ONE thing you notice on returning to Kenya after many years is that someone has done splendidly out of selling pea-green, bright red and banana-yellow paint. In village after village, however crummy the shops and muddily rutted the single street, you see a smartly painted green building and an even more garish red-and-yellow one, where you can buy scratch cards to top up your mobile phone either with Safaricom (green) or Celtel (yellow and red), the country's two rival firms.
They are potent symbols of the new Kenya. In 2000 some 300,000 people used mobile phones; now, in a country of 35m-plus, nearly 9m do. As a result, the lives of millions, especially the poor rural majority, have been sharply improved, because they can get round many of the obstacles posed by the decrepitude of the state-run infrastructure: of the 300,000-odd land-lines in the country, probably two-thirds are usually on the blink.
Poor Kenyan peasants wondering whether it is worth spending a day taking a bus to market to sell a sack of onions can find out the prices with just one call. Anyone with cash to transfer across the country can do so by text message, if they use Safaricom, the beefier of the two rivals. Proportionately, more people make mobile-phone calls in Nairobi, Kenya's capital, than they do in New York.