Monday, July 13, 2015

The Contingency Fund and the Thirteenth Cow: ICTs in a Coming of Age Ritual in Western Kenya (Part 1)

By IMTFI Researchers Sibel Kusimba, Gabriel Kunyu, and Alex Wanyama

A mother shops online from her well-appointed living room while her contented children play games on a mobile phone; a jet-setting businessman pays school fees from his airplane seat; and families enjoy soccer games viewed on a tablet. In Safaricom’s advertising, mobile phones and mobile money serve a prosperous, urban middle class. Ads showcase the wider digital “ecosystem” of bank connectivity, microcredit, and bill payment that could become one of the world’s first “cash-light” economies.

The ease of digital money helps the urban Kenyan, an entrepreneur and a customer, carve “leisure time” out of a day’s work (Gajjala & Tetteh, 2014; Kuriyan, Nafus, & Mainwaring, 2012). “Relax, you’ve got M-PESA” is the tag, the barriers and frustrations of poor infrastructure now rendered trivial by a mobile’s capacity to collapse time and space. 
Figure 1: An initiate (in beads and colobus monkey headdress) receives two goats from a relative during the visiting ritual. 
Notice the use of mobile phone to capture the event (left side of photo) and the T-shirt that reads, “Don’t take my number – nichecki kwa (check me out on) Facebook.” Saboti, Kenya, August 2014. 

When depicting traditional and customary life – a businessman at his desk, coaxing his rural hens to lay via mobile, or a rural mother on the phone, hoe slung across her shoulders - the ads evoke an ironic clash of traditional and modern in which Kenyan viewers delight. Even as they identify with images of success and worldliness in Safaricom’s advertising, Kenyans rejoice in customary life in rural areas, where rituals and ceremonies reinvigorate ties of family and ethnic identity. Here they apprehend a very different sense of time – not the disciplined balance between “work” and “leisure,” but their connections to the ancestors and eternity.
The coming of age ceremony for adolescent boys is still a fundamental rite of personhood among the Bukusu people of Western Kenya, although it takes many forms along the continuum from traditional to “Christian.” The ritual is a public display of rich, visual symbols, songs, and performances which confirm the changing status of a boy into a man and celebrate the enduring covenant among the living generations, the ancestors, and supernatural forces.   
During our research we worked with more than 40 families who participated in the ritual in August of 2014. Mobile phones were widely used to plan and coordinate phases of ritual. Through digital money transfer, households shared the considerable costs of the ceremonial feast. Furthermore the mobile wallet was a private and personal savings device that allowed households to amass and preserve funds in advance of the ritual’s many phases. 
Nevertheless mobiles presented a variety of social dilemmas around this medium and its messages. The very ability of ICTs to make things easier disrupted the expectations of reciprocity among generations and kin groups the ritual affirms, and spoke to elders’ anxieties around the increased mobility of women and youth. 
During the first phase of the ritual, khulanga or “to call,” boys don a colorful costume adorned with bells and visit relatives accompanied by siblings and age mates, dancing for them to invite them to the ceremony. All of the families in our sample called or texted between 50-100 or more invitations to friends and relatives, shortening the visiting phase somewhat.
Close relatives and elders, however, insisted on being visited in person “right up to the doorstep” to receive the gift of a cow or goat, a symbol of reciprocity between the generations. None of the families in our sample left out face-to-face visiting of key relatives like grandparents. In the words of one elder: 
When we inherited this from our forefathers, they were sending us with bells up to the doorstep. When he reached the doorstep he would give you an animal. A four-legged animal. That is to show their appreciation. You have honored your elders and respected them. You will also be honored when it is your turn. And when you call him on the phone he will just tell you, I am not a kid to be called on the phone. 
For many elders the mobile’s ability to disconnect time, space, and sensory experience associated it with dishonesty; they felt that marital discord, dishonesty and conflict had increased in their communities, “because of the phone.”As such the public and shared experience of the ritual was even more important today, they said. 
One elder expressed dissatisfaction with his feature phone as an instrument of deception, and offered that an optimally designed phone would allow him to see and spatially monitor the whereabouts of his wives and children. It appears there is a market for smartphones among the elders of Western Kenya!
Gajjala, R., & Tetteh, D. (2014). Relax , You’ve Got M-PESA: Leisure as Empowerment. Information and Communication for Development, 10(3), 31–46.
Kuriyan, R., Nafus, D., & Mainwaring, S. (2012). Consumption, Technology, and Development: The “Poor” as “Consumer.” Information Technology and International Development, 8(1), 1–12.
Mas, I. (2013). Better than Cash, or Just Better Cash? Retrieved from

Stay tuned for The Contingency Fund and the Thirteenth Cow: ICTs in a Coming of Age Ritual in Western Kenya (Part 2)
See Sibel Kusimba's blog post on network effects

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