Saturday, 26 May 2012

When Nomads Lose Cattle: Wodaabe Negotiations of Ethnicity

Ali, the young man sitting in front of me, looks away and we are silent. His clothing is torn and worn and he has lost one of his front teeth because he fell while trying to escape the police when smuggling petroleum between the borders of Niger and Nigeria. His original goal by going to the city was to earn enough money to
allow him to return to his extended family in the pastoral area of Tchin-Tabaraden in Niger. His reference to shame refers to his failure to be able to do so, that is, his inability in gaining income through his work.

In recent years anthropology’s focus has increasingly shifted toward travel and translocation, deconstructing the hard-edged notions of culture and ethnicities as belonging to spatially localised people; notions which were for a long period part of anthropology’s attempts to grasp the flows of diversities. Theorising about ethnicity has thus generally, since Fredrik Barth’s important essay on ethnic boundaries, seen ethnic identities as relational, fluid and historically constituted. The strong theoretical emphasis on ethnicity has to some extent replaced earlier emphases on culture – anthropology’s guiding concept – even though developments in regard to the culture concept have simultaneously (and often quite similarly to the ethnicity concept) emphasised flows and the politics of culture. Theories of globalisation have in a similar vein, and despite a much shorter lifespan, moved from an emphasis on globalisation as the creator of homogenisation toward a celebration of the various ways in which dominant cultural forms are picked up, used and transformed. Simultaneously and somewhat contradictorily, some of social sciences’ popular present day concepts, such as hybridisation and creolisation, can be seen as implying the existence of culture/ethnicity as a priori pure, which is further intensified by how the flows of people and cultures under the label globalisation are often theorised as a recent phenomenon.

WoDaaBe pastoral nomads in Niger base their ethnic identity strongly on livestock holdings and the mobility intrinsic to their economy. Having experienced an increasingly marginalised position, with reduced areas of land and consequent difficulties in maintaining livable herds, a number of young WoDaaBe went to cities in the middle of the 1980s in search for work. My discussion explores how WoDaaBe migrant workers negotiate their ethnic identity in the context of their work in the city, which can in my view be a useful contribution to reevaluating recent theorising on ethnic identity, mobility and globalisation. The theorising of globalisation often tends, as argued by James Clifford, to cluster around the lines of simplistic representations of modern rootless Westerners versus the traditional, rooted ‘natives’, ignoring the long tradition of migration in West Africa.

Interestingly, mobility is often seen as one of the destructive forces of modernity, while for pastoralists it constitutes a constant and important feature of their lives. It is necessary to ‘ethnographise’ mobility by exploring its meaning as it is conceptualised and experienced by actual people in different parts of the world. This discussion thus explores how people who have always characterised themselves as mobile render meaningful the process of urban migration. I place a special emphasis on how WoDaaBe articulate and renegotiate their own cultural traditions and identities within these recent conditions, rather than focusing on their use and transformation of forms of dominant culture, as often is done by theorists.

I limit the discussion to ideas of shame and taboos – seen by WoDaaBe as some of their key ethnic identity markers – and focus on how these typological ideas of WoDaaBeness are negotiated in these current circum stances. What happens when those who define their ethnicity from involvement with animals lose their animals and/or their ability to be engaged in the pastoral economy? In what ways is ethnicity renegotiated within the contexts of pre-existing categories and meanings? I have elsewhere pointed out, congruent with Arun Agrawal’s observation that ‘mobility is the most evident feature of the lives of migrant pastoralists’, that many WoDaaBe migrant workers emphasise migrant work as a part of the mobility and flexibility that is so crucial to pastoralists’ survival, as a form of diversification, instead of focusing on the sedentary aspects of their occupation in the city and their non-involvement with animals. I continue to stress this here and claim that even though individuals may feel shame in their inability tore construct their herds, ideas of shame and taboos are still renegotiated within the context of new diversification strategies. I will, however, also point out counter-discursive notions of migrant work, where it is seen as constituting a possible degradation and dissolving of the WoDaaBe community.

Even though turning away from reifying categories of the pastoralist and the agriculturalist – emphasising, these as two ends of the same pole – studies on pastoral identity have not focused much on the fluidity and negotiation of these boundaries. Most pastoral studies seem to assume that people are either sedentary or mobile, either having an identity as pastoral nomads or losing it through a process of sedentarisation. This is, for example, reflected in that most theorists separate WoDaaBe from Fulani by referring to the former as being more nomadic. Perhaps due to this rather dualistic theoretical focus, not much attention has been paid to migrant work among pastoral nomads which seems, as pointed out by Mohamed Salih, increasingly important in many pastoral societies.

Similar to these earlier perspectives on globalisation and studies of pastoralists’ sedentarisation, studies on immigration often assume, as claimed by Anne-Marie Fortier, that immigrants are moving from one culture into another, being subject to acculturation and assimilation. In line with this tradition, mobility is often seen as a sign of degradation, even though constituting a traditional economic strategy with a long history in West Africa. WoDaaBe migrant work can be seen as ‘circulatory movements’(Rain’s phrase), a term used to describe when people move from their places of residence for periods of time, even though ideally returning home finally. WoDaaBe places of residence are, of course, not so much localised as the participation in livelihood is related to a particular social-economic group of people and animals. Fortier’s comment that migrant belongings are constituted through both movement and attachment is useful in order to understand the fluid characteristics of WoDaaBe migrant work.

This discussion is based on two years of ethnographic fieldwork that took place in the pastoral area of Tchin-Tabaraden in Niger, as well as in its capital Niamey, engaging there with many people from the same families I had previously worked with in the pastoral setting. My discussion starts by identifying the WoDaaBe conceptualisation of ethnicity and how characteristics important to their ethnic identity are explained and negotiated within the context of the city. The discussion then looks briefly at the relationship between sedentarisation and pastoralism and analyses some of the strategies that WoDaaBe have historically used to respond to the loss of livestock, demonstrating that some WoDaaBe migrant workers place temporary retreats from the pastoral economy as a ‘traditional’ way of herd reconstruction. My discussion on WoDaaBe strategies of survival benefits from theories on risk management in arid land, focusing on how adaptation to the insecure circumstances is based on a dynamic flexibility, where various kinds of resources are exploited. Contrary to past associations of migrant work with shame and thus failure of being WoDaaBe, the discussion suggests that mobility has among some migrant workers presently become a dominant symbol. Even though shame – a notion strongly linked with WoDaaBe ethnicity – is in some cases experienced by the migrant workers, it is more associated with the failure to earn income, rather than with migrant working general.

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