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Muslim Families in Global Senegal: Money Takes Care of Shame

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Senegalese Murid migrants have circulated cargo and currency through official and unofficial networks in Africa and the world. Muslim Families in Global Senegal focuses on trade and the transmission of enduring social value though cloth, videos of life-cycle rituals, and religious offerings. Highlighting women's participation in these networks and the financial strategies they rely on, Beth Buggenhagen reveals the deep connections between economic profits and ritual and social authority. Buggenhagen discovers that these strategies are not responses to a dispersed community in crisis, but rather produce new roles, wealth, and worth for Senegalese women in all parts of the globe.

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1. Global Senegal

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By early 2000, it was evident that families were frustrated with more than twenty years of policies of economic and political liberalization in Senegal. These reforms aimed at economic growth, implemented under the aegis of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank starting in the 1980s, had been accompanied by substantial unemployment, shortages of food and other necessities, rural-urban migration, an urban housing crisis, and the declining availability and affordability of health care and education. As many Senegalese men faced the declining value of the agricultural potential of their land and the inability of the state to secure their social welfare, they sought moral renewal through submission to Muslim shaykhs.

The Muslim clergy responded to this fiscal and moral uncertainty by denouncing what they deemed to be inflated bridewealth payments and costly family ceremonies, especially women’s practice of exchanging locally woven and dyed cloth, a measure of women’s wealth and worth, and calling for an Islamic family law through which limits would be set on these payments. Additionally, religious associations, nongovernmental organizations, and others who professed an interest in national development characterized these practices as belonging to the realm of cosaan,1 Wolof for “custom” or “tradition,” rather than Islam. Certainly, debates over Islam and the historical practices that predate its spread in West Africa are prevalent in the region and common elsewhere in the Muslim world as well (Cooper 1997:xxxiii). These debates have a considerable impact on women’s lives. In Senegal, cloth became a contentious object of debate because—through its use in dress, display, and bestowal—it made forms of women’s wealth and value visible, displaying the hidden potential of women as producers and bearers of history.

 

2. Homes and Their Histories

ePub

Sokna and Demba GÉer had lived through the transition to independence in 1960, they had witnessed the decline of the peanut monoculture and the migration to the cities in search of work, and they watched their young sons go overseas to study or to earn livings as traders. The impact of these economic and political transformations on their lives could be understood from their changing relationship to their most valued possessions: land and cloth. Although land and cloth had endured as potent forms of value that conveyed individual and collective identities, men’s and women’s relationships to these objects had changed over the twentieth century. In postcolonial Senegal, land became an alienable commodity controlled by the state, and cloth, which at one time indexed women’s production, took on added meaning as it came to signify ties to a global economy.

As declining peanut cultivation in the second half of the twentieth century eroded the base of the Senegalese economy, senior men like Demba Géer came to rely less on the land and more on remittances from their sons overseas, who were involved in networks of Sufi congregations. Senior men complained about their abandonment by the state and their loss of authority over dependents (see Perry 2005).1 No longer able to command the work of juniors through the allocation of land and the provision of food, senior men turned to Islam in search of moral authority. They sought to achieve moral renewal through their support of Muslim shaykhs. It was not coincidental that, since the start of men’s migration away from rural areas, the Murid clergy aimed to reinvest rural land that had little agricultural potential with sacred value.

 

3. The Promise of Paradise

ePub

“Do you want me to plug this in? Do you want me to plug this circuit into God?” These are words that are often spoken on the radio in Senegal by a male shaykh. The “circuit” of which he speaks is the ambit of spiritual power by which baraka (blessings) radiate outward from God to those who have submitted to him through homage to Sufi shaykhs.1 But he might as well be talking of the circuits of cash that Murid followers remit as addiya (offerings) to their shaykhs from their earnings in the Murid diaspora in Europe, North America, the Middle East, and Asia. Shaykhs’ redistribution of these offerings is displayed in the videocassettes and DVDs that are produced annually to commemorate the yearly Màggal (pilgrimage) of Murid adherents to their sacred city of Tuba in the desert interior of the country. The images that circulated in the late 1990s and into the twenty-first century often exhibited the proceeds of the money that had been sent to Tuba, including several hundred head of cattle; bowls overflowing with food for pilgrims and dignitaries; the many forms of public and private transportation that brought close to 3 million disciples to the region annually; and the development of a vast infrastructure of electric service and sewage canals. These images circulated to disciples around the world who were unable to journey in person to Tuba, the center of globalized networks in which they sought fortunes no longer available due to Senegal’s barren ecology and faltering economy.

 

4. A Tale of Two Sisters

ePub

“I want to help pay for the new tile floor in the courtyard for Bintu’s wedding, but I cannot,” said Jigeen, her eyes fixed on the stained concrete floor. “I have to pay my daughters’ school fees because their fathers are not here.”

“Jigeen,” her sister Rama said in a low voice, “we are all doing our share. Abdoul Aziz has already given money and so have our brothers in France and the U.S. We are all adults now and we must support our parents.” She then turned to one of her younger sisters and snapped, “Yalla, bring me some sugar, this coffee is too bitter.” She smiled weakly in my direction and gestured with her glass.

Abdoul Aziz jumped in, raising his voice, “You returned to this house thanks to us. We pay the electricity, the water, and provide sacks of rice every month. You are not doing anything.”

Jigeen leaned back in her chair, facing the street, looking away from her family, and said, “I don’t need anything except what God gives me, only what God gives me. I don’t ask for anything more. I don’t need anything more. I am fine. I am fine. I don’t need you to do anything for me or for my daughters. If you don’t think I should be here, then I will leave.”

 

5. A Lamb Slaughtered

ePub

“But I don’t love Musa Mbacke,” Bintu whispered, eyes downcast and legs folded under her slender body as her maternal kin—aunt, great-aunt, uncle, and mother—pressed her to explain her refusal to enter into the marriage that they had arranged. “I love Abdoul Aziz,” she said, her voice faltering slightly when she looked toward Sokna Géer, who was seated on the bed. “Eskeiye!” Sokna gasped, placing her hand over her mouth when she heard her son’s name. The elders all looked away, and weighty silence fell in the tightly packed room in the rural village of Mbacke.

A few days later, Bintu’s kin dispersed to their homes in the urban capital of Dakar and discussed how to untangle the web of obligations that had been woven by the series of marriage payments that Musa Mbacke had sent over the previous year. Sokna Géer said that she wanted to bring the marriage process to its completion. She said that it would be difficult to return the marriage payments that had already been made. She also pointed out that Ramadan would be starting in two months, which would mean that the ritual life of the community would be put on hold for the strict observance of the month-long Muslim fast. There would be no wedding celebrations or festivities during this month. Moreover, Ramadan imposed certain financial obligations. Sokna needed to set aside money to purchase meat for special dishes that would be shared with her extended family during Ramadan and to purchase rice to distribute to dependents. She also needed to save money for the Korite feast at the end of the month when her family would want to slaughter a lamb and wear new, formal clothing.

 

6. Home Economics

ePub

Sokna Géer spotted the greasy chicken carcass lying on an aluminum platter near the stacks of enameled bowls that remained unwashed after the previous day’s feast. Still stinging from the expense of the celebration, she was puzzled by her discovery of the costly meat. “Who bought this?” she wondered aloud. Then it dawned on her that these were the bones of sacrifice. They spoke to her son’s flight from their Dakar home during the night, maybe this time for good.

Sokna said that she understood the forces behind and motivations for her son Abdoul Aziz’s silent departure. After he left, she kept saying, “Xaalis rekk menn naa faaj gacce [I took on too much debt, only money will take care of shame].” She recounted how she had prepared, provisioned, and provided money to celebrate her husband, Demba Géer’s, hajj to Mecca. The night before her husband left, she organized the ritual slaughter of a lamb and invited his friends and associates to their home for a feast to pray for his safe return. When he returned from the hajj a month later, she threw a lavish fête for the whole neighborhood, and his relatives came from their rural villages to welcome him home and congratulate him on completing the religious rite. She was now uncertain how she would disentangle herself from the debts she had incurred, and suspected that she had leaned too heavily on her son.

 

7. Only Trouble

ePub

Sokna Géer’s son Abdoul Aziz drove her to a naming ceremony one morning in February three weeks before her husband would depart for the hajj to Mecca. An early morning haze surrounded the neighborhood homes, which marched up the side of a russet-colored sandy bank. These square cement homes were half-built icons of the wealth that could be made abroad.

Abdoul Aziz stopped his car at the bottom of the hill and shut off the engine.

Waay, Abdoul Aziz, what is it?” Sokna Géer asked. “Why don’t you take me to the door of the Caaya house?”

Her son responded, somewhat exasperated, “The car won’t go. These Renault cars don’t like the sand in Senegal.”

Sokna Géer pressed him, “You want me to walk up the hill with my bad hip? A taxi driver would take me right to the door.”

Abdoul Aziz helped his mother out of the car and held her elbow as she walked, barely lifting her feet across the sand, the arthritis in her hip giving her the appearance of having one leg shorter than the other. The deeply hued folds of her damask gown trailed behind her. As she approached the Caaya home, she nodded in approval and smiled at Abdoul Aziz upon hearing the Muslim singers’ high-pitched chanting being broadcast throughout the neighborhood. She stopped for a moment and closed her eyes as she took in the sounds.

 

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