedly to be a difficult time if they were not there. They provided us with digital opportunity to maintain romance, skilling, sharing, discussing and advising each other, as this is part of us as Africans. Mobile phones in other words, are unifiers, equalisers, mediators and intermediaries during outbreaks such as Covid-19, where we are not allowed to visit each other and gather in groups. I am not saying we do not have problems with connectivity, affordability, affordances, misuse, and worsening digital divide especially in terms of better usage of mobile phones. What I am saying is that, this outbreak came at the time when we are in a position to maintain our communication regardless of the measures that governments put in place to further contain the spread of the virus. A tough lesson learnt is that, each citizen in this country need to have access to a network whether they have smartphones or non-smartphones so that in crises like this, there will be no communication breakdowns that can easily degenerate into ugly socio-economic problems that we cannot handle. Let us use mobile phones as entertainment, engagement and virtual publics to further strengthen our discourses and empower each other. We can use them as transmission tools provided that, digital literacy; trauma and ethics are instilled in our people. Hence, a mobile phone is like a mobile shopping mall, university, school, library, neighbour, friend, employee and employer for us!
Dr Sadrag Panduleni Shihomeka
holds a PhD in Media and Communication from Erasmus University Rotterdam. He writes in his own capacity as a researcher. He can be reached at
2020-05-19 10:37:06 | 9 days ago