John, the phone guy


I have the last Nokia E63 left in Nairobi. I don’t know whether I should be appalled or comforted at making that confession but it’s an ambiguous feeling that teeters on the edges of both.

Right now, the phone is lying comatose on my dresser in a sealed Ziploc bag. The part it’s missing – the one that made it end up in that Ziploc bag in the first place – is in the bag next to it. It’s like its beating heart has been removed and placed outside its body. I’ve been planning on taking it to the phone repair guys but I just can’t seem to find the time. Plus I’m not even certain why I even want to revive it.

It has some old videos of my niece as a baby, birthday and anniversary dates from way back, contacts but that’s just about it. I admit, I don’t need it anymore – I’m holding on to it because of nostalgia and its sentimental value. Nostalgia is useless and futile; it’s not a thing you should fervently pursue.

I bought that phone in July 2009, a few days after getting a bonus from my first promotion as a corporate. I remember withdrawing the cash from the ATM, 20gees, and walking across tao to Nakumatt Lifestyle because they were the only ones stocking them in navy blue.

It looked good, hell it did, at least for its time. Nokia promised us that his feature phone was built for business and corporate folk like me who are always on the move but still need the convenience of being connected wherever they are. I was one of those folk.

The E63 was advertised as a smart phone, a cheaper alternative to Blackberry but for the wider hipper market. It had all these exciting features: Symbian OS, MMS and Emails, video calling, Bluetooth, QWERTY keyboard, talk time of up to 18 hours…. Hahha.

I could browse on 2G. I remember hurdling around the phone with my little sister as the Google home screen loaded and we both said, Wooow! Back then, there wasn’t Zuku Wi-Fi at home or Safaricom bundles, charges to browse the Internet were billed directly to your airtime. The rates were almost negligible – no one wanted to rob you blind so you could get online.

And surely, you must remember the build from those Nokias? Compact as a mound of steel. Sturdy. Built to outlast governments. Bordering on weaponry; you could knock a man in the back of the head with that phone and he’d go cold as a fish.

I comfortably used that phone from July 2009 to February 2015. How many years are those? Phones built in the last decade don’t have such longevity, they have an expiry date attached to them. One day you’ll innocently be going about your business – buying groceries in Toi Market, queuing at Tusky’s or KCB, sharing a platter at the Roast with your pals – and your phone will die in your hands with no warning. The screen will just go black and you’ll scream into it, shaking it and willing it to wake up so you can send that WhatsApp you were still typing.

It’s all part of a global conspiracy, I believe, to keep the wheels of tech churning.

I had the E63 for that long also because of my personal ethics. I am frugal and self-moderating. I am driven more by utility than by excess. If it isn’t broken then there’s no need to fix it.
For me, it’s about function over form. Style over fashion. Tastes over trends. Tried and tested not hearsay. My decision to invest in a gadget is informed by research – it’s a question of, what do I need from this device that I can’t get elsewhere?

If I find stuff that works and works well, then I’ll go down dying with it. It’ll take the fate of the Universe to separate me from it.

Case in point: I’m still using the same laptop I bought when I started writing in 2013. It’s a Dell. The keyboard is a little dusty, memory could do with a cleanup, the software an upgrade but it’s working pretty fine.

For about two years after leaving my corporate job to become a writer, I wore nothing but brogues to work. That’s all my feet knew, brogues. I had them in colour brown. Nude. Grey. Blue. Black. Wet look. More browns. I’d buy them second-hand and only from this guy called Brayo off Moi Avenue. We became pals.

Brogues paired well with jeans. I also liked that I could lace them up and wear them with socks, plus they were so comfortable to walk in – I’d stopped driving my car by then and javing around this town became less of a headache with the brogues on my feet.

I buy my underwear only once every year. I buy them from some wholesale bazaar in the backstreets of tao. When I’m making my selections and I’ve seen something I fancy, I take all the colours there are available for that style. That’s how I end up with 20 pairs of underwear in different colours that look exactly the same.

 “Ukona colors zingine ya hii?”

“Eee eh, Madam, ziko. Beige na red iko. Na pink pia. Lakini si ushachukua colors zote ya hiyo, kuna pantie zingine utapenda…”

“Hapana, ni sawa! Leta color zote za hiyo, infact, leta zikiwa tatu tatu. Ziletee zote!”


I upgraded from the Nokia E63 to a Sony Z1 Compact. Got it off Amazon. The Sony made me realize that I’d been rolling with a feature phone in the E63 all those years – forget all that hogwash Nokia had been peddling, these were the real smart phones.

The Nokia lived on though, always on the nightstand by my bed; the alarm came on every morning, old contacts were secure, reminders of birthdays and anniversaries popped up often. My pal Terry would be surprised when I remembered her brother’s wedding anniversary every December.

Then Muna came, my darling potatoe. She grew to become a toddler and with it, her Nyeri-ness was awakened and her tantrums rattled our little peaceful village. She liked to throw things on the ground just for kicks, even herself. It was hilarious mostly, upsetting sometimes.

My E63 wasn’t spared of her exhibitionism. She’d find it sitting idly on my nightstand and she’d throw it on the floor, face down.

“You can throw that phone down as hard as you want, Muna,” I’d tell her every morning as I laced up my shoes, “that phone is as hard as a rock, it won’t break.”

Muna would fling it against the wall. The screen got a teeny-tiny crack. It didn’t die. She chewed out the letter ‘E’. It didn’t die. She threw it down then skid with it across the floor like it were a skateboard. Still it didn’t die. She peed in her potty then attempted to drown it there. It refused to die. She banged it against the bed’s headboard because she couldn’t find YouTube. The E63 took a fine beating but it still refused to die.

This went on for months. Until last May, when she dropped it as she’d been doing and the little thingy where I’d connect it to the charger broke off and fell out.

That’s how it ended up in the Ziploc bag.


The Sony had started showing signs of a premature death, too. I could hear it cough and sputter each time I fired it up – the button that lit up the home screen was on the most part unresponsive, battery life was down to less than 24 hours, Muna had slammed it down so many times the speaker was busted. Having that Sony as a companion was like having a sickly old man running beside you in a marathon.

“Why don’t we get you a new phone for your birthday?” GB said in October.

“Why?” I said, feigning a frown. “My Sony is working fine.”

He let the story slide.

But as fate would have it, a few Saturdays later, while meeting my pal Vicky for a drink at Explorer, I went to take a leek and foolishly placed my phone on the tissue holder. It slipped and fell face flat onto the concrete floor. I can still hear the sound of the screen cracking. It was a painful sound.

A broken screen meant that the phone was as good as gone. It wasn’t usable anymore: I couldn’t answer calls or respond to WhatsApps or even sound off the alarm. That alarm couldn’t snooze itself, actually, it would buzz all day until the next morning when the alarm for that day would go off. It buzzed for so long it eventually drained the battery and silenced the phone. It was like a baby crying itself to sleep.

I was intentionally off the radar for a few days to Wednesday. (I made my work calls from my office desk-phone.) Being without a phone meant that some responsibility was taken off my shoulders, albeit temporarily – I didn’t have to call home to check on how they were doing. I worked uninterrupted. I didn’t have to respond to messages. I didn’t have to be up-to-date with the news or emails, or keep checking Facebook or Instagram for whatever it is I check it for. I’d sync my waking up hours with my body clock, which was pretty cool.

Being off the radar was refreshing, actually. But that isn’t how life is lived.


On the Wednesday before the (repeat presidential) Elections, I randomly walk into a tech shop in Veteran House and ask the guy behind the counter whether they repair phones. They do.

I take my silenced phone out of my bag and place it on the counter. “How much is it for this Sony? It’s a Z1. Compact.”

He examines it and says slowly, “About 7… 8 gees.” He sees my eyes widen slightly and hastily adds, “iPhone, hTc, Samsung, Sony…once this glass breaks,” he taps it with his fingernail, “the phone can’t be used because the breakage goes all the way to the screen. You’ve not been able to use this one…?”

I shake my head, bored now. It doesn’t make financial sense to repair the screen when the whole phone itself is already trudging to its death bed. I ask, “Where can I get a cheap phone quickly, just something to shikilia me until I get the phone I want?”

The guy’s face lights up. “I have a cousin on Moi Avenue who sells phones.”

“Oh, really? Can he sort me out like now now?”

“Yeah, yeah, he can.” He’s already dialling his cousin’s number. “Let me tell him to come. He’s not far.”

John shows up a few minutes later. John, the phone guy. He’s a hulk of a man in cargo pants and a green long-sleeved Rugby jersey, like something the Springboks would wear on their day off. Proper Kuyo hustler. He’s panting and his eyes pop out with the madness and excitement of a guy who knows he’ll close a sale that afternoon.

We shake hands in intro. He’s John, I tell him my name is Bett.

“Bett-y,” he says, as if tasting the weight of my name on his tongue, “Bett-y, Bett-y…”

These chaps always do that, calling me Bett-y instead of Bett. It’s alright, though. It beats being called ‘Flo’.

John doesn’t let go of my hand. He’s one of those chaps who, after a handshake, moves your hand to his other hand so you can start walking together as you talk. You must have such chaps in your circle, no? It pisses me off, hehhe.

John would later tell me that he has three phone shops; two in Moi Avenue and one at Uganda House, all built from scratch. He takes me to the one in Moi Avenue so I can pick the phone I want.

So here’s the thing I imagined: I imagined that all smart phones are ‘good’ phones. That they meet the basic requirements to give you a ‘good’ user experience – you know, ‘good’ resolution, ‘good’ memory, ‘good’ battery life, ‘good’ looks.

What backed my naive conviction is that I live in Nairobi. In Kenya. The Internet washes up to our beaches, evaporates from the water and floats into the air to spread its Light & Love across our beautiful land. We breathe Internet. We stick our tongues out and taste Internet. We lick a finger, point it into the air and Internet blows over it. We infuse Internet into our mothokoi and omena and mukimo and njahe and mursik.

We dance in our clubs and in our churches and Internet underlines every beat. We open our taps and Internet gushes out. We buy Internet with our milk and bread. We fire up the switches to the TV and microwave and Internet fires up too. We sleep with Internet. We give birth to Internet. We teach our kids to speak Internet.

I don’t even have to do research like I usually do. Internet means a ‘good’ phone.

John and I get to his shop in the bowels of Moi Avenue. It’s in one of the countless exhibitions that steal the sparkle of our metropolis. It’s the Wednesday before the Elections so the streets are ghostly and bloated with tension; NASA is having an impromptu rally at Uhuru Park. Because I’ve been offline all week, I didn’t even know that this Wednesday is a public holiday.

John’s shop is as spacious as a toilet stall. It’s packed from wall to wall with phone covers wrapped in dusty plastic, earphones, phone chargers, little boxes of Samsungs, Techno and Infinix. The low ceiling makes it dark so John has to light up the bulb; it hangs above his head like some bright idea.

His neighbour sells Nikon cameras. The guy opposite him sells accessories like headphones and flash disks, the chick right next sells more phones. Up the stairs, to the far corner is a tattoo parlour. Or maybe a drug den, I can’t tell.

The entire place smells like a damp mattress.

At John’s shop, I press my nose against the glass display and point to some silver Huawei. “Nipatie hiyo. Ni how much?

John hands me the phone as he tells the price. Less that 14 gees. Not bad.

I look up at John. Standing behind that counter, he has the enormity of a brown polar bear, he even makes the phone in his hand look so tiny. He’s like a polar bear holding a teacup.

John goes through the pains of explaining the specs to me but I’m not even listening. I’ve already made up my mind that I want that Huawei – whatever the hell series it is, I don’t know – in the colour golden. Why? Because golden looks good.

He’s still talking, “…Uzuri ya hii simu, Bett-y, ni battery life…”

John has this thing of placing his hands over mine and looking straight into my eyes when he’s explaining himself in that soft voice he assumes. He’s like a priest reassuring you that God will forgive your sins. I later tell GB about it and he finds it hilarious.

Anyway, John gets me a new phone from the store in one of his other shops.

We unceremoniously unbox it; he slaps on the screen protector, slides in my SIM card and turns the phone on. As it’s lighting up, he covers it in some ugly black rubbery case. That case steals all the golden shine of the back cover.

It isn’t until I get home later and plug the phone into the charge that I see what I have really bought. The phone is heavy and uncomfortable to hold in my hand. Typing is labourous. The screen resolution, Jesus, the screen looks like somebody has licked it but hasn’t the decency to wipe it off. (OK. I’m not sure who ever does that to a phone…) Or like it has been rained on from the inside – images and texts are blurry and broken. I have to squint my eyes to find the apps to install, and by the time I finish installing the ones I need, I have run out of internal memory.

“Sweets,” I say to GB, “hebu I see your phone kidogo?”

I hold his phone in my left hand and compare it to mine in my right. I sigh.

“I feel like I’ve bought a Peugeot 504 and you’re rolling in a… in a Rangie.”

He chuckles.

Muna later sees the phone and when I yank it away from her hands, I accidently knock it against the edge of the dining table and the screen protector gets a hairline crack. The next day, in the storm of her tantrums, she slams it to the floor face first and the hairline crack splits open into a wiry web of deep cracks. My ‘good’ phone is not only bad, but now it’s a bad phone with a cracked screen.

This sucks.

I tell myself that I’m above this mediocrity of chasing technology. That I can make do. That I have the perseverance of the men of old. That my mother didn’t raise me to be a spoilt child. But all that is just bullshit. I need a more superior phone than what I had before because I’m now building a brand online at Craft It, damn it! I need a solid phone.

I call John a week later in angst. “Uuwwi, John! Hii simu ni mbaya!”

“Woi, Bett-y,” he says, regretfully, “shida iko wapi?”

I explain. He says, “Sawa. Wee kuja kesho tuone vile tutafanya.”

I go over the next day. He listens to my whining with his hands over mine and reassures me he understands. He tells me to go back Friday. I go back Friday and he tells me we can make an exchange to the phone I want. I’m thrilled. He tells me to go back Tuesday because that’s when he’d have made the order. I am beginning to get impatient. Impatient and restless. He tells me to leave him the Huawei so that he can sell it. He gives me another phone, a Techno kushikilia. I found that mighty professional of him. He knows what it takes to build a business.

I go back Tuesday armed with my research about RAM and internal memory and a screen resolution that’s full HD, battery capacity, weight by grammage et cetera, et cetera. I top up some cash and leave with the Samsung I want.

Now I’m happy.

Whatever they tell you, always believe everything you read on the Internet. Including everything about phone guys like John.

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