Editor's note: This is the third of several dispatches on the Muslim-Baptist mission trip to Tanzania. Read the first here and the second here.
A man checks his cell phone at a mosquito-repellent net distribution in Bunjan, Tanzania, while a woman in the back of the crowd clutches her phone. (Photo: Robert Parham)
Tanzania is a nation of contrasts, having the highest mountain in Africa – Mount Kilimanjaro – on one side of the country and the world's second-deepest lake – Lake Tanganyika – on the other side.
Despite its expansive natural wonders – Lake Victoria, the Serengeti and a dozen national parks and game preserves – Tanzania is ranked in the bottom 10 percent of the world's nations in terms of per-capita income.
Regardless of the widespread poverty, the traffic can at times overwhelm the network of roads through the nation's largest city of Dar es Salaam, bringing traffic to complete gridlock.
In spite of the 20 percent drop in the literacy rate over the past 30 years, some of the nation's leading journalists are chronicling the effects of climate change – drought in some areas and decreased fish yields in other parts of the country due to lake warming.
Even though an estimated 70 percent of the nation belongs to one of two monotheistic religions – Christianity and Islam – superstition drives a practice that the Tanzanian government condemns: the killing of albinos by witches.
The Tanzanian newspaper The Citizen reported that 25 albinos have been killed in the past year around the shores of Lake Victoria. Witches reportedly purchase body parts of albinos for magic potions that will bring wealth to those who use their concoctions. The paper's editorial page condemned albino killings in mid-November as "barbaric."
Albino children were at two of the sites, including a school for the disabled, where a Muslim-Baptist mission team distributed mosquito-repellent nets.
Tanzania's long coast line on the India Ocean, vast stretches of flat land and abundance of sun would suggest the nation's enormous potential for wind and solar power. Yet an unrelenting stream of bundles of charcoal flow into its largest city on lorries and bicycles, a city where electricity is in short supply.
However, one of the sharpest contrasts is between the lack of mosquito nets and the abundance of cell phones. Both represent advancements in technology. The former contains a chemical that kills malaria-bearing mosquitoes on contact. The latter allows instant contact across an immense east African nation.
"More than 4 billion of the 6 billion people on earth now have a cell phone, with a quarter of those owners getting one in just the last two years," according to a recent Newsweek article.
The visibility of cell phones in Tanzania lends credibility to such a seemingly inaccurate estimate in Newsweek.
At retail, the cost per mosquito-repellent net is an estimated $10, a sizeable amount in a nation where annual per capital income is $1,400.
The cost for a prepaid, refurbished cell phone can range from an estimated $10 to $13.50, not counting the cost of recharging the phone, according to a Tanzanian school teacher, who had two cell phones and used both.
The mosquito-net team members observed continuously the use of cell phones and noted the cell-phone towers that dot the roads in every direction out of the coastal city of Dar es Salaam.
At a net distribution in Bunjub, a white-headed man in a long-sleeve blue shirt with blue shorts and tan plastic sandals pulled glasses out of his shirt pocket to read the screen on his cell phone. He then answered the call.
When a new bundle of nets was being unloaded and unpacked, EthicsDaily.com asked Ibrahim Yunus Rashid, a teacher at the Feza schools, to request that everyone who owned a cell phone to raise their hand. In a crowd of several hundred, an estimated 20 percent raised their hands.
The principal at the Bunjab Primary School said all of her teachers had cell phones.
An older woman with an Islamic head scarf turned away when she realized her picture was being taken as she talked on her cell phone.
On another day, when the mosquito-net team traveled to Kimanzi Chana, some 81 miles from the nation's largest city of Dar es Salaam, the muffler on Rashid's car began to drag. Repairs delayed the arrival.
The late arrival concerned Sultan Swalehe Zomboko, imam at the village mosque who had told several hundred people to gather for free mosquito nets. With his credibility at risk, he repeatedly called Rashid, asking if nets were actually going to be passed out.
As his assistant distributed the nets, Zomboko told EthicsDaily.com that he was thankful that the Americans had kept their promise. He did not want villagers complaining if the team had not shown up.
Because Kimanzi Chana lacks electricity, cell phone owners must go to the next closest village with electricity to recharge their phones for a fee.
Rashid observed, "People are competing to have good phones, even if they have low salaries."
On the return trip to Dar es Salaam, a Maasai tribesman was seen dressed with two traditional sheets – one a striking red and the other a checked pink and white. He was checking his cell phone.
Mosquitoes and cell phones buzz across Tanzania. Mosquitoes bring disease and even death. Cell phones appear to improve the quality of life in an unexpected place.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.