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“The good news of it”: religion & mobile phones

Charlotte EHawkins11 December 2019

This blog post draws on four interviews about phone use in Go-down (my field site in Uganda), specifically where people discuss using them for religious purposes. The instances that follow show that the phone is sometimes incorporated in moral discourses with reference to religious beliefs; specifically, the individuals cited here expressed concerns around younger people’s phone use and their excessive messaging, categorised as ‘bad’ and improper, whereas preaching or sharing religious knowledge via the phone is considered ‘good’. Aspirations to own a smartphone have also been expressed in relation to faith.

Man walking in south-west Uganda on Good Friday, 2018. Photo by Charlotte Hawkins (CCBY)

Global media, the internet and its influence is sometimes described as ‘dotcom’, younger people today as ‘the dotcom generation’ or ‘the children of dotcom’. Often it is said by older people who are referring broadly to modern developments. Papa, who is Born Again, described dotcom as “like the New Testament, something recent…modern, jumping from the old to the new”. He thinks it can be used in both positive and negative ways, “it helps when you use it well…it even helps us to preach the gospel to people on WhatsApp”. He has an app with the bible on his phone, taking passages from there to forward to his contacts. But he says that he uses his smartphone mostly for Facebook, to keep in touch with people at home in DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo) and see their pictures. He also listens to preaching on the radio through his phone, specifically on ‘Voice of America’, and to hear about the news in Israel: “You know it is better to know about is Israel because we are in the end time. If anything happens there, you get it in the prophecy of the bible, the way we are walking”.

A Born Again pastor similarly described the good and bad ways of using the phone in religious terms. He is concerned about young people’s use of messaging, particularly when they are supposed to be concentrating on something else, but he is glad that it offers another platform to preach, describing this as the “proper” way to use a phone; “we appreciate the good news of it”.

Assistants to the Imam in the primary mosque in Go-down agree that phones can be used in ways both supportive and detrimental to religion, depending how someone chooses to use them:

Nowadays, people have these phones, but phones nowadays would not be bad in our religion. Because you can be connected to somebody, somebody might ask you for a verse, or ask you any question. Now the problem which we have in our religion, other people… use it in a bad way, there is the problem…when you are back biting someone, it is very bad.

Imams use their personal phones to share their knowledge of their religion via Facebook, and when people call them for advice. If they don’t know the answer, they use either google, their Qu’ran app, or a book called Hismul Muslim to find out or to ask others with knowledge. These apps also help them with their daily recitation, providing the text, as well as translating Arabic texts to English.

Not all participants in Go-down own their own smartphone or mobile phone. Often, they are shared within families. Aleng, one of my research participants, is hoping for a smartphone of her own, and she hopes to learn how to use the internet. Her pastor often posts on social media, so she wants to connect with that. In the meantime, she mostly uses her phone for calling, typically contacting ministry to find out if there’s anything she can help with or participate in. Recently she called because she wanted to send her seeds to the Church to be anointed before planting them: “you anoint when you want God to quicken something”. Her daughter has a smartphone, and she sometimes relays messages back from the family WhatsApp group, but otherwise she feels everything is within her reach. “My God is a miracle God; he will give me a smartphone at any time”. She feels that dotcom is God-given, “these things come, you know God is the offerer of wisdom. If God has allowed such thing to come, it has the negative part of it and the positive part, so it depends on someone using it”. She is glad that it can be used for gospel.

Signs in a primary school in Go-down; ‘Always be God Fearing’, ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom’. Photo by Charlotte Hawkins (CCBY)

 

Keeping up appearances: the importance of ageing smartly

Charlotte EHawkins24 November 2018

Gloria works for KCCA (Kampala City Council Authority) cleaning the roads, starting every morning at 6am. This often means she arrives late at the bi-weekly meeting of a support group for women in Godown where we first met. She hopes to set up her own business, investing in a machine for grinding g-nuts and sesame, but it would cost 2 million Ush ($535), capital she doesn’t yet have. Meanwhile, she said she makes ends meet by “joining hands together” with her sons, all in their 20s. She earns 180,000 Ush ($50) each month, putting 80,000 Ush ($22) on food and 20,000 Ush ($5.50) on beauty products, including make-up and hair oil. “Even without money I have to be smart. I don’t need to be shabby”. The rest goes on rent and her sons ‘top up’. I asked what they do when there’s a health emergency to pay for, and she said, “we rarely fall sick” thanks to her prayers: “when you light a candle for Mother Mary you cannot fall sick”.

Gloria’s hair and make-up collection. Photo by Charlotte Hawkins

Gloria’s candles for prayer. Photo by Charlotte Hawkins

Almost 10% of her monthly salary is invested in being ‘smart’, a word often used here to compliment the visible effort someone has put into their appearance, “you’re smart today!”. Gloria is not alone in stressing the importance of ‘keeping up appearances’, despite financial constraint; as one older man explained, dressing well and looking good are “a way of gaining public trust”. Or as at the weekly parties for a women’s savings group in Godown, the ways the beneficiary and her two ‘honourable members’ dress up is an important part of the celebratory proceedings. They often design and tailor their matching outfits, taking photos of each other and themselves on smartphones. Even the bar will be ‘dressed’ according to the beneficiaries’ preference, with different colour fabrics and lights draped on the ceiling and walls.

Women dancing and looking smart at a weekly party for their savings group. Photo by Charlotte Hawkins

Taking photos of a beneficiary, dressed up for her party. Photo by Charlotte Hawkins

It seems that another way to look smart, especially for older women, is to look young. According to my research assistant, who grew up in the area, many of our female interviewees lie when we ask their age, wanting to seem younger than they really are. Whilst being called ‘Jajja’ (grandmother) signifies respect, so do remarks on a deceptively youthful appearance. Ageing gains admiration, but particularly if you’re smart.

Scan the QR code to connect with the deities

XinyuanWang12 November 2018

Recently, Danny came to visit my field site in Shanghai. As he remarked on his on-the-spot tweet, one of the biggest ‘shocks’ he could feel immediately was that: “Curious that in this age of supposed global homogeneity, here in China you really don’t seem to be able to do anything without a QR code, while in Europe you can’t do anything with a QR code.” We ordered food, rented bikes, hailed taxis, booked a hotel…all by scanning QR code here – actually since I came to Shanghai in February 2018, I only used cash twice.

Having said so, I felt Danny was a bit exaggerating about the ubiquity of the QR code in Shanghai until more recently I visited Jing’an temple.

On the last day of the seven-day shui lu fa hui (the water and land rite) of Jing’an temple, I visited this famous temple with more than 780 years history in the very center of the most flourishing and buzzing downtown area of Shanghai. Besieged by a proliferation of high-rise shopping malls, Jing’an temple is the only place where people burn ‘money’ not in luxury consumption, but for the benefit of their ancestors.

Jing’an temple. photo by Xinyuan Wang

One woman who was busy burning ‘ghost money’ (ming bi) explained that the money made by tin foil paper is for the ghosts and deities so that the souls of the deceased persons will find some peace during purgatory, so called chao du, she added earnestly: “Today is the last chance of this year that ghosts would receive money!”  According to her, basically, in the after-world ghosts have to be bribed to treat the passing ancestors without too much torture and hardship.

The air was full of choking smell of the dense smoke of the burning ‘ghost money’ and burning incense. The smoke which indicates  immaterialization symbolizes the transformation from the tangible material world to the intangible spirit world.

On the other side of the raging flames one could sees a big standing electronic screen called ‘Prayer merit and credit list’ (qi fu gong de bang).  Standing in front of the big screen, people is were busy reaching the deities in a more ‘environment friendly’ way: holding their smartphones against the screen to scan the QR code on the top so that they could make a prayer online. The prayers they made would pop up in the form of vertical red scroll on the big screen immediately after submitting, and many take a photo of the screen for the record.

Scan the QR code and make a prayer online. photo by Xinyuan Wang

Last time I saw such a fancy way of interaction was during the exhibition ‘from selfie to self-expression’ of Saatchi Gallery in London which was supposed to be the pioneering art experiment in the digital age.

In that exhibition, visitors could post selfies on their personal twitter accounts with given hashtag and the selfies would be projected immediately against the wall of the exhibition hall. As I recall, a young lady who just saw her selfie popped up on the wall, exclaimed thrillingly “Oh my god… isn’t it amazing?!”

I guess she was not really asking god’s opinion about it, but I really wonder which way ghosts and deities in China prefer to be reached… smoke or QR code?

 

(check the short video here)

The QR code in JingAn Temple, Shanghai

In Shanghai, people scan QR code for almost everything, including to get connected with deities during religious ceremony. Video by our researcher Xinyuan Wang.

Posted by Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing on Sunday, 11 November 2018


							
				
						

The Purple Month

Alfonso ManuelOtaegui10 October 2018

As a member of the Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing (ASSA) research project, I am doing fieldwork among migrants working in Santiago de Chile. Among the many diverse migrants who live in this city, I chose to work with Peruvian migrants. Peruvians are the largest immigrant group in Chile: they represent 25.2% of the migrant population, according to the 2017 census. Many of them have been living in this country for over fifteen or more years, and most of them live in Santiago (65.2% of migrants live in the Metropolitan Region).

During the first weeks of my fieldwork, I asked a Peruvian colleague –who was also living far away from his country– on advice about meeting his countrymen here in Chile. He advised me to approach Christian confraternities. Confraternities –in this case Peruvian– are groups of people who honor their local Catholic devotions. I started then to frequent a catholic church in the centre of the city, which is famous for being welcoming and supportive of migrants. There I met Peruvians belonging to several different confraternities. Some of these confraternities honor Peruvian Marian devotions, such as the Virgin of Chapi, from the southern city of Arequipa, or the Virgin of La Puerta, from the northern city of Otuzco. Others honor Peruvian saints such as San Martin de Porres or Santa Rosa de Lima. All of them were as proud of their devotions as welcoming to my ethnography.

Among all of the confraternities, I decided to join the most diverse in terms of regional origin, including even non-Peruvians: the Hermandad del Señor de los Milagros (Confraternity of the Bearers of The Lord of Miracles). This devotion originates in Lima in the seventeenth century and, although the largest confraternity can be found in the capital city of Peru, there are local confraternities –such as the one I joined in Santiago– all over the world, from São Paulo to New York (even in Hamamatsu, Japan). “Wherever there is a Peruvian there is the Lord of Miracles”, so I’ve heard them quote of Monseñor Hidalgo, the spiritual guide of the main confraternity at the Nazarenas church in Lima.

The brothers and sisters have been very kind to me and have allowed me to join them in several activities along the year, such as regular meetings, spiritual retreats and ‘polladas’ (traditional funding events where chicken dishes are sold). The biggest event of the year is the Lord of Miracle’s procession at the end of October, called the purple month, due to the typical color that identifies this devotion as seen at a number of activities (shorter processions, masses, retreats, etc). The main procession, lasting eight hours, takes place on the last Sunday of October. As a sign of the place of Peruvians in Chile, the procession goes from the Cathedral of Santiago to the migrants’ church, gathering thousands of devotees. I was invited to join one of the groups of thirty people carrying the 1.5 tons image. ‘Carrying’ is not only a body technique one needs to master (the hands at a certain position, the steps following the music) but also an honor. Besides, ‘carrying’ is a complex concept whose meaning linked to faith and community I am just starting to grasp.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Most of the miracles I have been told about are in fact related to health: a surgery that went well, a disease that was beaten against all odds, a tumor that turned out to be benign. As far as I can understand, prayers and processions do not substitute medical procedures. I see in the chains of prayers, the dedication of a procession stages, and the participation in funding activities a sense of community, a display of collective care. What is interesting for our study in the ASSA project, is that this particular devotion is not only an expression of belonging, of tradition continued abroad, but it also opens the door to the study of the relation between faith and health.

References

Institituo Nacional de Estadísticas Chile. 2018. Síntesis resultados Censo 2017. Santiago: Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas Junio / 2018.

 

 

 

The challenges of staying active

MayaDe Vries Kedem25 September 2018

Author: Maya de Vries

10 years ago, in a Russian store at the city center of Jerusalem, I bought an A3 size poster from the communist time, with a drawing of an old lady who looks like a farmer, holding a book. The short text beside her image read: If you stop reading books, you might forget the language.

Recently in my field site of Dar al Hawa I found myself remembering this poster when visiting the elderly club, a central place in my field site, as I observed a variety of practices that aim to keep them sharp and vital.

One of the most challenging problems in the elderly club is to find suitable activities for the members. They need to be activities that both men and women can do; not too physical, because many are suffering from pains in their legs and can’t walk a lot, some have hearing problems, or cannot breath well. Hence, many of the activities are ‘just’ talks – it is easier for them to sit and listen. However, there can still be difficulties in establishing the time and place with lecturers as sometimes they call in the morning of the lecture to cancel. When a lecturer stands them up like this or if there is no other organized activity in the club, their alternative is an independent Quran lesson, which is quite different from the religion lesson that they have every few weeks with the local Iman. They take out larger volumes of the Quran and start reading aloud, each one in his/her turn. Hala, a member in the club who is volunteering in the Israeli welfare department and coordinates some of the club’s activities, leads the reading session and corrects them as they read. It is not easy to read correctly from the Quran,  as ech part has its own chants. The exercise is productive not just of the sense of community but also isa practice which helps stimulate memory (Collier, 2017).

The books were donated by one of the club’s members, and are large in order to make reading easier. From the perspective of our projects work on smartphones, in a site where religion plays a core role in daily life, the small screen of the smartphone poses a problem – even if they are able to change the size of the font. However, people here do find relevant uses for the technology. For example, most of them have downloaded an app that reminds them when to pray during the day.

Quran reading lessons seem to be physically passive, since they take place while sitting. However, praying in Islam is quite a physical experience, as the person praying needs to first take off his/her shoes, following this he/she may enter the mosque and begin praying. Praying also involves all kinds of physical positions such as sitting, leaning to the ground, standing up, turning the head to the side – these movements are frequently repeated. The entire group went inside the mosque to pray, some sat on the floor as is custom, while others who physically cannot get down to the floor took plastic chairs. For almost an hour, they all prayed, regardless of any physical limitations, and in a way, were challenging their bodies through the prayer. It is easy to forget that prayer is far more than just words. It is an immersion of the person physically and mentally within their religious practice, and for older people, it remains the structure to much of their life. So when thinking about the impact of the smartphone on people’s lives, one has to be continually aware of how much, and how, this is mediated by religion.

References:

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320377.php 

“Heal our wounds” Does religious devotion increase with ageing?

Alfonso ManuelOtaegui9 April 2018

Photo by Alfonso Otaegui (CC BY)

The huge cupola of the Our Lady of Lourdes Basilica is hard to miss while walking through the peaceful neighborhood of Quinta Normal in the western area of Santiago de Chile. Just in front of the temple lays a street market of a particular kind. Street markets are common in Santiago. Some of them are permanent, while some others come up during specific days for a couple of hours and then vanish. Vendors set up tables and plastic roofs and sell the most varied merchandise: fruits, shoes, books, vegetables, bags, fish, used electric devices, clothes and plastic containers. Vendors cry out their offers and some of them even sing. The merchants in front of the temple, however, sell a quite distinctive paraphernalia, more in tune with the ambiance of the place. Yellow candles, brown crucifixes, grey statues of saints, blue bottles for holy water in the shape of the Virgin Mary, red bracelets and pink quartz stones lay next to each other in colorful contrast. Their colors are as varied as their purposes: specific saints (or stones) heal specific ailments or protect against specific evils. The diversity of this pantheon does not distract from what is beyond the market: the impressive open-air temple of the Lourdes Grotto.

This open-air temple, built in the late XIX century, hosts a reconstruction of the Lourdes Grotto, the cave in France where, according to Catholic tradition, the Virgin Mary made a series of apparitions to the 14-year old shepherd Bernadette in 1858. A series of minor displays to the left and to the right of the major shrine tell the story of Bernadette and her many encounters with the Lady. At the center, in the main shrine, a statue of Bernadette can be seen to the left. If you follow her gaze upward, you will find a statue of the Virgin Mary next to the words “Mother of Christ, heal our wounds and increase our faith”. For a couple of hours the shrine is open and people are invited to go in and touch the rock. While a lady at a pulpit reads the story of the apparitions and prays to Mary, people come to the front, piously caress the feet of Bernadette, touch the cave wall behind the altar and then reach a holy water font, where they wet their fingers and make the sign of the cross on their foreheads.

Even though there were people of varied ages, most of them were over fifty years old, not few of them over seventy years of age. They came, they sat for a while and, if the shrine was open, they would go to touch the statue and the wall. To the left of the shrine there is a spring of holy water. People queue –some standing, some on crutches, some in wheelchairs– to bless themselves or to gather the holy water in bottles, a few of which had the shape of the Virgin. The walls demarcating the area temple are covered with marble plaques, of which I counted over 2.000. Some of them as small as a packet of cigarettes, some others as big as a magazine. Some of them ask for help for a specific individual or family. Most of them thank the Virgin of Lourdes for the received favors. Some are as anonymous as to use the initial letters of names, while others have pictures of the beloved person for whom healing or care is asked. On the marble surface further requests and gratitude notes are written in pencil. The newest one was from last month. The oldest one from the first decade of the 20th century. For over a century people have come to this shrine to ask for divine help against disease or unemployment and to express gratitude later on. The high number of elderly people is remarkable. Was it always like this? Did these devoted citizens also come when they were younger? Does religious devotion increase with age? These are some of the questions related to the experience of ageing, healthcare and spirituality I want to answer in the frame of the ASSA project.