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Cultures of Migration

African Perspectives
edited by
Hans Peter Hahn and Georg Klute
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Migration as Discursive Space Negotia-
tions of Leaving and Returning in the
Kasena Homeland (Burkina Faso)

Hans Peter Hahn

1. Introduction

This essay explores a particular perspective on migration. It deals with
migrations from a rural area in Burkina Faso to the West African
coastal regions (Cte dIvoire and Ghana) and in particular with the
situation of returning migrants and the perspective of those left behind
in the village of origin. A closer look at this case study allows us to
move beyond the dominant discourse on migration which explains the
migratory phenomenon as a result of deficits in the society of origin or
as a search for an improvement of ones economic situation. Within
this line of reasoning, to compensate a deficit or to improve a situation
always tends to be regarded as the underlying motive of migrants. This
explanation, which may be called the deficiency-model, is a wide-
spread but not always explicitly pronounced argument both in moderni-
zation (or development) theory as well as in dependency theory in
migration studies (Kearney 1986). Arguably, it may be a result of the
researchers personal bias and of their own social experiences, stem-
ming from non-mobile contexts (De Bruijn et al. 2001). In opposition
to this deficiency-model the following essay is based on the assumption
that migration is not born out of need, but embodies part of the
everyday strategies of many people in Africa and elsewhere. With this
I am pursuing the line of thought as outlined in the introduction to this

A preliminary version of this paper was presented in November 2005 at a
Colloquium at the Institute for African Studies at Bayreuth University. I wish to thank
my colleagues for their comments on this text.
150 Hans Peter Hahn

In contrast to the deficiency-model, the main argument of my con-
tribution is that migration forms a strategy to complement the space, in
which a society and its members are located, in which they feel at
home. The space constituting the basis for personal experiences of the
migrants is enlarged by the fact that they live in more than one location,
moving between the place of origin and destination and acquiring the
necessary competencies to make a living at either of these places
(Meier 2003). The social identity in the society of origin is not ques-
tioned by the phenomenon of migration which is merely developing
into a habit or a tradition. The space associated with the society has no
demarcated boundaries. This space comprises the most diverse loca-
tions or spots in towns and abroad, wherever migrants of a specific
origin live and maintain contact with their places of origin. Identities of
migrants may be strongly influenced or even altered by the impact of
the migration experience (Baker and Aina 1995), but the migrants
tend to assume that, as long as they maintain social relations with their
society of origin, their identities remain congruent with the identities of
the other members. Thus, my second argument is that the maintained
contacts represent a particular value in that they sustain a shared social
identity between migrants and those left behind.
My third argument is related to the dynamics of developing new
identities and negotiating aspects of common understanding between
migrants and the people left behind. Considerable misunderstanding
and misjudgement may prevail between migrants and their relatives
who continue to live at the place of origin. But these are topics which
are negotiated with varying results between the two social groups.
They do not, however, question the fundamental conviction on both
sides that they actually belong to one and the same society, independent
of the fact where the respective members live at any given moment.
The perspective adopted in this essay is closely linked to the point
of view taken by Michael Lambert (2002 and in this volume) and
Jeffrey Cohen (2004) as they focus on the relations between migrants,
ex-migrants and those left behind (Lambert dealing with the Jola in
Senegal and Cohen with people from Oaxaca in Mexico). I agree with
Migration as Discursive Space 151

their interpretations of the role of migration in the respective societies
in that people in my case study and in the two other societies named
above use migration as a feature for negotiation about gender and
generational conflicts. Migration among the Jola and in Oaxaca as well
as for the Kasena in Burkina Faso enhances the space of representation
of values and agency for each of these groups, without rejecting the
notion of shared values and interests. This leads us to the idea of
cultures of migration. In contrast to the usage of this term in other
recent publications (Cohen 2004, Ali 2007), however, culture in our
context has no meaning other than discursive space or sphere of
meaningful negotiations. The term culture may not be understood in
any essentialist vein, i.e. as a particular strategy of acting or a specific
pattern of behavior.
By contrast, the following case study from the village of Kollo in
Southern Burkina Faso will illustrate how fragile and contradictory the
strategies of migrants prove to be. The fact that every single migrants
departure and return to the place of origin has a provisional character
and that the migrants repeatedly risk being condemned by those left
behind, underscores migration should not be regarded as patterned
action. Nevertheless, there is a common understanding of migration,
voluntarily accepted by migrants and left-behinds alike. This under-
standing makes migration acceptable for both groups and provides a
space for the articulation of particular interests. It is in this context that
remittances become a key feature. The reciprocal interests between
left-behinds and migrants play an important role in the valuation of
each individual migration process, but none of the men and women
involved in these negotiations has the means to dominate this debate or
to define what is right or wrong as regards the migrants actions. Even
if the views are never unanimous in a society but rather the subject of
differing opinions, they can present a form of foundation for the
cultures of migration. Everyone those left behind like their fellow
migrants participates in the judging of the migrants actions. It is
those discursive fields which integrate migration into the local culture.
152 Hans Peter Hahn

Focusing the meaning of cultures on the discursive field of ne-
gotiations therefore becomes fundamental for explaining why migrants
leave, why they return to their villages of origin, and why remittances
are so important.
The cultures of migration in Southern Burkina
Faso have developed in the context of a tradition of migration in West
Africa lasting for almost a century. Thus, migration has a local history;
it is further subject to constant changes in its modes and valuations.
The term culture, used in this sense, underlines that migration is
embedded in local societies in the West African savannah.
For much scientific research and most corresponding literature,
this is hardly a self-evident statement. The observations for example by
Elliot Skinner (1965) on the migration of the Mossi in Burkina Faso
rely on migration being depicted as something that threatens the local
societies. Even though the documentation produced by Skinner is
valuable for its descriptions and its richness in detail, migration seems
to be a phenomenon that either has changed fundamentally since the
1960s or he has misinterpreted it. This is the case in particular regard-
ing his estimation of the effects caused by migration for those left
behind. Thus, Skinner painted a gloomy picture of the Mossi villages
being deserted by the young men, the villages wells collapsing because
no one was there to maintain them, the fields remaining uncultivated
due to a lack of manpower, and so on Skinner neglected to mention
that migration in the Mossi area (as well as in other regions of Burkina
Faso) had started already at the beginning of the twentieth century and
has not abated ever since. In other words, Skinner simply overlooked
the fact that even in his time there already existed a local tradition of
migration, a tradition that continues until today yet has prevented the
villages from collapsing and the social order from dissolving.

The role of remittances is widely discussed in migration studies. Beside the
economic effects on the macro level (impact on national revenues in foreign currencies)
the local relevance focuses on the recognition of social obligations. Cliggett (2000,
2003) shows in her Zambian Case study that the value of the remittances is too low to
improve living conditions in the rural settlement. Migrants bring gifts back to the
village of origin mainly in order to strengthen their social position.
Migration as Discursive Space 153

In order to make the problems of identity and shared values as
clear as possible, it is useful to regard migratory phenomena beyond
African contexts, too. Studying the debate surrounding migration in
such divergent places as West Africa, Germany, South America or
Mexico may help to enhance our understanding of migration in all of
these places. Transposing insights from other contexts should not
imply that migrants throughout the world share the same fate or the
same attitudes. But looking beyond the African continent may provide
fresh arguments to reconceive migration for this particular case study.
More specifically, I want to draw on the work of Vilem Flusser, a
migrant himself, who returned to Central Europe after more than thirty
years in South America. Flusser entitled one of his books on migration
and mobility The Freedom of the Migrant (2003), thus opening up a
most unconventional perspective on the actions and identity of mi-
grants. What constitutes the freedom of migrants is obviously a
question that applies to any context of migration worldwide, for
migrants in Africa no less than those in Germany. I will return to this
perspective towards the end of the paper in order to illustrate the
usefulness and transferability of Flussers unique perspective.
The remainder of this essay is divided into three sections. In the
first I present the findings of a case study based on research among
Kasena people in the village of Kollo in Burkina Faso. In the second I
discuss the Flusserian concept of Freedom in the light of the migra-
tory phenomena to be observed among the Kasena. In the concluding
section I will assess once more the benefits that can be gained from
using the term cultures of migration.
2. The case study
More than ten years ago, at the beginning of my research among the
Kasena in the village of Kollo in Southern Burkina Faso, only a few
kilometres from the Ghanaian border, migration did not seem to be a
154 Hans Peter Hahn

very important aspect of the local society.
It was only after some years
and a number of field trips that the significance of migration in this
small village dawned on me. One possible explanation for overlooking
the importance of migration at the time was due to my initial fields of
study, namely agriculture and local crafts. Obviously, during their
absence, migrants participate neither in the one nor the other.
However, there is another even more important reason for my
overlooking the widespread migratory phenomena. At the beginning of
my research I shared the common expectation that the migrants
households would differ significantly from those of other families,
assuming them either to exhibit a different lifestyle or to be enjoying
considerably better economic living conditions.
Both assumptions
proved to be wrong: It was only little by little and in the course of a
great number of conversations that I discovered that many of those
whom I had interviewed as farmers or craftspeople, and whom I had
accompanied to their fields, could actually look back on experiences of
extended stays in Ghana or Cte dIvoire years or decades earlier.
They had reintegrated into their society of origin without making any
changes in lifestyle compared to those who had never left the village
for an extended period.
Nor were they any better off than the others.
Migration proved to be much more normal than I had expected
and, of course, also much more widespread. In all likelihood, the

The findings presented in this text are based on fieldwork in Burkina Faso, carried
out within the framework of the collaborative research programme Local Action in
Africa in the Context of Global Influences (SFB/FK 560) at the African Studies Centre
of Bayreuth University. This research programme financed several research periods
from 2001-2006 covering 18 month of fieldwork in Burkina Faso. Previous research
(1993-1999) in the same area was made possible through research grants from the
German Research Foundation (DFG). I hereby express my gratitude towards the DFG
for making this research possible.
The book of Verda (2002) is an outstanding example, of how migrants introduce a
new lifestyle to their villages of origin in Northern Ghana. New and improved houses
are among the most prominent features introduced by migrants, when returning. This
applies for Northern Ghana as well as for Madagascar (Thomas 1998) and Belize (Wilk
This context parallels the findings of Meyer Fortes, dating from the early 1930s.
Fortes (1936: 51) reports that ex-migrants re-integrate into their villages of origin in
Northern Ghana and become pure traditionalists.
Migration as Discursive Space 155

frequency of migration in Kollo is not unsimilar to what was reported
by Michael Franke (1982) about a village in Northern Ghana, which is
located only 40 km from Kollo, where Franke found that about 75 % of
the male population had been involved in migration at some point in
their lives. For the women, the share of migrants exceeds 25 %.
Although I have not conducted a survey of all migrants and ex-migrants
in Kollo, the high number of absent men and the imbalance of the sexes
in the households that I documented are strong indicators that Frankes
figures may apply to Kollo, too.

Another factor which helped to improve my understanding of the
migration phenomena is the report of a British administration official
(Cardinall quoted in Duperray 1984:214), who describes how, in 1918,
several ten thousand Mossi were crossing Navrongo in the North of the
Gold Coast (as Ghana was called at that time) on their way to the
South-West of the country, where there was an urgent need of man-
power for the gold mines. At that time British policy actually encour-
aged temporary North-South labour migration. The British administra-
tion even provided military escorts for the workers to return safely to
their region of origin with their earnings. District Commissioner
Watherston (1908:360), the author of another even earlier account,
inquires whether the migrant labourers by dint of the opportunity to
temporarily escape the authority of the village elders and to buy
European fabric at the end of their working period might not be
happier than those left behind at their place of origin?
This rhetorical question most likely will never be answered. The
particular value of these documents, however, is twofold: Firstly, they
provide the earliest figures for migration from Burkina Faso to the
coastal area of West Africa. Secondly, they present historical evidence
for the local embedding of migration: Obviously the migrants already
knew how to travel, where to sleep and how to find provisions on their

In the 17 households documented in detail in my sample, there are 21 men as
contrasted with 50 women many of whom raise their children alone, while their
husbands work in Ghana or Cte dIvoire. For more information on the census see
Hahn (2006:71).
156 Hans Peter Hahn

journey. In a historical perspective migration has grown constantly
ever since, at times slower, at times faster, even though the policy to
promote it was soon stopped.
At least for some time politics resorted to
the adverse the administration tried to regulate or even prohibit
migration. Yet such measures by the state had very little influence on
the actual behaviour of the migrants (Asiwaju 1976).
Sensitized by these documents, I used later field trips to gather
more information about migrants in Kollo. Questions concerning
absent family members and their activities provided me with valuable
indications as regards migration patterns, durations of stays abroad and
ranges of remittances. The amounts of money brought home when
returning from the Southern Ghana or from Abidjan varied between
20.000 and 200.000 F CFA (equals 30 300 EURO). For my research
on consumption and the acquisition of goods, I concentrated on how the
migrants arranged the balance between monetary gifts and goods of
consumption, placing a special focus on how much money or goods
migrants managed to remit and how these remittances were perceived.
The following examples will both illustrate the problems encountered
by returning migrants, and illuminate the destinies of these migrants.
The first example is about Allasani who belongs to a compound in
the centre of the village, headed by a retired health-officer. In 2001,
when Allasani was 16 years old, he went to Kumasi for the first time.
He wanted to live there with an older brother in order to make his first
experiences with labor migration. After a stay of 6 months, he returned
with a bicycle for himself, which he had defined as the goal of his
undertaking beforehand.
In addition he gave 20.000 F CFA to his
father. Measured by the short period of his absence and the fact that he
had experienced the South for the first time, his stay was considered to
be a success. There is no question for Allasani that he will seek further
opportunities to migrate and to stay in the South for longer.

For further evidence on the relative importance of circular labour migration, even
in the first decades of the colonial period in West Africa, see Gregory, Cordell, and
Pich (1989).
This pattern of migration rather matches the concept of the target worker as
explained by Gregory and Pich (1983).
Migration as Discursive Space 157

In the second example the first son from a neighboring compound,
Bugayiri, returned with more than 100.000 F CFA in total in cash from
his two-year stay in Abidjan lasting from 2000 to 2002. With this
money he purchased a bicycle (for around 35.000 F CFA) and a radio
recorder (15.000 F CFA) for himself. For his mother he bought a large
metal cooking pot for brewing millet beer (15.000 F CFA) and a complet
(i.e. a skirt) of fabric of the best known quality in the region (7.500 F
CFA). A part of what remained he gave to his father, another part he
used up with his friends at the small market nearby. I emphasize these
numbers because they illustrate how selective and restricted the influ-
ence of the remittances is compared to the economic situation of the
household as a whole. The stay of Bugayiri was regarded as very
successful, indeed, and during the following market days his return,
together with the gifts he had acquired for his family, were a main
subject of conversation in the market.
In the third example we are dealing with Aniwe, the first son of
the above-mentioned retired health-officer and the compound in which
Allasani is living. After spending more than ten years in Abidjan with
the village not having heard from him along most of the period, Aniwe
all of a sudden returned as a grown man in his thirties one afternoon in
2002. Aniwe waited in the shade of a tree outside the entrance to the
compound, hesitating to enter until he had had the opportunity to talk
things over with his father. As I learned the following day he had given
his father 20.000 F CFA on this occasion. After all those years he had
not saved more money, the father informed me angrily. He added, he
really should have sent him straight back, and if he did not do so, it was
purely for the sake of Aniwes mother, his first wife.
The fourth example concerns another young man as well. In 2003,
Ako returned to the compound of his parents after five years in Abid-
jan. In the meantime his father, Adagara, had lost his wife and was now
living by himself between the decaying mud houses. He depended on
daily gifts of food, given as charity from a neighbor. Everybody in the
village knew about the precarious situation of Adagaras household, in
spite of the fact that he owned a large radio cassette player as well as
158 Hans Peter Hahn

several metal buckets and plastic mats. As the old man told me, all
these expensive consumer goods originated from the past visits of Ako.
This time it was Akos plan to do more for his father. Beside the sum of
150.000 F CFA he had purchased a roll of corrugated iron worth at least
50.000 F CFA, with which he planned to build a new house for his
parents, not knowing about the death of his mother. It took him some
days to come up with a decision: His wife who originally came from
Cte dIvoire and hence did not speak a word of kasIm, the local
language, should stay with her father-in-law and care for him while
Ako returned to Abidjan. But weeks later, when I passed by for a short
visit, he had neither built the house nor was he ready to leave. He was
obviously in trouble. He recognized that he would not be able to leave
until he had found a lasting solution for his fathers problems.
The fifth and last example exhibits a totally different dynamic. A
middle-aged man, Alwarati, lives in his own compound, located in the
south of the village Kollo. Together with his wife and children he had
spent some years in Ghana working on plantations, before deciding to
resettle in Kollo. At the time, when I got to know him better, in 2002,
he had already been back in the village for two years and had built
himself a house roofed with corrugated iron, which led me to believe
that he was quite well off at the time of his return. Not only had he
built a house in the immediate vicinity of the compound of his parents
but also a di-ni, which is a traditional round house with a mud roof,
vestibule and adjoining room. As he explained, he had had a dispute
with his younger brother a short time after his arrival in Kollo. For this
reason he had not only built a new compound for himself and his wife
in proximity to his parents place but had also made his mother follow
him into the new compound, constructing a di-ni for her, too. During
a temporary absence a three months trip to Ghana, where he still has
many friends his younger brother in Kollo became sick and died. As
a result of these events many in the village suspected Alwarati of using
witchcraft. After all, he not only seemed to have quite a good liveli-
hood but he had also succeeded in drawing his mother onto his side. In
particular the fact that the old woman had left the compound of the
Migration as Discursive Space 159

forefathers must have represented a provocation for his younger
brother. But this already difficult situation was compounded by the fact
that a few weeks before I had the opportunity to get to know his
compound better his mother died, too. The di-ni, the round house
which had been inhabited for less than two years, the large and still
quite new corrugated iron house with its half-finished enclosure all
this made him and his wife appear to be living on a construction site,
which, considering the turbulences in the family, is probably a fair
description of his social situation: Two members of his family had died
in less than two years, there was the unresolved dispute, the leaving of
the parental compound and, last not least, the neither formalized nor
invalidated accusation of witchcraft, all of which burden him and
threaten his existence in the village. It is unclear how the situation will
develop for him and his family, but my comments sufficiently illustrate
the problems, which should be understood as problems of integration.
These are only a few of the scores of stories of migrants and their
homecoming that I encountered during my research stay. But the
sweep between Allasani, the 16-year-old, who proudly returned home
with his bike after only some months, and Alwarati, the mature adult
who together with his wife and children is seeking both a place and
recognition as head of the compound, suffices to demonstrate two
things: Firstly, there is no such thing as a typical way of migrating,
there is no dominant migration pattern. On the contrary, it is more
accurate to assume a diverse range of migration practices. Secondly,
and notwithstanding this diversity there are rather clear ideas about the
estimation of the action of migrants in the local community. Everybody
can see when (i.e., after which period of time) and how (i.e., equipped
with which resources) a migrant returns. Both aspects are important for
the assessment of that persons actions. But of even greater importance
is the way the ex-migrant deals with the expectations of his family.
3. The freedom of the migrant
What is the relevance of the freedom of the migrant for the context of
Kollo? At first glance, the case study seems to present stories of
160 Hans Peter Hahn

entanglements and disappointments rather than freedom. As a matter of
fact, many migrants whom I interviewed in the city, far away from their
places of origin, seemed to be afraid of their home. When I inquired
about the period of time that had passed since their last journey and
about their intentions of returning home in the near future, I received
surprisingly evasive responses.
The apparent fear of the native soil
must be understood as a worry about whether one can compete with the
expectations of the family and if one is in a position to do so at all
how expensive such a visit would be.
The place of origin represents
a challenge with regard to t ones own economic capability as well as
ones social ties, which one would obviously like to sustain in spite of
all adversities.

Of course my questions were posed with a particular expectation
in mind. And precisely what was implicit about them made answering
them so difficult for the migrants. My questions and it might just as
well be the questions of any other person who is closer or more trusted
evoked their ambitions not to abandon the ties with their place of
origin. I recognize here a Janus-faced process of refashioning the
migrants identity: On the one hand he is quitting his place of origin,
but on the other hand the migrant is simultaneously realizing ever
more clearly his own interest in upholding a link to his place of origin.
In consequence this process creates problems, forcing the migrant to
make decisions, but, as Flusser has argued, the migrant also gets to
know himself, thus becoming better sensitized about the nature of his
ties with his place of origin.

Interviews with Kasena from Kollo were carried out in Kumasi (2005) and in
Ouagadougou (2001-2003). Although George Marcus (1995) advocates promoting this
proceeding as: multi-sited fieldwork, I prefer the advantages of a specific perspective
which, in the context of my research, are linked to the place of origin. For a critical
discussion of Marcus methodological point of view cf. Hahn (2004).
This applies to African migrants in Europe as well (Arhinful 2001).
This notion is quite close to Charles Piots point of view. Piot (2000) describes the
system of relations between urban Kaby and those living in the area of origin in rural
Northern Togo as a system of reciprocal obligations: People from town have to provide
food, consumer goods and other kinds of economic support; people living in the
villages give transcendental protection in terms of the local religious system.
Migration as Discursive Space 161

I intentionally avoid using the notion of home in this context
since this expression seems to restrict its connotation to a specific kind
of linkage. The two questions of whether or not to return and what
defines the quality of attachment to the place of origin are truly central
for an understanding of migration. There is no evidence that the
migrants have any clear-cut conception of what constitutes home and
what its significance for them is. Migrants perpetually face the task
that they need to re-position themselves in relation to their place of
origin. But as the examples indicate, the actual experiences with what
others would call home are very different. Obviously the notion
itself is difficult to grasp, not least because home can be both the place
of origin as well as the destination of migration. At the places of
destination, in such cities as Kumasi, Abidjan or Ouagadougou, people
who are not migrants often highlight the fact of migration by asking
their interlocutors the following question: Where do you come from?
This question of origin often misses the target of an objective reply
and leaves the migrants in the uncomfortable position that they are
continually reminded that they have to determine what constitutes their
true home. For my part, I was rather astonished to find so little
reflection about the notion of home in the scientific literature on
It seems to me that the German-Turkish author Renan
Demirkan presents one of the most convincing reflections yet on the
issues surrounding the redefining of the notion of home. Demirkan
(1991:47) overturns our conventional assumptions of home when she
makes her father (born in Turkey) reflect: Sometimes, home is a place
which is yet to be found.
But if origin and home are terms whose definition depends on
the perspective of the migrant, then what is migration? An intense
debate has arisen about the most appropriate definition of the term

Of course there is a great share of literature considering the relevance of the place
of origin for the migration process. But there are only very few documents that make
clear that home is an imagined and re-evaluated place in the cultural topography. In
the African context, the process of gaining a new perspective on the place of origin is
very well discussed in some articles about the Ethnic Associations, founded by
migrants in many African cities (Snyder 1978, Lentz 1995, Gugler 2002).
162 Hans Peter Hahn

migration, focussing in particular on the definition of circular
migration, or return migration. Both concepts provide a useful
description of the migratory phenomena in Kollo. But any definition
must attempt to cover the more complicated cases, too. For example:
Are the migrants in South Africa who return to their hometown every
weekend also circular migrants? And what does it suggest that there is
such a differential between the intention of returning and the actual
realization? Is a context in which fewer than half of all migrants
actually return still to be described in these terms? Moving beyond the
definition introduced by Sjaastad (1962), which is widely accepted and
sees economics as the primary force, more recent definitions draw on
distance and time as the critical factors (Cordell, Gregory, and Pich
1996, see also Adepoju 1996). Migrants are now only recognized as
such if they stay away from home for no less than a certain period of
time and maintain a certain distance from home. Setting these criteria
aside, the problem of definition would resolve itself more easily if we
placed the perspective of the migrant centre stage rather than the
scholars. It is after all the migrant who defines whether the place
where he is living is the destination of his migration, or whether that
place has come to represent home for him.
The examples given in the last section have shown that the experi-
ence of migration is not just to be seen as a consequence of a temporary
absence and a possible return after some time. The empirically measur-
able pattern of migration should not be seen as the basis for migration;
rather, it is the attitude of the migrant towards his situation. Neither is
it the distance nor the frequency of return, nor even the realization of
plans to return, which are crucial, but rather the perception of this
objective by the migrant himself. The freedom that Flusser places in
the centre of migration depicts the process of self-ascribing the home
and redefining the importance of that place for the migrants everyday
life. Personal roots, as Flusser puts it, are no longer something im-
planted but something that belongs to oneself, something for which
one even has to struggle. The freedom of the migrant consists in facing
his ambition of return with all the consequences that this entails, and to
Migration as Discursive Space 163

be sensitized to the irony of roots, which are not grown (in spite of
the biological context of this metaphor) and are not something abso-
lutely necessary.
Talking about migrants as being uprooted (Colvin,
Ba and Barry 1981) is, by these thoughts, unmasked as nonsense.
Whoever has no roots is not a migrant because the place of origin has
lost relevance for him.
This observation also explains the central role of the logic of ab-
sence and presence, which I encountered again and again in Kollo in
conversations about migrants. If somebody had not visited the village
for 10 to 15 years, this did not seem to be a major problem. The people
left behind were sure that knowledge about the place of origin would
never be lost. However, if it became known that this migrant had
founded a family at the place of destination and raised children there
who had never seen the place of birth of their father, then people would
seriously rebuke this migrant for forgetting his initial intention to
This circumstance explains why in many cases even the children
of migrants, who according to the standard definitions would never
be described as migrants, continue to see themselves as migrants. In
the case of Kollo, the only condition required to be recognized as a
migrant by those who live at the place of origin is to have visited the
village in order to see their fathers compound and get to know their
relatives. Most young descendents of migrants who were born in
Kumasi and never spent more than a couple of weeks in Kollo regard
themselves as migrants originating from Kollo. In spite of having
Ghanaian nationality and English schooling, they consider themselves
as being Kasena from Burkina Faso. Compared to the young non-
migrant people in Kumasi it is mainly the difference in the subjective

Jonathan Friedman (2000) critically discusses the term of roots. As he shows, the
metaphor of roots in the context of globalization is often used to describe the condition
of the other, of social groups that are supposed to be victims of globalization. In
contrast to this, western people, regarding themselves as globalized, have the capacity
to use routes, in order to be as mobile as possible. The dichotomy between uprooted
migrants and globalized mobile people illustrates the dubious nature of the idea of
globalization as such. See also for this argument Silverstein (2005).
164 Hans Peter Hahn

perception of themselves with respect to their (imagined) belonging to
the people of Kollo that defines their status as migrants. Visits to the
village of origin and the perception of a different identity are comple-
mented by the awareness that those who continue to live in the place of
origin still maintain some particular expectations. As a matter of fact,
people in Kollo trust those migrants to provide help when needed and
give support whenever someone from the village arrives in town. The
migrants are generally classified as members of the households, even
when they are born abroad and have spent most of their life in Ghana or
Abidjan. It is not without pride that the inhabitants of Kollo emphasize
that their village is much bigger than the houses and more populous
than the residents visible at any given moment.
Studies of migrants who themselves have never migrated may at
first seem to be covering territory of merely theoretical relevance.
experiences of my field research, however, confirm excellently what
Harri Englund (2002) reports about migrants in a semi-urban context in
Malawi. This group of migrants consists mainly of younger men and
women who were born in Malawi as children of migrants. They find
themselves confronted with the claims of long-time residents and
frequently become involved in violent conflicts between migrants and
hosts. The restrictions imposed by the hosts and long-time residents
seem to be unacceptable to the migrants children, who consider
themselves as modern individuals, living in this place in order to make
their living as an urban workforce. As Englund states, the different
dispositions for agreeing to these restrictions are based upon different
notions about the ties which each group has with the place. Englund
calls the linkage to the place emplacement. Obviously the emplace-
ment for migrants differs from the hosts notion of emplacement. It is
this very emplacement that makes migration possible, but it also sets
narrow limits. Englund understands his case study as a critique of the
dominant discourse of globalization, which over-emphasizes the

Beside Englund (2002) who will be discussed in some detail here, there are other
examples: Haitians in the US (Stepick 1998), Lebanese in Ghana (Leichtman 2005),
Turks in Germany (Schiffauer 1991) and so forth
Migration as Discursive Space 165

openness of boundaries. By contrast, he highlights to the persistence of
boundaries that make migration continue to appear as a dangerous
Undeniably globalization signifies among other things a process
that facilitates and expands mobility. But, as Englund has pointed out,
migration is indeed more than transporting people from one place to
another. Decisive for the identity of a migrant is neither the actual path
linking the place of origin with the place of destination, nor the distance
or even the frequency with which one goes back and forth, but rather
the change in status that a migrant experiences. Criteria of distance,
time or even economics are not sufficient to understand migration. In
this context, Englund draws on a play of words originally formulated
by Edward Casey (1996), who demands that migration studies should
focus on transformation of places instead of the transportation between

Most now agree that it would be wrong to think of this transforma-
tion as something that the migrant himself is able to control. The
metaphor of an iceberg helps to explain the situation of the migrant:
The tip of the iceberg which protrudes from the water represents the
articulated strategies of the migrants themselves. Their ability to act is
visible from far away. This translates into our context as: To set off at a
certain moment or to return. The much larger part of the iceberg that is
hidden under the surface of the water is related to the migrants ties
with his place of origin and his destination. These ties represent the
currents in the water which determine the direction of the iceberg, here
meaning the direction the migrants future existence will take. The
metaphor of the iceberg has the advantage that the underwater currents
may eventually change their direction, just like the migrants have to

This idea has since been adopted by European migration studies. See for example
Gerd Baumann (1995) and his research on multiethnic suburbs in London. The
recontextualisation of space as an analytical category is very perceptively discussed by
Pries (2005).
166 Hans Peter Hahn

make up their mind at one point and determine what or where their
home is, and whether this term still has any relevance for them.

With reference to the ties and conflicts which the migrant faces,
the significance of the place should not be underestimated. In the light
of our discussion, the role of location with respect to migration should
be considered as a social process, implying more specifically a change
in the hierarchy of locations. The Spanish anthropologist Pascual-de-
Sans (2004) has defined migration in this way, describing it as a
process by which people negotiate the social dimensions of space. He
uses the term of idiotopy to refer to the imaginary categorization of
locations. Biographical descriptions of migratory experiences have
shown how migrants are very well able to describe such shifts in the
significance that places have for them. The place of destination can
gain importance even before migration itself starts; later, with many
years experience of migration, the place of origin often comes to be
seen in a very different light. The ideology of the topos describes a
relative estimation of socially defined spaces and their change over the
course of time.
Either way, the ideology of the topos is not only
about individual changes of perception but always about collective
agreements as well, concerning the significance of a place in this
hierarchy and the affiliation of individuals or groups with this place.
Places are no longer simply geographically defined units, but merely
socially negotiated spaces.

There is a dangerous tendency in migration studies to overestimate the agency of
migrants. Kearney (1986) at his time rightly encouraged researchers in migration
studies to focus on the migrants agency. But to take his agency and creativity for
granted (as Knrr 2005) underestimates the problems migrants are constantly facing.
This is particularly relevant for the cyclical re-evaluation of the place of origin.
Very often, people are inclined to ignore it while growing up. But later in life the place
of origin tends to regain greater significance for them. Negotiations of social dimen-
sions of places imply that different valuations occur within a society. This is the notion
behind Michel Foucaults term Heterotopia (1986), too.
Migration as Discursive Space 167

4. Cultures of migration
Against this theoretical background, the freedom of the migrant can
be reformulated as the possibility to modify the idiotopy in a society.
Migrants achieve this by arguing a different valuation of the places.
The regard of a place, for instance the destination of migration, by the
migrants or the ones left behind is negotiable. It is safe to assume that
the regard of the migrants differs considerably from the valuation of the
others due to their different experiences. Different meanings are also
attached to the context of the destination: For the migrants the destina-
tion carries a different connotation than for the people who live there
without being migrants. This is illustrated perfectly by the current
debate about transnationalism. Nina Glick-Schiller (2004, 2005) and
others convincingly argue that the dominant topographic concept of
nation is a methodological barrier for understanding valuations of
place which are situated in different nations and tied together by
transnational social fields. Transnationalism therefore represents an
anti-nationalistic concept that does not deny the relevance of the
nation as such, but insists on the possibility that other idiotopies are
The concept of idiotopy has further implications for the identity of
the migrant. It suggests that the identity of a migrant is characterized
by a differential vis--vis the social identity of others, both in the host
society as well as in the society of his origin. The migrant creates
valuations of these societies and their locations that differ from the
idiotopies of non-migrants. I call this the double difference, and I
regard this as a fundamental feature of the migrants identity. Both
places, the place of origin and the destination of migration, are linked
by the migrants biography. Due to this inseparable connection the
double difference cannot simply be swept away after the experience of
migration. Psychologically speaking, migration never ends. Indeed, this
twofold difference encapsulates not just the sum of two particular
identities but also the mutual dependence of these differences.
168 Hans Peter Hahn

I want to stress that this perspective generates some important
consequences. Obviously, migrants are fully conscious of the problems
related to, or created by idiotopy and the twofold difference. Migrants
do not experience these problems by accident, nor are they passive
agents; rather, they tend to put them to good use. This brings us back to
the notion of cultures of migrations. Sensitivity for differences and a
feeling that discourses or negotiations might create mutual understand-
ing, if not common point of views, are central components of how we
define cultures of migrations.
As Lambert documents in his contribution, too, cultures of migra-
tion are inevitably about conflicts within society. In Lamberts case
study, migration invariably initiates a process of negotiations, where
not only the valuation of places (e.g., the rural Casamance, or Dakar) is
expressed, but where for example women benefit from their expanded
opportunities to negotiate their social role in society. Thus, the culture
of migration signifies a shifting of cultural values also in the society of
origin. Women claim particular rights and can make use of their
migration experience to realize these claims. The cultures of migration
open the perspective for differences in identities and interests hidden
behind the actual migration. Hence migration becomes a means by
which differences are articulated. This perspective enhances our
understanding of migration in our case study of Kollo. There, too,
migration can be perceived as a field for the articulation of differences
and conflicts. However, the central issue in Kollo remains the conflict
between generations, less the conflict between the sexes. Young men
and women in Kollo make use of migration, in order to gain independ-
ence from their fathers. They thereby, simultaneously achieve a self-
contained position in society.
In interviews about individual migration stories I repeatedly en-
countered the account of a scene which demonstrates this conflict
particularly clearly: It is the story about the departure of a young man
who wants to go to the south as a migrant even though he does not
receive permission to do so. A solution to this conflict, reported over
and over again, is that the person in question leaves the compound of
Migration as Discursive Space 169

his parents secretly by night and, in order to pay for the fare to Ghana,
takes a goat or a sheep with him.
Amazingly, the clandestine depar-
ture and the theft of an animal from the fathers livestock is not really
seen as a problem as long as the son manages to hand a sum of money
equivalent to the value of the animal to his father upon his return. This
remarkable behavior is granted to the migrant without much comment.
Even those who do not share his desires and plans acknowledge his
action for the sake of his intention to migrate.
Obviously, this is a sign that there is something like a cultures of
migration in the sense explained above. At the same time it reflects
what these cultures accomplish: Namely in a conflict it offers both
sides recognized and acceptable ways to articulate their proper position
and to realize their objectives. This does not mean that every migratory
phenomenon is acknowledged by society. To the contrary, my case
studies confirm that sometimes severe critique, articulated by the local
people, can pose existential difficulties to migrants after their return.
But the fact that people migrate, return and bring remittances home
with them, opens up a meaningful space for agency and negotiations.
Cultures of migration are thereby also acknowledging the perpetua-
tion of local cultures, which have the capacity to cope with the temporal
absence of some of its members and to integrate the migrants experi-
ences from abroad into their own horizon.

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284 Abstracts

Migration as Discursive Space Negotiations of Leaving and
Returning in the Kasena Homeland (Burkina Faso) (Hans Peter
Migration has a long tradition among the Kasena in rural Southern
Burkina Faso, the area of study. Migration is seen as a part of the
lifecycle. The majority of the young people leave for several months or
years in order to work in coastal cities of West Africa or in the planta-
tions. The temporal leaving is not considered as a problem for the social
cohesion in the village as long as the migrant maintains the contact to
his place of origin. The economic outcomes and remittances cover an
extremely large range from almost nothing to considerable wealth. In
spite of the fact that remittances do have little impact on the livelihoods
in the place of origin, migrants are judged in the local community by
their individual economic success or failure, and by the modalities of
giving when they return to the village. The importance of remittances is
not so much based on its economic value, but merely linked to the
reconnaissance of social obligations and relatedness. Although the
elderly in the village often criticize the younger migrants they know by
their own experience how difficult it may by to accumulate means as
remittances. A particular culture of migrants is constituted by the
categorial including of the absentees into the village community and by
the discourses about the migrants outcome.