Until not long ago, if Zadhe Iyombe wanted to talk to his mother, he had to make the eight-day boat trip up the Congo River to the jungle town where he was raised. In a country with almost no roads, mail or telephone system and a grisly guerrilla war raging, making that exhausting and dangerous trip was about the only way he could find out if his 59-year-old mother was still alive.
Then he got a cellphone.
Now he talks to his mother every day. And once a week, with a simple new feature in African cellphones, he uses a text message to transfer five minutes of airtime to her phone to make sure she can always call him.
As surely as the light bulb and the automobile before them, the cellphone and text messaging are radically changing the way people live in the developing world. In widespread use for about five years in much of Africa, technology long taken for granted by the world's rich has made life easier, safer and more prosperous for the world's poor.
For the first time, millions of Africans are able to communicate easily with people who are beyond shouting distance. In cities, cellphones are becoming a basic tool of e-commerce, allowing consumers to transfer money with a few presses on the keypad.
People call a doctor, mechanic or police officer instead of walking miles to find one. News of births, deaths and illnesses instantly reaches the furthest corners of the jungle, where mothers like Iyombe's struggle with the concept of their children's voices emerging from a little plastic box with buttons.
"Before, if you had a sick baby in the middle of the night, he could easily die," Iyombe said. "Now you can call somebody to help."
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