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The Phone Cabin World


Phone cabin in Abidjan at 2AM

When this amount of time elapses between posts, I feel like I should write something really groundbreaking. That may not be the case here.

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned that running a restaurant affords a certain familiarity with the neighborhood. One feature of our neighborhood, of every neighborhood street in Abidjan, is the phone cabin.

We have one in front of the restaurant. You can pay a guy to transfer units onto your cellphone, and you can also make calls directly, often for 50f (10 cents) a minute. But the phone cabin is much more than a call center.

The phone cabin, for example, is also the office of freelance real estate brokers. Freelance brokers find buyers and renters, but they don’t make enough to rent office space. These guys typically earn a commission off someone else’s commission, usually an agency’s. So they are hanging out at the phone cabins. Pretty much all day. Why the phone cabins? Well, the phone access is appealing, but the umbrella and the seating are equally important.

Clementine is also at the phone cabin. Her family lives above the maquis next door. She is about 10-years-old, and she sells hard boiled eggs and candy. Sometimes her friends come by, but they can only sit down if there aren’t any adults already on the bench.

Then there are the hommes d’affaires, who are often well dressed, with a nice watch on their wrist. Some of these guys are businessmen. Others just like to put on a show. This hilarious clip from Ivorian comedian Michel Gohou is pretty accurate:

If you don’t speak French: Gohou is in a cybercafe, and he is clearly not impressed with the quality of the computers. He wonders out loud, “don’t you have flat screens?” He then pulls out 3 or 4 cellphones and puts them on the desk. He taps a few things on the keyboard and stumbles upon a picture a female customer has saved on the computer. This part is not so relevant to the homme d’affaire thing, but it’s hilarious. Also, pay attention to how much noise he makes – that part is relevant. He then writes an email aloud to the woman in the photo before having several obnoxious conversations on the phone. Finally, he is thrown out of the cyber. He tells the manager that he knows the president and that he will have the cyber shut down.

This is a parody, but it’s not too far off the mark. Once or twice a day, I can hear a guy in a suit screaming into a cell phone outside while I am inside the restaurant with the doors and windows closed. These hommes d’affaires want you to hear their conversations. They talk about shipments, land deals, and large sums of money. Often times, they are irate. Side note: there is actually a book about bluffeurs in Cote d’Ivoire. Has anyone read this?

Our phone cabin has seen some turnover in recent months. The original owner, Stephane, returned to his job at the port. He left the cabin in the hands of a younger guy that was working for him. This experiment lasted about 2 weeks. His petit paid for a bunch of units on credit, sold the units, and then fled. He hasn’t returned since.

Lately, Ferdinand aka Freddie, has been running the phone cabin to the best of his ability. He is also the security guard at the daycare next door. He is not always available during the morning and afternoon hours, but he also keeps the cabin open much later than Stephane’s crew did.

If I need phone credit, and Freddie’s not around, I have to walk across the street to the bizarro phone cabin that sits in front of the arc-en-ciel III cité. I don’t enjoy going to this phone cabin, because there is a woman seated there – more or less permanently – who yells “AMERICAIN” when I get about half-way across the street, and then yells it again while I am standing in front of her.

At Freddie’s, I can relax. Sometimes I take a seat on the bench in the evenings, towards 11 when the daytime crowd has cleared out, and the restaurant starts to calm down. At this hour, it’s usually Freddie and his friend Guillaume, the king of odd jobs in the neighborhood. Perched out on the rue des banques, the cabin catches a breeze, and with no customers around, Freddie can sit back and tell the day’s stories. One person tried to give him a fake 10000 CFA note; Brigitte is once again warring with the women who sell attieke in front of the maquis; a woro-woro was almost crushed by a garbage truck in front of the Ecobank. And sometimes Freddie gives me advice, like don’t let Edwin pay for anything on credit; he won’t pay you back. These are really some of my favorite moments in Abidjan.

The phone cabin world is a bit like the tea-fueled streetside gatherings of Bamako. A phone cabin in Abidjan or a grin in Bamako, there is always a group of people caught in its orbit. It’s the spot. It’s where you go when you have nothing else to do, which for some people, especially young people, is a lot of the time. The grin, the phone cabin, they are also fat threads in the community fabric. These places are important, and you should try to get to know them if you ever visit. All you need to do is ask if you can have a seat.

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{ 2 comments… add one }

  • John James May 21, 2014, 12:21 am

    Great post. I’ve got the book on bluffing but haven’t ready it yet. Will write a review when I do.

  • Tami May 24, 2014, 12:11 pm

    Another wonderful post. Phil, I love your stories – and your perspectives – so much. I know you’ve been really busy, so I appreciate even more you taking the time to write. Love love love this.

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