Wrong number? Let’s talk’
Sometimes the wrong numbers work. In the savannah of East Africa, Maasai herders can form important new social relationships when they call their cell phones wrong, our new study of these communities has revealed. The Maasai have traditionally lived in relatively independent and homogeneous groups, but these numbering errors present them to strangers near and far. And some even become friends or business partners.
Maasai social life is centered on family relationships. However, groups organized by age and clan are also long-standing and critically important. In a difficult savannah landscape, these intersecting social networks offer a strong network of friendships and business partnerships. And now, with cell phones, communication through these networks is much easier.
Previous studies have shown that the Maasai widely use phones communicate with people they already know. It is much less common for them to use phones to communicate with strangers. Usually people meet face to face and keep in touch with phones.
That may be changing – and in a way that can offer lessons to companies and tech companies around the world.
“Good things are coming”
About 2 million Maasai live mainly in Kenya and Tanzania. Between 2018 and 2019, our team interviewed hundreds of Maasai in Tanzania to learn more about how they use phones. We have found that some Maasai form meaningful social bonds with people they meet through wrong numbers.
When asked why people use phones this way, one respondent commented, “Good things happen”.
In our 2021 article we discuss how and why the Maasai form these accidental friendships, their frequency and their link to local livelihoods.
First, numbering errors may be more common in Maasai groups than in others. Low literacy levels can lead to mistakes when people are unfamiliar with the numbers and letters printed on phone buttons. Poor access to electricity can also cause errors. When phone batteries run out, people borrow other phones and enter numbers manually. But mistakes are common and people can be logged on randomly across Tanzania and parts of Kenya.
Respondents told us that they can be really curious about calls from unknown numbers and are happy to answer.
When wrong numbers occur, callers can simply recognize the error and hang up quickly. But they can also chat and get to know each other. For example, if both parties start the call by speaking Maa, the Maasai language, they might want to know more about each other. By sharing the age groups and clans to which they belong, callers mark their social positions in relation to each other. From there, livestock and the weather can be easy topics to discuss.
But even callers from different ethnic groups are connecting. Most Maasai also speak Swahili, the national language of Tanzania. Callers can talk about anything, but social media conversations and business activities seem to be common. Ultimately, when one of the parties saves the number and uses it again, some sort of accidental friendship is formed.
Accidental friends offer information, resources
In our sample of about 300 Maasai men, 46% had one of these accidental friendships. Women, we were told, do not form these friendships because men, often controlling husbands, limit or monitor women’s access to telephones. Men, however, form these bonds for many reasons.
First, social media is of critical importance to the Maasai. In the absence of other social safety nets, such as insurance or Medicaid, networks help them manage many challenges. So it’s not necessarily surprising that some have used the wrong numbers to learn more about other people and places. Distant contacts can be invaluable for future trips. As pastoralists who graze large herds over large areas, the Maasai are particularly interested in weather, forage quality and livestock conditions elsewhere. They are also attentive to opportunities to establish business relationships and gain access to land. Ultimately, the ease of calling and talking of mobile technology works well for mobile breeders.
Information itself is valuable and can also lead to materials, markets and money. A Maasai described how, during a severe drought, he was able to move his cattle to land in another village to graze. It was illegal, but the accidental friend he made in this village claimed the animals were his – and the herd survived where many did not.
Another person described how he connected with a man far off the coast who was looking for a rare medicinal plant. This Maasai is now harvesting the plant and making regular shipments to a buyer in Dar es Salaam, the country’s largest city.
The groups also shared stories of how the Maasai rented land from outsiders to start new farms. One of them described how he became a close friend of his tenant and learned a lot about farming.
Accidental friendships, especially between Maa-speaking individuals, can also mobilize and reinforce long-standing cultural practices. People told us how they had traded traditional cattle gifts formalize their friendships. One man recounted how he helped an accidental friend far south find a traditional Maasai chief who would travel to mediate a difficult local dispute.
For the Maasai, who are traditionally polygamous and usually organize weddings, wrong numbers can help. On two occasions, men told us that they found wives for their sons through accidental friends.
The bad numbers have gone wrong
As one would expect, this practice raises concerns and problems. Valuable new social bonds can disappear without recourse when phones are lost or broken. In addition, opportunistic or deceptive callers can use wrong numbers as an excuse to support scams to get rich quick, cure illness, become famous or find love.
Pastoral Studies have also discovered that cell phones have become vehicles for dishonesty. A study in Kenya found that people lie about the weather exclude outside herds from valuable forages. And a study in Tanzania found that people lie about where they are to avoid face-to-face visits, which are often requests for financial assistance. Our team also reported that newlyweds can use phones to facilitate extramarital affairs, a new method for an old practice in polygamous marriages, certainly used by both men and women.
With this study, we also found that accidental friendships can amplify tensions around the earth.
Across northern Tanzania, access to land is increasingly scarce due to population growth and the spread of commercial agriculture. In some of the communities in our study, people are concerned about converting grazing land, essential for livestock and wildlife, into new farms.
Foreigners often regard our study region as largely open and underdeveloped. We have learned that when people in remote areas find out that they have made connections with someone in that area, they may apply for land to be converted to farming, sometimes by harassing their contacts. Ultimately, local tensions over grazing, farming, and restricted access to land can escalate when local Maasai provide plots to accidental friends and their families rather than to other inhabitants.
Accidental Friends Are Social Networking Innovations
These results contrast somewhat with studies from other developing regions around the world who highlighted how important phones are in maintaining connections within familiar groups. Phone errors here help people expand their networks and even their income.
Overall, these links create important new opportunities for individuals but new challenges for communities. And these are new kinds of connections that can undermine old and important ones.
Accidental friends don’t quite fit with researchers’ understanding of how people connect. In life, encounters between people are limited by many factors. Race, class, gender, occupation, and geography limit everyone they meet and connect with. But through flawed numbers, these factors play a much smaller role in who meets the Maasai. In a way, bad numbers broaden their horizons.
Like many groups in developing areas, the Maasai have not yet immersed themselves in smartphones and their attire. But their use of the wrong numbers can still offer ideas for more “social” social media. The fundamental decision to engage with a stranger, encountered almost at random, suggests an openness to diversity and a general sense of optimism towards people. Given humans’ innate desire to connect, the tech landscape may need more mistakes, not less.
This article is republished from The conversation, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to unlocking ideas from academia, under a Creative Commons license.