Transhumant pastoralists, translocal migrants: Space, place and identity in a group of Fulɓe Woɗaaɓe in Niger

    Using the example of a regional lineage fraction of Fulɓe Woɗaaɓe in Niger, this project examines transformations in the relations of pastoralists to space and place in a context of changing mobility patterns. It analyses the consequences that these changes entail for processes of social group formation and collective identification, and for questions of integration into the wider society and the structures of the modern nation state. Questions of social and cultural reproduction under conditions of translocality are explored in the contexts of mobile pastoralism, on the one hand, and contemporary urban work migration, on the other.

    The Woɗaaɓe are known as highly mobile pastoralists, specialised in the breeding of Zebu cattle. Today, however, they are increasingly engaged in a process of livelihood diversification that entails new patterns of mobility and territoriality. Two trends are particularly relevant: One is work migration to urban centres, the other partial sedentarisation in the vicinity of wells. These two contexts, which constitute complementary economic spheres for many contemporary Woɗaaɓe, are examined in a comprehensive view. In the focus of the analysis are, (1) the changing forms of mobility and migration, and the processes of placemaking (both in the pastoral and in the urban context) which they entail; (2) processes of social group formation and collective identification.

    A central research question concerns identification processes in a context of changing patterns of mobility and migration, and the roles that space and place, or locality, play therein. Different places provide different constellations of neighbourhood and interfaces with other groups and hence, potentially produce different identities. This is as relevant in the urban migration context as it is in the process of rural sedentarisation: The multi-ethnic space of the city works as a catalyst for identification processes, because the close neighbourhood with ethnic others requires a constant re-negotiation of identity and difference.

   Questions of spatiality are of great significance for the issue of the reproduction of social groups in a highly mobile society fluctuating between dispersal and concentration: How is the social group maintained as a community? Translocal social networks play a key role here. Their significance is also the reason why approaches that conceptualise space and place as relational and socially constructed have been given a particular consideration. In this framework pastoral migration processes can be understood as producing complex networked social spaces. Woɗaaɓe ethnicity itself is fundamentally based on translocal inter-clan networks. Intra-ethnic processes of differentiation (between clans) are at least as relevant for identity construction as differentiation from external others. For the constitution of the clans as communities, internal consolidation, on the one hand, and confrontation with other, opposing clans, on the other, are two underlying and complementary principles.

    But the Woɗaaɓe are also part of a wider social, economic and political landscape, which they share with other ethnic groups and which can be referred to as a meta-ethnic social space. Social space is produced by interaction and exchange between and across groups. Although the ethnic groups in the study region distinguish each other along clear boundaries, there are also levels of shared identification along different dimensions of identity (e.g. language, socio-economic profile, religion). Identification can change situationally, expressing changing perceptions of sameness and difference that are constantly re-interpreted and re-negotiated depending both on societal developments and on the context of interaction.

    Like the rural poly-ethnic context, the urban setting also allows for multiple possibilities of identification along different dimensions and categories for the formation of more or less inclusive urban communities. The central determinants for the question whether more exclusive or more inclusive frameworks for identification and social orientation are activated are the composition, stability and size of urban migrant communities. In general, migrants' identity construction is less place-bound than relational, based on networks of translocal links, and it is thus in continuity with the patterns of identity construction of mobile pastoralist Woɗaaɓe.

    An important issue the project addresses is about the relation between the ongoing sedentarisation processes and the question of integration into the structures of the state. Pastoral mobility has often been regarded by sedentary institutions as menacing, and numerous efforts have been made to settle pastoralists. With regard to the Woɗaaɓe, the thesis of nomadic state evasion through mobility can be maintained only with some qualifications. The interaction with the state – from the precolonial period to the present – was rather characterised by an opportunistic oscillation between avoidance and cooperation. Today, selective integration, in order to participate at the distribution processes of aid and development resources or in reaction to recent land tenure laws that grant settling populations priority use rights over local resources, has become an important consideration. However, since mobility generally remains strong and occurs widely without any state control, this cannot be interpreted as a subjugation to the spatial patterns promoted by the sedentary state. Although tendencies of territorialisation are gaining momentum, spatiality continues to be primarily dominated by the principles of relationality, translocality and mobility.

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