The day after we arrived on the ground in Uganda, I went on my most important errand – not to get groceries, not to pick up my work visa, not to purchase malaria pills. No, I went to the phone store called Africell and bought data. This might as well be a basic need. Food, water, shelter, love, and wifi. Phones here don’t have recurring monthly data plans where you lock a price in for 2 years. It’s just a SIM card that you load data onto. And the same is true for your router at home to get internet (they call it mifi, but I’ll use the word wifi for purposes here). So when I got to the Africell store in Kampala and the lady behind the counter asked me how much wifi I wanted to buy, I stood there frozen. How much wifi? Like, do I have any idea how much wifi I used in the States? I’d go to school, flip my settings to wifi and use the school’s unlimited network. Then, when I got home after school, my phone would recognize the Comcast network and access our monthly plan for wifi there as well. Only occasionally, when we were out of the house somewhere, would I use data on my phone. Alexis and I shared a 4GB plan for the month, but were able to access wifi most of the time so we were good to go. We had a laptop at home, I had a laptop at work, we both had iPhones – yet never did I have to think about internet access or data usage. Until now.
I put 100,000 shillings of “Airtime” on my phone. Yes, that’s right, I loaded 100,000 of the local currency onto my phone, it’s that important. Also, it’s only about $27 US Dollars. That airtime is then converted to data when I want and need it. I started converting it on a daily basis so I could learn my level of usage here, and could budget accordingly. So I started with a 350 megabytes package that expired in 24 hours. I was returning to the hotel from the phone store with a new friend so I opened Facebook to see what was up in the world. I scrolled about two thumb flicks down the page and boom, I got a message saying that my data had run out. What, already?! Mind you, I only spent like 54 cents of my airtime for that package, but still, I was hoping it’d last a bit longer. I got a new package, 600MB this time. It went a little further of course, but I still had to renew it before the afternoon was up. Then I upgraded again, this time to a 1.2GB package. That seemed to work ok, until I tried to stream a Washington Huskies football game, and then poof, that data dried up real fast. I couldn’t believe that I was using over a gig a day when previously I had shared 4 gigs for a month with Alexis, who scrolls her fair share of Instagram and the like. Besides just the nuisance of having to re-up everyday, rather than just having Verizon take (admittedly way too much) money straight from our bank account each month with automatic bill pay. This was going to be an adjustment for sure.
Now have you ever had that experience where you’re shopping and all of the sudden an item you always buy somehow is randomly way cheaper than it ever was? You know the feeling of elation when you turn down the aisle with your shopping cart and somehow, magically, a family size box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch is only $1.50. Did I read that right? Is it only $1.50 if I buy like 10 or more boxes or something? No, it’s just $1.50, take it or leave it. So you buy 10 boxes. Or maybe just 2, because you’re a reasonable person. But still, the adrenaline of that find doesn’t wear off for quite awhile.
Well we had a similar experience with wifi. Magically, we stumbled across the special “Happy Hour” deal by Africell, whereby on certain days (Wednesdays and Fridays), you could buy data packages for ridiculously cheap prices. So on Wednesday’s happy hour you could get 3.5 gigs for only 3,000 shillings, and on Fridays you could get 4.5 gigs for the weekend for only 4,000 shillings. Whereas the rest of the week it was about $1 a gig, with these happy hour deals it was less than a quarter a gig! I got chills and adrenaline was coursing through my veins. It was the Cinnamon Toast Crunch sale of the data world. So now on Wednesdays we could watch a show after the kids went to bed and be like, that only cost a quarter! And on the weekends I could watch a game and be like, best 50 cents I ever spent! We were tracking things at the most minute level and it was crazy and interesting and unique and ultimately unsustainable. After purchasing our data daily for a few months, we realized that really it fits just fine into the longer packages. So now we just re-up every month which gives us 50GB for only $27. It’s still only about a tenth of the cost that Verizon was raking from us.
But it was a huge lesson in the culture and economy here. Though this experience was specifically with internet data, the concept holds true for Ugandans (and probably most of the majority world) in many other ways. People do not have the resources to just stock up and plan ahead. So it can play out in the following ways as well:
- Gasoline is sold in small water bottles for motorcycles, which is most of the transportation here. Imagine buying gas in .50 cent increments!
- Food is bought pretty much daily. There is no refrigeration, so you can’t keep things, and there just aren’t resources for extensive meal planning.
- Electricity is bought as needed, and I often see people paying 10,000 shillings for the month. Less than $3, that’s all the electricity they will use for a month!
- Medicine can be bought in single pill increments.
And the list goes on and on. Everything is pay in advance, with very little ability to pay much. Yet we are able to stock up on food for months at a time, and refrigerate and freeze it. We are able to buy as much data as we want, and much electricity and water as we need, a full tank of gas for our van (the equivalent of about 110 of those little water bottles). And we have an entire storage crate full of medicine, including Costco bottles of ibuprofen and Malaria pills for all 6 of us to last a few months, about 800 individual pills.
We try and create security and control in life. We try to minimize risk. We spend more money, but tell ourselves, which is true, that we’re saving money per unit in the long run. We create conveniences, like only filling up on gas only when we have to, or shopping for food as infrequently as is necessary to still be able to cook all of our meals. This isn’t all bad of course.
But while experiencing it a bit, and mostly observing the culture here, I’m finding that there’s also something simple and beautiful in the day to day rhythms, and in the daily dependence upon God that’s needed here. We all need God everyday, that’s the truth, but how often do we acknowledge it, really? Even when things are tough, when the budget is tight, we aren’t really all that destitute. We could cut back on some of our expenses. We could possibly work more hours or overtime to bring in more income. We could use a credit card, borrow from a friend, tap into a savings account, a retirement account, sell our house, take out a bank loan, or sell our car or kitchen appliances or iPhone. I’m not saying all of these are necessarily wise or the best thing to do, I’m just saying we could. So when we act like things are so tough, in reality we do really still have options, have agency over our choices. And that makes us feel pretty independent. Where is God in all this? Well, as the false American adage goes – God helps those that help themselves. Bleh. Yes, God calls us to responsibility with what he gives us. But to say that it’s only about our individual responsibility to make all good things happen for us in life is naive, and doesn’t match reality in much of the world. I did not pick myself up by my bootstraps to be born in America and learn English. I did not choose to have a free and paid for education for myself from preschool through 12th grade. I did not choose that there would be student loan companies offering me assistance (with a steep interest rate of course), or a mom who would find a way to help pay for the rest. I didn’t choose to be white.
Yet all of these things I received helped me in so many ways, and in turn created massive economic opportunities for me that much of the world is not afforded. But what if you’re only given very little? What if you were born in east Africa with no father, no family property, no bank accounts, no retirement accounts, no loans available, not many possessions really to sell. What if. Well, you’d buy a water bottle full of gas if you needed it. You’d buy some rice and beans and maybe cassava for lunch, and then go back to the market again at dinner to buy more if you happened to get enough money somehow in the meantime. You’d pay 6 cents for airtime on your phone so that you could make a few necessary phone calls or texts this week. That’s what you’d do. You’d wake up everyday needy, and reaching out to Almighty God for help.
When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, He showed them first how to honor and glorify their Heavenly Father. Then, he told them to ask God to “Give us this day our daily bread”. I love that more now than any time I’ve ever read it, or ever prayed it. Daily bread. Not weekly bread, not monthly bread. Daily bread. “God, I need food today, please help me find it so I can feed my family.” It mirrors the Israelites wandering in the desert when God provided them manna from heaven. God said that He would provide the food and they just needed to gather it. The trick was, it would only be for one day at a time. If they tried to stock up, it would rot. So they just needed to rely on God and trust that each and every day He’d provide for them. And He did. For 40 years. In a desert. Of course this doesn’t only refer to food, but all of life. I need food, Yes, but I also need gas and electricity and medicine and safety and relationships and health and peace and wifi and on and on and on. I need you God, today and again tomorrow and again the day after that. It’s so easy to forget when we are so resource-rich that we just plan out and stock up on everything in advance. But with the many blessings that we’ve been given, let us not lose sight of the SOURCE of all things.
Lord, give us this day …