British Museum blog

Observation to object: bringing a small piece of fieldwork back to the British Museum

Making a Savings and Loans boxMaxim Bolt, researcher, British Museum

I have spent the last few months on fieldwork in Blantyre, Malawi for the Money in Africa project at the British Museum. I have been investigating how money is used on the ground: how people handle it, and its role in social relationships. One way I did this was to attend Savings and Loans (S&L) group meetings in peripheral areas of the city. Whether in the yard of someone’s house, a vacant room in a trading centre or a free classroom in a school, these meetings are highly ritualised settings for the handling of money. The example of one meeting will help illustrate how they work.

One group meets in the yard of Mrs Phiri, the custodian of their strongbox, in which records, calculator and money are kept – a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) provides the basic equipment. Mrs Phiri makes a living producing a non-alcoholic, fermented drink from maize and millet, and selling it. Her house, part of a settlement on the edge of the city, is half way down a steep valley, the top of the slope dominated by a church, and the bottom by a stream in which residents wash clothes.

The group, like many others, is all women – I was told that men have less patience for the meetings, and for the collaboration in business that such meetings represent. Many of the women also have more marginal positions in the economy than many men, and collaboration in the groups helps address this. All members are small-scale businesspeople, such as street vendors, owners of small restaurants, and charcoal burners.

Monthly or bimonthly meetings have variable turnout: some members have to look after their crops, others are occupied with important visits to hospital, and others again may stay away after a hard month, because they have no money to contribute to the group. Members trickle in, and eventually Mrs Ndhlovu, the chairwoman, calls for the meeting to start. A reed mat is laid out in the yard, so that the women do not have to sit on the bare earth. And the strongbox, containing records, calculator and cash bags, is brought out. After a prayer, the group is ready to begin.

Proceedings commence with a call for small contributions to a social fund (MK20, or about 8p). There may also be small fines for being late. Contributions are presented to Mrs Phiri and her neighbour in the circle, the money counter. They, in turn, place the notes and coins in a plastic tub, on display to everyone. After all members have contributed, the serious business of buying shares begins. The value of shares has been decided at MK500 (or about £2), and each member in turn buys between one and ten shares each time (or pleads lack of disposable funds), thus continually increasing the group’s capital base. The money is then used to lend to members for their everyday needs – they can each borrow to the value of the shares they have bought. Each member’s share purchase is publicly recognised, as banknotes are handed over and placed in the tub in the middle of the circle. At some meetings, applause greets contributions, as it does loan repayments and the tallying of grand totals. Indeed, this ritual keeps members contributing, even though some have little to give. The interest from loans and the social fund are put in dedicated bags, to be stored in the strongbox. The money from share purchases is taken straight to the bank, with transport paid out of the social fund.

Making a Savings and Loans box

Making a Savings and Loans box

What is all this for, and what does it tell us?

To make what is perhaps an obvious point, members are just borrowing back their own money. So why bother? At the end of a year, a sizeable money pot is divided between members, according to the proportion of shares they hold in the group. The whole scheme is a way to enforce saving. And the loans offer access to cash during the year, while adding interest to the final saved amount. When groups work well, members are left with tidy lump sums each year. To many small businesspeople, especially women, such socially enforced saving is attractive, and it keeps cash away from the competing demands of family members. I even know women elsewhere in Blantyre who are trying to sign up to such a scheme. What all this shows us is how crucial it is to understand the handling of money in social situations, if we want to grasp how it is thought about, used and saved.

What, from such fieldwork, could be brought back to the British Museum? S&L strongboxes neatly tell us things about the groups that use them. Constructed from robust metal plate with a handle on the lid, such a box has three padlocks, so that four members (three key holders and a box keeper) must be present to open it. A compartment holds the calculator, members’ record books and fund bags. Another compartment has a corresponding slot in the lid, so that, between meetings, members can make contributions (they deposit money, along with pieces of paper identifying them and specifying the amount). The box’s unlocking and relocking represent the beginning and end of each meeting. In a sense, therefore, it stands for the group itself.

Bringing such a box to the Museum comes with its own, distinctive challenges. Each is purpose built, so the first thing was to find a tinsmith with experience making such objects. A fieldworker from the NGO that established the Savings and Loans groups I attended introduced me to Word Of God tinsmith, located in an informal market. But this particular box was going to be different from any other that the tinsmith, Pastor Peter, had made. Faced with constraints on space in the redisplayed Money gallery back at the Museum, I commissioned a box with the same basic design as those generally used, but only 15 cm deep.

After some consideration, Pastor Peter proposed a design. The hinge was placed inside the box to allow it to open within this space, and the front lock pointed upwards rather than forwards – a model of space-efficiency! Pastor Peter got to work, buying used plate metal, hinges, and silver paint to finish off the job and prevent rust. Sat on a lorry’s hubcap, he beat the reclaimed scrap metal into shape on a piece of rail, visiting a welder close by in the market when necessary. Soon, an S&Lstrongbox, perfectly suited to the British Museum’s needs, was ready to be wrapped up and put in the post.

Names have been changed to protect the identity of those discussed in this post in accordance with ethical research practice

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