Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Valuing Connection: The Interface between Tradition and Technology


At the sixth annual conference for funded researchers at the Institute for Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion, director Bill Maurer introduced the proceedings by acknowledging the limitations of the closed knowledge forms rewarded by academia that present "neutral academic perspectives" in peer-reviewed journals.  He also noted that Silicon Valley ways of knowing may also be inadequate for understanding perspectives from the Global South.  In particular, he observed that cash may be criticized as a vulnerable currency that is easily stolen and even eaten by vermin and exotic creatures such as elephants, but cash also represents important "public infrastructure," a state-supported means of value transfer that is available without fees or tolls.  By aiming to include "the voices of those who would be most impacted" to understand the collision between traditional values and new monetary technologies, IMTFI aims to include people in remote areas "not just people in urban centers" visiting the U.S. "from Delhi and Manilla."  This particular scholarly occasion is also intended to support ongoing collaborations throughout the year with "resources to help people get in touch" as they negotiate realization of what is always understood to be a "midstream" presentation of research each year.

The first presentation about "When the Dead Decide: An Investigation into the Influence of the Ancestors in the Decision to Use Mobile Technology in a Rural Community in Northern Ghana" presented a unique fieldwork approach that incorporated traditional divination as a research method. Francis Niagia Santuah from the University for Development Studies and the West African Resilience Innovation Lab  presented the bulk of the findings with Martin Alichimah of Roots and Futures available to discuss the somewhat unconventional methodology that researchers used.  Although "the ancestors" might generally only communicate in response to yes/no questions through the interface of a diviner's probing stick, researchers argued that their influence in the use of mobile phones in the rural community in northern Ghana that they studied was significant, especially given the larger cosmic vision of inhabitants in which "the dead, the living, and the unborn" all shape decision-making in contemporary life.  Santuah argued that in designing products and services for customers debates about the existence of ancestors or dismissals of so-called superstitions were counterproductive when the influence of dead over the living was a fact of life for many.  Although Santuah said he was "not here to say whether the ancestors exist," in the question-and-answer period he explained the utility of this form of social connection in his own life.

Santuah and Alichimah explained that Ghana has a robust 84% mobile phone penetration rate in a country in which there were more phones than people.  Nonetheless, remote rural communities often don't have access to the technologies available in urban centers.  The research team wanted to focus on the use of mobile phones for community development among the Kasena in northern Ghana with focused group discussions (FGDs), key informant interviews (KIIs) with lineage heads able to represent their clans, and with divination.  While working in the Kasena-Nankana District, researchers did encounter obstacles.  Interviews were scheduled during the rainy season when communication might be disrupted.  Two soothsayers declined to serve as mediators, and one ancestor declined the interview when the divination process was initiated.  Furthermore, compensation and investment in traditional culture was an issue: one soothsayer complained that the consultation fee was “too small,” and one ancestor requested the sacrifice of a ram after a successful divination session.  Finally, planned randomization was resented by informants as disrespectful of existing processes.  Despite all of these hindrances, researchers asserted that "the ancestors blessed the study," since they were able to successfully present preliminary findings in the United States.

The team from Ghana shared several impressions from the field that corroborated their hypothesis that ancestors might influence the decision of residents in the area to use mobile phones.  For example, in one interview an informant commented that "I have heard they can send money through 'Atogedevio' (through the air) for you to go and collect at a place."  Although paying clinics and supporting tuition might be lauded, ancestors and clan heads were also wary of the social disruptions that new technologies might bring.  One interviewee bemoaned the fact that "you see a girl talking on phone and suddenly she disappears," and another chided the young texting on footpaths for not giving way to their elders.  Certain forms of news sharing still required traditional face-to-face contact.  For example, a mobile phone should not be used "to inform me that my in-law is dead."  The consequence for this inappropriate communication would be that "I will not attend the funeral because you are not serious."  In closing, Santuah described how his own use of the mobile phone changed in interacting with his own father, once he realized that his father's silence signaled censure for inappropriate multitasking behavior.  Now "I leave all my phones in my room," he declared, because the "relationship" should be privileged over "ease of communication."

Maurer reminded participants who might be tempted to scoff at the idea of "marketing to the dead" that the Institute had authored a very inclusive document about possible financial services models in a catalog of Design Principles.

Because of catastrophic weather ravaging the Philippines, Bernadette M. Gavino-Gumba of Ateneo de Naga University was unable to deliver her presentation on "Storing and Transferring Money in a Cash-Strapped Fishing Municipality in the Bicol Region" in person.  Mrinalini Tankha delivered Gavino-Gumba's paper, which looked at a very poor community around the municipal center of Poblacion. (For those new to the financial inclusion discussion, studies of fishing communities and mobile money have shaped some of the "classics" in this new scholarly literature.  For example, Robert Jensen's "The Digital Provide" was questioned in this lively IMTFI discussion in a previous year.)  Researchers hoped to provide an overview of the socio-economic profile of selected fishing families, explore the processes and nature of mobile money transactions, and analyze the factors that influence the engagement of the fishing households in mobile money transfer and storage.  Critical factors spurring adoption included close family ties and a culture of "keeping in touch" in which members help each other and also place a high value on their children’s education, which might be occurring in other towns or supporting the care economy of nursing abroad.  The community that Gavino-Gumba examined also supported a variety of small businesses, which needed infusions of capital for daily replenishments of inventory and small transactions.  The remoteness of the area and poor transport services also encouraged mobile finance networks.  At this point, she has completed primary data-gathering and concluded key informant interview surveys.  The analytical framework was shaped by findings about the genders of household heads, their educational attainment, household size, dependency ratio, members outside the town studying, migrant worker family members outside the country, the number of members in skilled jobs, and monthly household incomes and expenditures.  Monthly statistics were also gathered on the use of service providers, amounts of money stored and transferred, and the frequency of usage.


The final presentation on this panel came from Sibel Kusimba who focused on "Mobile Money and Coming of Age in Western Kenya" and considered how the transition from boyhood to manhood in "a ritual with economic, social, and spiritual dimensions" in Bungoma County, Kenya might be transformed by access to mobile phones.  Kusimba argued that the rites of passage described by G√ľnter Wagner in the 1930s to serve the purpose of severing a male child from maternal kinship and binding him to his patrilineal clan were undergoing significant changes, even as the elements of circumcision. seclusion for instruction in war, sexuality, and adult responsibilities, and public presentation as an adult member of society remained relatively recognizable in traditional form.  (Wagner -- who studied with Franz Boas and received Rockefeller funding -- is an interesting character.  He is interviewed here and debunked for his Nazi sympathies and post-war racism here.)   Kusimba examined 40 households that planned to circumcise and recorded evidence of the growing role of mobile money in visiting, feasting, and gift-giving, as well as how phones played a role in managing invitations and documenting the ceremonial event.

Even if the ceremony takes place in a hospital, traditional customs must be observed.  Beginning in July, the boys practice songs and dances, and families construct additions to their homes to make room for the father's age-mates (Bakoki) from his own circumcision cohort, as well as for other visitors, and to provide a place to drink beer.  Marketplaces are also important sites of activity, particularly for purchasing traditional pots.  The mother of the house is responsible for hospitality and may activate an M-PESA account just to make sure they don't lose face by being unready for guests or running short on beverages and food.  As one informant observed, "there is underestimation always."

Of particular interest to Kusimba was the "thirteenth cow" that is provided by the mother’s brother, which is central to the ritual, serves as a traditional mechanism for saving, and can even be used to finance the boy's education, if need be.  She also showed images of the boys recuperating after the procedure in skirts and carrying slingshots from their time in seclusion.  The nurturing role passes from the mother to the paternal aunt at this juncture; she serves as more than the father’s sister in a role of symbolic mother or wife.  Her customary gift had been a goat, but this has now been supplanted by other customs.  Often her symbolic gift now is a mobile phone, which for most boys is the first time they will have ownership of this possession.  This aspect of the ritual now is part of "creating a socially connected person in Kenya today."  In closing she contrasted how mobile money facilitates saving that is private, short term, and in small amounts, while the thirteenth cow represents a form of saving that is public, long-term, and both of symbolic and economic value.  She referred the audience to Hutchinson's work on cattle among the Nuer for the context for different kinds of savings mechanisms.   She described how research done two years ago did not show as much saving behavior with mobile money, because M-PESA currency was cashed out immediately or sent out in response to social pressure to send remittances.

In the question and answer period, panelists responded to questions about "different social contexts" at a time in the year when, as Kusimba pointed out, the last part of the boys' ceremony would be taking place this weekend with more gifts.  In answer to a question about people "left behind," she asserted that they were not "left behind" but "living in two worlds."  For example, she described a couple coming home to have the ceremony for their son despite being civil servants in Nairobi.

Santuah's claim that a belief in the role of one's ancestors could provide a way to organize life in meaningful ways and to facilitate social connection seemed legitimate to me, as someone who often communicates with remote family members across generational divides.  In recent years, as I use mobile money myself with my own adult children to send money to them on my cell phone from sites around the world (including from the remote location shown below), I do find myself valuing those connections, even if they may often be unseen and intangible.


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