Mobile phones have become an integral part of daily life in most Western countries, but as the reach of globalization continues to expand, they are also becoming an important part of life in some unexpected places.

Timothy Baird, assistant professor of geography in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment, explores how the use of mobile phones impact the day-to-day lives of Tanzania’s Maasai people in a new study published in Land Use Policy.

The Maasai are agro-pastoralists, traditionally making their livelihoods by herding cattle and other livestock. More recently, some Maasai have expanded into agriculture and other types of commercial activities, such as wage labor in cities or small-scale retail operations in rural villages.

Baird, who first encountered the Maasai people as a graduate student in 2005, said that he was surprised to see the Maasai using mobile phones in 2010 while he was conducting research for his dissertation at the University of North Carolina.

“It was striking to see people who lived hours from urban infrastructure like paved roads and running water using mobile phones,” Baird said. “I wanted to know how they were using their phones and whether the phones were bringing them into contact with new types of people.”

Working with Joel Hartter of the University of Colorado’s Environmental Studies Program, Baird spent six weeks in Tanzania in 2014 talking with locals and conducting group interviews in four communities. In the interviews, the researchers asked open-ended questions about the Maasai’s general phone-use characteristics such as calling versus texting, the frequency and volume of use, the use of applications, and the types of information exchanged by phone.

“It’s a discussion where you don’t necessarily know what you don’t know,” Baird said. “And they don’t really know what information you’re looking for, so it takes a lot of practice to ask good questions.”

Once Baird and Hartter got a feel for the way the Maasai use their phones, they developed a survey to go out to dozens of households. Trained Maasai assistants surveyed heads of households who used mobile phones in each community, and then reported the data back to Baird and Hartter.

“We discovered that in many ways, mobile phones contribute directly to people’s livelihoods,” Baird said. “Phones help herders locate forage and water, keep track of weather forecasts, and call friends and relatives to find out if there is new grass in a particular area after a rainstorm. They can use mobile banking apps and even negotiate the sale of cattle remotely, allowing greater control over the transaction.”

Phones also contribute to Maasai livelihoods in indirect ways, Baird added.

“People can use phones to organize group meetings or call for assistance in a medical emergency. Phone-based radios allow users to listen to music or news, and apps like Facebook and WhatsApp allow young people to share photos, send messages, and even flirt," Baird said.

For all its benefits, however, mobile phone use has also opened the door for new challenges for the Maasai people. When asked about these challenges, survey respondents pointed to examples of phones being used in criminal activity or in lies and acts of infidelity.

“An individual might reach out to a friend or relative to meet, and that friend lies and says he can’t because he is outside the village, perhaps in the city several hours away,” Baird said. “Later that day, however, the two encounter each other in the village and the lie is exposed.”

According to Baird, the Maasai are still at the beginning of their adoption of this type of technology, but in many ways their use of mobile phones isn’t so different from our own.

“Generally we found that people talk with a more diverse group and about more diverse topics face-to-face than they do over the phone,” Baird said. “They definitely think that phones are useful, but they aren’t just taking this technology and running with it as fast as they can. They’re playing it safe.”

In the future, Baird will continue his research with the Maasai people by studying the different ways that women and men use mobile phones, and what effects phones have on social networks.

“I think there’s this idea that is common in society, that new technology transforms our lives,” Baird said. “I don’t think that’s necessarily true, especially in the short term. I think technology shows us who we are. We do things with new technologies that we would have done anyway, just a little bit differently.”

“I think it’s a toss-up whether phones will strengthen community or erode it,” Baird said. “That parallels what I observe in my life in the United States. Do phones bring us together or push us apart? At the end of the day, although the details are different, we’re all humans facing these same opportunities and challenges.”

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