Monday, July 20, 2015

The Contingency Fund and the Thirteenth Cow: ICTs in a Coming of Age Ritual in Western Kenya (Part 2)

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

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. 
Mobile money had an important, but private place in this ritual. The digital wallet was widely used to save money for upcoming preparations. Many fathers sold a significant asset such as a cow or a tree before the ceremony, or sought a loan from a SACCO or help from relatives. Women drew savings group payouts. These funds were often saved on a phone (although “secret places” and bank accounts were also used) and went towards purchasing a feasting bull and, for some families, brewing the sacred millet beer served during a night-long community moon-dance (khuminya). The ancestors join the drinking party for a father and his age-mates, sitting under a small straw hut in the circle around the beer pot.

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.

An important visit of the ritual is to the mother’s brother (khulanga khocha). This visit is a symbolic goodbye before the boy leaves the care of his maternal relatives and joins his father’s lineage. Khocha gives his nephew “the thirteenth cow” - so-called to reference and “return” the customary bridewealth of twelve cows passed from groom’s to bride’s parents.

Often the boy, the thirteenth cow, and their entourage form a colorful parade on the way home from the khocha, the boy dancing with his bells and the thirteenth cow adorned with a colorful cloth and flowers in his horns. Some fathers hired a truck to carry the entourage and the thirteenth cow home in style. Such social display increases the cow’s value as an informal savings mechanism.

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.

Live animal gifts were spoken of frankly as investments that the boy’s father would raise and nurture as part of the family stock; they would contribute to producing more animals, provide milk, and likely be sold for school fees. In our research instruments we asked for the purpose of gifts, which for animals was almost always listed as “for fees.” In other words, the thirteenth cow is purchased, gifted, nurtured, and then converted into school fees (M→C13→SF). 

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

See The Contingency Fund and the Thirteenth Cow: ICTs in a Coming of Age Ritual in Western Kenya (Part 1)
See Sibel Kusimba's blog post on network effects

Link to Sibel Kusimba, Gabriel Kunyu, and Alexander Wanyama's Final Report

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