Lockdown and phones in Uganda

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Author: Anna Baral, Post-Doctoral researcher in Anthropology at Århus University (Denmark) within the project IMAGENU (Imagining Gender Futures in Uganda).

Fieldsite: Phone conversations and chats during the lockdown with auto parts workers and drivers in Kampala, capital of Uganda; and with unemployed women and NGO workers in Jinja, small tourist town and industrial centre in the eastern region of the country.

On March 30, President Yoweri Museveni announced a two-week total lockdown in Uganda, including curfew after 7 pm, the ban of all private and public transports and the closure of all businesses not selling food. The measures were extended on April 14 for three more weeks, followed by a progressive easing of the lockdown. For more than a month, my interlocutors in Uganda endured isolation in their homes, something they described as tragic and shocking. They tried to connect to friends and lovers and to maintain their dying businesses alive, by sneaking away from police controls and walking several kilometres a day through bushy shortcuts. They fed themselves and their children mainly on posho (maize flour that boiled with water represents one of Uganda’s staple foods) and held their breath, hoping that things would quickly go back to normal.

Here as elsewhere, the phone became an important daily companion. In my conversations with friends and research participants through the applications WhatsApp and Messenger, the phone itself was continuously mentioned as a multi-tasking object. A catalyst of relations and source of trouble, telephones are double-edged swords in Uganda. Many Ugandans own several SIM cards, a tactic to reduce costs by calling only numbers from the same company, but also to be able to maintain conversations with different lovers without being caught. By conveying affection – legitimate or illicit – at the same time as enabling money transfers, the phone well expresses the double face of reciprocity and the inevitable intersection between material transactions and affective ties.

During the Ugandan lockdown, I have continued my conversations with friends and research participants in the field, in Jinja (eastern Uganda) and Kampala (capital of the country). Between November 2019 and February 2020, they had taken part to my fieldwork research on the intersection of migration and intimacy, where I investigated love and marriage as projects of physical and social mobility (within IMAGENU, Århus/Copenhagen/Gulu University). In what follows, I offer some vignettes on the role of the phone for my interlocutors under the lockdown.

“Checking on”: mobile money and the burden of reciprocity

It is the phone, obviously, my only chance to reach people in the field, to “check on them” – the preferred expression in Uganda to describe an act of care and attention towards someone that you have not contacted for a while. We use voice calls, voice messages and videos to talk about family life, our countries’ situations, the government. My friends, especially those in Kampala where the anti-Covid19 measure is enforced more strictly, think that talking now is good. It allows to process the lockdown at the same time as distracting from it: ”[talking to you] really kills the boredom which is killing me”.

In the countryside and small towns, the implementation of the lockdown is weaker. Police cannot possibly stop dwellers of areas like Kikaramoja, a crowded slum in Jinja, from leaving their mud huts. Samuel, my research assistant, manages to “check on” them on his way to town to get food. From their homes, where the network is too weak for a phone call, he sends voice messages to which I reply with texts. While we wait for the voice message to download and reach me in Umeå, northern Sweden, where I stay during the peak of the pandemic, Samuel “brainstorms”, as he writes, with the interlocutors. They want to add a prayer for my family or a comment on media news in the next recording.

“Checking on”, as a way to convey care and affection both physically and on phone, has however become a rarity during the lockdown. With businesses shut down, few have money to afford airtime or the internet connection. There has been little avail for my interlocutors in trying to move business on WhatsApp, since most of their jobs (carpenters, mechanics, drivers) require physical presence. “We don’t earn, even if there could be an option to work from home with internet: so you spend money on internet but you don’t earn”. Business requires a functioning phone, but a functioning phone requires a running business. As a consequence, communication – phone calls in the first place – has dropped dramatically during the lockdown:[1]

People are forced to stop calling by the lack of money, but they also choose intentionally to reduce calls in order to avoid problems. In such dire times, most of the incoming calls are in fact request for help; in turn, calling someone may sound like an invitation to ask for support.

“Checking on” requires a careful treading between the desire to show affection and protecting oneself from bearing a loss. This affects intimate relations profoundly, as Thomas explains in relation to his friends clearly:

In the lockdown, phone calls have replaced personal visits, with which they share a fundamental ambiguity – the ambiguity of reciprocity.  Only few months earlier, the participants to my research on intimacy in Jinja described their relatives’ visits with mixed feelings, as an act of kindness that may always turn into a burden. Fearing that “checking on” will actually mean “asking for help”, one may choose to withdraw from the network: while it is difficult to refuse a physical visit, not having airtime or internet data during a lockdown is reason enough to switch off the phone and fade away.

“Mobile money love”: affection and support by phone

In the Jinja slum where I have worked, it seems that men, in particular, have made themselves unavailable during the lockdown. Kikaramoja is a highly mobile area, characterized by labour migration, where couples are usually made of individuals originating from different parts of the country. Many of the men whose wives I have interacted with during fieldwork are factory workers, traders, guards in the businesses downtown; they have moved frequently in their life, and still do it regularly to “look for eats”. It is therefore not surprising that several husbands have been “caught by the lockdown” in places far from Jinja. If their presence in the lives of wives and kids was intermittent before, the lockdown seems to have provided the perfect reason to disappear completely. “He went to Fort Portal [Western Uganda] to look for work, and that’s where the lockdown found him. But we have never heard from him since he went. He went in January this year!” Doreen tells in the conversation with Samuel, angered. ”He switched off all his phones that I knew, and I have never communicated with him after he went”.

Aisha’s husband earns a living by growing tomatoes not far from Kikaramoja, but he has told her that during the lockdown he is not earning money – a way to stop her from asking for help. “I don’t understand: you can grow tomatoes even in a lockdown!”, she complains in the audio message she records for me with Samuel, my research assistant. She keeps the phone with her, waiting for the call of her husband, who had promised to give her tomatoes: when she challenged the lockdown and walked through town to reach him, she was sad to realise that he had changed his mind. From how she retells the encounter, and from her disappointment, I understand that the man wished he had never said those things on the phone.

Rose, a neighbour, has a husband working in a factory in Jinja, where he has been trapped during the lockdown, with guards at the gate. Like many other women here, during the lockdown Rose has therefore interacted more with the neighbours and much less with the husband; Samuel and I had already noticed this habit in pre-Covid19 time, in which women lamented lack of love in their lives and found “peer groups” more fulfilling than the couple. Rose laments that the man cannot come and visit and that when he comes he refuses sex; this in particular upsets her profoundly, and makes her fear that the husband is planning to kick her off and replace her with other women. Troubled by mistrust and fears, Rose, who does not own a mobile phone, can talk to the husband only when neighbours lend her one. “But we talk only when we have no food. When the lockdown started their boss gave [him and his colleagues] 10kgs of posho each, so he called me and I went to pick them”. Communication for help is what the lockdown has left to Rose.

The intersection between material and affective dimensions of care in the couple has been increasingly acknowledged and explored by the anthropology of love and sexuality, particularly in Africa (see, for example, Chernoff 2003; Cole and Thomas 2009; Hannaford 2017). In my research on mobility and intimacy in Jinja, I explore love as a “project” that promises to project people towards a better future in both emotional and material terms – a way to personal achievement. Supporting a partner financially, for their personal development, is love; conversely, not receiving material incentives clearly signals a lack of it. Although people make fun of what is sometimes called “Mobile Money love” – a relationship based on transfers of money from one to the other, through mobile phone apps – the availability to “support” inevitably proves the solidity of a relation. That is what Thomas, a friend from Kampala, has observed in his neighbourhood. A girl living in his compound had “more than one man” before the lockdown, but the pandemic made her feelings change. “The one she loved more”, Thomas explains after talking to her, “has not shown any care because he is married; the one who has been caring for her is now the one who is loved the most”. By sending money through mobile phone applications, some have managed to maintain or reinforce their relations during the lockdown. Money transfers signal feelings worth of being returned, while the heart goes cold when money is not sent. “I can come to Kampala, I sort something out. A lot is stressing me, even our relation is affected”, Kelly’s boyfriend has written in a message to her. She tells me how the man had “started to date” her before the lockdown, and she has lent him money that he has not yet sent back. “The money issues has taken long but trust me, it will be sorted”, he has written to her, but Kelly’s mood is blue. It is difficult to say from her words if the lack of love, or the lack of money, is more disturbing: for all the above relationships, the two travel together on the telephone networks.

Sometimes, love and material transfers are misallocated. For Roger, in Jinja, the lockdown came when his girlfriend was at her parents’ place; the two have not seen each other since then. She is not allowed to receive phone calls during the day, so Roger has to call her late in the night. “When she is in need I send her some money; it’s not because she is far away that I can neglect my responsibilities”, he says in a conversation with Samuel, who has often involved him in our fieldwork research. However, rumour around him has it that Roger has been sending money to other “chicks” to pay their transports to come and visit him; they never came, blaming the lockdown, and the Mobile Money has remained in their account, while Roger can only hope for his official girlfriend to come back soon to him.

Cheating, violence and control

“My phone is always there but he can’t use it to call”, says Linda, a woman in her forties living in the slum of Kikaramoja, neighbour to Rose and Aisha. She is talking with Samuel, who has gone to “check on her”, about her husband. At the time of my fieldwork, the man had disappeared from home for months: Linda and her children had to survive by themselves or with the support of the community. She has been brewing millet beer for the slum’s bar; she has nearly broken her leg while doing laundry for the neighbours to make little money. Suddenly, the husband had got very sick, and his friends had dumped him at her hut; he was now relying upon her, making her life impossible because always grumpy, especially about food. “Before, he left us here. He couldn’t even pick up our phone calls. We were not communicating at all”, she says, bringing up the bad feelings that the phone triggers in her. However, now the husband often borrows phones from neighbours to make mysterious calls. “Do you think he’s calling his other wife?” Samuel asks her. We know from our previous fieldwork that her “husband” (a term that here refers to a father of children, but does not necessarily imply a wedding or the payment of bride wealth) has other women. “I see him talking on phone… I think he calls her. My phone is always there but he can’t use it to call!”. The telephone usage adds to the tension in the couple, to an extent that Linda is “praying the president to open public transports… I will borrow money even if it takes 100,000 schillings, so that he can go back where he was in Kampala”.

In Kampala, the lockdown has been more severe than in small towns and countryside, with a strict police control and complete shutdown of businesses. The messages with my friends often revolve around the impossibility of “physical cheating”: infidelity, however, has “became worse on phones since it’s the only way left to communicate with their other side chicks”. “You find out that some of us were cheaters”, one says. “I expect wrangles caused by phones”.

The phone, therefore, needs to be controlled. A worn-out narrative around phones is that women always strive to check their partners’ ones, while men seem to do without it. Maxwell fits this narrative. He sends me videos to tell me how life is at home; he stands under a tree in his Kampala garden, away from the house, and impatiently looks around as if he wanted to be sure that nobody is listening. He describes his relationship in the lockdown as a strained one (“we are still together only by the Grace of God, I think”), and adopts a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in his everyday life at home. He never gets close to his wife’s phone because he wants to live peacefully, but he admits having extramarital affairs. “In Uganda, you know, we have many branches,” he says, referring to a man’s many love affairs, “it is difficult to manage all the branches. Me too, of course, I was having some little one before the lockdown started… but currently, the long-distance makes it difficult”. The lockdown stopped his girlfriend at her parents’ place in western Uganda, too far to sneak out, or for him to afford to pay her transport back just to meet briefly. “Since then, we have kept chatting and calling, once in a while” something his wife has not yet realized. Maxwell becomes serious: “Some people touch other phones, but [my wife] doesn’t do it. She used to, but after getting problems with it, she stopped”. He refers to the time the woman found calls on his phone and called the numbers back. She had threatened separation, but “People around her advised her never to do it again, and we remained together”, Maxwell adds. “Now I can enjoy my life with my phone”.

Bernard’s words depict a similar pattern: “Some men are careless even if it’s lockdown. They do get more time on phones sending texts to their partners, and it’s on their Ladies [meaning, the burden is on their official partners who cannot do much about it]: since phones are considered private, they can’t check anything”. However, a minimum level of care not to be caught is needed, and men must strategise:

Men also suggest each other how to delete traces:

Women are evading the lockdown through phone adventures, too. They enjoy the “Don’t ask don’t tell” attitude of their husbands and boyfriends, and sometimes refuse to let them use their own phone, as Linda said before. Sylvia lives in Kampala, she is a middle-class educated woman in her thirties and has been working remotely since the lockdown started. We have been friends for more than a decade and chat regularly about our love lives. “Meanwhile, this lockdown has made these stupid Ugandan men horny. So far three are on my case, some calling, others sextexting and I am like ‘we better get out of this lockdown otherwise men are like hungry lions on rampage’. It’s really such a shame”. We crack up in laughter, but I want to know more what Sylvia thinks the lockdown is doing to Ugandan men:

To my question about the future, Sylvia reassures me that none of these men will be seen again when the forced isolation is over. “These Kampalarians”, as she calls them, “are just meant to be funny”, she promises: after the lockdown, everyone will go back to normal life.

When distance is just the normal

Some of my interlocutors in Jinja are Ugandans in international relationships. During my fieldwork on the intricacies of geographically mobile couples, I had already taken note of the difficulties of phone communication between Ugandan partners and their fiancés in USA and European countries. Men in Jinja who were engaged with women abroad often described the phone as one of the most sensitive issues in these relationships. The foreign partners did not seem to understand how expensive airtime is in Uganda, or that network is unstable, and most of all, how daily living conditions make it impossible to be available for romantic calls around the clock.  “I am not so good at telephone and internet”, I was told by Julius, who was planning to marry in UK in the summer 2020, a plan obviously on stall for the pandemic. He has described how his fiancé “doesn’t understand the inconvenience of talking on the phone. I am not going to pick the phone if I am on a boda boda [the local motorbike taxis] or on a matatu [14 seats vans], squeezed between other people! I understand that she can do that sitting in the tube in London”. Mark, with his Swedish sweetheart met online, had the same problem: “For her, she wants to keep you busy with the phone the whole day, and if you don’t reply in few minutes, she calls you”.

My interlocutors rolled their eyes at their partners’ insistence to call, observing that often they did not have anything interesting to share. In the lockdown, time to be on the phone has multiplied, but things to talk about have decreased:

Mark also withdrew from the communication online because “I started developing a feeling that we may not meet for so long since there is this pandemic. Coz she told me she will come to Uganda after she has been vaccinated for Corona! I don’t think the vaccine will be for now”.

For long-term distant couples, therefore, the struggle around the phone usage is nothing new; they are spared, however, from the pain of checking each other’s phone in a forced cohabitation, like other friends in Jinja and Kampala who were used to their own private spaces. To others, on the contrary, the lockdown has imposed an unwanted distance, which only the phone could bridge; men, in particular, have capitalised on this unusual situation to withdraw from phone connections completely.

Source of trouble, materialisation of neglect, opportunity for new adventures or tool to receive material support, the phone expands the possibilities of intimacies but can aliment suspicion and distress (see, for example, Archambault 2017). In this ambivalence, it has appeared in literally every conversation with Ugandan interlocutors during the lockdown. I am grateful that my friends and research participants in Jinja and Kampala, and my research collaborator Samuel Mubbale, have accepted to use their phones also to communicate with me, easing my isolation in the pandemic, “checking on me” and maintaining our connection alive, despite the obviously infrastructural difficulties:


Archambault, J. S. (2017). Mobile Secrets: youth, intimacy, and the politics of pretense in Mozambique. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Chernoff, J. M. (2003). Hustling is not Stealing: Stories of an African Bar Girl. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cole, J. and L. M. Thomas (eds.) (2009). Love in Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hannaford, D. (2017). Marriage Without Borders: Transnational Spouses in Neoliberal Senegal. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.


[1]All screenshots in this piece are produced artificially with an app; they reproduce real excerpts from my WhatsApp and Messenger chats with research participants, but I have changed all the interlocutors’ names.