Saturday, 26 May 2012

WoDaaBe Ethnic Boundaries in the City


Processes of globalisation have in many cases intensified borders and also the markers of inequality, even though not acting on passive subjects. In a way, global processes of colonial policies and post-colonial development strategies have contributed toward WoDaaBe marginalisation and loss of self determination,
simultaneously as WoDaaBe use windows of opportunities opened up by processes also identified with globalisation. WoDaaBe have tapped into a global imagery of indigenous people and thus increased commercial interest of Westerners in ‘authentic’ indigenous objects, by making and selling craft objects. People’s ways of resisting thus not only involve the appropriation and transformation of new elements as theorists have importantly emphasised, but also the constant negotiation and new ways of understanding their own cultural traditions.

WoDaaBe have, naturally, always related to other ethnic groups, negotiating rights to pasture and water, in addition to engagement in various trading activities. The WoDaaBe in the Tchin-Tabaraden area who share the same general area as Tuareg herders and cultivators are probably more influenced by Tuareg culture than WoDaaBe groups in differently composed areas, often speaking Tamasheq fluently and adopting Tuareg cultural artifacts. The relations between these groups are characterised by cooperation, such as well-digging, but also by conflict especially over the use of natural resources. In the city, WoDaaBe interact with various other ethnic groups. Many migrant workers are familiar with the Hausa language, and able to speak it fluently.

WoDaaBe in the eastern part of Niger, WoDaaBe use various other markers to distinguish themselves from their neighbours, for example through tattoos, jewelry and clothing in addition to domestic objects. Cultural performances are also important in affirming their ethnic identity in contrast with other groups. In a city context, such markers of identity gain intensified meaning in distinguishing the WoDaaBe from other populations. WoDaaBe migrant workers openly state that their special kind of jewelry, clothing and bodily decorations mark them as different from other populations in the city. One WoDaaBe informant remarked that these visual symbols (Jelgol) were in a way similar to the earmarking of animals, both affirming a belonging to a specific group. Once a year, at the end of the Ramadan, WoDaaBe conduct a large dance festival (Juulde) in Niamey, displaying some key markers of their ethnic identity. With increased contact with others or in difficult political circum stances, increased stress can be placed on cultural differences, thus under lining the distinction of ‘us’ and ‘others’. It could be claimed that this symbiotic relationship with others, in addition to increased marginality, stresses the WoDaaBe need to emphasise their difference from other ethnic groups. The emphasis WoDaaBe place on wearing clothing and jewelry seen as distinctively WoDaaBe, in addition to previously described behaviour, shows a strong affirmation of ethnic boundaries. It is generally an insult to say to another WoDaaBe that he or she looked or behaved like a member of another ethnic group. Young men, for example, who stand in a culturally defined joking-relationships (either in the same age group or cross-cousins) often refer to one other as Hausa or Tuaregs, intended as a friendly insult. Too much association with members of other ethnic groups in the city is generally criticised and mocked.

Even though WoDaaBe have various inter ac tions with other ethnic groups in the city context, just as in the bush, these relations are mostly relations of trading or business associations. WoDaaBe generally choose to interact on a day-to-day basis with other WoDaaBe, usually from the same lineage group. Artisanry makers, for example, often gather at the homestead of a WoDaaBe kin, spending the day together while making jewelry (similarly to various craft-making in the bush). Women similarly gather at someone’s homestead to make embroidery for garments sold to tourists, and often assemble together in groups to dress the hair of women from other ethnic groups. WoDaaBe endogamous practices, the preferable form of marriage being between the children of brothers, show in themselves the strong emphasis on maintaining separation from those defined as ethnic-others. Sexual relationships or marriages with members of other ethnic groups are considered highly undesirable, if not impossible.

Ethnicity is, however, not the only marker of boundaries; bonds and boundaries being constituted in various ways. WoDaaBe have, as previously mentioned, a reputation among other ethnicities of being marginally engaged in Islam. Scholarly references have in line with this point often de-emphasised WoDaaBe involvement in Islam. WoDaaBe, however, have defined themselves as Muslims for a very long time. Here it has to be kept in mind that the definition of a ‘Muslim’ has always been a politically contested issue, linked with claims to ‘authentic’ Islam. WoDaaBe migrant workers still interact with the larger Islamic community more often than in the bush, thus experiencing themselves in a sense as a part of a broader religious community. Many migrant workers thus adhere more closely to formalised Muslim practices, sharing these with their extended family while in the bush.

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