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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Around 3 million years ago our early ancestors collected and valued objects for their appearance. This pebble was perhaps picked up by an Australopithecus africanus because its natural shape suggests a face. Objects like this identify South Africa as one of the places where modern human behaviour began.

Experts have different views on whether this found object might be the first evidence of artistic thought. What do you think – is this art?

Discover this deep history in our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition – follow the link in our bio to find out more about this special exhibition.

The Makapansgat Pebble. Collected about 3 million years ago. On loan from Evolutionary Studies Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. 
#SouthAfrica #history #prehistory This is a great shot of a sarcophagus by @ss.shri – it shows how well preserved the 2,600-year-old craftsmanship is. It was made for Sasobek, who was the vizier (prime minister) of the northern part of Egypt during the reign of Psamtek I (664–610 BC). His face is naturalistic and shows the use of makeup, but it’s probably not an accurate likeness. Many human-shaped sarcophagi had exaggerated facial features during this period. 
Don’t forget you can share your photos with us by using #mybritishmuseum
#regram #AncientEgypt #statue #sculpture #Egypt #history #BritishMuseum Our Egyptian Sculpture Gallery (Room 4) spans over 3,000 years of history! The gallery contains iconic objects such as the Rosetta Stone – the key to deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs – and the colossal 7.25 ton statue of the pharaoh Ramesses II. What’s your favourite object in this gallery?
#AncientEgypt #Egypt #Thebes #RosettaStone #sculpture #statue #history #BritishMuseum #mybritishmuseum We love this strong image taken by @nickyhofland. These powerful figures of King Senwosret III stand in our Egyptian Sculpture Gallery (Room 4). He reigned from 1874 to 1855 BC. These representations of him are interesting because they aren’t idealised – you can see expressive lines and furrows on his face. This contrasts to earlier kings who appear youthful throughout their reign. The king also has peculiarly large ears in these statues, which perhaps symbolised his readiness to listen. If you’d like your photos to be regrammed, tag #mybritishmuseum

#regram #AncientEgypt #statue #sculpture #Egypt #history #BritishMuseum This striking mosaic was made around 500 years ago in Mexico. It’s a pectoral – a type of jewellery designed to be worn on the chest. Double-headed serpents (known as maquizcoatl) were considered to be the bearers of bad omens and were associated with figures of authority who may have worn this type of jewellery as part of a ritual process. The object is expertly decorated with tiny pieces of turquoise that create textures and shapes on the serpent’s ‘skin’. The eye sockets could have been inlaid with dark gemstones giving the impression of flickering eyes. 
#turquoise #Aztec #Mixtec #serpent #jewellery #Mexico #🇲🇽 Eagle costumes were worn by prestigious warriors in Mixtec and Aztec culture, and the handle of this knife, made around 500 years ago in Mexico, represents a crouching eagle warrior. In mythology the eagle represented the power of the day and was believed to carry the sun into the sky from the underworld each morning. This object is decorated with turquoise, malachite, and four types of shell, with a flint blade. Highly decorated knives like this one were probably used in ceremonies or symbolically rather than for practical tasks – the construction of this knife suggests it wouldn’t be sturdy enough to be used for cutting.

#Aztec #Mixtec #knife #eagle #turquoise #Mexico #🇲🇽
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