Perspectives from the Humanities and Social Sciences

Entangled Im/Mobilities in and from Africa: Of Journeys Spiritual, Accidental, Competitive or Shared

Chair: Daniela Atanasova (University of Vienna)
Co-Chair: Immanuel Harisch (University of Vienna)

Bernardo López Marín (La Trobe University, Melbourne), Gianmaria Lenti (National School of Anthropology and History, Mexico City)
Martha Lagace (Boston University)
Barbara M. Cooper (Rudgers University, New Jersey)
Boris Koenig (University of Michigan)

West-African Migrants’ Narratives Compiling Oral History and Collective Memory of Desert Journeys

Bernardo López Marín, Gianmaria Lenti

The utilization of qualitative methodological approaches focusing on personal narratives, life stories and oral history are invaluable tools in anthropological research that seek to offer a better understanding of how human im/mobilities become entangled with structural contexts. In the case of irregularized migrants staying in Morocco, this dichotomy is represented by the mobilities of those who are compelled to travel through the continent and between cities within the Kingdom, looking for work opportunities, economic means to continue their journeys or to cover the costs of returning to their country of origin. Immobility in this context is characterized by stranded migrants who face difficulties and deprivation, while attempting to reach Europe. These im/mobilities exemplify the entanglement of the Moroccan context with the current extraterritorialization agreements recently enacted by the EU and backed by many African nations. Simultaneously, the impacts on the quality of life and amount of suffering endured by migrants in Morocco reflect the effects of social exclusion, marginalization and racism. This presentation will explore and briefly illustrate how West African migrants living in Morocco experience their everyday lives. Based on their personal narratives and life stories, this study will underline the value of oral history through the creation of a collective memory that mystifies their journeys through the Sahara desert. The methodological approach substantiating this research is based on several months of fieldwork that included participant observation and conducting semi-structured interviews with West African migrants at their private abodes within the city of Oujda. This presentation proposes that migration nowadays is no longer a departure-destination process, but it has become a sort of encapsulating lifestyle for many migrants and asylum seekers who continue struggling to get their rights recognized and searching for a disentanglement of their life realities.

Bernardo López Marín is a Mexican scholar currently doing a PhD in Social Anthropology at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. He has completed an MSc in Social Anthropology researching transit migration and human displacement in Mexico based on approaches of Political Anthropology, graduating from the National School of Anthropology and History in Mexico City. Bernardo was awarded a BA of Arts in Native American Indian Languages and Cultures at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. His current research examines unauthorized and forced migration, human displacement, violence, border enforcement, cultural and postcolonial studies, human experience and sociocultural particularities in host societies.

Gianmaria Lenti is a PhD Candidate in Social Anthropology at the National School of Anthropology and History in Mexico City. His research explores the experiences and emotions of migrants in transit through Mexico, Morocco, Turkey, and Greece. Gianmaria completed an MSc in Development and International Relations – Global Refugee Studies at Aalborg University, Denmark. He was awarded a BA in Languages and Cultural Mediation at the University of Roma Tre, Italy. Gianmaria conducted a research stay at Özyeğin University in Istanbul, Turkey, and is currently appointed as honorary affiliate at the Department of Social Inquiry at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.

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Becoming Strangers in a Homeland: Moral Dimensions of Mobility among Border-Border Taxi Drivers in Northern Uganda

Martha Lagace

Motorcycle taxis driven by young men are proliferating in East Africa. What drives this trend is a growing youth population in need of livelihood, affordable motorbikes from India and China, and public desire for cheap transportation. In Uganda, the term for these motorcyclists is boda-boda, meaning border to border. In northern Uganda, many ethnic Acholi boda-bodas were born and grew up during an armed conflict between 1986 and 2006. Even though their work presents an informal solution to chronic unemployment, the boda-boda moniker and livelihood there bear a painful stigma. This is partly because the commonly heard Acholi word atata, roughly equivalent in English to anyhow, randomly, contains moral and cosmological implications about mobility that function as a kind of brake on the agency of these drivers, while also challenging their sense of inequality. Two ethnographic examples from different time periods—the 1950s, when the atata concept was used in a failed attempt by elders to restrict women’s travel, and the current use of atata around boda-bodas between 2014 and 2017—shows these meanings as well as their gendered implications for mobility and immobility. Atata as stigma and warning, but also as a kind of fuel about worthwhile risks, illuminates how mobility and immobility are co-produced. Boda-bodas’ dealing with this contradiction and its attendant ambiguity estranges them from their homeland even as they attempt to fulfill moral responsibilities as men in the wake of the long conflict. More broadly, the economic accident of East Africa’s vast informal sector, in which boda-bodas play a part, may continuously reproduce such »strangers« as more jobless male youth join in. The paper draws on the author’s 22 months of fieldwork in Uganda between 2014 and 2017, and her analysis of ethnographic fieldnotes from 1954-1958 by Hungarian-born American anthropologist Paula Hirsch Foster.

Martha Lagace earned her PhD in anthropology from Boston University in 2018. She has conducted field research about several dozen genocide memorials in Rwanda with Jens Meierhenrich (London School of Economics), as well as fieldwork about post-conflict youth livelihoods in northern Uganda. Her monograph in progress is about Acholi motorcycle-taxi drivers and their world. In 2021, she is the American Council of Learned Societies’ Leading Edge Fellow with the U.S.-based nonprofit cultural organization African Communities Together.

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Predicaments of Gender and Generation in the Contemporary Sahel

Barbara M. Cooper

We tend to focus on crisis in the Sahel region: refugees and displaced populations, jihadists and militias of all kinds, and the kidnapping of aid workers, child soldiers, and schoolgirls. However, these phenomena occur against a »normal« backdrop of ongoing stress and constraint. There are also patterned opportunities in permeable border zones, the ongoing significance of wealth in people, and the historical advantage of controlling transit routes rather than production itself. Young people navigate these constraints and opportunities in gendered ways shaped by education and the degree of mobility available to them. Individual choice figures less than the preferences of the entourage. While demographers perceive the high population growth rates in the region as contributing to radicalization, the young Nigerien man is less likely to see his problems as a lack of access to birth control than a lack of access to marriage. Many of the best opportunities in the actually existing economy – in a setting in which borders are permeable, the seizure of wealth is its own kind of demonstration of masculine adulthood, and the legitimacy and capacity of the state is extremely low – attract less-educated young men. Scarce opportunities for income earning and relative immobility position women so that their best bet is to secure a marriage to a man who can master the opportunities available. I will track some of the different ways that young men and women interpret and act upon their options, and the implications of their strategies for population concerns.

Barbara M. Cooper, a social and cultural historian of Niger, has studied shifts in gender, law, health, family life, and agriculture. Marriage in Maradi: Gender and Culture in a Hausa society in Niger (Heinemann 1997) explores how men and women negotiated a rapidly changing political economy through the reinterpretation of marriage. Evangelical Christians in the Muslim Sahel (Indiana University Press 2006) recounts the interactions of evangelical missionaries, French administrators, and Muslim communities as a small evangelical community developed. Countless Blessings: A History of Childbirth and Reproduction in the Sahel (Indiana University Press 2019) explores the paradoxes of fertility and infertility in Niger.

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Rural Occultism and the Transformations of Urban-Rural Im/Mobilities among Residents of the City of Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire)

Boris Koenig

Over the past few decades, a significant body of research has emphasized that in Côte d’Ivoire and elsewhere in West Africa, relationships between migrants to cities and their extended family based in their home villages are often imbued by mutual witchcraft accusations that deeply inform urban-rural forms of relatedness and im/mobilities. This paper revisits and extends the analysis around this common observation by examining how over the postcolonial period, im/mobilities of inhabitants of Abidjan have been informed by socio-spiritual dynamics that link them to rural parts of the sub-region. Drawing on three years of ethnographic fieldwork among residents of this city from 2016 into 2020, the analysis focuses on the generational transformations in the nature of socio-spiritual relationships established with rural spaces by urban migrants born in the 1960s and 1970s and their adult children. First, the study traces how this first generation of migrants to Abidjan have often maintained strong but ambivalent relationships with their villages of origin and extended family based in rural regions, ones that were marked by the ever-present possibility of being targeted by jealous resentment and exposed to malevolent occult practices that can affect one’s conditions in everyday life in the city. Second, it turns to the socio-historical circumstances that have propelled many adults born in the 1980s and 1990s to break ties with their parents’ villages of origin. Yet, interestingly, these young adults travel regularly to villages of the sub-region to develop their own socio-spiritual linkages with occult practitioners not related to their kin, with the view to strike some kind of balance with the contrasted effects of invisible forces that manifest in their everyday life. As suggested in the concluding part of this communication, what is revealed through these generational variations in the engagements of residents of Abidjan toward rural worlds is not merely the different meanings attributed to the widely spread idea of ›rural occultism‹ in the sub-region, but also the significance of socio-spiritual dynamics to understand past and present urban-rural im/mobilities.

Boris Koenig is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan (United States). He holds a PhD in Cultural Anthropology and Sociology from the University of Quebec in Montreal (Canada) and the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium). His research interests concern the occult, witchcraft, and spiritual healing as well as youth, urban economies, gender dynamics and generational change. He has done extensive ethnographic research in urban and rural Côte d’Ivoire, with a particular focus on the city of Abidjan.

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