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

charlotte.hawkins.1711 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.hawkins.1722 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