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Intimate Remittances: Marriage,

Migration, and MoneyGram in Senegal

Dinah Hannaford

DINAH HANNAFORD is an assistant professor of international studies at

Texas A&tM University. Her research on transnational migration, gender,
class, and international development has been featured in journals such
as Global Networks and the African Studies Review, and she is currently
completing a book manuscript on Senegalese transnational marriages. She
received her PhD from the Department of Anthropology of Emory University.

The impact of remittances to Senegal from overseas migrants

is felt on a household, as well as a national, level, in ways
that go beyond the merely economic. In this article, I draw
on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Senegal and in the
Senegalese diaspora to explore the layers of meaning that
permeate gifts and money sent from abroad. While remittance
practices in transnational marriages—or marriages between
Senegalese migrant men and their nonmigrant wives in Sen­
egal—engage Senegalese ideals about husbands as economic
providers, they reveal a complicated balance between eco­
nomic and noneconomic acts of care between spouses in non­
transnational marriages. In the absence of other opportunities
for spouses to perform gestures of care and affection, these
exchanges take on an intensified importance, which often
leads to tension, miscommunication, and emotional stress.

In the past fifteen years, scholars of migration have taken a keen interest in
migrant remittances. The money that migrants send home to their country
of origin and its potential power for development and political change have
been the focus of numerous studies by economists, political scientists, soci­
ologists, and anthropologists. Feminist social scientists have subsequently
pushed for a gendered reading of remittances, encouraging social scientists
to think of these transactions not as disembodied numbers, but as socially
contextualized relations between human beings. They encourage research­
ers to pay attention to who sends and receives migrant remittances and
the stipulations surrounding their use as a key to understanding how these
exchanges are embedded within social and familial structures (Pessar and
Mahler 2003:817).
The West African nation of Senegal is a prime example of a country
whose recent history has been profoundly shaped by remittances. In 2010,
overseas migrants sent an estimated $1.4 billion dollars in remittances
to Senegal, according to the Central Bank of West African States. This
amounted to about 10 percent of the country's gross domestic product.
Senegal has one of the highest emigration rates in sub-Saharan Africa, and
remittances contribute significantly, not only to village-level and national
africaTODAY6 2 (3 )

projects, but to individual households. One Senegalese household out of ten

counts an emigrant among its members (Daffe 2008). These remittances
arrive daily through agencies such as MoneyGram and Western Union,
through religious channels that go unrecorded (and untaxed) by national
governments, and through more informal means, such as gifts or cash sent
with fellow migrants making a journey home on vacation.
One site of regular remittance transfer takes place between husbands

and wives in what I call transnational marriages, when the husband is a

migrant residing abroad and the wife is living in Senegal. In this article, I

draw from my ethnographic fieldwork on Senegalese transnational marriages

to argue that remittances between spouses offer a productive prism through
which to examine how marriage, money, community, and caring are inter­
twined in Senegal. Transnational couples, separated by time and space, must
distill much of their relationship into these monetary transfers, heightening
and intensifying existing conceptions of the connection between romance
and finance. By removing many elements of quotidian relationship building
that characterize nontransnational marriages, transnational couples find
that remittances become a site of conflict and frustration. This fact, I argue,
highlights the balance of material and other kinds of affective practice that
exemplify more conventional, nontransnational Senegalese marriages.
Sitting in her living room in the north of Italy in 2011, Nene1tells me
about a major turning point in her relationship with her husband, Assane,
that had occurred one year earlier, just after Nene had moved abroad to join
her migrant husband, following their many years of living separately. At the
end of Nene's first month in Italy, Assane cashed his monthly check from
his automobile factory job, took all the euros, and spread them on the coffee
table. He showed Nene the amounts allocated for all his expenses, making
little piles for rent, electricity, phone and Internet, groceries, gas for the car,
and other routine expenditures. What remained amounted to less than 300
euros, about the sum that Assane had been faithfully sending to his wife
and his mother for almost the whole of their marriage, except for special
occasions when he would send even more.
Until that moment, Nene told me, she never could have conceptual­
ized that the money Assane made every month could come to an end. When
she was living in Senegal, she would complain about what she saw as his
paltry remittances. "I thought it was nothing," she told me. Not only had
she never held a job or received a salary, but before migrating herself, she had
associated the West with infinite wealth. "Before I came, I thought he had
a never-ending flow of money. He was in Europe; he was abroad." To learn
that Assane had carefully balanced a budget each and every month and had
kept so little to himself humbled her and gave her a new sense of respect
and admiration for him.
Most migrants' wives do not have the opportunity that Nene had
to develop a clearer understanding of the origins of their husband's remit­
tances. As I discuss at length elsewhere (Hannaford 2015; Hannaford and
Foley 2015), Senegalese couples are increasingly opting for transnational

afriC aTO D A Y 62(3)

marriage, marriages between migrants and nonmigrants. Senegalese migra­
tion—whether to Europe, the United States, or other parts of the world—is
transnational, as migrants forge economic and social links across national
boundaries (Basch, Schiller, and Blanc 1993; Castles 2000). Senegal itself is
full of transnational communities, where even nonmigrants interact with
and depend on money, people, ideas, and resources in another setting (see
Levitt 2001 on nonmigrant transnationalism). For migrant men, a wife in

Senegal represents a foothold in a social sphere that is critically important to
their lives, despite their physical distance. For the women who marry them,

a link to the world abroad is equally essential to social status and personal
fulfillment. Though some husbands and wives do eventually reunite, either
in the migratory context or at home, most transnational couples live the
majority of their marriage in separate locations (Baizan, Beauchemin, and
Gonzalez-Ferrer 2014).2
Over the course of thirty months of ethnographic fieldwork among
Wolof-speaking Senegalese migrants in France and Italy and among non­
migrants in Senegal from 2004 to 2011, migrant men and their nonmigrant
wives repeatedly discussed their frustrations surrounding remittances. In the
absence of a lucid picture of how money is made and spent in the migrant
context, many wives suspect that their migrant husbands are not remitting
more because they do not care or do not want to. Some wives feel hus­
bands are stingy [naay) and withholding. Husbands, frustrated by relentless
demands from wives—in addition to friends and relatives—feel antagonized
and believe that their wives are frivolous with their hard-earned funds. An
examination of motivations and interpretations behind these transactions,
however, reveals that both husbands and wives are invested in gendered
performances of care toward one another and others. In the vacuum cre­
ated by long-distance marriage, remittance transfers become one of the few
opportunities of showing care and thus can become sites of conflict and

The Material and Affective Balance of Senegalese Marriage

By sending money home to their wives, Senegalese migrant husbands are

fulfilling an important aspect of their gendered duty as providers. A Sen­
egalese husband is expected to provide for (yor) his wife. Even when a wife
works and earns money of her own, as has become increasingly common, it
remains the husband's duty to shoulder the household expenses. This tenet
is well illustrated in the Wolof proverb Ken du la maay jabaar, yoral ko (No
one gives you a wife and then provides for her) (Dial 2008:149). "For us," one
Senegalese factory worker in Italy explained, "even if your wife is a minister
of parliament, you have to provide for her. She can contribute if she wants,
but if she refuses, you have to provide for her, clothe her, take care of the
kids, give her depenses (household expenses)." Though women increasingly
contribute money of their own to the maintenance of the household, most
see this as their choice, not an imperative, framing this participation as
pH helping her husband, rather than doing her share.
o A husband's duties, however, expand beyond the material in the Sen­
< egalese conception of ideal marriage. A husband must be a judicious arbiter
in the household and an attentive lover to his wife or wives. As a borom
keur (household head), he is responsible for maintaining a peaceful domestic
atmosphere through his fairness and mediation. This includes interven­
ing in familial disputes and treating each member of the household with
evenhandedness and respect.
The Senegalese maxim about a husband's duties toward his wife—codi­
> fied not only in proverb and popular song, but also in the civil document
that governs familial life in Senegal—is sang, dekkal, dekkoo (to clothe,
house, and sexually satisfy) (Hannaford and Foley 2015). These responsibili­
ties highlight the way that materiality, sexuality, and love are intertwined
O in marriage in Senegal. So important is a husband's affections and atten­
tions in maintaining a happy marriage, that Senegalese Muslims insist that
a husband in a plural marriage must spend an equal number of nights with
each of his wives. This is not merely about sexuality, but about the kind of
emotional intimacy that is shared in the bedroom (Buggenhagen 2012:114;
Dial 2008:81; Hannaford and Foley 2015).
A woman in a plural marriage always cooks for her husband on the
night that they share a bedroom. This is because in Senegalese marital life,
there is a close connection between food and sexuality, and the evening meal
> is seen as the beginning of the night's activities, the first in a series of a wife's
efforts to please her husband. Preparing his favorite dishes is just one part of
what it means to toppatoo (take care of) one's husband—one of the central
duties of a Senegalese wife. If a wife is angry at her husband, she will not
cook for him, and if he is angry with her, he will not eat her food; a woman
seeking to sabotage her co-wife's relationship with their husband may spoil
the other wife's cooking—adding handfuls of salt, or turning up the flame
while she is not looking (Gueye 2010:70).
Women's efforts to please and toppatoo their husbands do not stop at
preparing food: a good wife displays sutura (discretion), not causing problems
for her husband, being resourceful by running the household on whatever
amount he can provide, and making his home comfortable and stress free.
A Senegalese woman works to show affection and appreciation for her hus­
band, ensuring that he knows he is her first priority. Women seek to seduce
their husbands through the use of incense, suggestive jewelry, and sexual
techniques. As Senegalese sociologist Fatou Binetou Dial asserts, sexually
satisfying one's husband is as important a wifely duty as housework or
child rearing (Dial 2008:81).
Thus, though a husband's material provision is a central tenet of Sene­
galese marriage, as elsewhere in Africa and beyond (Bernstein 2007; Cole and
Thomas 2009; Ulouz 1997; Zelizer 2005), "material provision and emotional
attachment are mutually constitutive" (Cole and Thomas 2009:20-21).
Spousal harmony in a Senegalese marriage requires that each party deliver
financial, emotional, and sexual attention to the other. In transnational
marriages, much of these elements of daily marital practice—time spent o
in the bedroom, sharing meals, and other quotidian affective practices—are H
unavailable to a couple. Absent these important elements of spousal rela­ <
tions, the material transaction of sending remittances takes on more of 0\

the onus of ensuring spousal harmony, and remittances take on intensified

properties of meaning.

Remittances as Care
Feminist scholars in the past decade and a half have pushed for a gendering
of migration studies. Observing a tendency in literature on migration to >
treat migrants as discrete economic actors or even units of labor, Rhacel O
Parrenas, Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, and other scholars have done a great
deal to repaint the migrant subject as a fully formed, gendered being engaged
in relationships, not simply a link in a network or a migratory chain. As a
part of this effort, scholars of migration have examined the kinds of gendered
kinwork (di Leonardo 1992) and care work that constitute the previously dry
analytical discussion of remittances and returns, illustrating how gendered
identities and ideologies shape migratory trajectories and are, in turn, shaped
by them (Baldassar and Merla 2014; Boris and Parrenas 2010; Freeman 2001;
Hondagneu-Sotelo 1999; Kofman 2012; Parrenas 2005; Pessar and Mahler
Early examinations of transnational care work were uneven in their
approach, often focusing exclusively on the care work performed by female
migrants. Parrenas suggests that this is the result of an assumed normativity
of male absence from the family (2008), but the outcome has been to treat
migrant men as "nongendered humans" (Hibbens and Pease 2009:5). Kilkey
believes that remittance-sending gets equated with the traditional male
role of breadwinning, and scholars thus fail to look closely at the relational
attachments that animate migrant men's transnational efforts (2014:196); in
doing so, scholars subscribe to an "economistic construction of fathering"
(2014:189), as well as other masculine social roles.
The practice of and motivation for financial remittances can be fruitful
sites of gendered inquiry for scholars (McKay 2010). Migrants often choose
to whom, how much, and when to send money home with a calculus that
goes beyond merely financial support. This is certainly true for Senegalese
husbands living abroad. Thus, to say that Senegalese migrants remit to their
families merely to fulfill their duty as breadwinners would be ignore the
inflections of caring and affection that constitute remittance patterns.
The theme of remittances as symbols of care and affection is a common
one, which resonates throughout my interviews with migrant men and
their nonmigrant wives. Both husbands and wives perceive remitting as a
husband's duty, and yet wives often understand a husband's failure to remit
sufficiently as a failure to care. By sending money and gifts home to their
a fr ic a T O D A Y

wives, migrant men are husbanding from abroad, showing their wives that
they have not forgotten them, and signaling their care.
When nonmigrant wives notice a decrease in their remittances, they
sometimes suspect that their husbands have taken a lover’ or fallen out
of love with them. Ndeye Astou, living with her in-laws in the Medina

neighborhood of Dakar, had this suspicion of her husband in Spain, who had
stopped visiting and sending regular remittances after her third child had

been born. Now eight years old, her youngest son has never met his father.
His calls have become more infrequent, and when I met Ndeye Astou, it

had been six months since she had received remittances for herself and
her three children. She relied on the goodwill of her in-laws and scraped
by selling perfume and incense she made herself. She was unsure of her
husband's legal status, and had heard that Spain was undergoing a financial
crisis, but suspected the real reason for her husband's long absence and
financial retreat was that he was putting his resources into a new relation­
ship. "Est-ce que amul leenan foofuV' she asked me rhetorically, in French
and Wolof: "Does he really not have something else going on over there?"
For Ndeye Astou, a failure to remit was a sign that her husband no longer
felt undivided love for her and was investing his romantic attentions and
earnings elsewhere.
Penda, another migrant's wife in Medina, was frustrated in her remit­
tance arrangement with her husband. Her husband was sending money from
Spain directly to his mother, with the idea that his mother would share it
with his wife, yet Penda insisted that her mother-in-law was giving her only
small amounts. "His mother takes a little and—" (she made a gesture of
pinching off a piece and throwing it). "A tiny bit she gives to me." Though
Penda did not know how much her husband sent to his mother, she was
certain it was much more than the trivial amount she was receiving.
Penda told me she was afraid to complain to her husband because she
suspected her mother-in-law had used a marabout (religious healer) to cast
a spell and make her husband fall out of love with her. She complained that
her husband hadn't called her for a long period of time, and his failure to call,
combined with his choice not to send money directly to Penda, indicated to
her that he must have stopped loving her. Because her husband had chosen
to send his remittances to his mother instead of her, she was unwilling to
complain to him about her mother-in-law's actions. By choosing his mother
as the recipient of his remittances, he was indicating to her that he valued
his bond with his mother above his bond with his wife. The context of the
remittances—her husband's choice of who received them directly—was as
significant in Penda's understanding of the message of the remittances as
how frequently or how much he sent.
Similarly, for wives in plural marriages, the politics surrounding who
receives remittances can be interpreted as indicative of a husband's alle­
giances toward his different wives. Khadija was already having problems
with her co-wife when her husband switched from sending each wife her
remittances separately to sending them in one wire transfer. Khadija lived

a fric a T O D A Y 62 (3 )
with her husband's first wife and some of her husband's relatives in a rural
town a few hours north of her home in Dakar. When her husband stopped
sending money to her directly and started sending it all to his first wife, an
already tense relationship between co-wives took a turn for the worse. The
first wife would not give Khadija her half directly: rather, she held onto the
entire sum remitted, and Khadija had to go to her co-wife to ask for money
for her daily household expenses, much as a wife would do to her husband.

It was as though I was married to my co-wife!" Khadija complained.
Whenever she fell ill, Khadija would travel back to her own mother's house

in Dakar, preferring to have her mother foot the bill for prescriptions and
doctor's visits, rather than go through the humiliating process of disclosing
her personal needs to this other woman and arguing with her for the money
that she felt she was owed. As a married woman, particularly a migrant's
wife, Khadija found having to depend on her mother financially for personal
expenses like health care to be humiliating. The situation led her to feel
increasingly withdrawn from her husband, believing that he himself was
signaling to Khadija that he felt little affection or care for her, and eventually
she asked for a divorce.
Among the migrants' wives I interviewed, Codou was one of the few
who seemed satisfied with the way remittances were being handled in her
family. Her husband sent his remittances from his work as a trader in Dubai
directly to Codou, and it was she who distributed the amount to her mother-
in-law, unmarried sister-in-law, and co-wife. As the only one among them
with a state-issued identity card, it was Codou who picked up the money at
Western Union and portioned it out to the others. None of the other women
in the house had any formal education, so she was left to manage the family
finances, and this suited her fine. Not only was she able to wield a certain
amount of power over the other women in the household, but she felt secure
in her connection with her husband. Being chosen as the direct recipient of
his money was, for her, a clear sign of her husband's devotion to her. She
claimed there were no conflicts regarding remittances among the women in
her household, though I was unable to confirm this with her co-wife, who
may well have told a different story about household harmony.

Caretaking as Visiting and Home Building

Just as migrant mothers have been shown to perform kinwork for their
children in ways that go beyond financial remittances (Hondagneu-Sotelo
and Avila 1997), migrant husbands show concern and care for their wives
not simply by providing economically, but through other kinds of caretak­
ing. These acts, though they are meant to show care and fulfillment of their
masculine duty as husbands, sometimes come directly into conflict with
husbands' ability to remit to their wives.
In a focus group on transnational family relations that I held with a
group of Senegalese factory workers in Lecco, Italy, several men began mock­
africaTODAY6 2 (3 )

ing the only unmarried man in the group, who was complaining about pres­
sures from home. "You don't have any problems," they teased. "You don't
have a wife; you have no problems at all." When the laughter died down,
one of the men, Moussa, continued seriously. He said that it is not only
your financial burden that increases when you marry, but the psychological
pressure. Migrants struggle to save enough money to return to Senegal to
visit. Collecting enough means covering not only transportation and living

expenses for the trip, but also the funds for an impossible number of gifts
and cash handouts expected from a migrant on his return. For migrants who

struggle to live and remit on meager blue-collar salaries, saving for a m onth­
long trip can take several years. "But if you've left a wife behind, for one,
two, three years, because you can't afford to go home," Moussa explained,
"your family starts to say, 'hey, you have to come visit this doomu jambor
[someone else's daughter] who's in our house.'"
A man's own family members represent him, not only in negotiations
for the marriage and in the exchange at the mosque on his wedding day, but
also throughout the marriage. When conflicts arise, family members are
expected to make peace and settle the dispute. Thus, a migrant's family feels
responsible toward his wife's family when a groom's absence begins to seem
like neglect. "And her family starts to say, 'Hey, what's he doing over there?
He's been there a long tim e.'" Moussa made clear that a migrant husband
worries about his wife's feelings of abandonment and what that abandon­
ment might mean for his own reputation and that of his family in the eyes
of her family and the community at large.
Such concerns lead some migrant men to prioritize saving for future
visits home as much as possible, leaving them a smaller pool of earnings to
remit to their wives. This causes conflict with wives and family members,
as migrants struggle to meet outsized remittance expectations while saving
for periodic returns and other projects. Though, as I note above, women tend
to suspect infidelity or disinterest when remittances begin to taper off, many
of my migrant interlocutors explained that there were other reasons that the
rate of remittances at the beginning of a trip or a marriage could not easily
be sustained long-term. The tendency, they say, is to start off remitting large
amounts as soon as they can. As many migrants use migrant channels and
chain migration to stay with relatives or friends abroad, they do not have a
great deal of expenses up front. Once they overstay the hospitality of their
hosts, however, they must begin saving for their own living expenses. As
they start to shift toward thinking about saving for their return, they will
start remitting less on a monthly basis.
Simultaneous with this shift toward saving, the grace period that par­
ents, aunts, uncles, and other relatives may give a relative abroad before they
begin asking for remittances comes to an end, and migrants face increased
and wider demand from those at home. Migrants must begin paying back
debts they incurred for their journey. Their resources are increasingly spread
thin, and their spending and saving goals become more multivariate—includ­
ing saving for trips home to visit the wives they have left behind—and this
results in a net decrease of lump-sum transfers of cash to their wives.
Another saving goal that pulls money away from the remittance pool
is home building. As for many transnational migrants from other nations,
attaining the means to build a home is a key goal for Senegalese migrants
(Buggenhagen 2009; Tall 2002). For many migrants, the idea of returning
home permanently—a central goal for most Senegalese abroad—is unfeasible
unless they have a home to move into. A home symbolizes and facilitates the
return. Though some have framed home building as purely self-interested on
the part of migrants (Buggenhagen 2012: 98), my research with transnational
couples revealed that this goal is as much about caretaking as it is about
building personal status.
In interviews, many migrants' wives noted that they were equally
invested in their husbands' projects of home building. Those who lived in
rented apartments felt the dread of monthly rent payments. Women whose
husbands had unstable earnings and whose remittances did not come with
regular frequency (especially true for husbands who were in trade or oth­
erwise self-employed) or fluctuated in their amount (true for almost every
migrant), felt rent day was always looming. These women longed for the
security of having a home of their own. Similarly, a woman living with her
in-laws is usually anxious to move into a home of her own. A new home built
by her husband can (though does not always) mean escaping the stressful,
tense environment and constant scrutiny of living with a husband's female
relatives that I describe below. Many of these women see their husband's
efforts to build an independent home as an act of solidarity with them.
Several women I interviewed who lived with in-laws or in rented
housing were so invested in the project of home building that they reported
encouraging their husbands to skip a visit or two to Senegal so as to use
the saved money toward the shared project of home construction. Amina,
forty-three years old and mother of five children, whose husband has been
barely scraping by in New York for ten years without visiting home, says
that when he feels like giving up and moving back, she discourages him.
Though she misses him terribly and has dealt with a number of sorrows on
her own in his absence—including the drowning of their eldest son—she
feels it would be foolish and irresponsible of her husband to return to their
rented apartment in Dakar's banlieue before building a home. "If you come,"
she tells him, "the home that you're coming to, you don't own. . . . If you
come, what home will you move into? You'll come to move into someone
else s home. Without job prospects in Senegal or savings, Amina reasoned,
her husband would be coming home to rapidly accumulating bills—for rent,
water, electricity, telephone—and no way to pay them. Better that he stay
where he had more of a possibility of covering the family's expenses until he
could begin to pay for the construction of a family home.
In addition to providing for their wives, migrant men are engaged in
financial and other types of caretaking for their families in ways that can
conflict with their caretaking projects toward their wives. Most Senega­
lese—migrants and nonmigrants, men and women—aspire to support their
parents in their old age. In addition to sending money and building homes for
p mothers, migrant sons sometimes use marriage itself as a way to care for and
o support their mothers. Senegalese society is patrilocal—a husband and wife
-< living together in the husband's mother's home (seyi) is an important stage of
ro married life (Poiret 1996). Though the practice of seyi is slowly falling out of
favor in many urban and middle-class circles, it is still quite common among
migrants' wives. Even though the husband is abroad, a migrant's wife will
often move in with her in-laws alone—even if this means moving to another
town or region of Senegal. Of fifty-one women I interviewed in 2010-11 in
Senegal, twenty were living with in-laws at that time, and many others had
> previously lived in the home of their mothers-in-law.
Husbands may prefer to have their wives move in with their mothers
for several reasons: as a safeguard against a wife's opportunities to be unfaith­
ful in their absence (Hannaford 2015), to consolidate the recipients of their
remittances into one household, rather than paying the expenses of multiple
households, and to provide someone to care for and tend to their mothers.
o Similarly, in addition to having company, a young woman to cook
o and clean, and do her bidding, mothers of migrants have much to gain from
a daughter-in-law living with them. With a daughter-in-law living in their
home, a migrant's family retains some confidence that remittances will con­
tinue to flow to their household. A mother has reasonable grounds to argue
z that her son pass the daily depenses (household expenses that a husband
Z must provide for his wife) directly onto her—as we see in the case of Penda
> above—as the wife will be provided for in her household. Alternatively, a
mother (and a migrant's unmarried sisters) can be assured a front-row seat
to scrutinize when and in what quantity her daughter-in-law receives remit­
tances and what she does with them, and thereby recognize when the mother
is getting comparatively short shrift from her son.
Several migrants I interviewed complained of having to mediate
between their wives and mothers from abroad. Just as transnational Filipina
mothers practice care and nurturing from abroad through phoning home,
managing budgets, and intervening in everyday relations in their house­
holds in the Philippines (Hondagneu-Sotelo and Avila 1997), Senegalese
male migrants often attempt to play the highly gendered role of household
head and arbiter in disputes between their wives and mothers, even while
absent. Migrants spoke to me of making and receiving unpleasant calls
between the short breaks in their grueling factory schedules to resolve dis­
agreements and tensions over issues as minor as which foods were prepared
and when.
These kinds of care work, like attending to the wives' social comfort in
the home and intervening in disputes between family members from abroad,
are not strictly monetary. Such caretaking on the part of male migrants often
goes unacknowledged in studies of transnational families, as I have said, and
yet it represents a key method by which migrant men maintain a presence in
their families from abroad and attempt to nurture their marital connection.
Dress, R eputation, and Representation 2
Migrants and their wives clash not only about the amount of remittances >
and who receives and distributes them, but on how those remittances are g
used. The purchase of clothing with remittances is a common source of S
debate between migrant husbands and their wives. Most Senegalese men see
clothing (snng) their wives as among their fundamental duties as husbands
(Hannaford and Foley 2015), but many disagree with their wives' understand­

ing of what constitutes an adequate wardrobe. Many migrants complain that
their wives are clothes-obsessed, requiring elaborate ensembles for every
holiday or ritual occasion—always wanting lu bes (something new and
original), never recycling old ensembles. They particularly express frustra­
tion that their nonmigrant wives redirect remittances that are intended for
other purposes toward their own adornment and for elaborate gift displays
during ceremonies.
Women, for their part, accuse their migrant husbands of not appre­
ciating the pressures they are under to make displays of elegance. It takes
little more than a glimpse of a ceremony or celebration in Senegal to grasp
the importance of dressing well. Women in voluminous boubous made of
richly colored, shiny fabrics, with large scarves folded around their heads,
are the centerpiece of every religious or family event. In the weeks before
major holidays, like Eid Al-Fitr (tabaski) and the end of Ramadan (korite),
women's conversation centers on what fabrics, styles, and accessories they
will choose for their adornment for the approaching festivities.
This finery does not come cheaply. Women across class categories
spend hundreds of dollars on each grand ensemble. In recent years, imported
high-heeled shoes and leather handbags have become a critical component
of elegant dress. To finance their holiday garments, women call upon their
social networks, follow up on old debts owed to them, create new debts for
themselves, and demand money from their relatives. Overseas migrants
especially feel the pressure around these times of year, fielding—or more
often avoiding—a greater volume of unsolicited calls from distant friends and
relatives in Senegal. Often couched as appeals for help with health-care costs
or particularly expensive utility bills, the requests for remittances increase
dramatically at the same time the average woman (and man, to a lesser
extent) is on a mission to dress expensively—and this is no coincidence.
Female researchers of Senegalese fashion insist that there is more to
dressing well, or being sahse, than superficial showiness or vanity. Possessing
markers of wealth signals the strength of a woman's social networks, which
she taps for the resources to afford her finery (Buggenhagen 2012:26). Being
sahse is inextricably linked to values of honor, generosity, and respectability
and indicates a woman's ability to collect upon previous acts of generosity
and hospitality toward others (Heath 1992:23). It is especially important
to make displays of wealth at events like holidays and family gatherings
because they are the key arena for the politics of reputation: these ceremo­
africaTODAY62 (3 )

nies constitute the "performance events at which social identities are con­
structed and maintained" (Heath 1992:20, see Wiley and Boswell's articles in
this issue for parallels in Mauritania and Burkina Faso, respectively).
Many of my migrant interlocutors, despite their grumbling, knew that
they had much to gain from advancing their wives' projects to dress well.
Their own personal pride and reputation were at stake. Performing sahse
can in fact be a generous act on the part of the well-dressed woman: dressing

extravagantly can be a public statement about the wealth and generosity of

a woman's husband or suitor, an advertisement of his affluence to whoever

sees her in her finery and observes that she is well taken care of (Heath
1992:23). This kind of message carrying is a service that a woman performs
for her husband, allowing his wealth to be broadcast in an ostentatious way,
leaving him free to act reserved and show restraint (Heath 1992:24).
This kind of representation can be especially important for migrants'
wives, whose husbands are not present to advertise their own success. In
this way, using remittances toward dressing well is a kind of care work
women do for their migrant husbands. Most of my interviewees discussed
the pressure to look good as a source of acute stress in their lives. For many
women, the tension between rendering the service of providing a display of
wealth that reflects well upon one's absent husband, making a respectable
showing among peers, and mitigating the tremendous expectations that fall
on a migrant's wife can be difficult to navigate.
Aby, who is twenty-five and whose husband lives in Italy, takes care to
dress elegantly and advertise her husband's generosity and financial prowess,
even though doing so causes problems with her sisters-in-law (njekke), who
take all her pleasure out of dressing well. Certain that their brother must
be sending the bulk of his wealth from abroad to her and not to them, they
comment on everything she wears and subject her wardrobe to extensive
scrutiny. She claims they make exaggerated declarations on her clothing,
saying it looks very expensive. They ask if each ready-to-wear item is from
Italy, and she even tells me stories of her njekke visiting her tailor to ask for
a price quote on outfits similar to her holiday clothes, simply out of curiosity.
Aby says her situation is particularly frustrating in light of the fact
that remittances from her husband have been steadily decreasing in the
five years since they married. Her husband, like many migrants in Italy, is
barely scraping by in the wake of the economic crisis that has characterized
the past decade in that country. She has heard about the financial strain on
migrants from her brother—also a migrant in Italy—and commiserates with
her husband. "He explains, and you understand, but they [the njekke], they
don't understand." Thus, by using remittances from her brother to buy cloth­
ing, she is protecting not only her reputation, but that of her husband. Like
many migrants' wives, she worries that letting herself go and not dressing
well would be an indictment of her husband's manhood, his ability to pro­
vide for his family, and his success as a migrant. "You may have problems,
you're tired, you're troubled—but you dress well. And the others say, 'She is
in peace,"' Aby explained.

a fr ic a T O D A Y 6 2 ( 3 )
Many women I interviewed similarly said that when remittances
were low, they made an extra effort—through loans, personal savings, and
credit—to dress elegantly to hide the fact that their husbands were strug­
gling. By doing so, they demonstrate sutura. Like women who find ways
to stretch an insufficient household budget to provide ample food and
drink to visitors, a woman who dresses well despite meager remittances is
being discreet about her family's financial problems. Another woman who

hadn't received support from her migrant husband for a number of months
bragged that her ensemble for the tabaski holiday was unmatched: "I looked

like a millionaire, and I had nothing: I didn't even have the money to buy
Migrant husbands suspect, often correctly, that funds requested for cer­
tain purposes are not always spent accordingly. Women argue that they must
divert these funds to maintain an image of respectability and generosity at
social events, and they use remittances toward their own purposes, including
buying clothing and hair products, and giving it away in family ceremonies
(Buggenhagen 2012:141). The women I interviewed spoke endlessly about
the particular pressure they felt to host, lend, and give, because of their status
as migrants' wives. Countless women said the general assumptions about
their access to wealth because of their husbands' residence abroad make
both their own extended families and those of their husbands come to them
with never-ending requests for assistance. Like migrants themselves, they
complain that any refusal on their part to give or to lend is seen as stingi­
ness or disrespect, as family members cannot imagine that a migrant's wife
does not have unlimited access to foreign riches. Furthermore, many women
framed their desire to appear wealthy as a wifely duty. They felt the onus
of representing their husband's earning power and masculinity, and sought
to bring honor to his reputation through their own exhibition of prosper­
ity. Navigating these obligations is stressful and painful for the majority of
migrants' wives, most of whom, like Aby, are already struggling to make
ends meet on remittances that fall below their expectations.

Long-Distance Loving

Transnational couples have fewer opportunities for acts of care and intimacy
than couples that live side by side. Husbands and wives in transnational mar­
riages do not have many other means of expressing their love and support for
one another, as through physical affection or domestic attention. Therefore,
a husband's act of providing through remittances—and a wife's response to
these remittances—represent key sites of spousal support and care.
As noted above, some women take a husband's failure to remit ade­
quately as a sign that he has fallen out of love with her or fails to think her
concerns are important to him. An assertive migrant's wife I interviewed
in 2010 expressed her disappointment about her husband's remittances
and framed the issue as migrants generally skirting their responsibilities to

provide and selfishly keeping things for themselves:

Migrants, they want it too easy. They don't want you to have
money. You know, he calls and says "It's hard here,- there's no
money here." Then I tell him, "Hey you, you just love your
money too much." He says, "Oh, but there are problems here."
So I talk and talk until he realizes I have bigger problems! And

then he gives me that money.


Most migrants' wives find themselves struggling in stressful circum­

stances, dealing with contentious relationships with in-laws, social pressure
to be generous, and a desire to support and protect their husbands by repre­
senting them as generous and financially successful. Without the opportu­
nity to fortify their connections through the quotidian affective practices of
cohabitation, wives look to remittance transfers as a sign of their husbands'
support and solidarity as they continue to confront challenges. When hus­
bands send fewer remittances or send them indirectly, wives interpret this as
disinterest or a lack of love and lose motivation to continue to work through
their struggles.
Conversely, when wives ask for more funds, directly or indirectly,
husbands feel this demand as a lack of solidarity for their hardships abroad.
Seydou, a migrant I interviewed in northern Italy in 2011, says he has no
plans to have his wife join him in Italy, but he imagines that, like Nene, she
would develop more of an appreciation for how the remittances are made if
she could simply visit and return to Senegal:

She'll go home knowing how hard you work for the money.
She'll yemm [pity] you and support you because she pities
you. Any person who goes through her to ask money from
me, she'll know what to respond: "Wax degg yallah [I swear
to God], conditions are bad, and he's working really hard." And
she'll have pity on you, too. If she has a problem, she won't
bother you.

If wives were more aware of the conditions in which remittances were made,
he believes, they would no longer take the attitude of those like the woman
above who suspects her husband of hoarding money out of mean-spiritedness
or laziness. These wives would be sympathetic to their husbands, work with
them to deflect the demands of others, and take an active role in solving their
own financial problems so as not to create extra demands on their husbands.
This kind of support and understanding is framed by Seydou—and other
migrants who lament the frequency of financial appeals from their wives—as
acts of care and even love, and the failure of wives to yeram their husbands
is interpreted as the wives' lack of care, affection, and regard.
If the couples lived together, as in a nontransnational marriage, there
would be opportunities for the kinds of displays of solidarity and connec- w
tion that both parties seem to lack. The noneconomic acts of affection that
take place within the home could create a space for mutual support and 2
understanding. Because these couples lack those opportunities, both look to o
remittances and their reception as the most important medium of showing >
love and care. This disrupts the balance of economic and noneconomic acts g
of connection that constitute displays of love in more traditional Senegalese 5
marriages and often leads to conflict, resentment, and disconnection. —


Difficulties in transnational marriages may be "better understood as the out­

come of the micro-politics of interpersonal relationships within the spouses'
immediate kinship networks than of the phenomenon of transnational mar­
riage per se" (Ballard 2004:1). The cases above do not suggest negotiations
radically different from those that exist within nonmigrant marriages: the
husband's material provision, the general strenuousness of experiencing seyi
and co-wife competition, and negotiations about the importance of expen­
sive dress all feature in stories of marriages between nonmigrants also. But
transnational marriage per se can disrupt the delicate balance of nonmigrant
Senegalese marriages are built on a complex mix of economic and emo­
tional support and care. When physical copresence is removed, as in trans­
national marriages, the material element outweighs all others, unbalancing
what is otherwise a much more nuanced relationship. This imbalance causes
the marriage to suffer, or even buckle, under the strain of stress and conflict.
Failure to remit adequately on the part of a husband is interpreted as
a lack of love or regard; a wife's constant demands are seen as selfishness
or having a lack of pity (yeram) and compassion for her overtaxed husband.
Migrant husbands negotiate demands from their family members, friends,
and wives, and seek not only to remit money to their wives, but also to save
enough to visit them. The wives in turn desire remittances as proof of their
husband's affections, giving them security in their complicated politics with
co-wives and in-laws. Through remittances, they hope to secure enough
funds to present themselves and their husbands as socially successful to
their community.
When we look at remittances as simple economic transactions, we
miss out on the opportunity not only to understand more about remittances
and migration, but to see reflections of nonmigratory life that enhance our
understanding of cultural norms and social reproduction. Studying migrant
remittances in their social context highlights the delicate balance of material
and affective elements of all Senegalese marriages, illustrating and empha­
sizing the importance of these elements in sustaining a satisfying and solid
marital partnership.

□ This research was supported by theWenner-Gren Foundation, the Social Science Research Coun­
O' cil, and the Fulbright Program.Thanks go to the Senegalese men and women who participated
in my research and generously shared their stories with me. I thank Bruce Whitehouse, Ellen
Foley, Bruce Knauft, Carla Freeman, and Peter Little for their thoughtful feedback and insight
CO into themes and ideas that appear in this piece.



1. All names have been changed to maintain participant confidentiality.

2. As Senegalese emigration to Italy is still overwhelmingly male, and transnational marriages in
which the wife is international and the husband stays local are rare, my research puts the focus
on male migrants and female nonmigrants; however, I consider a few cases of husband-wife
comigrants, such as the couple in the opening vignette.
3. Though polygamy is common in Senegal, religiously sanctioned by Senegalese Islam, the
social and religious sanctioning of the courtship that inevitably leads to taking another wife
is somewhat less clear. A husband will generally choose to keep details of an extramarital
relationship from his wife, whether or not he anticipates that the relationship will lead to a
i/' marriage, or until the marriage is contracted.


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