Thursday, March 10, 2016

There's an App for that?

Cell phone towers are springing up all around PNG!
photo by Rebekah Drew

“Here, give me the phone. I know what to do!”

My housemate Jessie reached across the table for my ringing mobile phone (or just mobail as we say here). She clicked it on and grinned at me, “Hello, you have reached Goroka Rubbish Removal. For a pick-up of your rubbish, please press 1. For an analysis of rubbish, please press 2, for...” She looked at me. “They hung up!”

We doubled over, laughing until we were crying. And then the phone rang again. Time to try again! “Welcome to the PNG Tax Service. To be audited, please press 1...”
 In Papua New Guinea (PNG), it’s not uncommon  for people to just try calling random numbers and see what happens (or a number that did actually belong to someone isn’t used enough, so it gets re-purposed by the company and sold to someone else...). Sometimes, the caller can become so persistent persistent that you’ll need to block the number, or even more drastically, change your own.

That day, I’d already been called over a dozen times by someone excited to hear the voice of a waitmeri (a white woman), but after Jessie and I answered the phone in every language we knew (ever yell on the phone in Arabic? Alas, my vocabulary has shrunk since I last used it, but never underestimate the power of enthusiasm!), as well as pretending to be multiple distasteful government services, finally the caller gave up!

Decorations at the cell phone tower dedication! (Photo by Hannah Schulz)
Somewhat reliable cell service around Papua New Guinea has been erupting in the last ten years, and every month, more and more towers go up around the country, connecting even the remotest places with the outside world (although you still might need to hike up a mountain and stand on one particular rock while holding your phone above your head to get enough bars to send a text). In 2013, I even had the chance to attend the dedication of a cell phone tower (in Papua New Guinea, we dedicate everything!!) on the island of Djaul, where my housemates have since started working.

It was an enthusiastic dedication!
photo by Rebekah Drew
Smartphones have been making huge inroads in the last few years as companies try to make data plans more and more affordable, and PNG has even been developing its own language of texting! Traditionally, Papua New Guineans have used garamuts and other drums to pass messages over distances. Just imagine how important a phone is to people living on a remote island—it impacts everything from health and safety to travel, business, and now, even new methods of courtship!

Pastors using smartphones to look up Scripture
And translation has to keep up too. In one workshop I was in last year, at least a third of the pastors were using smartphones to look up Scripture passages. In the Kamano-Kafe translation project, we not only have the New Testament available on phone apps that can be shared across bluetooth, but we also have several translated videos, hymns and traditional songs; many other translation programs are doing the same. (Read this story about a boy who was impacted by translation this way!) When people visit our translation centre at Ukarumpa, they are able to access a special network on their phones that lets them find many of the translated resources available in their language. Several savvy people have even been developing cool phone apps that allow the recording of the Scripture to be played while the text is simultaneously highlighted on the phone’s screen—a perfect tool to help with literacy and Scripture use!


Now we’re talking!