Saturday, 26 May 2012

Shame and Migrant Work as it relates to WoDaaBe

There is an element of shame associated with being engaged in occupations other than herding animals. It has been demonstrated, contemporary WoDaaBe not only work as hired herders but engage in various activities that have no relation to herding or to life in the bush. More recently, some authors emphasise shame as experienced by WoDaaBe migrant labourers due to their work in the city. After the drought period,
WoDaaBe migrant workers preferred work in far away cities in neighbouring countries, involving high transportation costs, as opposed to finding work in Niger’s cities, a trend that suggest that could be due to feelings of shame at being engaged in city work. One informant confirmed this point by telling me that when the artisanry work was initially starting, people felt shameful (Be nani semteDum) selling items in the city. When taking the finished products to the market, they would hide them inside their clothing so other people could neither see nor guess that they were going to sell them.

In my own research, I did not find WoDaaBe migrant workers generally shameful of their work in the city. Some individuals were on the contrary relatively proud of urban work, emphasising their importance in providing a security net for those in the bush. Those who expressed shame in relation to their work were not shameful of having an occupation outside the pastoral economy but more of their inability to rebuild their herd or in sending money to their extended family in the bush. I think that the difference between my results and previous studies can be sought in several inter acting factors. As my preceding discussion demonstrated semteDum must be under stood as a part of a larger system of WoDaaBe identity. Shame in WoDaaBe society is associated with the lack of following the values of mboDangaaku, which most WoDaaBe see as embodying the essence of being WoDaaBe. Association with migrant work can thus have been conceptualised as shameful because it was seen as marking a step away from being and behaving as WoDaaBe. It is not surprising that new ways of subsistence, especially when taking place in cities, appear deviant. This can be further intensified by the fact that in the Sahel area various occupations are often strongly associated with certain ethnicities. Most everyday craft objects used by WoDaaBe in the Tchin-Tabaraden area, such as shoes, spoons, saddles, beds, are bought from special sections or castes within Tuareg society.

But other factors can also be mentioned relating to notions of shame and depend ability. Generosity is highly valued in WoDaaBe society as a moral obligation and as intrinsic to someone’s identity as WoDaaBe (tomboDangaaku), emphasising generosity to one’s lineage group, and hospitality to others from distant lineage groups and ethnicities. The strong emphasis on semteDum and egalitarianism is manifested in it being considered shameful for the family if some of its members are much poorer than others. I observed, however, that in practice some individuals who owned a reasonable number of animals were not considered shameful, even though their close kin may have possessed very few animals. This can be attributed to these affluent individuals being generous toward others, giving a great deal of cattle loans in addition to ‘helping’ with small gifts of necessary things. Even though WoDaaBe society and its Islamic values place a strong value on generosity, a poor person within a lineage group will still feel shame if constantly accepting from others. A poor brother will thus in the long run experience a sense of shame if he always has to be dependent on the household of a more affluent brother. Some people told me that they generally experienced a sense of shame when having to ask for help with food or other necessities. I heard of two cases where individuals (both males) left their community and family because they felt shame in this regard.

Thus even though I did not find that shame was associated with migrant work per se, I saw it associated with the failure to earn enough in the city. One elderly migrant worker directly stated that the artisanry work is not shameful, but rather the work in relation to selling tea, rope or water carrying. WoDaaBe generally state that these occupations do not provide a great deal of income, that those engaged in these tasks usually only make enough to eat and would prefer other kinds of occupations. The artisanry work and the selling of turbans carry, however, the possibility and hopes of gaining some income but both these occupations require start-up capital. Some occupations, such as tea selling, rope making and water carrying are associated with failure, and may thus be considered shameful.

The feeling of shame for not having anything is clearly expressed in the speech of Ali, the migrant labourer I quoted at the beginning of my discussion:

There are people who are able to stay in the bush, but I don’t have a chance, because I don’t have anything, only those who have animals can stay in the bush. I have close to nothing. I want to sit down in the bush with my family, all my people are in the bush, but I do not have the opportunity of staying there. I am sad and I feel shameful to my people because I have nothing.

It is possible that in the past, migrant labour was considered shameful because migrant work was associated with the failure to adhere to the right way of being WoDaaBe, in addition to being associated with the inability of providing for oneself. Today, the migrant workers associate shame not as much with their work as with their inability to fulfill their goals in the city and thus potentially becoming more economically dependent on others. The migrant workers themselves, furthermore, emphasise their work as important in creating new diversification strategies. This need for diversification is not only an individual strategy but is, as indicated, conceptualised by the migrant workers as a strategy of reducing risk for the family or lineage group as a whole, and in a way creating continuity with other strategies of risk management, such as agriculture. The emphasis on risk management is clear in the following quotation from a man who has worked as a migrant worker since the middle of the 1980s:

If there is another drought, another time that majority of the cows will die, I will have some skills to help my family in the bush. I know different types of work, I know different languages, and I know what to do in the city. What does my brother who always stays in the bush want to do then?

Several migrant labourers tell me that the WoDaaBe need to know new skills to make a living, in order to survive during difficult periods. ‘Now all WoDaaBe are engaged in commercialism’, an elderly migrant worker told me. He continued:

Those WoDaaBe who have foresight are engaged in commercialism, even though they also keep cows. If you see someone who is only thinking about his cows and has no other way of gaining an income, he is not very aware of the present situation.

WoDaaBe conceptions of migrant work are obviously not uniform. During an interview with a small group of elderly men, many who have sons and daughters engaged in migrant work, one man (who has never been engaged in migrant work himself) said that migrant work involved the ‘herding’ of clothing (ngaynaaka koltal), commenting on the colourful garments which many male migrant laborers wear, and the stress these young men place on their outer appearance. This comment in my view was clearly intended at criticizing the higher consumption standards of some migrant workers, especially the men who often arrive in the bush well dressed, carrying radios and other consumption items when returning for an occasional stay with their extended family. Migrant work itself is also seen in conflicting ways by the migrant workers themselves, work in the city creating new ways of belonging, through new ways of being and learning. Even though speaking nostalgically about the bush while in the city, as a site of pleasure and fulfilment, the same people tended to speak very differently while in the bush, emphasising the harshness and difficulties of herding life. Both migrant women and men complained tome during their periodical stay in the bush that the work there was difficult and there was little to eat, thus in some ways contradicting their own descriptions of the bush while in the city. The identity of migrant workers, as others, is thus not constructed by singular, unified subjects but generated through practices and experiences that are highly dispersed.

Attachment and movement are useful in understanding migrant workers’ sense of belonging and identity; a stay in the city being understood by referring to attachment to the herding life while an extensive sojourn in the city creates a new sense of belonging and attachment. The constant travelling back and forth between city and bush results furthermore in constant interactions between these spheres of activity and living. Younger brothers see their older brother return with desired goods, and observe these differently and more positively than the father who used the term ‘herding of clothing’. One man who has worked as a migrant worker since the middle of the 1980s told me that originally he went to Nigeria contrary to his father’s wishes because he saw his brother return back to the bush with a lot of valuable goods. More than a decade later, I observed his younger brother in his early twenties doing the same, leaving his father’s household for a while, confiding in me that he wanted to ‘do’ as his brother. He added that he was ‘tired’ of the bush, almost as if forgetting his older brother’s desire to return to the herding life. Inter views with women who do occasional travelling in groups to remote places, to sell medicines or craft items, similarly indicated that migrant work is not only a result of necessity but also of the desire of experiencing something new and gaining of independent income.

Another contested issue involves the growing concern about WoDaaBe children being brought up in the city, not learning the ‘correct’ WoDaaBe behaviour (mboDangaaku) as well as being unfamiliar with the life of thepastoralist. One lineage chief stated directly to me during his short visit to Niamey:

‘When a young man and woman have children here [in the city] they[the children] do not know WoDaaBe, they don’t know herding’.

Migrant workers, men and women, expressed such concerns as well, fearing that their children would associate too much with members of other ethnic groups and thus learn behaviour that they considered inappropriate. When two teenage brothers were caught stealing from individuals from their own lineage group, my male and female friends quietly explained their actions by telling me that the children had no shame (besemtada), associating the notion of shame with having abandoned the values of WoDaaBe. These children’s behaviour showed that they were lost (be halki) to the path of being WoDaaBe.

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