British Museum blog

Finding out how money actually works


Maxim Bolt, researcher, British Museum

I am the anthropologist on the British Museum’s Money in Africa project. I have come to Malawi, in central-southern Africa, to explore how money actually works – in action, outside the glass-fronted cases of our gallery in the Museum.

Maxim Bolt, right, conducting research in Southern Africa on a previous project

Maxim Bolt, right, conducting research in Southern Africa on a previous project

Living and spending time with people in Blantyre, the country’s economic hub, I am learning about how people handle their cash. And, in a country where more and more people have bank accounts, I am learning what people use them for.

This might all sound obvious, but here are a few quick first impressions that point to differences from what UK readers might be familiar with. The highest value banknote – 500 Malawian Kwacha (MK500) – is big, colourful, covered in elaborate security features, and often brand new. It looks and feels high value. But it is worth about £2, and large payments involve thick wads of notes (plastic cards are almost never used). Meanwhile, although the cost of a newspaper is MK200, people use the battered MK20 and MK50 notes all the time. Public transport in mini-buses, for example, costs MK50 or MK70. As I quickly discovered, all this means a lot of paper.

And bank accounts? Considering all the paper, it is maybe unsurprising that, for some businesspeople I have met in Blantyre’s poorer, high-density urban areas, bank accounts offer protection against losing everything in a household fire, or a robbery. For others, bank accounts take all of those banknotes out of the everyday politics of family life. As I get to know these and other people better during my three months here, I hope to discover more about their concerns and goals. And I hope to understand the effects of people taking their cash out of their homes and businesses.

My research in its early days has taken me to poor urban areas and wealthy suburbs, to the streets of the city centre and to a peri-urban settlement (a settlement adjoining an urban one) built on the steep banks of a small stream. As I gradually learn more about the everyday realities of money in Malawi, I will be updating this blog, and would welcome any comments or questions. Hopefully, my posts will give you a sense of how wide-ranging the British Museum’s research is.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Money in Africa, Research, , , , ,

4 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Having been to Egypt a few times I am familiar with `well used` notes in circulation.
    God help you if the only note you have has been torn and not carefully sellotaped back together, it may not be accepted.
    The problem that many people in Egypt have, is to open a bank account you must have some sort of ID, to get that you must have a place of abode and be registered. This will open up another whole can of worms, like where do you work, who do you work for, do you pay taxes, if not why not? To say nothing of the same questions being asked of your employer.

    Like

  2. Maxim Bolt says:

    @Stewart Herring, thank you for this example from Egypt. Many of the people I know who have bank accounts are small businesspeople who get microfinance loans – I suspect these are people in rather different circumstances to those you refer to in Egypt. But, for many, there are doubtless very similar concerns to those you describe.

    As for the well-worn banknotes: there are some very, very battered pieces of paper circulating. But equally noticeable is the number of freshly printed notes. The contrast between old and new is quite marked, to say the least. And certainly when it comes to the highest value banknote, MK500 (around £2), they tend to be in good condition, and often noticeably crisp.

    Thanks again for your comments.

    Maxim Bolt
    Researcher, Money in Africa
    The British Museum

    Like

  3. I think that’s true to some extent. we need to keep in mind that I feel that, to begin with, the Egyptian people have been going through decades of economic hardship, poverty. And in a sense, thus they are completely disempowered.

    Like

  4. Stewart Herring says:

    Of course there are the micro-finance loans that generally go unrecognised.
    For example, a friend of mine has many little businesses, one of them is that he sells blankets. I’ve seen that people come to his house and pay a little at a time and he always notes it down in his little cash book. To us, that may be hire purchase but to you that is probably called microfinanace

    Like

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 12,398 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

For #AprilFools today, here are some interesting (and true!) stories about the Museum. 
Did you know there was a merman (actually part monkey, part fish!) on display in the Enlightenment Gallery (Room 1)? This ‘merman’ was donated by HRH Prince Arthur of Connaught (1883–1938), grandson of Queen Victoria, and was said to have been 'caught' in Japan during the 18th century. It was given to Prince Arthur by an individual named Arisue Seijiro. 
The British Museum’s ‘merman’ is displayed in the Enlightenment Gallery as an example of the kind of ‘curiosity' that was found in early collections before the more encyclopaedic and reasoned approach to collecting that evolved through the 1700s. In this context it helps to show how museums changed during the 18th century from cabinets of curiosity to the type of museums we are more familiar with today.
#merman #mermaid For #AprilFools today, here are some interesting (and true!) stories about the Museum. 
This is Mike the cat, who assisted in keeping the Main Gate at the British Museum from Feb 1909 to Jan 1929. When he died, the former Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities, Sir E A Wallis Budge, wrote a whole pamphlet about him. His obituary was featured in both the London Evening Standard and Time magazine! Find out more about Mike the cat at britishmuseum.tumblr.com
#cat #Museum #AprilFools! April actually derives from the Latin word aperire, meaning to open (i.e. spring).
Here's #April at Kew Gardens, part of a series by Thomas Robert Way.
#spring #print #AprilFoolsDay #April is named after Aprillis, the Roman goddess of mischief The Eiffel Tower officially opened ‪#‎onthisday in 1889.
This 1928 print by French artist Jean Émile Laboureur depicts the Gardens of Trocadéro with the Eiffel Tower beyond.
#EiffelTower #Paris #print #art #history We are excited to announce that our exhibition #8mummies is now extended until 12 July 2015! Here are the 8 mummies you'll encounter in this groundbreaking exhibition #MummyMonday
#history #exhibition #mummy
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 12,398 other followers

%d bloggers like this: