I’m writing from Ghana’s far North, right up along the border with Burkina Faso, for a project with UNICEF around communication for development. I just got here a week ago, but it feels like much longer. It’s funny how, no matter how much fieldwork you do, there’s still so much left to learn. On Friday we paid a visit to Bonchaso, a village made up of a few scattered mud huts 15 km down a dusty path from the nearest health center. There, we met a woman shucking peanuts underneath a tree. Her name is Esther.

She’s good-natured, cheerful, practical, and opinionated. She patiently considers all of the questions we ask about why women don’t go to the hospital to deliver their babies or how can we encourage children to wash their hands. We talk about what are the key points in time when a short message over the phone could make a difference – such as a message in the evening to put up a bednet for the night, or a message after childbirth reinforcing the importance of exclusive breastfeeding. We talk about how often we should send the message, so that it’s understood and remembered without being repetitive. Then we thank her for the help she has given us designing this system. And finally, we ask her if she has any comments about how she thinks she would, or would like to, interact with the system herself.

She explains calmly, with a smile on her face, that whatever system we design isn’t going to affect her, because she doesn’t have a phone and will never get a call.
Of course, all the cell phone ethnographers and design-for-development folks have their talk about proximate literacy, shared phone usage, and network effects. We all recognize the value of individual community catalyzers or information hubs.

At the same time, it’s hard to reconcile those arguments with the simple truth which Esther presents. At the end of the day, yes, this line of communication we throw out to the communities might help to save her life during her next labour or prevent her child from getting cholera. But even so, it’s one more conversation we’re striking up only with the relatively privileged phone owners, typically male heads of households, and one more way in which women like Esther are left on the outside, looking in.