Report on the AEGIS Thematic Workshop
SOAS, 24-5 May 2012
Organised by Marie Rodet (SOAS), Jack Lord (SOAS & Institute of Historical Research) and Elodie Razy (University of Liège).
The workshop had its in origins a panel on children and migration at the 2009 AEGIS Conference organised by Marie Rodet and Elodie Razy and two panels at the 2011 Congress on the Anthropology of Childhood and Children in Liège. This larger gathering was organised through the Centre of African Studies, SOAS. Funding was provided by the Centre of African Studies, the SOAS Faculty of Arts and Humanities and the Royal Historical Society.
The workshop began with a keynote by Benjamin Lawrance (Rochester Institute of Technology) on ‘Myth, History and Child Migration in the Atlantic World of La Amistad’. Focusing on the fate of the children found aboard La Amistad, Lawrance’s paper raised some of the key issues involved in studying the movement of children. How, in particular, does the dependency of children on adults affect our interpretations of children’s agency in migration and, in the case of unfree children, our definitions of enslaved and liberated?
The keynote was followed by a brief roundtable led by the organisers. This flagged up some of the other methodological issues that the workshop would need to address for the study of the present and the past to be linked together and for children, rather than youth, to be at the centre of discussion: reconciling academic vocabularies across disciplines; addressing the way that definitions of childhood are affected by migratory movements and shift over space and time; and incorporating children’s voices and peer cultures into academic analysis.
Over the course of the workshop, four panels addressed these issues using a variety of case studies. Panel One explored the theme of ‘Migrating children: between vulnerability and agency’ in both historical and contemporary contexts. Robin Chapdelaine (Rutgers) examined the complex influence of money-lending, bride price and the codification of native law on child-dealing in South-eastern Nigeria. Two papers then explored the borders between free and unfree labour by girls in contemporary Sengal. Codou Bop (GREFELS) detailed the origins and working conditions of girls serving as guides to blind beggars in Dakar. Lindah Mhando (Penn State) contrasted the false hopes of girls trafficked from rural areas with the harsh realities of domestic servitude.
Panel Two dealt with ‘Bringing Up Children: Learning to Be and Becoming a Migrant in a Changing World’. Paolo Gaibazzi (Zentrum Modener Orient, Berlin) argued that in the migratory societies of the Upper Gambia Valley agriculture was a way of teaching children to be successful migrants in the future. Paola Porcelli (Paris 8) used psychological approaches to unlock children’s experience of fosterage in rural Mali. Kristen Cheney (International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague) explored how in Uganda, while AIDS orphanhood has led to the decline in the material importance of paternal kin ties, attachments with paternal kin maintain a vivid hold over orphaned children’s imaginations. Francesca Declich (Urbino) described the generational tensions created by the transnational experiences of ‘Somali Bantu’ migrants in Tanzania and the United States.
Panel Three was on the topic of ‘Education, Mobility and Immobility’. Isabelle Denis (Paris Sorbonne) examined how in nineteenth-century Mayotta Island, missionaries contradictorily purchased unfree children to provide them with the freedom of an education. Aude Chanson (Paris Denis Diderot) explored how the structure of migration for education in Tanganyika evolved over the colonial period as the provision of schooling changed. Marie Deleigne (Paris Descartes) linked the practice of child circulation in southern Madagascar to the large increase in school enrolment rates over the past fifteen years. Hannah Hoechner (Oxford) argued that for migrant Qur’anic students in Kano, Nigeria, mobility was a ‘contradictory resource’, at once allowing them access to otherwise unobtainable educational resources and making them easy scapegoats to explain boko haram violence.
The final panel explored the theme of ‘Movement, Imagination and Making Nations’. Violaine Tisseau (Paris 7) argued that for métis children in nineteenth century Madagascar acquiring a western-style education, whether in Antananarivo or France, was crucial to cementing a ‘French’ identity. Hannah Whittaker (SOAS) related the story of Rumbek Secondary School, which educated the first generation of South Sudanese nationalist leaders and was relocated from Rumbek in southern Sudan to Khartoum in the north in 1956. Jennifer Huynh (Princeton) used children’s drawings by first generation and refugee Somalis in Bristol, England, to analyse how migrant children developed an idealised version of their homeland in exile. Finally, Oluwole Coker (Obafemi Awoluwo University) examined the importance of child narrators as the ‘voice of reason’ in two recent works of Nigerian migrant fiction.
The workshop was a fruitful, collaborative environment for a group of scholars using very different approaches to the topic of child migration both within and outside the African continent. The interdisciplinary nature of the workshop was a real catalyst for many of the participants to rethink their own ideas and to question those of others. But that interdisciplinarity also brought home just how diverse a topic child migration is and how much work scholars will have to do to understand the phenomenon in a holistic manner. The organisers plan to publish selected papers in a peer-reviewed edited volume in the near future.