Academic journal article African Economic History

REINTERPRETING LABOR MIGRATION AS INITIATION RITE: "Ghana Boys" and European Clothing in Dogon Country (Mali), 1920-1960

Academic journal article African Economic History

REINTERPRETING LABOR MIGRATION AS INITIATION RITE: "Ghana Boys" and European Clothing in Dogon Country (Mali), 1920-1960

Article excerpt

Introduction1

Most of the current anthropological studies on the relationships between migration and global consumption in Africa have been conducted in relation to globalization discourses of the 1990s.2 Few longue durée approaches have been adopted to understand the cultural and identity formation in the African laborers' villages of origin.3 However, it is possible even in the early twentieth century to see how young African migrants-through consumption of western items in their own villages-reproduced local institutions of social promotion. Reinterpreting labor migration as a rite of passage through an anthropological and historical perspective demonstrates the formation of "cultural heroes" through the transfer and consumption of European items in villages. For that purpose, I examine both migration for colonial wage work and the modern lifestyle of returnee migrants, while scrutinizing the symbolic relationship between the two. In order to do so, I base my analysis on what was known as the Ghana boys: an informal migrants' organization whose members have returned to Dogon country after a three years sojourn in the cities of the former Gold Coast (presentday Ghana). The term Ghana boys, which came into common use in Dogon Country after 1957, replaced the term Kumasi boys,4 widely employed from the 1920s to the 1950s. The substitution occurred when Gold Coast gained its independence under the name Ghana. The more recent term will be employed throughout this paper; both titles imply the aspirations, labor, and consumption embedded within migration, and the only difference lies in the time period.

Of course, the Ghana boys were not unique; there were numerous other connections between Dogon society and the rest of the world. For example, compulsory military service during World War I was a key process in linking Dogon society to the emerging worlds of European empire in the first part of the twentieth century. Many informants highlight the importance of young soldiers returning from military service in brokering interactions with European and colonial cultures. Demobilized soldiers returned to the villages with uniforms and other goods acquired during their time abroad. In Dogon villages, they gave lengthy accounts about the modern technologies being used in Europe, particularly modern means of transportation. In the early stages of World War I, according to oral testimony, many Dogon were skeptical of accounts of the first groups of returning soldiers describing European technology. The large number of men drafted over the course of the war, however, meant that after the war was over, the large number of returning veterans confirmed the accounts of the first cohort of military men. The accounts of these World War I veterans did a great deal to influence other young people into migrating into colonial cities, in order to achieve the same status of cultural hero accorded to returning veterans. Key among these migrants were the Ghana boys.

A study of the Ghana boys reveals that young Dogon men were continually shuttling between their villages and Ghana's colonial cities. It was a transnational, or trans-colonial, movement, since these young men were leaving one colonial empire for another. This migration demonstrates the appearance of a new form of organized society, which has three distinguishing features: (1) the ordeal of travel, (2) the experience of paid labor, measured by the acquisition of clothing and other luxury objects, and (3) the mastery of new languages, namely English and Hausa. The value placed upon these imported artefacts and the knowledge of foreign languages in Dogon society, and particularly by women, raised migration's profile among the young population as a whole. As these new cultural and material values began to pervade colonial and post-colonial Ghana, they were transposed and reinterpreted in Dogon Country. This article investigates how the stories and the memory of the Kumasi boys and the Ghana boys have served to ingrain migratory aspirations among the Dogon from the beginning of the twentieth century until now. …

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