Women getting water from the village well just before dusk

For the family: exploring kinship and economic ties in rural Senegal

Lisa Pentaleri

Editors: Christie van Tinteren and Molly Blackall

The postmodern turn has done much to deconstruct the family. It has become orthodox within academia to see the family not as a genetic, biological unit but rather as a realm of creativity and adaptability with flexible constructions of identity.

This assertion foregrounded my observations throughout a month of participant observation in a village in the Fatick region of Senegal. My field work entailed living with a local family, experiencing the realities of their day to day life, asking many questions and taking even more notes on my observations. Throughout my fieldwork, I was made aware of the importance of family to my interlocutors. In an attempt to make sense of this dynamic aspect of life, I offer an analysis of a Senegalese family from an explicitly Marxist perspective. This entertains only one of many perspectives on how kinship could be understood.

The village in Fatick is patrilineal and patrilocal. Around 600 people live there. The villagers work as agriculturalists, though many family members migrate to Dakar for work. Peanuts, corn and a type of hibiscus (called bissap) are cultivated. All other foodstuffs, such as rice, vegetables and fish, are purchased at local markets. Corn serves as the main food staple while peanuts and bissap are cash crops. Additionally, livestock is reared and sold for some additional income.

Besides the money earned in the village, most households desperately need additional, salaried income. Thus, many husbands will leave their wives and children in the village and go to Dakar or Kaolack to find wage work. High school girls, starting around the age of 14, spend their summer vacations in Dakar, too, working to finance their own school supplies and clothes. Throughout my stay in the village, which happened to be during summer vacation, I thus met no unmarried girls that were older than 13.

When finished with school, some of the older children go to work in the city as well. In my host family, for example, the two eldest children, a 27 year old man and a 26 year old woman, worked in Dakar. They financed the rice for the family, a staple that is eaten on a daily basis, as well as additional expenses as they came up. For the festival Tabaski, for example, the eldest daughter financed a new set of traditional robes for her father and five of her brothers. “She bought them for the family”, my host father explained as he showed me the new robes.

There is an overwhelming expectation to “play one's part” in the family by contributing labour or resources. My friends in the village were starkly aware of their own poverty. For the survival of the family, everyone had to partake. The older siblings seemed hardly to question their role of working in Dakar and passing on their earnings to their household in the village. It was as expected of them as it was of the siblings in the village to work the fields and heard the animals. Discontinuing one's economic involvement with the family unit leads to a rupture. Breaking ties with the family was perceived both as risky and a moral failing.

A local family

Considering this expectation to pool resources within the family, it is interesting to examine how and when kinship relations were invoked. Often, I was told by the villagers that the whole village was family. In fact, almost everyone shared the same last name and the various houses were linked by marriages. Once, when my host aunt and I were returning from a nearby market, we hitched a ride with a horse-drawn cart back to our village. As we neared the village, I asked her how much we should pay the driver for the journey. She just laughed and said “No, he's family, we do not need to pay”. The driver, too, did not seem to expect any form of payment. Reciprocity occurred not through two individuals exchanging gifts, but rather by everyone contributing to a collective pool of resources and giving what they can.

Linguistically, work was done to preserve the notion of a large family. Aunts, uncles, cousins or even more distant relatives are called mothers, fathers or siblings. Even some unrelated people, linked by neither ancestry or marriage, were described using kinship terminology. The invoking of kinship transformed a relationship from being voluntary to being obligational. Considering the expectation to contribute to the family, and the rupture associated with a discontinuing of this support, systems of long standing economic cooperation were cemented through the creation of kinship ties.

It seemed as though the emphasis on family and the efforts taken to maintain a large kinship network had economic advantages. On a day to day basis however, these kinship ties were far from calculating or rational. Rather, my Senegalese host family regarded each other with affection and emotion.

While economic cooperation played a part in the way in which kinship was invoked, it certainly was not the sole cause. No form of human action is ever unilateral. It should also be emphasised that a link between the way in which kinship is reckoned and the economic pooling of resources, is not a causal one. A does not lead to B or vice versa.

Rather, I wish only to point out a relation and an interplay between the two. More than anything, this should go to show that no “sphere” of life exists. Rather, sociality is a messy, ever fluctuating composite of factors from “economic”, “political”, “religious” or “family” life.


Host father and the village chief, Modou