In the early 1990s, I was working for the National Organization for Bible Translation and Literacy in Burkina Faso. Among other things, I worked with the African translators. Among them was Nicolas who was working in his language, Winye, in the town of Ouri.
One day Nicolas came to me at the office in Ouagadougou with a proposal to have a telephone put in the translation office in Ouri, saying that there was a phone in the police station not far away. After getting an estimate, we asked the phone company to install the phone. A few weeks later Nicolas was again in Ouagadougou for consultations when he told me that the phone had been installed. “Great”, I said, “What is the phone number? His response was “5”.
I just looked at him. “How can I dial just 5?”, I exclaimed. “Oh”, he said. “It is a manual phone exchange, so you have to call the operator, tell her you want number 5 in Ouri. She will take your number and call you back when she makes the connection.”
A few days later when Nicolas was back in Ouri, I decided to try the new phone. It worked just like Nicolas said. I called the operator, asked for #5 in Ouri, she took my number and called me back in a few minutes. “I have your party in Ouri” she said. I started talking. But it was not Nicolas! The fun started.
“To whom am I speaking?”, I asked.
“Oh, to the operator in Ouri”, the reply came back.
“Okay, I would like to be connected to #5, please”
“Yeah, I know. But just before your call came I saw Nicolas leave the office. I can see his office out my window.”
“Oh, so now what?
“I can take a message”
I started dictating the message. It was slow and tedious. Part way through I could hear the phone being set down, some scuffling and then in a loud yell:
“Nicolas, I have your boss on the phone. He wants to talk to you.”
(I presumed that he was yelling this out the window at Nicolas who was returning to the office.)
And so I got to speak to Nicolas.
A few months later Nicolas was again in Ouagadougou. He told me that the old manual phone exchange had been replaced with an automatic one. So the Winye translation office now had a real phone number. I wrote it down, looked at it and thought, “This is not going to be nearly as much fun.”
When I tell this story to Americans of a certain age, they tell me about how their phone operators used to do all kinds of things for their clients, back in the day.