The Scattered Family: Parenting, African Migrants, and Global Inequality

The Scattered Family: Parenting, African Migrants, and Global Inequality

by Cati Coe
The Scattered Family: Parenting, African Migrants, and Global Inequality


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The Scattered Family: Parenting, African Migrants, and Global Inequality by Cati Coe

Today’s unprecedented migration of people around the globe in search of work has had a widespread and troubling result: the separation of families. In The Scattered Family, Cati Coe offers a sophisticated examination of this phenomenon among Ghanaians living in Ghana and abroad. Challenging oversimplified concepts of globalization as a wholly unchecked force, she details the diverse and creative ways Ghanaian families have adapted long-standing familial practices to a contemporary, global setting.

Drawing on ethnographic and archival research, Coe uncovers a rich and dynamic set of familial concepts, habits, relationships, and expectations—what she calls repertoires—that have developed over time, through previous encounters with global capitalism. Separated immigrant families, she demonstrates, use these repertoires to help themselves navigate immigration law, the lack of child care, and a host of other problems, as well as to help raise children and maintain relationships the best way they know how. Examining this complex interplay between the local and global, Coe ultimately argues for a rethinking of what family itself means. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226072241
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/15/2013
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Cati Coe is associate professor of anthropology at Rutgers University. She is the author of Dilemmas of Culture in African Schools: Youth, Nationalism, and the Transformation of Knowledge, also published by the University of Chicago Press. She lives in Philadelphia. 

Read an Excerpt

The Scattered Family

Parenting, African Migrants, and Global Inequality

By Cati Coe


Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-07238-8


A History of Family Reciprocities

Material Exchanges between the Generations in Akuapem

A van (or trotro) traveling from Accra to the Akuapem hills first hurtles across the Accra plains and then slows down as it climbs the escarpment through a series of twists and turns in the road. On the top of the ridge, it travels through town after town and I learned to recognize a pattern in the housing types that allowed me to see when we had left one town and entered another. At the center of town are low, one-story houses built around an inner courtyard and made of plastered mud-brick. Bedrooms in rectangular blocks enclose a central courtyard that forms the main living area, where "arbitrations occur, cooking is done, children play, stories are told, and family celebrations and funerals are held" (Pellow 2002, 31). The bedrooms are tiny and dark, with a window or two and shutters to close for privacy and security. They function as places to sleep and to store goods, but most activities occur outside, in the courtyard. Such houses are family houses, with extended family members laying claim to different rooms.

A little farther out from the center there are imposing two-story houses primarily built by migrants from Akuapem who made their fortunes through cocoa farming or trading in the first half of the twentieth century. These houses show a grand face to the street: on the ground floor, they have elaborate steps leading to a covered porch with columns, and often a second-floor covered porch from which residents can watch passers-by. Behind this imposing facade is often a courtyard with one-story blocks of bedrooms, as in more traditional housing types. Many people live in these large houses—sometimes descendants of the original owner, sometimes renters—but because they are jointly owned, house repairs and maintenance are delayed, with no one person wanting to take responsibility—a tragedy of the commons.

Finally, on the outskirts of the same towns, remittances from abroad are funding the building of newer mansions. Harder to see behind their enclosing walls, they gleam with their white paint and glass windows. The newer houses are organized around the model of a detached bungalow with a garage, smaller quarters for household help, and a garden full of ornamental plants, all surrounded by a high wall, imitating the housing provided for senior-level colonial and postcolonial civil servants.

During a focus group discussion in Akropong, a thirteen-year-old boy drew a modern Ghanaian house, painstakingly depicting the critical features: fans, hanging light bulbs, light switches on the wall, screens and windows, and furniture. A kitchen across the courtyard contained a stove, a light switch, and a kettle. A sitting room had many chairs, a television set, and a picture hanging on the wall. These rooms were surrounded by a courtyard with flowering potted plants. The artist commented, "eye fe," or it is beautiful. Although he labeled the drawing "U.S.A.," it corresponded more to the ideal of a Ghanaian house than an American one, but illustrated how he saw abroad as having all the amenities desired of a new house in Ghana.

These different houses are a visual symbol of the historical depth of migration in Akuapem and the connections migrants maintain to their hometowns, for even if they have gone away, they plan to build a home here. They also illustrate how what is now old was once new, and that Figure 2. Courtyard of a compound house in Akropong. Photo by author. what glitters today in the sun may fade and become shabby beside the new houses to come.

Perhaps harder to recognize, at first glance, is that the houses—both new and old—are symbols of love and affection, made to honor and house a loved one. The man who built the house in which I stayed in 2006 and 2007 had named the house after his mother, a fact I understood better after Paul, a thirteen-year-old boy, told me that he would like to build his grandmother a house when he grew up. Paul said,

Me nso anka met[??] asaase na masi dan ama no, na maye biibi a ew[??]mu ama no, na matO kaa ne ade ade ama no.

I would like to buy land and build a house for her, to do something good for her, to buy a car and other things for her.

Paul dreamed of being able to do this for his grandmother because she had taken care of him in his childhood. As his desire suggests, gifts of material goods express love and care: his grandmother has taken care of him, and he would like to take care of her by giving her a house, a car, and other items. The understanding that affection can be expressed through the provision of food, clothing, and education, rather than through copresence (such as through attending soccer games or tending to a sick child) means that migrant parents can be good parents even when they are not living with their children. As I have discussed more thoroughly elsewhere (Coe 2011c), they can even be better parents—because of their increased earnings—than those who stay.

Because parents and children in Ghanaian transnational families use exchanges of material goods, in part, to evaluate the quality of their relationship, this chapter will focus on the history of this aspect of their repertoires, illustrating how it changed over time. In particular, I show that during the development of cocoa in Akuapem, when a cash economy was rapidly expanding, relations between adults and young people who were kin were dominated by discussions of debt. Young people became obligated to those who had paid for their medical care, expenses, or debts, obligations that included the carer's rights to control their labor and residence, to receive payments when they married (in the case of girls), and to use them to raise capital to buy land, as I will explain below. Those rights helped adults obtain capital and labor at a particular transition in the cocoa economy, as slavery was declining and before the farms produced enough profits to pay workers. I argue that exchanges between young people and their kin that centered on debt changed, over time, to become reciprocities of care as they are understood in transnational families today.

Many studies of transnational family life have argued that transnational migration generates challenges to existing kinship repertoires. Most of these studies have focused on the marital bond as the source of conflict when gender roles and household labor are redefined in transnational households, but a few also examine how children of migrant mothers experience the loss of maternal affection and feel shortchanged when a mother migrates (Hondagneu-Sotelo and Avila 1997; Parreñas 2004; Suárez-Orozco, Todorova, and Louie 2002; Wolf 1997). Lacking in this line of research is an appreciation of how kinship repertoires disrupted by contemporary transnational migration have been produced and negotiated historically in contexts of previous instability, including the migrations of previous generations. Kinship repertoires challenged by transnational migration today may be composed of repertoires previously reformulated in response to changing economic conditions at a particular historical moment.

Studies of globalization and transnational migration are surprisingly ahistorical and highlight the newness of the phenomenon. For instance, such scholarship rarely references earlier research on internal migration, although many transnational migrants first migrated to a city or factory before going overseas (Sassen 1998; Trager 2005). Nancy Foner (2005) has challenged the ahistoricity of the literature on transnational migration by carefully documenting how transnational life and networks also characterized earlier generations of immigrants to the United States, including a longing to return and participation in political activities in the home country, despite the greater difficulties and expense of long-distance travel and communication compared to today. Jennifer Hirsch (2002) has similarly shown that not all changes in transnational families are caused by transnational migration: changes in marital expectations among Mexican migrant men and women are occurring among younger nonmigrants as well, representing a generational change about the conjoining of love and marriage. Other nuanced studies show that transnational migration results in both continuity and change, in gender roles and family structures (Gamburd 2000; Glenn 1983; Olwig 2007; Rae-Espinoza 2011). A sense of the historical background helps to reveal what is, in fact, new and challenging about contemporary contexts of migration for transnational families. It also highlights how "tradition" is made up of recompositions of material that is both old and new as people flexibly deploy their repertoires.

In this chapter, I describe how contemporary ideas of the materiality of care are constructed from previous debt-care exchanges between kin. These exchanges were modeled on pawning relationships that became more signifi cant as slavery declined. Just as slavery in Akuapem increased to support the oil palm industry in the mid-nineteenth century, so pawning and debt-care exchanges in the early twentieth century were significant in establishing the cocoa farms from whose profits the grand houses in Akuapem were built. This history illustrates how Ghanaian families adapted their repertoires to respond to local opportunities and constraints generated by a long and changing engagement with global trade.

I focus on one area of southern Ghana in this discussion. Although this examination of the history of Akuapem kinship repertoires does not represent that of all Ghanaian migrants in the United States, most international migrants from Ghana do come from areas of southern Ghana, and many features of kinship I discuss here will be familiar to other Akan-speaking peoples.

In representing change over time, one has to choose where to begin. Such a decision implies that the era that came before was more stable and enduring than what occurred thereafter, even though changes were occurring in that earlier period also. I begin with a discussion of kinship prior to cocoa, recognizing, where possible, that one could go even further back in time and document how this period too consisted of adaptations of repertoires inherited from the past.

Akuapem Kinship before Cocoa

Akuapem is a traditional kingdom, comprising seventeen towns along a ridge and their satellite villages in the valleys below, about an hour's travel from Accra, in what is now the Eastern Region of southern Ghana. The ridge made the area somewhat inaccessible in comparison to other parts of southern Ghana, so Akuapem was settled only in the fifteenth or sixteenth century. The first settlers spoke variants of the Guan language, made their living through farming, and were ruled by shrine priests. Kin were organized as lineages descended through their fathers from a common male ancestor, known as a patrilineage, which was further divided into smaller "houses." From the middle of the seventeenth century on, the Guans in the area were dominated politically by various Akan states that sought to control the trade in gold and slaves to the European forts on the coast (Kwamena-Poh 1973). People from these Akan states came to live in Akuapem and spoke different dialects of Twi (or Akan). They brought with them a new political system, in which the political leaders or chiefs were members of royal families and not religious specialists. The Akan settlers and rulers were members of matriclans (or abusua). Matriclans, formed through common descent from a female ancestor, had been important in the transition from hunting to farming in the forest regions of southern Ghana, but lost their social significance to smaller lineages and even smaller "houses" (Wilks 1993). Through Akan domination, the Guan people learned Twi and incorporated Twi loan words into their Guan dialects. They began to imitate the Akan style of chiefship, organized hierarchically on the model of an army's battle formation, and became part of the new Akan-dominated political system as the left, right, and center wings (Nifa, Benkum, and Adonten) of the army. However, they maintained their own unique festivals and patterns of inheritance. Shrine priests continued to be important for the Guan but generally were no longer the political leaders.

Both Guan and Akan families were organized around the corporate unit of the "house," which comprised all descendants of a common ancestor, including the living, the dead, and the unborn. A "house" was not a building, although there might be houses and land associated with a house, nor was it a household, but rather a corporate understanding or name for closer kin. Houses distributed economic gains and losses across a group of people, evening out inequality between house members and reducing individual risk to economic loss, famine, or other crises (Douglas 1971). The head of the house (abusuapanyin), an elder member of the family, was responsible for safeguarding property belonging to the house and using it to help the house as a corporate body, such as helping members get out of debt or paying for members' burials. The head of the house was also responsible for arbitrating disputes and maintaining the religious rituals that were necessary for good relations with the house members who had died and become ancestors (Rattray 1969). The house helped bury its members and chose inheritors for their property. In a patrilineage, the successor to a man who died ought to be the deceased man's younger brother or paternal cousin; in a matrilineage, his sister's son. However, perhaps because the Akan and Guan have lived with one another for four hundred years or so, they are not strictly patrilineal or matrilineal but also acknowledge ties to the other parent's family. An anthropologist of Akuapem, David Brokensha, noted:

There are many aberrations, such as the "patrilineal" Guan allowing children to inherit ... from their mothers, or the "matrilineal" Akim [or Akan] indulging in testatentory [or inheritance] disposition in favor of sons [as opposed to sisters' sons, as would be usual among matrilineal people]. It would perhaps be better not to think of "systems" being either patrilineal or matrilineal, but of using "double-descent" [kinship through the mother and father], with a strong emphasis on one side or the other. (1972, 78; see also Middleton 1979 and Hardiman 2003)

Wealthy men in matrilineages in Akuapem tried to provide in their lifetimes for their sons as well as their sisters' children, just as wealthy men in patrilineages also tried to provide for their sisters' sons (Hill 1958; Johnson 1972). In partially acknowledging both maternal and paternal sides of the family, their repertoires so clearly composite, Akuapem people are somewhat unusual in southern Ghana, where identification with either the maternal or paternal line is much more pronounced.

In the mid-twentieth century, house bonds were more important than conjugal bonds. Husbands and wives were from different houses. They did not always live together, particularly at the beginning of their relationship when each might reside in a building belonging to their own corporate house (Brokensha 1972). Children might live with their parents, if they lived together; with one or the other parent, if they lived apart; or with other house members, such as a grandmother, a woman in the house of an older generation (called a mother), a slightly older man in the same generation (known as a brother), or the family head, whether or not their parents lived together. Furthermore, in a society where polygamy was common, cowives and their children might live apart from one another and their husband-in-common to reduce tension and jealousy. Children, like other people, were first and foremost members of the corporate house, and they circulated through different households as they and others pleased. Children were particularly valued because they could help a house continue into the future and grow in size; they also enabled their parents to become respected elders and ancestors.

Although husbands, wives, and children might not live together, husbands and wives did cooperate in food production, as has been documented in the extensive literature on the Asante in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Husbands and wives each had access to land through their respective lineages, and they helped one another on their individual farms, without establishing joint property or rights to the other's lineage land. The unit of production, composed of a husband and wife and their dependents, was therefore smaller than the unit of distribution, the house (Douglas 1971). Marriage was a relationship maintained by the exchange of ongoing reciprocal obligations and responsibilities: "Asante men had the right to call on the labor of their wives and expected them to provide a broad range of domestic services, including fetching water, cooking, cleaning, and looking after children. In turn, women expected to receive from their husbands care or maintenance, in the form of meat, clothing, and food crops" (Allman and Tashjian 2000, 62). Under such circumstances, a wife's refusal to cook for her husband or a man's delaying providing his wife with clothing was a serious sign of unhappiness in the marriage and could be cause for divorce (Allman and Tashjian 2000, 13; Austin 2005).

Excerpted from The Scattered Family by Cati Coe. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: A Scattering of Families

One A History of Family Reciprocities: Material Exchanges between the Generations in Akuapem
Two Distributed Parenting in the Twentieth Century
Three International Migration and Fosterage: How US Immigration Law Separates Families
Four Work and Child Care in the United States
Five Borderwork: A Repertoire Made Conscious
Six The Dilemmas of Fostering the Children of Transnational Migrants
Seven Children’s Expectations of Care: Love, Money, and Living Together

Conclusion: Barriers and Openings


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