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Cellphones bring a :-) to remotest Africa

Namibia's plucky fix-it industry handles all manner of disaster: Melted phone? No problem. Dead battery? Jump start it with a car.

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"Especially on Fridays," says Betty Matthews, a resident of Katatura, the township of Windhoek, Namibia's capital city.

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Why Fridays? 

"Because it's free!" she exclaims incredulously, in unison with two friends who are standing next two her. They explain that on Fridays, one cell company offers free SMS-ing, so friends tend to wait until the end of the week to connect. Ms. Matthews says that many people also have two or more phones, each with SIM (subscriber identity module) cards from different providers, so they can take advantage of the day's best deals.

There are other techniques to use another person's airtime instead of yours. You might "beep" someone – repeatedly, if necessary – by calling and hanging up after one ring. Or you can send a "please call" message, which is free because it's attached to a text advertisement.  Or, better yet, you can SMS a free message asking someone to transfer money to your account – the best antidote to the "please recharge" message that plagues those who have burned through their units.

"Usually I'll send that to my girlfriends," says a Namibian who gives his name only as Enrico because he doesn't want his girlfriends to realize the word is plural. "They always send me minutes."

 It's not too surprising, then, that the all-valuable "unit" has its place in pop culture – the Congolese group Zaiko Langa Langa, for instance, sings, "Ba unités nionso ya bolingo esili pasi na ngai veuiller recharger moncompteur d'amour."

  "All of love's units are used up. Please recharge my love account."

In this part of the world, people often try to fix their cellphones when technological disaster strikes rather than buying new ones, which range from $30 to $2,000.  (In a region where most people live on less than $2 a day, even the least expensive phone is an investment.)

 This has sparked a new sort of business in both rural areas and city townships: the independent cellphone repair shop. Mr. Nendongo's shop in Opuwo, for instance, is one of five owned by a local businessman. And his company is only one of many. "We have too much competition these days," he sighs.

 The day before, Nendongo fixed a customer's cellphone that had partly melted in the brutal Namibian heat.  (He attached the phone battery to a car battery and jump-started it, he says.) But he says that this week has mostly been quiet – he is waiting for a new stock of cell accessories, which sell well at the end of the month.

 Usually housed in some form of shipping container or shack, establishments like the Okau Cell Part & Repair Shop are often manned by a mobile phone company employee in off hours, or sometimes by a cellphone mechanic who has gone independent.

 "The guys in Katatura are less expensive than the cellphone shops," says Matthews, who recently dropped off her phone and its broken screen at one such establishment. "But there you must be very slick."

 She explains that sometimes the local shop owners will take parts from a client's phone and replace them with older items.

 Enrico agrees with Matthews's assessment of the independent repair shops. But he says his problem these days isn't that his phone is broken, but that it is lost – along with the information for 150 or so contacts he had programmed into it.  He shakes his head at the thought.

 "Eish," he says. "All my numbers. Now, I'm writing everything down in a book."

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