Communication Blues

My mobile phone rings, waking me up from my reverie. “Hallo Odysseus!”, “Hallo!”, “Can you hear me?”, “Yes I can hear”, I reply, “but who is on the line?” The connection is bad so I know it’s not a call from Germany. “It’s your cousin Emeka, please call me back!” and the line goes dead. Just as I had guessed, it’s a call from Nigeria.

I guess I should explain. Calls from Nigeria have a peculiar character. The connection is mostly poor which makes the caller generally inaudible. This in turn makes the reciever of the call to speak louder and in most cases shout in an effort to be heard. The shouting of course does not make the connection better, however I guess this is just a natural human reaction to the poor connection. The resultant effect is the typical Nigerian or African shouting into his mobile phone as commonly seen on the streets of any European city.

To the uninitiated, in this case the average European, this image usually appears curious and sometimes even irritating when you happen to be sitting or standing too close to such an African. Another peculiar character of calls from Nigeria is that they are usually very short, about one minute on average. This is normally too short for any meaningful communication and as a result you are almost always requested to call back.

The shortness of the call and request to call back, as opposed to the poor connection, are intentional. I guess I need to explain again. Until 2001, the only available means of public telecomunication in Nigeria was the fixed lines which were available to only about 10% of the population. With the introduction of GSM telephony in 2001, over 80% of the population now have access to telecommunication through mobile phones. However making international calls from GSM phones is still unaffordable. Secondly the average Nigerian believes that Europe is an “Eldorado” flowing with milk and honey. Some Nigerians actually believe that Europe is so “civilised” and technologically advanced that such basic necessities as telephones are available for everyone to use as they please, for free!. As a result he expects his “lucky” relative who is living in Europe to be able to call him at the shortest notice and at any time of the day.

Anyway, since I have 10 euros in my wallet I decide to buy an international calling card for 4 euros so as to call back my cousin. I have one week to my next appointment at the Sozialamt for my monthly 40 euros allowance but my cousin sounded desperate on the phone. Furthermore, the prospect of surviving for one week with only 6 euros to my name is one I have grown used to.

Luckily my neighbour in the adjacent room sells such calling cards, so I do not have to “travel” to a call shop at the main train station to buy it.

Having bought the card I begin the second part of the “telephoning process” by going from room to room in search of anyone with a telephone handset and base. Let me explain. I live in a 13sqm room which I share with 2 other adults. My room is one of 12 rooms in a barrack. My barrack is one of 6 such barracks that make up the “Gemeinschaftsunterkunft”, an “Asylbewerberheim” in Munich.

I found a telephone handset and base upon my sixth attempt in a room in the adjacent barrack. Having borrowed the telephone handset, I go outside near the entrance to my barrack and begin the third part of my “telephoning process”. Near the main entrance to my barrack is a telephone box of sorts which is attached to the wall and has only a wooden overhead extension for protection from the elements. This means that making a call from this “box” exposes one to sunshine, wind, storm, rain or snow depending on the season of the year. It is winter and snowing heavily but my cousin sounded desperate and I have to make this call. The telephone box is the only one available for the 250 people living in our “Lager”. From this “telephone box” extends a short length of cable with a telephone jack at the end. To be able to call, I have to connect this jack to my borrowed telephone. Upon getting a tone, I fish out my calling card and my mobile phone. While holding the borrowed telephone with my right hand, I search for my cousin’s phone number in my mobile phone with my left hand. All the while the handset is wedged between my head and shoulder because the base of the phone which has the keypads is in my right hand. With both hands fully occupied and my head angled to my left shoulder I begin dialling my cousin’s number.

After 5 minutes I finally get my cousin on the phone. After a short discussion I find out that he needs some money to pay his school fees and wants me to help him out. He is actually a very intelligent boy with good grades in school. His parents are however peasant farmers and cannot afford his school fees. In 2 weeks he risks being kicked out of school if he does not pay his fees. He has 2 months to his final exams. His school fees amount to approximately 100 euros. Suddenly I feel so helpless. How do I explain to him that after 3 years in Germany, I am still not permitted to work? How do I explain to him that after 3 years in Germany, I am still sharing a 13sqm room with 2 men in a refugee camp? How do I explain to him that even my identification paper in Germany threatens me with deportation at anytime?

My hands start to freeze and I realize that I have been standing in the snow for 15 minutes, with both hands holding my mobile phone, calling card, phone base and my head bent upon my left shoulder to support the handset. I realise that I must paint a funny picture and I smile. Will my cousin be able to understand to what lengths I am going just to call him on telephone? I quickly end the call with a promise to call him in a week. On the way to my room, my hands feel like ice from the cold. I suddenly realise that after 3 years in Germany, I cannot even make a simple telephone call in dignity!