Mobile phones and the changing mobility practices of stretched families in sub-Saharan Africa

There is a long history of migration among low-income families in sub-Saharan Africa, in which (usually young, often male) members leave home to seek their fortune in what are perceived to be more favourable locations. While the physical and virtual mobility practices of such stretched families are often complex and contingent, maintaining contact with distantly-located close kin is frequently of crucial importance for the maintenance of emotional (and possibly material) well-being, both for those who have left home and those who remain. I review and reflect on the way connecting with home is being reshaped by the availability of mobile phones, drawing on a series of research studies I have led over the last decade in four countries: Ghana, Malawi, South Africa and Tanzania. Stories collected from both ends of stretched families present a world where the connectivities now offered by the mobile phone bring a different kind of closeness and knowing, as instant sociality introduces a potential substitute for letters, cassettes and face-to-face visits, while the rapid resource mobilization opportunities identified by those still at home impose increasing pressures on migrant kin.

Gina Porter is a Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Durham.