April 24, 2024
Technology

how technology helps keep families together


Political instability and economic decline in Zimbabwe have accelerated migration to South Africa in the last two decades. Because of the overriding socio-economic focus of the migration, people often fail to understand the effects on the migrants and their families. This extract from the book Transnational Families in Africa shows how migrants mitigate the disruption to bonds with the families they leave.

The impact of migration on individuals and families is complex, with many challenges and constraints, as well as some opportunities. One important dimension of this complexity requires us to understand the impact of migration on transnational family relationships, in both the destination country and the country of origin.

This is the kind of disruption we see in the story of Chipo, who reported one underlying paradox in the phenomenon of Zimbabwean migration to South Africa: the breakdown of the family system as a consequence of the attempt to rescue this same family. This phenomenon is illustrated throughout our data, so that the story of one of the 20 participants we tell here is, in many ways, representative of the other families in the study.

This story began as one of hope for a better future and pride in being able to take care of loved ones. But the parent-child bond was put under great strain because of separation and distance.

Chipo’s story

Forty-year-old Chipo’s story gives the perspective of a parent forced to leave a child behind in order to provide for him. She had to leave her seven-year-old son in the care of her elderly mother to look for work and further her studies in South Africa. She constantly agonises over what the impact on her relationship with her son will be in the years to come.

She describes her move as follows:

It was mostly in search of greener pastures.

Her words reiterate the idealised and aspirational view that many Zimbabwean migrants initially have of South Africa. She stressed the important role of technology in maintaining relationships with family left behind. WhatsApp is the preferred means of staying connected with the family:

We’ve got a a family WhatsApp group for myself, my mother and my brother so we constantly keep updated on any family issues. Even in the morning, if it’s good morning, if it’s Scripture, if it’s anything … that’s how we know that we are connected. So every morning we say good morning, how did you sleep? And things like that and then in the afternoon or if there’s anything, any issues or if there’s … yeah, any issues, that’s how we keep connected and communicate.

The role of technology

WhatsApp groups seem to be a way to recreate family interactions in transnational families and facilitate everyday family interactions. They have been shown to be highly effective in building and maintaining kinship relationships at a distance.

Their use indicates what it means to be a family existing in a digital habitat. Virtual proximity may be achieved through these groups, which helps to fulfil the desire to remain a connected family despite physical distance.

However, technology is not without its challenges. In many cases, these are associated with cost. Chipo described how she used text messaging and voice recording instead of video calling because of the high cost of data:

It’s mostly texting and voice recordings like let’s say for … especially in Zimbabwe where data is a bit expensive. So, video calls they are not … really, we don’t use them that much.

Profound asymmetries were noted between the home country and destination country, with communication being cheaper for migrants than for their families.

Different types of information and communication technology (ICT) are available primarily to affluent families and people who live in urban areas. The result is that the migrants’ ability to stay connected with left-behind family may be compromised by prohibitive costs and a lack of ICT infrastructure.

It may also be that the high cost of data potentially affects relationship-building, especially in situations where children are not old enough to understand text messages, and would benefit from video and voice calling, which offer an important visual presence and an easier way to share emotional connection.

Despite these difficulties, there was a shared sense among the 20 participants that ICT allowed migrants to continue a relationship of care with their distant family members. Different levels and types of care are exchanged by participants. For example, Chipo found it easier to offer medical care to family members via ICT, because she was able to seek out medical advice and other forms of practical care in South Africa. It is also more convenient for her to coordinate everything, as she does not want to overwork her elderly mother, who is already taking care of her son. This includes arranging for a pharmacy in South Africa to provide medical advice to her family in Zimbabwe:

Let’s say for example … in the past weeks my son had a bit of a temperature and a runny tummy … So I had to co-ordinate … the medication.

ICT is also used for providing other practical forms of care such as access to groceries.

What is not said

Thus the exchange of care in transnational families goes beyond sending financial remittances, as it includes health and practical needs. What is said and what is not said through virtual communication is also a key issue – as an act of care, people may hide information from one another. Chipo describes how once, when her son was ill, her mother did not tell her. Such silence was particularly stressful in retrospect, given the COVID-19 pandemic:

And then I was told that my son had a constant cough and all. And that was before I understood any thing about COVID-19 and things like that … But my mother told me maybe a week later that your son has got this constant cough and … so I got so upset to say you’re only telling me now, my son could be dying and you’re only telling me now – why didn’t you tell me the first day that he had?

A growing gap

Chipo deemed visits very important to close the information gap, which she did not believe could be easily bridged by the use of ICT:

But for holidays I’d prefer that he comes through, and they also come through and because you might do video calls, you might do voice notes but there’s still that gap. You need to see them physically and spend time with them so yeah. So it’s both.

In a time of global distress and uncertainty, it appeared that families needed to stay connected more frequently and more urgently. Generally, despite the advantages of ICT and the creative ways in which technology has been used, there was a sense of loss in Chipo’s relationship with her son:

And maybe one thing … in as much as technology is assisting … I feel that even the bond between me and my son will (change) over time if things remain like this … The gap will be bigger and bigger over time.

Why this matters

Chipo’s story speaks of migrants leaving their loved ones behind in order to rescue the family from financial difficulties. Their leaving causes an inevitable sense of rupture in the very family they want to protect. This implies that, although the children of migrant parents appear to receive better financial support than the children of non-migrant families, there are also heart wrenching challenges in dealing with distance, as well as a realistic worry that the separation will damage relationships.

Siko Moyo, a counselling psychologist at the University of the Witwatersrand, contributed to the research and this article.



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