Kampala Humming Away to Silent Disco

Earphones bring friendliness and socialising to a halt

Opposite University hall, at Makerere University, a woman sells an interesting array of phone accessories. They include duplicate chargers, cases for phones, earphones and the most striking of all, huge and colourful headphones. The headphones look like they wouldn’t be worn by anybody at least not when they are on the move and need to listen to some music.

But, a few paces from her is another vendor selling all the items she is selling, including the colourful headphones!

Headphones and their smaller, more convenient sister, earphones, are obviously a hot item here, going by the fact that two vendors, a few paces from each other, are selling them. Earphones do not only sell among the young at the university.

On Burton street, on the verandahs of buildings opposite the old taxi park, vendors upon vendors are selling suspect earphones. Many of them are Made in China duplicates, no doubt, but they sell like hot cake, nonetheless. Nearby, at the public toilets opposite Aponye mall or Mega Standard supermarket, is a vendor selling multitudes of, again, suspect-looking earphones suspect because they look like they will cease working after a few days of use.

Earphones are all over, like an epidemic, and while they were previously favoured by the young, who enjoy listening to their music on the go, you will once in a while see a relatively old man with earphones, listening to birango (death announcements) instead of holding the stereotypical small radio receiver to his ear as before. The wide reach of the mobile phone – complete with in-built radio transmitter – is to thank for the earphones mania.

For the older citizens whose tender ears cannot stand the constant droning inside the ear, they have still figured out how to use them as antennas for their budget mobile phones and get the in-built radio to broadcast that evening prayer with Pr David Kiganda.

Suddenly, people are talking too loudly, trying to hold conversations over the music blaring out of their headphones. In a taxi, two or three insensitive passengers will take it a notch higher and sing along off-key (only as a hapless earphone user can) to kadongo kamu in the backseat, Jay-Z behind the driver’s seat, and Irene Ntale in the front seat. Life is sweet.

Holding a conversation with a teenager is next to impossible these days as ears are always busy with those small electronic buds, and even couples on date night have been seen in the blissful agony as they fumble with their phones and adjust earphones as they wait for the waiter to deliver their orders. What next?!

Bring The Bling On:

When the mobile phone first entered Uganda in the 1990s, it did not come with earphones. Nokia phones were a Ugandan’s favourite – do you remember the Nokia 5110, 1011, 3210 and 3310s? – and the earlier versions did not come with FM radios or music players.

This meant that earphone use was limited to lucky owners of Walkmans and Discmans. In the early to mid-2000s, mobile phones with radio and music players entered the Ugandan market – the Nokia 5510, released in 2001 had 64mbs of music storage space – but earphones were still minimally used.

And by then, MP3 players were littering the market too and young people were transferring music from their CD collections, onto the tiny digital players. A new era of music and mobile irritation had dawned. With the entrance of smartphones in the market, earphone use increased. This was exacerbated by the fact that low-end phones also came with earphones.

“Over 80 per cent of the phones we sell today come with earphones. Even low-end phones come with them a phone costing [Shs] 60,000 and above comes with earphones,” Mark Rwomushana, the CEO of Simba Telecom, says.

While he can’t say whether earphone use in Uganda has increased by virtue of the fact that more mobile phones come with earphones, Medi Nsubuga, the manager of two-year-old Mr Gadget, a phone and phone-accessories shop in Kampala, agrees that the accessories are now a must-have.

He backs his view with data from earphone sales made at his shop.

“I stock about 1,500 earphone pieces every two months and they are all bought. People see fashionable TV stars with earphones and they want to look like them so, they buy and use earphones so as to be seen,” Nsubuga says.

Yes, earphones and headphones can be so fashionable these days some come with matching danglers (earrings) so that the user’s bling fits in with their headphones. And if you can afford a genuine, pricey pair of Beats by Dr Dre – heck, even a good imitation from China will do – then you are making a serious fashion statement on these dusty streets.

Poor Radio Sets:

Earphone use has its aantages such as increasing radio listenership, but one wonders, what happens to actual radio set sales. Martha, 39, last bought a radio in 1998 – a Hermann Kardon she acquired in Germany during her travels.

“It is still in perfect condition, but I find my phone FM radio more accessible,” she said.

Indeed, as is evident in arcades downtown, radio manufacturers are going out of their way to keep the gadgets from extinction like what happened to the cassette, Walkman and VCRs. They are adding TV screens and a host of other special effects to attract buyers. Otherwise, all one needs is a good phone and earphones.

In fact, traders at Modern Electronics (Kampala road) and Katende Electronics (Yamaha Centre) said they sell more home theatres and sub-hoofers than radio sets, because at home, a smart phone and good home theatre are all one needs to get the house pumping with good music. Once outdoors, the earphones bring the good times along.

And while generations-past families possibly bonded over plays such as W’okulira broadcast on Radio Uganda (now UBC radio) and brought into the home through one Grundig radio set, these days it is dad in his bedroom with BBC, Debbie in her bedroom with Touch FM in her ears, mum in the kitchen with a preacher in her ears, and Mark in another room playing loud music.

Anti-social behaviour:

University student Damalie’s mother hates the fact that she uses her earphones so often, and her hatred does not come from the fact that she thinks her daughters’ ear-health is at risk.

“She never hears when you call out to her with the earphones in her ears,” Damalie’s mother complains. “You can also never have a conversation with her when she is using those earphones.”

You have perhaps come across earphone-wearing individuals in taxis or offices who, should you dare to take them away from their “in-ear buddies” by engaging in unending conversation, will give you irritated looks, enough to finally shut you up and make you reach for your own earphones.

“If music evolved as a social glue for the species – as a way to make groups and keep them together – headphones allow music to be enjoyed friendlessly as a way to savour our privacy, in heightened solitude,” an online article on headphone usage, says.

The article also quotes a professor of media studies at the University of Western Ontario, as saying that the aent of the use of headphones resulted in “middle-class men [beginning to shut] out their families with giant headphones and hi-fi equipment.”

While men were shutting out their families in the USA with those giant headphones, in Uganda, the young, by and largely, are shutting out the old with their small earphones.


If you are an earphone- or headphone-user, you have probably heard that earphone use could prove dangerous to your ear health that you could go deaf with prolonged exposure to loud sounds. You might not have heard, however, that earphone or headphone use could get you killed.

It is a long shot and Dr Steven Kasiima, the director of Traffic and Road Safety at the Uganda Police Force, and other police officers working in the directorate of traffic and road safety, have not heard of anyone who passed away in a road accident because their noise-cancelling headphones were so good they were oblivious to dangerous traffic but one could die through failing to hear oncoming traffic.

“Using earphones, especially while one is driving, can be distractive. This makes people accident-prone,” Kasiima says.

He adds: “We have not heard of instances where a driver died because they were using earphones but have recorded accidents that occurred purely because a driver was distracted. One of these occurred six years ago in Kampiringisa [Mpigi]. A bus driver, who was carrying children, was so distracted by a phone conversation he was having, the bus overturned. One or two of the children died,” Kasiima said at his CPS office on November 5.

Some years ago, an Indian lady, reported to be the daughter-in-law of businessman Mansur Alam, passed away when she did not hear an oncoming train, and the people who tried to alert her to it, because she was talking on her mobile phone with her windows up.

Earphones or headphones used while driving could result in a similar accident. Even those used when one is taking a walk, jogging or crossing the road could prove dangerous. Don’t wait to make up the statistics ease up a bit. Otherwise, we risk having a city of humming, bobbing heads, with no meaningful relationships outside our phones.

Source : The Observer

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