In Part 2 of this blog post, we discuss the role of mobile money accounts in a coming of age ritual for adolescent boys that took place in Western Kenya in 2014 among the Bukusu ethnic group. In Part 1, we discussed the barriers to mobile phone use in the ceremony.
Returning from khocha with the thirteenth cow, Chwele, Kenya, August 2014.
One of our fathers had saved about 1500 shillings ($20) on his phone, most of it amassed from donations from his age mates – who would be honored guests at the beer party. This “contingency fund” – his own tongue in cheek name - came in handy when the beer ran out, and his younger brother ran to a neighbor to purchase moonshine to continue the festivities.
At other phases of the ritual the private storage capability also comes in handy. Mothers use the mobile wallet to store e-money gifts and cash gifts converted to e-money.
The thirteenth cow expresses many meanings: the solidarity of the patriline, its success in extracting a cow from its in-laws, the parents’ marital harmony and respect for in-laws and ancestors, and the elders’ gracious ceding of social power and resources to the next generation with the passage of time. Women told us that the animal embodies blessings to the boy and his mother and that “my people are still here for me” – a woman is not forgotten in marriage.
Much phone-mediated communication assists women who look for the thirteenth cow from one of their relatives. Today, the thirteenth cow is a young animal usually purchased at an elevated price during the festival season. In some cases khocha pledged some amount, often less than the cost of the thirteenth cow (about 12,000 shillings or $140.00) towards the boy’s school fees; or gave a goat (for which the going rate is about 3500 shillings); or even in one case, sent an M-PESA gift of a few hundred.
In the ritual, digital money had important capabilities, including value storage and privacy (Mas, 2013). These capabilities ensured a generous feast that would bring honor to the boy’s family. The benefits of the seamless digital “ecosystem” aside, however, we also discovered that people often prefer the ability to use digital money together with other kinds of value, and convert one kind into another. The conversion M→C13→SF indicates the continued importance of livestock as a savings vehicle and expresses the khocha’s respect for his sister and in-laws. Purchased at elevated prices, bridewealth cattle link people with life forces that unfold the generations over time.
In this ritual, the public display of bridewealth cattle gifts, intended to be reared and sold for school fees, spoke to current economic pressures not through the ease of the mobile, but through shared and enduring metaphors of wealth in Bukusu culture.
Going back to our jet-setting businessman in the Safaricom advertisement in Part 1, paying school fees from his airplane seat – if he is the khocha, the people back home might wonder why he is not attending this year’s festivities. He might be on a flight from Nairobi to Kitale, where there is a small airport. From there it is about an hour’s drive to Bungoma. Maybe he intends to show up after all?
Mas, I. (2013). Better than Cash, or Just Better Cash? Retrieved from http://www.cgap.org/blog/better-cash-or-just-better-cash
See The Contingency Fund and the Thirteenth Cow: ICTs in a Coming of Age Ritual in Western Kenya (Part 1)