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 15,717 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

It’s #ValentinesDay! To celebrate, we’re sharing some of the stories of love throughout history. These seated ancient Egyptian statues depict the divine Isis and her husband Osiris. They were found together in the tomb of an official from the time of the reign of king Amasis (570–526 BC). Isis wears a sheath dress and a crown in the form of the emblem of Hathor – a solar disc set between cow’s horns. In her right hand she holds the ankh, the sign of life. Her face is modelled with wide-open eyes and a slight smile. Osiris, carved in the same beautiful style of the 26th Dynasty, is wrapped in fine cloth, as he holds symbols of sovereignty – the flail and crook. 
The inscriptions around the bases of the statues were intended to invoke ‘Isis, mother of the god, great in magic, mistress of the Two Lands’, and ‘Osiris who presides in the west, great god, lord of Ro-Setaou’. Following his judgment of the deceased, Osiris could grant wishes for a peaceful arrival in the netherworld, while Isis gives life – the carved life symbol reveals her to be a magician stronger than death. This divine couple belonged to a sumptuous burial and would have ensured perpetual protection for the person interred in this tomb. 
You can see these statues in our blockbuster exhibition #SunkenCities, opening 19 May.
#history #ancientEgypt #Egypt #Valentines #💘 Today we are celebrating #ValentinesDay by highlighting some of the love stories in the Museum. This Japanese shunga print comes from a masterpiece album titled 'Poem of the Pillow' by Utamaro (d. 1806). Utamaro has avoided the stereotypical scenes of love-making that were often produced at the time, and instead created an innovative and powerfully sensual design. He uses a very low viewpoint and places the unusually large figures so that they seem to expand beyond the frame of the picture. The eye is shocked by the white of the woman's skin against the bright scarlet under-kimono, and the transparency of the gauze fabric that covers the couple's entwined legs only heightens the sensuousness. Finally, however, the viewer focuses on the heads and shoulders. The details emphasise the emotion of the moment – the man's eye as he gazes intently at his lover, the tender touch of their delicate fingers and the exquisite nape of the woman's neck.
#Valentines #love #history #Japan #shunga #💘 Happy #ValentinesDay! To celebrate, we’ll be sharing some of the love stories in the Museum. This image shows the Roman emperor Hadrian with his lover Antinous. Hadrian (r. AD 117–138) had married into the imperial family, but in his late forties he met a Greek youth named Antinous from Bithynia, now in modern Turkey. The young man became the emperor’s lover, but drowned in the Nile in AD 130. Hadrian founded a city named Antinooplis at this site, and made him into a god – an honour usually reserved for members of the emperor’s family. Hadrian publicly commemorated Antinous in huge number of statues, figures, portraits and coins across the Roman world, an almost unparalleled public memorial to a lost love. The statues of Hadrian and Antinous can now be found together, side by side, in Room 70.
#history #valentines #love #Hadrian #💘 This envelope, with a colourful design on its front and a red background and reverse, is typical of the 1990s and early 21st century. On the front is a traditional sailing boat, or junk, sailing on a calm sea with just a few clouds high in the sky. The four characters written on the main sail wish for 'the wind in your sails'. This phrase is used as a general wish for good luck, but is especially used to wish 'Bon Voyage' to someone setting out on a journey. There are five other good luck wishes on the front, all presented as though stamped images from a carved seal. They wish for peace and calm, wind in your sails, a wonderful future, abundance and profit. Wishing everyone a happy #ChineseNewYear! #GongXiFaCai The inscription on this tall red envelope translates as 'Good luck in all you wish for!' Above the inscription are illustrations of three objects representing traditional forms of money in China, and a ruyi sceptre. The traditional forms of money include spade money, a coin with a square hole in the middle, and a small silver ingot. Unlike real coins, the spade and coin carry good luck wishes: 'good luck' (on the spade) 'in all you wish for' (on the coin).The ruyi sceptre also conveys a wish for good luck as ruyi means 'all you wish for'. Happy #ChineseNewYear! #GongXiFaCai Happy #ChineseNewYear! These are called xiao hongbao, literally translated as 'little red envelopes'. Red is the colour associated with celebration in China. In the 1990s, a new style of money envelope appeared. Although it still had a red back, the front was printed in many colours and overstamped in gold. On this envelope there are lush peony flowers in full bloom. They are symbolic of spring, as well as feminine beauty, love and affection. In Chinese, the peony is known as mudanhua or fuguihua. The characters fu ('wealth') and gui ('honour') appear frequently in good luck wishes, and pictures of peony flowers add strength to the wish. The inscription on this envelope reads 'May wealth and honour blossom, in abundance year after year'. The arrangement of the peonies and the inscription is reminiscent of traditional Chinese flower painting. #GongXiFaCai
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 15,717 other followers

%d bloggers like this: