Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Becoming Local Citizens: Senegalese Female Migrants and Agrarian Clientelism in the Gambia

Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Becoming Local Citizens: Senegalese Female Migrants and Agrarian Clientelism in the Gambia

Article excerpt


Agrarian clientelism, a form of labor contracting whereby migrants enter into share contracts or sharecropping relations with local farmers, has been key to the commoditization and expansion of agrarian production in West Africa from the nineteenth century to the present. Various types of agrarian clientelism have been examined and presented in the literature on agrarian labor and permanent and seasonal migration. (1) However, the role of agrarian clientelism in incorporating migrants into local communities remains relatively unexamined.

Drawing on ethnographic research with Senegalese female migrants in Brikama, The Gambia this article examines processes of incorporation, local citizenship and agrarian clientelism. Emphasis is placed on female migrants, both because of the dearth of ethnographic literature on female migrants in West Africa and to highlight the centrality of female migrants to local institutions of incorporation. Regional migration within West Africa, particularly labor migration, has generally been depicted as a "male phenomenon" with little attention paid to independent female and family migration. (2) Although in many cases it is socially unacceptable for women and girls to migrate independently it is all too easy to overstate and exaggerate the degree to which patriarchal norms serve to restrict, contain, and define the nature of women's mobility, thereby underestimating the extent to which they do in fact migrate. (3) Such underestimation is of particular concern given the increasing feminization of labor migration in West Africa. (4) Further, there is a growing body of literature on migration, transnational practices, citizenship and processes of incorporation amongst Africans who migrate from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe. Yet, there is comparatively less research on these issues in relation to intra-continental migration. (5)

I place emphasis on migration as a social process with a focus on local cultural institutions of incorporation, specifically that of agrarian clientelism. Indeed, it is maintained that our understanding of contemporary migration in West Africa needs to focus on processes of incorporation, as articulated through specific cultural practices and institutions, in order to "(re-) embed migration research in a more general understanding of society." (6) Such a focus means being attentive to the "internal dynamics" of West African societies in shaping the migration phenomenon. (7)

The "internal dynamics" of West African societies can be partly captured in Kopytoff's (1987) model of the African frontier, which situates mobility, settlement history, and the establishment of a "social and political order" in the context of an abundance of land. The first comer-late comer (host-stranger) dichotomy, also central to Kopytoff's model, is one of the significant "socio-cultural paradigms found in West Africa." (8) It can be said to characterize settlement history and the social and political order of most West African societies. Further, it is central to an understanding of agrarian clientelism and the incorporation of migrants into local communities. Latecomers, frontiersmen and women, through authority, intermarriage and domination of local groups, lay claim to founder status. (9)

The majority of Gambians are involved in smallholder production, cultivating groundnuts (the traditional male dominated export crop), rice, horticultural produce, and a number of other food crops. Most combine farming with non-agrarian livelihood strategies. Many of those who are engaged in local forms of exchange are women and children, many of whom are recent migrants. (10) Female agrarian clientelist relations are based on a host-stranger dichotomy in which recent migrants, or "strangers" (lungtangolu in Mandinka), are given access to land in the dry season for vegetable cultivation, which is sold in local markets, in exchange for providing unremunerated labor for hosts for the cultivation of rice in the rainy season. …

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