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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)

 

Mobile Money & Elder Care from Kampala

Charlotte EHawkins22 September 2019

Calling and mobile money are the most ubiquitous uses of mobile phones in the Kampala fieldsite. This connects people to their relatives across distances, allowing people to check on family or request assistance. Mobile money is often lauded as an example of adapting technology to requirements ‘from below’ (Pype, K., 2017), offering financial flexibility and connection (Kusimba et al., 2016: 266; Maurer, 2012: 589). With 33 mobile money vendors in the low-income neighbourhood where fieldwork was conducted, it is the most convenient and accessible platform for saving and transferring money.

Various people in Godown explained how they provide for their parents and relatives in the village without visiting them as “you can send money on the phone”. People sending money take cash to an agent, who arranges the transfer to the recipient’s phone number via their mobile.  Whilst relatives living in rural areas may be able to grow their own food, money is necessary for other amenities, transport, school fees, hospital bills, and burial costs. As one woman explained, if she wasn’t sending her parents money, they would have no other source of income; recently, her mother had a stomach ulcer, so she sent her money to go to hospital.  And from the perspective of an elder in the village in Northern Uganda, “life’s easier now with phones”, as they are able to communicate family problems with relatives in the city and mobilise necessary funds. This also exacerbates the burden of care for urban relatives. A local councillor in Godown explained how he bought his sister in the village a smartphone in order to make communication easier between them. But he actually finds the connectivity has made life “a bit harder” for him, as it has increased his obligation; when people have problems, they can immediately let him know and he’s expected to find money for them. Before, news of a death could take a week to reach him, by which time he may have even missed the burial and the accompanying financial obligations.

In a survey of 50 respondent’s phone use, only 3 people said they had not used mobile money in the past 6 months. Those who had used it sent and received money 3 times a month on average. We asked them about the last 3 times they had sent or received mobile money, who the person was, the amount and reason for remitting. Of 130 recorded remittances, the average amount sent was just over 200,000ugx, ranging from as little as 10,000 to 10,000,000ugx. Mostly, remittances were sent or received from siblings (28%), parents (12%), friends (11%),  and customers (10%). Sometimes people had deposited money for themselves, using their phone as their bank. The greatest proportion of remittances (28%) were for ‘help’, which could include money for upkeep, food, ‘pocket money’ or gifts. This was followed by remittances for health purposes (25%), which could include hospital bills, medicine, transport to hospital and surgery costs. 6 of these transfers were received or forwarded by the respondent in a chain of remittances, for the purposes of supporting older relatives. For example, one respondent had received 200,000ugx from her daughter, in order to help her take her mother in the village to hospital; or another who received 30,000 from their Aunt for their grandmother’s hospital bills. Perhaps the older person was unable to receive the money themselves, or perhaps other relatives weren’t trusted to pass on the money.

As economic anthropologist Bill Maurer notes, mobile services such as mobile money are appropriated within existing communicative networks (2012: 593). These instances of phone use demonstrate how mobile phones can provide a platform for intergenerational care between the city and the village. This works against a pervasive academic, public and everyday discourse about the declining social position and experience of older people in Uganda and Africa more broadly (e.g. Nzabona and Ntozi: 2017; Nankwanga et al., 2013; Van Der Geest, 2011; Oppong, 2006; van der Geest, 1997), often associated with broader contextual shifts, such as the urbanisation and technologization which have necessitated and facilitated mobile money practices. Research participants often lamented the Westernisation, increasing materialism and individualism, of the younger ‘dotcom’ generation exposed to outside influences. But in these everyday instances, ‘dotcom’ technologies are also shown to up-hold family support and obligation towards older relatives, despite greater distances between them.

References:

  • Kusimba, S., Yang, Y., Chawla, N., 2016. Hearthholds of mobile money in western Kenya: Hearthholds of mobile money in western Kenya. Econ. Anthropol. 3, 266–279. https://doi.org/10.1002/sea2.12055
  • Maurer, B., 2012. Mobile Money: Communication, Consumption and Change in the Payments Space. J. Dev. Stud. 48, 589–604. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220388.2011.621944
  • Nankwanga, A., Neema, S., Phillips, J., 2013. The Impact of HIV/AIDS on Older Persons in Uganda, in: Maharaj, P. (Ed.), Aging and Health in Africa. Springer US, Boston, MA, pp. 139–155. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-8357-2_7
  • Nzabona, A. and Ntozi, J. (2017) Does urban residence influence loneliness of older persons? Examining socio-demographic determinants in Uganda. Unpublished
  • Oppong, C., 2006. Familial Roles and Social Transformations: Older Men and Women in Sub-Saharan Africa. Res. Aging 28, 654–668. https://doi.org/10.1177/0164027506291744
  • Pype, K. (2017) ‘Smartness from Below’, in What do Science, Tehcnology and Innovation mean from Africa? eds Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga. MIT Press
  • Van der Geest, S., 1997. Between respect and reciprocity: managing old age in rural Ghana. South. Afr. J. Gerontol. 6, 20–25. https://doi.org/10.21504/sajg.v6i2.116

The impact of physical work in old age

Charlotte EHawkins16 April 2019

In Uganda, 70% of the workforce is employed in the ‘informal sector’ [UBOS, 2014], mostly self-employed in unregistered business. This is reflected in Godown, the Kampala fieldsite, where the majority of interviewees run their own small business, such as hawking fruits, market vending, driving bodas (motorbike taxis) and brewing waragi. Many of these jobs require physical labour.

The deterioration of physical health, accelerated by physically demanding work, can mean that old age presents a significant challenge to people who rely on their bodies for their income. This is the case for Achola’s husband, who throughout our recent interview, was busy bending to serve food to frequent lunchtime customers. It turned out he had chronic back pain. A visit to the hospital the day before had confirmed that ‘his spine is splitting’, a slipped disk. He’s not responded to other treatments and can’t afford a brace, so they’ve recommended surgery, but he’s nervous to weaken himself; he needs to work for his wife and grandchildren, and elderly relatives in the village. He was even planning to take the 10 hour bus to visit them the following day, ‘I have to go and farm, it’s the month’.

65 year old Palma also has back problems after 30 years of ‘moving with bananas’, carrying a basket to sell in town. She has to continue working to support her 3 orphaned grandchildren. ‘It was her parents to take care of them and her’, but now she has to do it alone. She struggles to pay their school fees, and in return, they cook, wash and clean for her. Sometimes she falls sick, and the family must rely on her neighbours to bring them food. Whilst she feels that her work has kept her active and healthy, she’s now tired, so hopes she can get a market stall so she can sit in one place.

Both stories here emphasise the reliance on family support in old age and the burden this places on individuals, especially when it breaks down. The head of physiotherapy at the local government hospital is all too familiar with such stories. He feels that informal workers contribute significantly to the Ugandan economy but are neglected by public services. He hopes for further investment in prevention and promotion to alleviate the impact of physical work on people’s bodies over time, seeking health protection for informal workers and advising them on how they can better protect themselves.

As part of the ASSA project, we plan to make a short film on the impact of physical work on older people’s health in Godown, that he can use to support further research, advocacy and community sensitisation to this end.

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.

What Africa Can Do for Technology

Charlotte EHawkins29 January 2018

The Economist recently published an article called ‘what technology can do for Africa’. The article covers key discussions around the potential of technological development in sub-Saharan Africa, but falls into pitfalls common to the subject. Determinism is evident in emphatic statements like: “countries are on the cusp of a tech-driven transformation that is already beginning to make people healthier, wealthier and better educated at a pace that only recently seemed unimaginable”. Mobile phones are top of the list, said to have made ‘leaps’ possible. This pervasive image of Africa ‘leapfrogging’ stages of ‘Western development’ with mobile phones in order to improve health, education, communication and business is certainly compelling. But in reality, many digital development practitioners are increasingly skeptical of this utopian ideal, said to be Western-centric (Suchman, 2002, 2011; Tunstall, 2013; Nussbaum, 2010) and to result in unsustainable ‘pilots’ (Holeman, 2017; Huang et al, 2017) which can leave new gaps in their wake.

The Economist article attempts to acknowledge this critique by countering optimism with evidence that the region’s infrastructure is increasingly “sluggish”. The below map of Africa is entitled merely ‘Ill-equipped’, and shows limited access to electricity and mobile phones across much of the continent; in Uganda, 25% and 41% respectively. Besides a few tech hubs, technological advancement and education are unfavourably contrasted with that of Silicon Valley and “the rich world”, from which “Africa risks falling even further behind”; implying a sense of failure, and of technology as a global race.

Through 16-months ethnography in Kampala, I hope to find a different middle ground with a more considered optimism towards ‘what technology can do for Africa’, or instead, ‘what Africa can do for technology’. In the article, Liberian medic Dougbeh Chris Nyan is poignantly quoted to say: “We are forced to be inventive to become masters of our destitution”. In line with Katrien Pype’s exploration of the meaning of technological inventiveness in Kinshasa, ‘smart’ solutions are built around constraints and ‘from below’ (2017). For example, mobile money, “the bank account in your pocket”, a pertinent example of technology adapted to African requirements.

How do people in Uganda appropriate mobile phones and mHealth to accommodate their preferences and needs? During my fieldwork, this question will direct an enquiry into the active role people take as users of technology. As evident in the pilots which do scale and survive, initiatives must begin and meet with sociocultural realities.

– Charlotte Hawkins

References:

  • Holeman, I. (2017) Human-Centered Design for Global Health Equity.
  • Huang, F., Blaschke, S., Lucas, H., 2017. Beyond pilotitis: taking digital health interventions to the national level in China and Uganda. Glob. Health 13.
  • Suchman, L., 2011. Anthropological Relocations and the Limits of Design. Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 40, 1–18.
  • Suchman, L.A., 2002. Practice-Based Design of Information Systems: Notes from the Hyperdeveloped World. Inf. Soc. 18, 139–144.
  • Pype, K. (2017) ‘Smartness from Below’, in What do Science, Tehcnology and Innovation mean from Africa? eds Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga. MIT Press
  • Tunstall, E. ‘Decolonizing Design innovation: Design Anthropology, Critical Anthropology and Indigenous Knowledge’. In Gunn, W. Otto, T. Smith, R. (2013) Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice. Bloomsbury Publishing, London.