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.

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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.

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  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

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  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.

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  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

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See this incredible Art Car as part of our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition, which opens 27 October 2016. You can book your tickets now by following the link in our bio.

Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935), detail of BMW Art Car 12, 1991. © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives.
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