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Safety Net or Source of Conflict?

Many people in the Republic of Guinea have managed to survive with the help of remittance money sent from relatives who have migrated around the world, to wherever they can find work or business opportunities. But disputes between Guineans at home and abroad over diverging understandings of Islam have sometimes transformed the remittance safety net into a source of social conflict. What happens when migrant remittances that provide people with economic security also become a source of social insecurity?

Susanna Fioratta (Anthropology) is writing her dissertation on these intertwined issues, based on eighteen months of fieldwork in Guinea and Senegal, West Africa. Her adviser is Michael McGovern.

“On paper, Guinea looks like one of the poorest countries in the world (despite the fact that it is rich in natural resources and has the world’s largest reserves of bauxite, which is used to make aluminum),” she says. “By looking at how Guineans send and receive remittance money, often through ‘informal’ and officially unrecorded channels, my research shows how relationships that are statistically invisible or insignificant (partly because they are under-recorded) are actually quite important on the ground, seen through people’s stories and actual life experiences.”

Susanna first became interested in remittances while serving as an environmental educator for the Peace Corps in Guinea from 2002 to 2004. She lived in a small town “where virtually every inhabitant had relatives abroad, had been abroad themselves, and/or aspired to go abroad. People were building houses, mosques, chain-link fences, schools, and health centers, and a lot of this was being done with remittance money that people received from their migrant relatives living outside of Guinea. These people were not totally immune to national poverty and the risk of political instability, but they were somewhat insulated. I wanted to understand this disparity between the national context and local daily life.”


Top to bottom: A view of the countryside in Guinea; a typical village street; one of the challenges of fieldwork.

It’s impossible to know exactly how many people in Guinea receive remittances. Guinea isn’t even on the World Bank’s list of top 10 remittance-receiving countries in Africa, as calculated by percentage of GDP, “but most numbers on Guinea are unreliable, simply because so much happens that is unrecorded; nevertheless, anyone who travels around the country and talks to people will easily see the significance of remittances,” she says.

Susanna’s fieldwork took her to two small towns in Guinea and to Dakar, Senegal, a transit point for migrants and a destination in its own right for many Guineans. In all three settings, she immersed herself in the life of her subjects, doing what anthropologists call “participant observation.” She says she “did whatever they were doing to the extent that I could – lived, ate, and traveled the way they did, and joined in their conversations,” using French and Pular, a local language she first learned in the Peace Corps. People told her their life stories, which she recorded and transcribed with the help of a research assistant.

Over time, she began to notice that “disagreements sometimes arose between people in the village and their families who sent money home over questions of how money was spent and how resources were allocated; these disagreements overlapped with differences I had noticed in religious practice and doctrine. While most village elders considered themselves affiliated with a Sufi form of Islam, the Tijaniyya, their adult children who had lived and worked in major regional and global cities sometimes rejected the Tijaniyya label and adopted what some call ‘reformist’ Islamic practices (perhaps the most conspicuous of these was women wearing burkas). So in many cases, disputes about money were also disputes about how to be a true Muslim, and about power struggles between younger and older generations. I wanted to understand how people resolved (or failed to resolve) these differences.”

As Susanna spent more time among the Guinean people and heard their stories, she began to revise some of her original judgments. Initially, she saw the tension between those who held to traditional Tijani doctrine and practice and those who embraced reformist Islam as a binary conflict, one between the elderly and the young, between the stay-at-home and the migrant populations. But, she admits, “I found that the religious differences were more complex than I had realized, with many people allying themselves with both sides in different contexts, and sometimes uniting in agreement in unexpected (to me) ways.”

Political upheavals interrupted and to an extent influenced her work in unanticipated ways. First, in 2009, she had to evacuate Guinea when military forces massacred a gathering of civilian political protesters, leading to fears that extended armed conflict would follow. When she returned from Senegal the following year, “The country was in the midst of its first internationally observed, democratic presidential elections since independence from France in 1958, and one of the leading candidates was from the region where I did research. Therefore, as my research questions evolved over the course of my fieldwork, I ended up exploring much more about politics than I had originally planned.”

This unexpected theme emerged, in part, through the changing ways that Guinean Pular speakers expressed their relation to national politics. In response to perceived injustice toward the candidate they favored, Pular speakers “began to tell their collective history as one of persecution and victimization by the Guinean state; people claimed that they had been driven into exile in the past, and that they were at risk of the same thing happening again.”

Her dissertation also became a study of mobility: “how and why people choose to migrate, even when conditions are extremely difficult, and migrants may end up doing work they consider shameful. Ultimately, my research shows how people use migration and mobility to withstand economic and political uncertainty, but also illustrates how these strategies of mobility can actually lead to new problems.”

Susanna’s dissertation research was funded by fellowships from the Fulbright Program, as well as the National Science Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, and the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. She came to Yale after earning her bachelor’s degree from Macalester College, spending two years in the Peace Corps, and working as a research analyst for a nonprofit in Washington, DC.

Susanna Fioratta