Panel 34

The meanings of migration: Connecting inequality and the culture of migration in West Africa

Panel organisers: Erlend Paasche, University of Oslo, Norway and Gunvor Jónsson, University of Oxford, UK.


This panel starts from the observation that the meanings of migration in West Africa cannot be understood in isolation from people’s differentiated access to and experiences of mobility. As defined in a groundbreaking paper by Massey et al. (1993) a ‘culture of migration’ emerges when, ‘At the community level, migration becomes deeply ingrained into the repertoire of people’s behaviors, and values associated with migration become part of the community’s values.’ Such a definition imposes on communities a bounded homogeneity that they rarely exhibit. Any discussion of the cultural and social meanings of migration need to deal with, if not foreground, the conflict-ridden and socially stratified nature of migration. Attempts to become mobile are systematically successful for a privileged few and systematically thwarted for others who seek to emulate them. While both of these groups may share the aspiration for connecting with global flows and ending local ‘waithoods’, and although they may inhabit a shared society if not social space, they do not engage in the same migration trajectories. Nor do they reap the same fruits from migration, or, ultimately, share the same ‘culture of migration’. Unitary images of the culture of migration depoliticizes inequality and impose a sameness on social groups that differ not only in terms of attributes like age, gender and class but in terms of life chances. In this panel we critically connect ‘culture’ to migration in a way that highlights rather than glosses over the heterogeneity of those who cross West African borders, or aspire to do so.

Approved abstracts panel 34

Session 1: The contested meanings of migration: inequalities and dominant discourses

1. The Senegalese migrant (Modou-Modou): Ambivalences around an old role model

Author: Sebastian Prothmann, Geographer and Social Anthropologist, Independent Researcher (Frankfurt am Main).

Based on eleven months of ethnographic fieldwork in Pikine between 2011 and 2013, an urban area within the Dakar region of Senegal, this presentation explores young male Pikinois' perceptions of their diasporic counterparts. Virtually idolized as redeemers for a long time, the status of the Modou-Modou, local reference to an emigrant who was once seen to embody economic success and social prestige, has been banalized recently. Nowadays, descriptions of these former heroes even tend to be attributed to negative qualities. Flows of remittances have become asymmetric; not only are Senegalese abroad supporting their kin in Senegal, sometimes these kin also support the migrants. Migrants’ staging of wealth through public display of material objects and the construction of showy houses has decreased in recent years. Migrants are perceived as deceitful and accused of arrogant behaviour by non-migrants. At the same time, it is nearly impossible for young aspiring male migrants in Pikine to implement their plans of emigration. It is mostly these young men who tend to compare unsuccessful migrants with success stories of migrants; yet they are not interested in learning about migrants’ real conditions in the ‘Global North’. The focus of my talk will be: Young males coping with the burdens of immobility and a lack of alternatives amidst the difficulty to migrate. This correlates admittedly with the decreasing numbers of successful migrants and will sooner or later lead to a shift in the opinion about migration among young men in Pikine. However, this change will occur very slowly. I will elaborate on the reasons for this development in my presentation.

2. Senegalese Mobilities connected: Continuities and inequalities

Author: Maria Hernandez Carretero, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo & Giulia Sinatti, Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
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In this paper, we explore the applicability of the term “culture of migration” to understand the variety, continuity and inequalities that characterize Senegalese mobilities. We do so on the basis of ethnographic data collected in Senegal, Italy and Spain over more than two decades, and secondary literature. Our analysis addresses the multiplicity of ways in which many Senegalese seek to improve their livelihoods through different forms of mobility, seeking to understand what connects and differentiates them: from trans-local to long-distance trade, from internal to intercontinental migration. We depart from the term “migration” in favour of the more dynamic concept “mobility”, which better encompasses the multifaceted, sometimes spontaneous, often flexible and typically Senegal-grounded ways in which Senegalese men and women seek to make a living by using geography in their favour. We show how local, regional and intercontinental mobilities are connected both at the level of motivations (making a living) and of social repercussions (achieving a better socioeconomic standing, living away from family). On the one hand, access to different forms of mobility both reflects and generates socioeconomic inequalities, as longer-distance mobility (which is often also longer-term) is not affordable by all and often yields greater gains. On the other hand, it often comes with dimensions of immobility: migration restrictions impose obstacles to the circulation of both those who have left, and of relatives who might wish to visit them. The result is a variety of experiences and practices of mobility emerging out of a compromise between individuals’ goals and the reality of migration regulations that enable or restrict their movement. Based on this review of diverse mobility experiences in Senegalese migration, we question the usefulness of “culture of migration” and instead point at the flexible adaptability with which the Senegalese engage with mobility, navigating migration control to seek out opportunities.

3. The Meanings of Women’s Mobilities: Gender Ideals and Female Mobility in West Africa

Author: Gunvor Jónsson

Despite increasing global attention to women’s involvement in migration in recent decades, very little research has looked at Malian women’s different forms of mobility, beyond the “rural exodus” from the countryside into towns. My fieldwork in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, focused on both mobile and settled female traders from Mali, the neighbouring country. Many of these women were heads of their own households; many were single – unmarried, divorced, widowed. In this presentation I will look at the various mobilities that these and other Malian women were engaged in, to examine the kinds of meanings and experiences they were associated with. I will start by discussing the role of local Islamic, patriarchal and Mande ideals in relation to women’s mobilities. I then move on to examine the kinds of mobilities that were associated with womanhood, focusing specifically on how conceptions of womanhood were linked to liminal or perpetual conditions of strangerhood. By looking at the different meanings of women’s mobilities I argue that it becomes possible to explore not only what “ideal femininity” looked like but also, to consider alternative femininities and the changing discourses on gender.

4. Exploring return mobilities to Ghana: From transnational return to precarious migration projects

Author: Nauja Kleist, Danish Institute for International Studies.

This paper explores the many meanings of return migration to Ghana, with focus on how two different groups of Ghanaian return migrants articulate their migration, return experience and post-return life. It brings together findings from two research projects on return migration carried out between 2008 and 2016. One on highly skilled returnees who have migrated in regularized ways, who return to Ghana with Western citizenship or permanent residence permits and who are able to remain a part of international legal migration circuits.  The other group of returnees consist of involuntary returnees who have engaged in precarious and high-risk migration projects and been forcefully relocated through deportation or flight or evacuation from migration crisis or conflict, especially from Libya but also other North African countries, Europe and the Middle East. The paper argues that inequality is reflected not only in the access to migration but also in the ways that migrants return and their post-return life, including ongoing mobility practices. 

Session 2: Cultural representations of migration: imagination and fictions

1. Ghanaian Migration to The Netherlands: Status paradox?

Author: Amisah Zenabu Bakuri,University of Amsterdam.

Migration continues to serve as platform for financial and social empowerment in many countries including Ghana. There are many constraints associated with the life of migrants, however, the quest to be socially acknowledged enables them to adopt certain survival strategies. Using qualitative methodology, this paper examines Ghanaians migration to the Netherlands using the concept of ‘burger’ (Nieswand,2014). This research work highlights that some Ghanaian migrants travel with the goal of earning money to meet their personal and family needs, and so engage in any available job to build and maintain their new burger status. As burgers, they have to obtain enough money to maintain their elevated social status but need to ensure that relatives and friends in Ghana do not know how this money is obtained. To maintain the new “privilege” social status often ascribed to Ghanaians living abroad, migrants are compelled to juggle their work, income and lifestyle in the Netherlands and (mis)-representation of themselves in Ghana.

Keywords: Migrants, Burger, returnees, Ghana, The Netherlands, social status.

2. Who can go to Europe and why would one go there: experiences and imaginaries of Tuareg in Niger

Author: Sarah Lunaček, University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Arts, Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology.

I would like to relate experiences with travelling to Europe and imaginaries of Europe with access to mobility to Europe among Tuareg in northern Niger.

Tuareg are traditionally nomadic society, with diversity of old and new patterns of mobility: from pastoral nomadism, sedentarisation, moving to cities, trans-regional migration and transport and involvement in smuggling routes. Migration to Europe presents a very small part of all their mobilities.  Inside of old and new social categorisations different mobilities are accessible for particular social classes and also in relation to individual opportunities. Those actually travelling to Europe to continue university schooling, to visit friends or to sell crafts access this possibility to travel there by having connections in diaspora or among Europeans. Experiencing Europe by legalised travel, they are critical in its representations and pragmatic in using the travel opportunities. Rarely anyone decides to stay in Europe permanently.

Tuareg who are mobile in diverse other ways without going to Europe, are usually not very interested in travelling to Europe. Either they have their idea about it from knowing Europeans, or from hearing from others, which means they are also rather critical. Even after Libya is not a promising alternative to gain anymore, and after criminalisation of transport of passengers across the Sahara, young Tuareg don’t massively dream of Europe. In case of nomadic pastoralists or gardeners, the image seems nice because of rain, strange because of religion, but to remote to tell anything about and to unrealistic to think much to go there.

I would argue that access to legal travel is enabling more critical and pragmatic representation of Europe. Other forms of mobilities are more crucial for cultural identities.

3. Representations of return migration in Nigerian cultural production

Author: Erlend Paasche and Jørgen Carling

Migrants navigate not only legal structures, but also socio-cultural norms and expectations.

The figure of the returnee from Europe is highly ambivalent in West African societies, reflected in culturally-specific stereotypes such as the modou-modou and the been-to. On the one hand, migrants are celebrated and revered for their successes and for the cultural authority imbued by their mobility. On the other hand, they are susceptible to being seen as insincere and shallow, focused on nurturing appearances of superiority. For the returnee, the process of re-entering the society of origin thus has an element of typecasting. The challenge of managing one's return, and the conditions under which it takes place, needs to be analysed in this perspective. In this paper, we empirically investigate how return migration is represented in forms of Nigerian cultural production, more specifically 20 movies and 30 fictional texts where migration features as a significant theme. Contributing to a productive ‘cultural turn’ in migration studies, we argue that analyzing such representations can offer fertile grounds for innovatively theorising return migration. We identify three manifestations of the return migrant that have received little theoretical attention in the scholarly literature: ‘the returnee mimicker’, ‘the returnee trickster’ and ‘the returnee avenger’. These ideal types, we suggest, form part of the sociocultural landscape of norms and expectations that Nigerian migrants need to navigate. The primary purpose is not to deepen understandings of Nigerian cultural production, but rather to draw upon this production for understanding the socio-cultural parameters of migration experiences. In this way the research complements more conventional social-science approaches such as interviews and participant observation.

4. Fatou Diome’s The Belly of the Atlantic: A Trajectory of Hope and Despair

Author: R.F.Bestman, Department of Foreign Languages, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria.

This paper is a critical analysis of the theme of emigration in Le Ventre de L’Atlantique translated as The Belly of the Atlantic by Senegalese female writer, Fatou Diome. The study is located within the theoretical framework of masculinity postulated by Lohoucine Ouzgane and Robert Morell in African Masculinities as well as Rachael Alsop, Annette Fitzsimons and Kathleen Lennon in Theorizing Gender. The work analyses various dimensions of African hegemonic masculinity – cultural ideal, dynamic masculinity and heterosexuality – in an achievement-oriented, yet impoverished society as the driving force behind the African male’s quest for migration to the West, a perceived Eldorado for self-realisation. It examines the burden of womanhood for the African female both at home and as an immigrant abroad. Europe is explored as a symbol of ephemeral hope and of despair and the Atlantic Sea serves as trope for physical and psychic shipwreck linked with personal and collective experiences of the characters. The conclusion posits solid anchoring in the African motherland, the harnessing of her diverse potentials and the pursuit of viable economy as panacea to the obsession of young Africans’ migration to the hostile West.

Keywords: Emigration, immigrant masculinity, Atlantic, hope, despair

5. Internal and International Migration Trajectories in West Africa: The Imaginative Intervention of Darko’s Beyond the Horizon and Aidoo’s Our Sister Killjoy

Author: Solomon Omatsola Azumurana, Department of English, University of Lagos.

Although the subject of the migration of persons within and outside the West African sub-region has engaged the attention of scholars, one missing link appears to be the near-disregard of the insight mainstream imaginative literature can provide on the subject. Also, while Ama Darko’s Beyond the Horizon and Ama Ata Aidoo’s Our Sister Killjoy have received considerable critical attention, their engagement with the culture of migration in West Africa, especially in terms of highlighting the homogeneity of experience of the migrants has been largely ignored. In this paper, I examine both novels as imaginative portrayals of the culture of internal and international migration in contemporary West Africa. Exploiting the Marxist concepts of commodification and ideological conditioning on one hand and the Postcolonial concepts of exile and unhomeliness on the other, I argue that Migrants in West Africa, irrespective of their class and gender, as depicted in both novels engage in the same migration trajectories, although under different guises and circumstances. For instance, as depicted in both novels, regardless of the migrants’ class and gender, they are commodified as much in their home of departure as they are in their home of arrival. Also, their migrations notwithstanding the differences in class and gender are foregrounded on the same ideological conditioning of the push and pull factors. Moreover, in both novels, the psychological experience of the migrants’ feelings of unhomeliness in their new home is very much the same irrespective of their socioeconomic and sociocultural positioning.

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