And the way people use and care for their mobile phones is different than in the wealthy, BlackBerry-addicted West. Here, people send text messages to friends, but also use their cells to do banking and organize political rallies. In areas with no TV, farmers use phones to get agricultural news and weather reports. (The Kenya Agricultural Commodity Exchange, for instance, sends text messages with up-to-date market prices.) In townships, entrepreneurs will set up cellphone booths, where passers-by can use airtime for a slightly inflated price.
In all these ways, says Panday, cellphones have increased networking among Africans and have lessened the global "digital divide" between haves and have nots.
"Young people today, more than any generation, have digital savvy," she says. "They all have access to SMS [short message service] and cellphones."
Africa has its own cell etiquette. Here, people tend to buy airtime as they go – cell contracts similar to the ones people use in the US tend to require a higher monthly income than the majority earn – and there is much maneuvering to save "units." Most Namibians, for instance, touch base with one another by inexpensive SMS.