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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

What do the things you carry say about you?

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Wallets are generally synonymous with cash. If someone examined mine, they would conclude that its primary purpose is to store the things I need to make financial transactions: banknotes, coins, bank cards, and credit cards. Less dominant are other kinds of cards, or mementos such as photographs. Gawain’s (my husband’s) wallet is similar to mine, but with one exception: he keeps many different kinds of currency in it to remind himself of the kind of life he wishes to live.

Our wallets reflect the fact that we live in wealthy countries in which we are institutionally connected, have access to cash on demand, and possessa certain degree of security and freedom. But what might be in the wallets of people who have little money or access to banking facilities? Do they reflect the same degree of possibility, security, value, connectedness? Do they even use wallets in the same way?

How else to answer this question but to ask people to show you everything they are carrying with them? In a recent project, my co-researchers and I asked our interviewees to take out everything they carried with them from their pockets, wallets, and bags, and tell us why they carried these objects.

The results of these interviews were surprising. First, we discovered that the ways in which people use wallets and bags can be remarkably different from what we are used to in developing countries. These differences aren't just cultural or economic; they are also due to formal rules imposed by authorities and companies.

Bronte lives in Pedernales, a town in the Dominican Republic that is located right next to the Haitian border. Bronte has both Haitian and Dominican citizenship. She works as a receptionist and a cleaner in a hotel. Hotel management worry that their staff will steal from customers, so Bronte is only allowed to take a very small bag to work.

Bronte uses a large wallet, more like a clutch bag, because it fits all the items that she feels are indispensable. These include utilitarian and personal objects: identity cards, cash, a bank card, health service documents, receipts, and photos of her children. She handles her wallet with a great deal of care, never placing it on the floor or dirty surfaces lest it become damaged.

Bronte's husband, Emmanuel, uses his wallet differently. Apart from an ID card, his wallet is virtually empty. He never keeps cash in it because he has noticed that if he puts it there it will disappear. This is because he identifies his wallet as a cabala, a kind of bad luck charm. To the best of my knowledge, the word cabala comes from the Hebrew word "kabbalah," or mystical interpretation of the Bible.

To avoid his money mysteriously disappearing, Emmanuel he keeps his Dominican pesos in his pockets and his Haitian gourdes at home. Interestingly, like Gawain, Emmanuel hangs onto currencies that he does not use. In his backpack he keeps a Haitian fifty cent coin that is no longer in circulation, a US five cent coin, and a two euro coin that a customer gave to him by mistake in his change instead of a 10 peso piece (worth about 17 euro cents). Emmanuel isn't alone: we encountered numerous people carrying similar "symbolic currencies."

The fact that Emmanuel rejects the wallet as a place to store cash may also reflect his upbringing. The use of wallets is not universal in Haiti. In fact, I heard rumors that Haitian bank notes have a life expectancy of approximately six weeks because wallets are not widespread and the notes are handled more often.

Emmanuel and Bronte both chose the same item as the most important thing they carry: their Dominican national identity cards. Bronte singled hers out because "without it I cant do anything, it is at the top of a chain of things I need." Among other things, her ID card permits her to open a bank account, purchase a mobile phone SIM card, and enroll in university. It is also proof of identity in case she gets stopped by the police or military (which she says has never happened).

Emmanuel has a fake Dominican national ID card that he bought for 4000 pesos (US$95). Although he cannot do much with it (he is not able to vote, open a bank account, or register a SIM card), it is absolutely crucial to his ability to be able to live and work in Pedernales without harrassment by the authorities. Interestingly, he is able to use this ID card to send and receive money through Western Union or Caribe Express.

The next most important thing on both Bronte's and Emmanuel's lists were their mobile phones. Bronte acquired hers through her employer, the owner of the hotel where she works. The owner wanted to be in touch with his staff, so he bought five of the least expensive mobile phones (600 peso Nokias). Staff repaid him over the course of a few months. Bronte estimates that she spends just 100 pesos (US$2.50) on calls and texts each month.

Bronte and Emmanuel both own Haitian phones as well. They can use them in Pedernales, even though it is in the Dominican Republic, because the signals from the telecommunications towers cross the national border. Bronte uses hers to call her mother in Haiti and to stay in touch with her husband.

Another crucial item on Emmanuel's never-leave-home-without list is his motorbike. This isn't just because it makes it easy for him to get around, or because he looks cool cruising down the street. Emmanuel's motorbike is a capital investment that he depends upon to make a living.

The use of a motorbike for income-generation differs from many developed countries in the world, where motorbikes are considered to be a personal item and one wouldn't dream of taking paying passengers. However, when incomes are low and resources in short supply, personal items can become indispensable sources of cash. In Pedernales, many men who depend upon working as a motorconchista (using their motorbike to take passengers or run errands), especially since the formal, low-skilled jobs, such as working in the local clothing factory, tend to be given to women.

In Emmanuel's case, his motorbike is an even more crucial asset because he does not have the right to work legally. But because Bronte has Dominican papers, a job, and a bank account, she was able to borrow 42,000 pesos (US$990) from the local co-operative bank to purchase Emmanuel's bike. They paid off this debt over the course of two years. He makes a living from ferring passengers around on his motorbike. Emmanuel owns a Haitian phone, not a Dominican one, because most of his passengers are Haitian. He needs the phone to stay connected with his clients.

Last but not least, keys emerged as crucial object in Bronte's and Emmanuel's collections. Keys, perhaps more than any other item, can tell us a great deal about what poeple think is valuable. Bronte and Emmanuel have identical sets of keys to their front gate, the front door of the house, the bathroom out the back, and the padlock on their fridge. In some ways, they seem more concerned with protecting their food from theft than their cash. While they leave money lying around the house, they always lock their food away. This may be because their perishable goods often represent a greater total value than the cash they have on hand.

Our wallets and bags are often the main access points to the majority of our liquid wealth. But, as Bronte and Emmanuel illustrate, when people have few savings and little cash, they may have few of the items that we associate with our everyday financial practices. And other possessions–motorbikes, identity cards, cash, keys–can have quite different purposes than what we might assume.

Taking a look inside people's wallets and bags can tell us quite a lot about their personal preferences. But the things you carry are also influenced by things that are outside your control. This makes prying into a person's possessions a good way to find out about the society they live in.

To avoid his money mysteriously disappearing, Emmanuel he keeps his Dominican pesos in his pockets and his Haitian gourdes at home.

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Full Size Image
What's in your bag? 030/365 Woman's Handbag, by Christine & David Schmitt, Flickr. [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
What's in your bag? 030/365 Woman's Handbag, by Christine & David Schmitt, Flickr. [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]