Monday, November 11, 2013

Grandmothers as Mobile Money Brokers in Kenya

By Sibel Kusimba based on her IMTFI-funded research

In Kenya the use of mobile money sending systems has become a part of daily life. In 2012 my research team and I used semi-structured interviews to collect information on the connections forged by sending and receiving mobile money. From this information we created social network maps which reveal the paths of mobile money that circulate in families and show the connections of love, reciprocity, and obligation among members.   
The social network maps show that women have various positions of advantage – what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called social capital. Women often have many connections, sending and receiving money from siblings, children and grandchildren this helps make matrilineal kinship ties important in social network graphs. Finally, women are often brokers – connecting groups or “cliques” of others who would not otherwise be connected.  

Figure 1 shows mobile money flows among a family living in the rural hamlet of Naitiri, Nairobi, and Chicago. The two main groups in Figure 1 are the children of a pair of sisters. A 67-year old farmer I will call Ruth (red circle) receives remittances from many of her eight children and 44 grandchildren, in turn circulating them back to her children but also brokering these resources with her deceased sister’s oldest daughter (green circle), who in turn sends and receives remittances with her siblings (also in green) and their children (in yellow). Ruth’s network also receives international remittances from the United States from one son and one daughter (light blue).  

Figure 1

Writing in the July 2013 issue of American Anthropologist, Matthew Peeples and W. Randall Haas review theories of brokerage. The “individualist” model associated with Burt’s classic study assumes brokerage is a position of advantage that implies control over flows from one group to another. |The alternative “collectivist” theory argues that brokerage can be an ambivalent, risky or disadvantageous position and this can be more appropriate in settings where group or collective interests are valued more highly than those of individuals. Where the interests of the group in general are more valued, individuals will in fact use their broker position to close the “structural hole” and create more ties. These cultural settings may value collective interests- the trust or frequent contact allowed by the dense network- above those of individuals.   

There may be aspects of both individualist and collectivist approaches to brokerage in Kenyan women’s use of mobile money services. In another example, Sister Lucida is a 47-year old nun and student in Chicago who sends about $300.00 a month to her mother in Homa Bay County, Western Kenya. Sister Lucida is too busy to hear and assess numerous requests for school fees and business investments from her relatives and allows her mother, a widow, to use the money she sends as she sees fit to help the family. After her father died, Sister Lucida explained that her mother became vulnerable among her in-laws, who chased her away from her home and stole her dishes and home furnishings. Sister Lucida and her siblings built and furnished her a new home on land they purchased that is the envy of the village. Sister Lucida sends her money for “upkeep,” and is aware that the money ends up helping others in the family as her mother sees fit. Both she and her mother enjoy her status as a mother of a child in America. 

As a broker, the Naitiri grandmother Ruth has used her influence in the family to fill the structural hole and further the connections between her children and her sister’s children. The children of Ruth and her deceased sister have created a family association to collect school fees for the children and grandchildren of this pair of sisters. At the deceased sister’s funeral (often a time when social groups and generations reconstitute themselves, and when discord is displayed and assuaged), the children of these two women, who live in Naitiri, Kimilili, Chicago, and Nairobi, discussed the high cost of education. They then formed a credit and savings group in which each of them agreed to contribute 1000 shillings a month to a common savings account from which school fees would be paid on a rotating basis. The members meet once a month for a meal, where they also contribute 1000 Ksh. each towards a banked fund for school fees. Mobile money services are used by some at the meeting to send mobile money to the treasurer - from Chicago, a daughter uses Western Union.

In many families, siblings and other close relatives use mobile money to contribute regularly to informal savings or insurance plans in anticipation of funerals, weddings, medical care and educational fees. Matrilineal flows of mobile money often give mothers and grandmothers the potential to be brokers; but often women use these positions to recirculate funds, and create new, close connections of benefit to the group as a whole.

Dense networks may also reflect the limited social prestige and authority of mothers and grandmothers who, on maps of mobile money, are so central in collecting remittances. Several months after my field research in the summer of 2012, Ruth was hospitalized with typhoid. Her son in Chicago told me that her children in Kenya had been unable to raise the 40,000 Kenya shillings (about $600.00) necessary for her release. Ruth continued to accumulate a bill for two weeks after her treatment while she waited to be let go from the hospital; her son and daughter in Chicago had refused to pay the bill, arguing that the large number of siblings in Kenya should raise the money by contributing amongst themselves. As the impasse continued, Ruth called her oldest son in Nairobi, and during their heated conversation she told him that the family’s economic security was in large part a result of the remittances from America. He responded by telling her to henceforth inform her Chicago children of her needs. After another week, her Chicago daughter sent the money, and contact between the siblings was discontinued for several weeks as hard feelings were nursed.   

Dense networks of mobile money result from strategies that value reciprocity, communication and trust.  Reciprocity and closure are the most valued forms of social capital in the mobile money networks of Kenyans, and these often leave individuals, even brokers, unable to accumulate the resources they need. A request cannot be denied; instead one’s phone must be shut off or “lost” to avoid pressure for remittances. In a working paper for IMTFI, we examined how gender is reflected in mobile money networks in matrilineal ties, in the centrality of mothers and grandmothers, in the strong patterns of reciprocity that make receivers also senders, and in polygynous families where money is from those with resources to those without: from men to women. Gendered flows of mobile money provide a safety net and reduce risk, but often the resources sent are not enough, or cannot be held on to long enough, to prevent a mother from languishing in the hospital while her children squabble over the bill. Mobile money may simply provide a new technological means through which women cope in societies where they are marginalized from resources and wealth: by relying on their children, siblings, and others in their social network for the emergencies and needs of daily life.  

Read Sibel Kusimba's full working paper, "Social Networks of Mobile Money in Kenya".

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