Uganda: Learning to live with limits

by Lorien E. Menhennett

So much in the United States is unlimited, like our wi-fi access. Not so in Uganda, as I was reminded after a thoughtless frenzy of downloads.

Living in a foreign country means making adjustments. To respect the conservative dress code here in Uganda, for example, I wear a skirt that falls below my knees, and cover up my sleeveless blouse with a lightweight shrug.

There are technological adjustments too. The wi-fi here at Naggalama Hospital only works three weeks out of the month. By the fourth week, they’ve used up all their data.

That’s the general principle here, for technology, and otherwise. Resources are limited.

To make sure I could access the Internet for my entire four-week stay, I have a “Uganda phone.” It’s an iPhone from the United States, but with a Uganda SIM card inside, and a Uganda phone number. When I arrived, the phone was loaded with 10 GB of data, and what’s called “airtime.” Airtime can be used to call within Uganda, any phone carrier, and also to call internationally. Airtime is not to be confused with “minutes,” which can only be used within Uganda, and only with people who share your same carrier (in my case, MTN).

I didn’t plan on doing anything crazy on the Internet while here, mostly checking e-mail and writing blog posts. But I hate using the Internet on a cell phone. So mostly what I’ve been doing is using the phone’s data to set up a hotspot for my laptop, something I’ve never done in the United States (because I never had to). I’ve been religiously keeping track of my data usage, dialing the MTN “data usage” number to find out my balance every few days. After more than a week, I hadn’t even used 1 GB. Then I checked this morning. 3.5 GB gone. Somehow, over the span of a couple of days, 2.5 GB had … disappeared. How did this happen? Was there a data monster lurking somewhere, biting into my bytes while I slept? I inventoried my Internet use over the last few days, trying to account for the missing many megabytes.

An hour later, while I ate breakfast, it dawned on me. The day before, while waiting at Masaka Hospital for someone to pick me up and drive me back to Naggalama, I’d downloaded a half-dozen audiobooks from the New York Public Library. I did it without thinking. Because at home, I’m almost always on a wi-fi network. In my apartment, at school. And when I’m using my data, I’m only checking a handful of websites, maybe Google maps, or looking at e-mails. Not exactly high data use activities.

I’d downloaded so many books — hours and hours worth — because I’m picky about my narrators. Their voices, that is. So many grate on me, rub me the wrong way, for reasons I can’t always articulate. And I can never tell by the brief sample they give you. I need 15 or 30 minutes to decide whether I want to invest myself in the story, and in the voice. My dad used to read aloud to my family every night when I was a kid, and he set a high bar, it seems.

I know streaming and downloading eats up your data like nobody’s business. I know that. But I clicked the “download” button a half-dozen times with nary a thought because that’s what I always do. In the United States, data is dispensable, limitless. Like so many things.

Not so here.

I really should have known. Because after three phone calls home, I suddenly ran out of airtime last weekend, my phone call cut off mid-sentence.

Well, I have the books now, 2.5 GB later. They’re checked out for three weeks. By then I’ll be home, back to limitless wi-fi.

Lesson learned though, for while I’m here. Hopefully …