A story is told of a couple caught up in marital maelstrom because the wife persistently complained her husband was getting home late every night and she made it known she was very unhappy about it.
Keen to calm the wife, who was suspecting infidelity, the husband promised to ensure that he’d come home earlier than he was doing.
On the very next day after the promise, he was running late again.
The frustrated wife gave their five-year-old her phone and asked him to call the dad and find out where he was. After all, she was busy cooking but the clanking of pots and pans suggested that her patience had worn quite thin.
The boy came back and said “Mama, I can’t get dad on the line. There’s only a woman speaking.”
The wife flew into a rage and, as soon as the husband walked in, she threw anything at him.
Attracted by the commotion, a couple of neighbours intervened.
The sobbing wife narrated her story. She vehemently accused her husband of insensitivity and infidelity. Now, it had all come together. He had been called and a woman had received the call.
Unable to comprehend it all, one of the neighbours turned to the terribly frightened five-year-old and asked: “What did the woman say?”
“Mteja wa nambari uliopiga hapatikani ...” And before he could finish, all the adults in the room knew what had actually happened.
It turned out that the husband’s cellphone battery had died out and he had to repair a puncture on the way home. Everyone went home in silence and left a woman apologising to her husband and son.
And now, finally, Lifestyle can put a face to the woman’s voice that announces: “Mteja wa nambari ...” when you call an unreachable Safaricom user. The mteja has finally been found.
The Mombasa-born lady said she had been waiting for the opportune time to open up, which she believes is now — when Kenya’s most profitable company is marking 15 years since it was switched on.
When you dial a Safaricom line that is switched off, what you hear on the other end is: “Samahani, mteja wa nambari uliyopiga hapatikani kwa sasa (Sorry, the mobile subscriber cannot be reached).”
That is Ms Maggie Wazome’s voice, recorded months before the mobile service provider opened its doors in October 2000.
The word “mteja” as used in Ms Wazome’s message has long become part of everyday Kenyans’ conversations and is a widely accepted colloquial term for being offline.
So ingrained has the word been in the national language that we traced it in Parliament’s official record, the Hansard, where it was used on the floor of the House on July 10, 2007 by then Khwisero MP Julius Odenyo Arungah. We also spotted the word in three court judgments. It also features in lyrics of at least two mainstream songs.
Never had the former student of the Blanes Secretarial College dreamt that her voice would be the one to clothe a message that resonates with so many Kenyans. Ms Wazome, currently a support analyst at Safaricom’s customer care department, does not recall exactly when she hit the studio to voice those lines, but she knows that she beat tens of other ladies who had read the same message.
She was called to read the lines by one Andrew Crawford, who ran a recording studio and who was then in charge of producing commercials at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC).
At that time she was not an employee of Safaricom.
Crawford, she says, never told them what the lines they were recording were intended for.
“I read a few lines that had varied content; and one of them was ‘mteja wa nambari uliyopiga’ I had no idea what they were about,” she said, adding that she did not read the English version of the message.
Little did she know that she had read a line that would earn her the nickname “mteja”.
“At that point I was so young I was just thinking money. I was just thinking, ‘Let me make some little pocket money for myself.’ Little did I know it was going to turn out really in a nice way. So, I did the lines and they told me, ‘Okay, there is a client who is looking for a particular voice; so we will call you back and let you know.’”
She was later called to read the lines once more.
“They told me, ‘You know, there are several of you who are doing these lines. So, the client is going to pick the voice he is happy with.’ Then this particular time I was called and they said, ‘Maggie, there are 16 of you. So, if you’re lucky, the client is going to listen to all of those 16 nice voices and will get back to you.’”
“The next call I got, they were like, ‘Okay, Maggie you are the lucky one at the end of the day.’ Up to that time, by the way, I had no idea it was Safaricom. I had no clue whatsoever,” she said.
She would later learn that it was Safaricom that paid for her voice when one of her friends told her that there was a familiar voice on the other end of the line.
Her voice also features in some other automated Safaricom responses.
“If you dial a number and you probably leave out a digit, I am the one behind the Kiswahili prompt that lets you know what to do. There are one or two more I think, which are used at the appropriate time. I recorded all those lines on that same day,” she said.
It is Crawford’s agency that paid her for the recording.
She had met the proprietor when she worked part-time at KBC where she was part of the team behind 'Ugua Pole na Lucozade', a Sunday afternoon show hosted by legendary presenter Fred Obachi Machoka.
Mr Machoka had recommended that she voices commercials and that is how she met Crawford.
She also had a stint as a presenter at Radio Citizen in its early years.
After quitting Radio Citizen, she worked as a personal assistant at a firm that was a subsidiary of Booker Tate. It was while working at that firm that she got to record the “mteja” statement with Crawford’s agency.
Trained as a personal assistant, Ms Wazome developed interest in presenting following words said to her by one-time KBC presenter Tido Muhando.
“I met him in Nairobi with a group of people. Just by hearing my voice, he said, ‘My goodness, this voice sounds like radio voice.’ And that’s what led me to all these other places. He is the person who discovered me,” Ms Wazome noted.
Encouraged by that, she enrolled at Kenya Institute of Mass Communication and, while a student there, KBC’s Abdul Haqq came scouting for talent.
“A few of us said a few lines, read a few things, and he said, ‘My goodness, this voice is amazing.’” That landed her in Machoka’s team.
About four months after Mr Crawford informed her that her voice had been accepted, Ms Wazome saw a newspaper advertisement in which Safaricom was looking for customer care representatives among other staff. She applied for it and, during the interview, she shocked the panel by telling them she was the one behind the “mteja” voice.
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“They made me repeat it and they were like, ‘Oh my goodness!’ Maybe that helped me get the job, I don’t know,” she said.
After training, she was then posted to the customer care desk; charged with handling customers’ concerns. In a few months, she was then promoted to her current position. Her career at Safaricom started at an office near Sarit Centre. Around 2007, they were relocated to the Jambo Contact Centre along Mombasa Road.
The mother of two works on the 11 am to 8 pm shift and her work entails handling problems that have been escalated to her by those at the call centre. She is part of a team of more than 90 employees and says the shift fits her well because her two children, a daughter aged 22, and a son, 21, are both in college.
“It gives me so much pleasure for me to call back a customer who had some difficulty and be able to actually have them say, ‘thank you so much’ and make their day. That is the satisfaction that I get,” she said of her work.
She joked that it is “disappointing” that no caller has ever asked her whether she is the one in the “mteja” prompt.
Fifteen years and counting, her voice has been the one delivering the news about an unreachable subscriber in Kiswahili.
Hers has been one of the most identifiable Safaricom signatures from the time the firm started with a handful of subscribers to the present moment when it has over 24 million users, according to its CEO Bob Collymore.
In a commentary published by the Business Daily in September, Mr Collymore said over 70 per cent of the country is covered by Safaricom’s network.
“Safaricom is proud to have contributed to the growth of Kenya’s economy through years of continued investment coupled with hard work. We have extended beyond traditional mobile telephone services to carve out new ground in the mobile money economy,” he wrote.
Some of Safaricom’s milestones during that period include introduction of M-Pesa in 2007, its public listing in 2008, introduction of the 3G network in 2008 and migrating the M-Pesa servers from Germany to Kenya in April this year.
The firm recorded a profit of Sh31.9 billion in the year ended March 31, 2015. In March, the Business Daily reported that its market value had risen to a record Sh630 billion, placing it in a league of its own at the Nairobi Securities Exchange.
“It is now larger than the next three biggest firms put together, with billions to spare,” the newspaper said.
Lifestyle traced Safaricom’s entry in the market in the Daily Nation of October 21, 2000. An advertising supplement was run that day in which various firms congratulated it on its launch.
In the same newspaper, all phones advertised by firms like Cheche Telkom and Mobitech had the characteristic imposing antenna typical of phones of that period. One model on offer, a Sony Ericson A1018s, cost Sh6,900. It weighed 163 grammes and measured 13 by five centimetres.
We asked Ms Wazome how it feels to see Safaricom grow through the years.
“I feel extremely proud, in capital letters. Reason being, I have also grown tremendously. When you work for a sound company that cares for its employees and really takes care of you, it helps you grow in many different ways. I have a lot of things that I didn’t have then because of working here. So, I’m extremely proud.”
She is equally thrilled that her message has been the subject of a number of jokes.
Facebook user Dexter Bionic, for instance, in 2008 posted on Facebook page “Mchongoano!” about it: “Andrew una simu bwaku hadi ukiwa mteja inadai ‘Jiteja la nambari uliopiaga halipatikani.’ Hehe.”
On the same “Mchongoano!” platform, Steve Muasa wrote in 2009: “You are so stupid mpaka ukipiga simu uambiwe, ‘Mteja hapatikani’ unauliza, ‘Na unafanya nini na simu yake?’”
Even the administrator of Safaricom’s Facebook page, with initials RM, joked about it in an April 30, 2015 message.
“Our ‘Mteja wa nambari’ lady woke up with a sore throat today. Save her the trouble and switch on your phones ... Good morning,” RM wrote.
Ms Wazome said she has heard of a few jokes on the topic too, some practical.
“When my friends are introducing me to a group of people, they want everyone to know that I am the ‘mteja’ lady. So if the person being told does not believe me, I have to repeat the line. I have done it a thousand times,” she said.
“The best part is, I sometimes hear myself when I’m calling someone,” she added amid laughter.
“It feels a bit awkward but, you know, I guess I’m just proud to know that I present a message; a message of umepatikana ama hujapatikana (you are reachable or not). That’s what it is.”
And has she ever heard of the little boy who repeated her message to the mother and caused chaos in the family?
Ms Wazome laughed it off.
“Let them be educated and sensitised. In such a situation, they should have established that it’s not just one phone returning such a response. They should have taken others, switched them off then dialled their lines and let them hear the response coming from those lines. That would have sorted out the issue,” she said.
“Some even don’t know it’s a recorded voice. Could I be seated there making all those responses?”
Our conversation with Ms Wazome veered into the hackneyed concern that it’s often women voicing automated messages in the computing world. Be it in a lift, a voice assistant, automated instructions, often it is a woman behind the voice.
Why always women?
She responded tongue-in-cheek.
“Women have a lean voice that soothes the client and pampers them. It is pleasant to the ears. The voice lowers your temperature,” she said.
“If it were a man (telling customers that the subscriber is unavailable), callers would die of trauma.”
And why was she apprehensive about letting the world know her?
“At first I wasn’t really sure I really wanted to do it. And I didn’t want to expose myself. But I guess with time I’ve told myself, ‘Come, on; it’s not a big deal.’ But it had to come out at an appropriate time.
“I kept on feeling, ‘No, there’s gotta be a moment where I can confidently feel that I want to do it. And what a more appropriate time than now, when we are celebrating 15 years? And it’s my voice, whoa! Hallelujah.” she said.
And in future?
“To be honest, I’ll stay where I am because I’m doing something I enjoy doing passionately,” she said.