Investing in Home: Migration, Return, and Rural Development in the Senegal River Valley

Investing in Home: Migration, Return, and Rural Development in the Senegal River Valley

Benjamin Burgen

The rural towns of the Senegal River Valley rise out of a dusty landscape dotted with acacia trees. Brightly painted mosques and spacious concrete family compounds distinguish the region from the rest of rural Senegal and stand as monuments to the region’s history of transnational connections. The high concentration of schools, health clinics, and other public infrastructure attest to the sustained investment and involvement of migrants through formally organized hometown associations and their collaborations with NGO and state partners. Despite their remote locations these towns are thriving hubs of transnational networks and anchors of culture and identity for people who have scattered across the globe yet remain connected to their rural hometowns. My current research investigates migrants’ motivations in maintaining these links. It asks: why do people who have migrated to and built lives in urban and transnational centers so often persist in investing in and returning to live in their rural towns of origin?

This project is a multi-sited case study. Currently, I am performing ethnographic research in a small town in Senegal which is representative of the situation across the wider Senegal River Valley region. That is, it is a town where migrants frequently send remittances, invest in, and participate in development-oriented activities. This initial phase of study will be followed by further ethnographic research among migrants from the focus town residing in Dakar and in Paris to create a frame of analysis which encompasses three primary points along the migration circuit. This will enable me to highlight the networks and connections which allow Senegal River Valley migrants to stay actively involved in their hometowns.

The puzzle of migrants’ ongoing commitments to invest in and return to live in their hometowns is especially striking when migrants have attained citizenship and achieved economic success abroad while their regions of origin face persistent economic, political, and environmental marginality, such as in the Senegal River Valley today. I posit that differing levels of sociopolitical inclusion and exclusion within home and host contexts are central to individual migrants’ decisions of where, why, and how to invest. Xenophobia, tightened border controls, and increasing state scrutiny of foreign workers across the Global North have made it more difficult for Senegal River Valley migrants to gain access to employment and acceptance abroad. At the same time, remittances and investments at home are widely celebrated and increasingly provide migrants with status and recognition as traditional agropastoral livelihoods have become less viable. Using a framework informed by theories of transnational mobility, migration control, symbolic violence, the politics of identity, and gift logic, my research will identify and contextualize the factors motivating individual migrants’ ongoing commitments to home.

Given the environmental, economic, and political marginality of the Senegal River Valley, perhaps it comes as no surprise that large numbers of migrants leave the region for urban and transnational destinations each year. Senegal River Valley does in fact have a long history of migration. It has been argued that, from the beginning, Senegal River Valley migrants were motivated not by factors pushing them to leave a difficult homeland, but rather that they left to seek opportunities to improve their individual social and economic fortunes. However, the confluence of environmental, economic, and political marginality that the region faces today has led rural households to increasingly rely upon remittances for their survival. Today a culture of migration pervades the rural Senegal River Valley wherein references to migration pervade everyday life and the act of migrating abroad is seen as a solution to a wide range of common problems.
There are many examples of contemporary Senegal River Valley migrants achieving economic success across a wide array of transnational destinations. What is striking, however, is that these migrations do not constitute a permanent exodus or the abandonment of the rural towns of the Senegal River Valley. Despite the prevalence of migration and the longstanding existence of migrant communities abroad, links to family, friends, and community at home appear to remain strong. These links are reinforced through remittances, investment, visits, and frequent communication. In these towns migrants often return to retire after years working abroad, and multi-generational households welcome home nieces and nephews on summer holiday from school in France. Today, with the availability of cellphones and increasing internet access, migrants and those at home can stay informed of and involved in each other’s daily lives.

Perhaps paradoxically, migration from the Senegal River Valley appears to act as a social and economic stimulant to the rural towns of the region. Migrants consistently channel the resources they have acquired back home to support their families and communities. Additionally, most migrants invest heavily in maintaining and reinforcing their standing in the social world of home through gift-giving, largesse, and publically donating to town projects. Through their involvement in hometown associations they engage in efforts to develop their hometowns and to construct the sociopolitical circumstances that will allow them to return successfully. Communities in the Senegal River Valley thus remain vibrant and are experiencing growth. The landscape is dotted with large, brightly painted, concrete homes which stand as monuments to migrant success. More homes are being built each year and local people are soliciting investment from a vast array of partners to bring additional infrastructure to their communities – to build schools and health clinics, to improve access to roads, to develop the agricultural infrastructure in equitable ways, and to ensure that no one goes hungry in these towns.

Today, the rural towns of the Senegal River Valley are weathering environmental challenges and changes in the structure of the global economy while supporting a rapidly growing population largely by relying on an organized and increasingly diversified global network of migrants who continue to recognize their rural towns of origin as the epicenters of their social, political, and long-term economic lives. These realities lead me to believe that rural Senegal River Valley towns should be studied as generative nodes of networks that connect to urban and transnational migrant locations across the globe. This fact has shaped the choice of a multi-sited research method, beginning in a representative rural town followed by Dakar and Paris.

Research across these three locations will allow me to learn about and compare the range of perspectives and experiences across locations. My subsequent analysis will aim to build an ethnography which contextualizes the various ways in which migrant life continues to be socially, politically, and economically grounded in the rural Senegal River Valley and to provide potential answers to the question of why migrants from this region so often invest in and return to their hometown.