Article from the series: Frequently Asked Questions about Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo
SHORT ANSWER: YES, AND THIS IS WHY …
If you want to make your trip to the Gorilla Highlands region of Uganda, Rwanda, and DR Congo as easy as possible, acquire a local SIM card right at the airport. Purchasing your SIM is not too complicated (you will only need to have an unlocked phone and a passport with a valid visa) but comes with numerous benefits:
1) A better and cheaper internet connection
Mobile internet in the region is relatively cheap. With a local SIM card you can buy low-cost data bundles and avoid hefty roaming expenses (a gigabyte would be around a dollar, and it gets cheaper if you purchase a bigger bundle). Mobile data provides a better connection than the free but slow WiFi available in large hotels and better restaurants.
2) Low-cost calls and bundles
Local and international calls become significantly less expensive with a local SIM card. This is particularly true if you buy bundles (those for calling other continents start at USD 1 for 15 minutes).
3) Mobile money
This secure electronic wallet service linked to the SIM card allows you to store and manage your money. Local kiosks are available around the region and can be used to deposit and withdraw funds from your account. With the money in your electronic wallet you can buy airtime, data and call bundles, and other goods and services from registered merchants.
This last concept, known as MoMoPay on the MTN network, is widely employed in Uganda and Rwanda. It gives you the ability to shop at stores by simply entering the amount from your bill and the shop code. There are no hidden costs or complications.
Girlfriends in Your Hand (As Long as They Aren’t Facebook Users!)
Mobile phones (or cellphones, if you are American) rule around the globe. This is also the case in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The widespread availability of that small device that is always buzzing in our pocket has altered the way we live, no matter where we are from.
Farmers can speak with potential buyers, a person can stay in touch with all his/her lovers and the internet is always in our hands.
The last two advantages may be critical for travellers to the Gorilla Highlands. If I have one piece of advice as a recent expert in being a rookie who had to figure everything out on his own, it is: make sure you get yourself a local SIM card!
The Awkward Minute
Getting a SIM was the first thing I did when I arrived at Entebbe International airport (you can also get them at the airports of Kigali or Goma). If you’ve missed the mobile phone outlets when you flew in, do not worry. Fortunately, there are more than enough service centres in the region. The phone is the lifeblood here, and you can sort yours out almost anywhere. MTN and Airtel are the most widely used mobile service providers.
As mentioned in the box above, you’ll need your passport and visa to get access to your own SIM card. I have to warn you though: don’t get scared if the person behind the desk suddenly aims the camera of his or her phone at you! Apparently, a picture with your SIM card next to your face is necessary to complete the process — I had to hold the card close to my cheeks! It was one of the most awkward moments of my life for me. I’m not sure how to pose. The end result was a photograph of the most awful smile I’d ever seen (sorry, I don’t have a copy).
(Shadow) Digital Lifestyle
During my first weeks here, I saw that Ugandans, especially the young, were engrossed in their phones, just as they are worldwide. This fact of life is something I wasn’t expecting because I’d heard that the people of this lovely country have an insatiable desire to talk. So I asked a local what they were all doing on their phones. But I could’ve guessed the answer, “Mostly chatting with relatives, friends and family.” They are still talking, just digitally. The majority of the time, they do so over WhatsApp because it is even cheaper than using airtime.
While Meta is the winner here, their Facebook app is the loser in Uganda. As they say, it’s complicated, but Facebook is forbidden in the land of President Museveni for purely political reasons (sorry, Mark).
So, if you want access to the amazing world of the “blue app” social media you will need to, technically, become a criminal. As a disciplined volunteer I would of course never do that, but some friends of mine seem to have VPN (Virtual Private Network) solutions to get around this restriction. It reportedly — but I, myself, would truly never know about this! — isn’t easy to install VPN software on your laptop because (of course) many of the services are blocked.
From Livestock to Mobile Debts
Personally, I think Mobile Money is the most remarkable digital driver. A concept that doesn’t exist in Europe at all, because the regulations wouldn’t allow!
It has evolved into a type of financial system that is very accessible to the illiterate and the rural in Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo. They used to keep their money safe by investing it in livestock, or hiding it in a bottle or sticking it into some folded clothes. Now, however, they can store their savings on a mobile phone.
People send and receive payments remotely and can even obtain airtime loans. In fact, many locals live in constant debt to their service providers — when they load any money, it first covers their debts to the telecommunications company, with interest of course!
Yes, the electronic wallet service also causes problems. East Africans aren’t the most financially disciplined people. Walking around with mobile money is similar to walking around with a huge stash of cash. When you combine this with poor financial practices, you have a recipe for disaster — the temptation to spend can be overwhelming.
Aside from that, I’ve heard stories of fraudsters utilising the banking network to set up a variety of scams. For example, some tricksters call you to say you have won the jackpot in a certain competition. Then you’ll be told to hold the line. They ask for your mobile money password after a few shenanigans, and bang! Your funds have been depleted.
Mobile Money finally has one more huge disadvantage, the most serious of all, according to a private source (who desires to stay nameless). Now guys have no excuse at all to refuse their girlfriends’ money requests …
featured photo by the author, others by Miha Logar