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Anthropology's Susanna Fioratta Looks at Migration in West Africa

June 22, 2020
A bustling street in Labe, a city in Guinea's Fouta Djallon region.

Countering the traditional narrative of "migration as crisis," Global Nomads by Assistant Professor of Anthropology Susanna Fioratta tells the story of a group of people for whom migration is not a symptom of a disordered world, but rather an ordinary practice full of social and personal meaning. Decentering migration from North America and Europe, this ethnography explores how ethnic Fulbe people in the West African Republic of Guinea migrate abroad to seek their fortunes and fulfill their responsibilities—and in the process, secure a place at home.

What is the genesis of this book? How did you become interested in the Fulbe people?

I first became interested in Guinea when I lived there as a Peace Corps volunteer for two years after college. I worked in a highland region of the country called the Fouta Djallon, where most people identify ethnically as Fulbe and speak a language called Pular. Fulbe people came to the region as nomadic cattle herders many centuries ago, and today, Fulbe from Guinea live and work all over the world. When I first arrived in the Fouta Djallon, I was struck right away by how common migration was. Everyone in the small town where I worked had family abroad, and many had lived abroad themselvesin Europe, North America, the Gulf states, and numerous African countries. People talked about how well developed the Fouta Djallon was, with new houses and chain-link fences and schools and mosques, largely financed with money from migrants. Fouta Djallon residents sometimes spoke of their region as superior to the rest of Guinea in this regardthey claimed that people in Guinea's other regions didn't migrate abroad as much, and didn't use their money to build up their hometowns so well. (Whether or not that's true probably depends on your perspective.) People also seemed very tuned in to what was going on in the world, and much less interested in what was happening in Guinea, especially when it came to national politics.

This was interesting to me because at the time, many international observers were talking about Guinea as a "failed state" that was at risk of major internal conflict, which they feared might lead to a resurgence of civil wars in the wider region, including Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Cote d'Ivoire. (By the way, "failed state" is a problematic term that gets applied to a lot of African and postcolonial countries, and which we unpack in my Africa in the World course.) Guinea also was, and still is, one of the poorest countries in the world according to the usual development measures (the country has abundant natural and mineral resources, but most Guineans haven't benefited from those). But in the Fouta Djallon, people were doing relatively well for themselves by migrating, sending money home, building their own prosperity, andit seemed to meavoiding the state. So when I started my Ph.D. program a few years later, I wanted to study how people in the Fouta Djallon managed their lives through migration in this larger context of national insecurity.

Between 2007 and 2010, I made multiple research trips to Guinea for my doctoral fieldwork, and I lived in the Fouta Djallon for long stretches. I also spent six months doing research with Guinean Fulbe migrants in neighboring Senegal. To say that it was an interesting time would be an understatement. Politically, things in Guinea were changing. In those four years alone, there were unprecedented popular protests against government corruption, the death of a longtime autocratic president, a military takeover of the government, military massacres of civilian protesters, and finally—and to many, most surprisingly—the country's first ever multiparty, democratic presidential elections. Throughout all this, people in the Fouta Djallon continued to migrate and work and build houses, but many of them also engaged with national politics in ways I wasn't expecting. In 2010, they began to predict that soon, when Guinea got a good president, all Fulbe from all over the world would come home to the Fouta Djallon, and the era of Fulbe migration would be over. In the end, that's not what happened; but I found it really interesting that people who had always seemed to take great pride in global migration were suddenly telling me that actually, what they really looked forward to was this global homecoming. So it turned out that people's dreams of going abroad were more complex than I'd anticipated, but so were their goals of building a future at home—and all of this was related to how Fulbe were managing national insecurity in daily life.

What can you tell us about the Fulbe people?

As I mentioned, Guinean Fulbe trace their descent from nomadic pastoralists who migrated across East, Central, and West Africa as far back as a thousand years ago. Some of these nomads settled in what became present-day Guinea. One thing I found interesting was that some present-day Fulbe connect their global migration today with the nomadic migration of their ancestorsas though they had a special, inherited affinity with mobility. One man actually said to me, "Moving is in our blood." Some Fulbe talked about this as something that made them different from Guineans of other ethnic groups.

Fulbe also see themselves as having brought Islam to Guinea. In the mid-18th century, Fulbe Muslim warriors fought the Fouta Djallon's non-Muslim residents and established a theocratic state. Fulbe warriors and clerics ruled the area for about 150 years, until the French conquered the theocracy and incorporated it into their West Africa colonies. Many contemporary Fulbe are proud of the theocratic legacy and like to talk about it. In fact, when I introduced myself as a researcher who was interested in local culture, people often assumed that I had come to learn about Fouta Djallon theocratic history. But one thing that's changed with increased migration and global connection is that some returning migrants have brought home Islamic doctrines and practices that aren't always consistent with the teachings of the Fouta Djallon elders and clerics who are drawing on theocratic-era authority and traditions. So part of what I'm writing about in the book is how migration has led to new debates in Fouta Djallon communities about how to properly be Muslim.

In addition to nomadic and theocratic legacies, post-independence political history is also an important aspect of Fulbe migration in Guinea. Guinea's independence leader and first president, Sekou Toure, is a figure that a lot of Fulbe today have very complicated feelings about. They are proud of the fact that Toure led Guinea to become the first former French West African colony to achieve independence in 1958. But they also remember Toure's socialist presidency as a time of hardship, when the state confiscated their crops and livestock, and when people lived in fear of being reported as traitors to the "Revolution." Leaving Guinea was illegal during much of Toure's 26-year presidency, but many Fulbe left anyway, walking clandestinely across the border at night, even though they risked being shot by their own country's border patrols. Many Fulbe believeand there is some evidence to support thisthat they were victims of ethnic targeting and persecution during Toure's presidency, and so stories of leaving Guinea during that time are stories of escape and political exile. (However, some Guineans dispute Fulbe claims to Toure-era persecution.) Even though 21st-century Fulbe migration is economically motivated on the surfacepeople leave home to make moneymany Fulbe migrants today continue to relate their mobility to the ongoing effects of Sekou Toure's politics.

Talking about ethnicity gets tricky fast. People might consider themselves Fulbe in some contexts but not in others. For example, sometimes the term Fulbe is used in Guinea to refer to anyone from the Fouta Djallon who speaks Pular. But sometimes it's reserved for the descendants of the theocratic conquerors and clerical ruling classnot the people whose ancestors got conquered in the holy wars, or were taken captive by the warriors and forced into a serf-like status. And to make matters more complicated, the term Fulbe has different associations with ethnically and linguistically related groups in other West and Central African countries. I write about these issues more in the book, but the point is that all this is a really good illustration of how identity is relative and dynamic, not absolute and static.

How did you conduct your research?

As a cultural anthropologist, I use ethnographic research methods. In this case, I lived for extended periods in different Fouta Djallon towns and among Fulbe migrants in Dakar, Senegal. I dedicated a lot of my time to what ethnographers call "participant observation"being present and part of everyday life as much as I could, sometimes asking questions, joining in activities when appropriate, and generally just being with people. Sometimes I recorded interviews with people about their life histories or migration experiences, but more often I just focused on paying attention to the conversations that people were already having about these issues. The more I listened, the more I understood what follow-up questions to ask. I sat with people in their homes and in places where they worked, like hair salons, cafes, and tailor shops. I attended community events and celebrations. In Dakar, I spent hours every day sitting at vegetable stands (run by Guinean Fulbe women) and fruit stands (run by Guinean Fulbe men). I carried around a small notebook with me to jot down things I wanted to remember and write about later, but also to make my role as a researcher clear to everyoneI wanted to work openly, so that people would understand what I was doing and wouldn't think I was a spy. I was constantly improving my knowledge of the Pular language, which I had begun learning as a Peace Corps volunteer. For me, ethnographic fieldwork is equal parts exhausting and exhilaratingexhausting because I'm "on" all the time, using my whole body, all my senses, and paying close attention to everything around me, but exhilarating for the small moments that happen every once in a while where I start to understand something in a way I'd never thought about before.

In the basic description of the book it says that while political and economic motivations are important factors in the migration of the Fulbe people, they're not the only factors. What can you tell us about some of the other factors?

A lot of conversations about migration in the U.S. are pretty simplisticmigrants are represented as either out to make money, or else to escape political persecution in their home countries. In both cases, it's often assumed that migrants/immigrants come to the U.S. to stay and build a better life than what they knew before. But the truth is that people move for so many different reasons, and it's not always possible to reduce those reasons as only economic or only political. And furthermore, the ultimate goal is often not to build a better life in a new country, but rather to make a better future at home. For Fulbe from Guinea, migration is both economic and political, but it's also about following a socially acceptable life path. Migration will ideally help someone fulfill their community and family responsibilities according to cultural ideals of what makes a proper social person: going into business for oneself rather than working for someone else, marrying and having children, building a house in one's hometown, living a pious life. Gender is particularly important in all of this. People often talk about migration as a primarily male activity, but Fouta Djallon women also live and work abroad, even though they deal with restrictions and constraints that men don't have to worry aboutlike being suspected of sexual immorality if they make money independently.

Of course, migrants don't always manage to fulfill their responsibilities to their families and hometownsbut as I write in the book, even migrants who never earn any money are respected as striving to achieve these goals. Failing abroad is infinitely preferable to failing at home, where everyone who matters most can see you.

Susanna Fioratta is a socio-cultural anthropologist whose research explores questions of mobility, belonging, personhood, and how people manage insecurity in everyday life. 

"A lot of conversations about migration in the U.S. are pretty simplisticmigrants are represented as either out to make money, or else to escape political persecution in their home countries. In both cases, it's often assumed that migrants/immigrants come to the U.S. to stay and build a better life than what they knew before. But the truth is that people move for so many different reasons, and it's not always possible to reduce those reasons as only economic or only political. And furthermore, the ultimate goal is often not to build a better life in a new country, but rather to make a better future at home." 

Department of Anthropology

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