British Museum blog

Navigating currency on the corner


Maxim Bolt, researcher, British Museum

What does researching money – on the ground – actually involve? Recently, in my ongoing fieldwork in Malawi, it has involved a lot of time in The Corner Salon (this is a pseudonym, in the sense that I made it up, as it is ethical research practice to keep subjects studied anonymous), a small, wooden structure painted in the bright colours of a mobile phone operator. This may be a little surprising. But, unlike practitioners of many other social sciences – with their broad coverage and formal methods like survey questionnaires – anthropologists attempt to get in deeper. This means getting to know, personally, the people whose lives we are learning about.

For the Money in Africa project, it means coming to understand the monetary priorities and concerns of Malawian businesspeople themselves. It means appreciating how The Corner’s owners – sisters Yami and Flora (also pseudonyms) – navigate their salon through Malawi’s current foreign exchange shortage.

The city of Blantyre, Malawi

The city of Blantyre, Malawi

The Corner is in a high-density residential area of Blantyre, Malawi’s economic hub, and the salon is facing hard times. The economy has been badly hit by recent foreign exchange shortages – the result partly of donor funding cuts – and people are more careful about spending their money. But for Yami and Flora, the difficulties run much deeper. The sisters used to buy their hair extensions, straightener, and conditioner in South Africa, but it has become much harder to acquire South African Rand. They have turned to buying from Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania, because it is easier to buy Tanzanian shillings.

But even this is no simple matter. Yami currently relies on her husband’s import-export business for transport. He cannot make another trip until he has sold his current stock, yet another challenge in Malawi’s climate of uncertainty. Yami worries that she will not have stock in time for her Christmas clientele. Flora, meanwhile, is considering returning to South Africa, to return to her earlier employment there as a domestic worker. At least that way, she reasons, she can remit her earnings in the form of hair products, keeping the salon in stock. This is, of course, a great way to sidestep the foreign exchange problem. But Yami is worried. The departure will break up the salon’s team, leaving her alone with the business, as well as her own and Flora’s children.

This is a story about two sisters’ business, and their attempts to import hair products. But, through it, we can begin to understand what monetary problems look like in reality, today, as small businesspeople navigate the region’s different currencies. Such a perspective is key to the British Museum’s Money in Africa project, which investigates money in action, beyond the glass cases of the Museum. The results of this research will be drawn together in a broad-ranging, comparative, collaborative and multidisciplinary study.

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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.

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