Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Back to Africa: Second Chances for the Children of West African Immigrants

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Back to Africa: Second Chances for the Children of West African Immigrants

Article excerpt

This paper examines the phenomenon of West African parents living in Europe and North America who send their older children back home: from places of high immigrant aspiration to those of hardship and privation. Drawing on a project on West African immigration to Europe and on previous field studies in Africa, we conclude that West African immigrants fearing the consequences of their children's indiscipline in the West, where racism and hostility can endanger the entire family, may send unruly children back to the home country. In doing so, we believe, they build on long-standing African disciplinary efforts in hopes of toughening their children's resilience to the challenges in the new place and wait for the risk to dissipate.

Key Words: African families, cross-cultural, culture/race/ethnicity, ethnography, fostering, migration.

Recent decades have seen a sharp rise in the number of West African nationals in Europe and North America. Most have been young men seeking work or a degree, though women have come in greater numbers as well, whether independently or, under family reunification provisions, to join a husband (Sow, in press). More thinly documented have been the West African children who are directly affected by international migration to the West. Some of these children are left behind when a parent travels abroad for work; others come as migrants themselves, whether as the dependents of a working parent or, in more extreme cases, unaccompanied by an adult.

Among the most puzzling cases are those of the children of West African immigrants in Europe or North America who are sent back to Africa, particularly children of older school age. Leaving places that seem to offer every advantage - established health and educational systems as well as the likelihood of a stable, prosperous future - these children effectively return to countries with levels of personal hardship and privation that most Europeans and Americans would find unacceptable for their own children (Aries, 1962). When asked to explain their actions, immigrant parents may point to lower costs of living and abundant child care back home. Alternatively, they may declare that a child is adapting poorly to the new place or needs to grow up knowing the family's ancestral roots. If pressed, though, nearly all West African immigrant parents living in Europe and the United States, which we describe collectively as "the West," ultimately say they want their children to gain a secure footing the West. Observations like these raise two questions. First, what might immigrants of recent West African origin find so objectionable about countries usually described as the pinnacles of African immigrant ambition to the point that they would send their children back to live in one of the poorest regions on earth? Second, why would they so often send their children back home at just the point when the children should be preparing most intensively for a successful professional life in their new homes?

Stripped of their wider social and cultural contexts, we believe the apparent facts in this case are misleading. Drawing from our past and present studies in Africa and Europe and from a range of secondary sources, we examine in some detail the West African tenet that ensuring a child's social and intellectual development requires maximal parental access to long-standing disciplinary practices. We then turn to two related concerns of West African parents about life in Europe and the United States. One is what parents see as a Western tendency to coddle and spoil children and to restrict parents' access to the discipline they may deem necessary for bringing a child into line. A child with an easy life, they fear, will have faltering interest in school and career achievement, losing the ambitions the parents had for him or her, quite possibly the main reason they made the international move in the first place. Even more serious for parents may be the repercussions of an undisciplined child's involvement in gangs, violence, and crime. …

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