Continental Drift

November 1, 2010

The Cross-Cultural Work Environment

Filed under: Uncategorized — unaleona @ 2:11 pm

One day we were sitting in strategic planning session #5125 for the future of MHOP, and Dr. Diak’s phone rang.  He obviously immediately answered the phone, while still sitting in the meeting.  This is not noteworthy.  After a few dirty looks from the American side of the team, he got up and took his (loud) conversation outside.  But almost immediately, he came running back in.

“ I have an announcement,” he said, “that I think will be of interest to everyone here.”  We look up, waiting to hear that the fridge has arrived at the clinic, or that some medical bigwig friend of us is going to introduce us to the president. But no.
Dr. Diak giving a slightly more important speech at the clinic opening. In the center in the suit.

“I just received a call from our association of concerned medical professionals, they confirm the news that I’m sure some of you, within this very group, have already heard.”

The Americans look at him blankly, the Malians nod.

“As you know, there have been rumors across the city of Bamako and these rumors are true.  Patients are really, right now, at the hospital, and the doctors in my association are going to investigate the scientific causes right now.”

Americans wildly look around at each other, wondering if we are in the middle of a cholera outbreak.

“The phone calls we have all heard about, are real. Please do not answer the phone for numbers that you don’t know.  These calls, they can even come from real numbers, Malian numbers that look like my phone number or yours.”

Looking around, he interrupts himself.

“I see that some of you may not know what I am referring to.”


“Since yesterday, there have been rumors flying around Bamako about people who are falling ill, and it is caused by phone calls.  Some unfortunate criminals are using the cell phone network to injure people.  They are calling from special numbers, and when people answer the phone they start to bleed from their ears and their noses. These numbers look just like regular Malian numbers, so it is imperative not to answer the phone unless the number is saved in your phone already.

Many people in Bamako have someone close to them in the hospital because of this.  This is very serious, I have just had it confirmed from the head of our association, this is not just a rumor. They are heading to the hospital right now to examine those who are ill, and to discover the causes of this illness and how it is spread.”

“It’s true,” said my Malian colleague Adama, “this is all anyone was talking about all last night.”

There were many issues with this going through my head, such as the fact that this was crazy, such as incredulity that Diak had interrupted a meeting to tell us this, and a strong urge to laugh.  I also was thinking about the fact that about 85% of calls I receive are from numbers not saved in my phone book.

This is mostly because in Mali, everyone has one “puce” (sim card) for Orange, the French mobile giant, and one for Malitel, the privatized spinoff of the national Malian telephone company Sotelma. They switch back and forth between puces so as to get the best possible rate on calls depending on which company the person they are calling has.   Then of course, since the phone system here is prepaid, everyone is perpetually out of credit, so they are constantly calling you from someone else’s phone (and then hanging up before you can answer, called “beeping”) in order to get in touch with you. If I stopped answering calls from unknown numbers, I would never talk to anyone who wasn’t American.  But that would be going a bit far anyway, and this is a digression. More importantly, I was somewhat curious to know what was actually happening to these bleeding people in the hospital.

So I made the mistake of asking, “Wait, what? How does answering the phone make people sick?”

And so the discussion devolved into potential ‘scientific’ scenarios in which this would be possible.  This sounded like screenplay ideas for the next terrible horror movie franchise.

“Well we all know, of course,” responded Diak, “that if the decibel level is high enough it can injure your ear drums.”

Our Programs Manager, Erin, wondered aloud whether perhaps a phone wouldn’t be capable of being that loud.  Also, would ear-drum damage cause ear bleeding, let alone nose bleeding?

And so the discussion became an exceedingly strange attempt to reconcile skepticism (from everyone) with what seemed to be the extreme belief on the Malian side that what the rumors said must be true.

In the midst of all this, another Malian colleague’s cell phone rang. It was a call from someone not saved in his phone book. He showed it to us, shrugged, and and answered the phone.  We all held our breath. No blood ensued.

Just another day at the office.


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