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Sending money or purchasing provisions?

Senegalese migrants’ attempts to negotiate a space for autonomy in long-distance family relations
Envoyer du numéraire ou ravitailler ? Comment les migrants sénégalais essaient de négocier un espace d’autonomie dans les relations familiales à distance
Melissa Blanchard
p. 40-58


L’envoi de numéraire est l’un des liens les plus forts unissant les familles dispersées par la migration. Aider leur famille restée au pays est pour les migrants à la fois un devoir moral, le signe de leur affiliation sociale et de leur appartenance à un réseau de parenté et d’échange. Cependant, avec le temps certains d’entre eux perçoivent les requêtes de leurs familles d’origine comme excessives et développent des stratégies diverses pour faire face aux problèmes rencontrés pour contrôler l’usage de cet argent. A partir d’une enquête de terrain réalisée à Dakar, cet article analyse un cas original de réorganisation d’envoi de fonds, par la mise en place d’un site web offrant aux migrants la possibilité d’acheter par correspondance des provisions qui seront livrées à leur famille au Sénégal. Cette étude de cas met en lumière les tensions provoquées par ces pratiques de soutien au sein de familles vivant dans des espaces transnationaux et montre comment la migration peut encourager les migrants à réorganiser ces relations, en renégociant leurs obligations de solidarité.

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1Sending remittances is one of the strongest bonds tying together families dispersed by migration over different geographical settings. Senegalese migrants rarely sever relations with their families of origin; on the contrary, the support they are able to provide the families left behind is a fundamental element of their social identity. Not only because of the general principle stating young peoples’ duty to support their elders, in compensation for the support and the education they received earlier in life (Meillassoux 1975), but also because migrants must repay the family’s investment in emigration. In effect, in most cases, Senegalese’s migration is made possible by the economic support and by the material, logistic and emotional participation of the whole extended family (Diop 2008). Supporting the family left behind is then a moral duty. It shows migrants’ social affiliation (Riccio 2007) and it is the guarantee of their will to be an active part of a network of kinship and exchange (Carling 2008; Åkesson 2011). But it is also an investment, a form of social insurance for migrants themselves. It allows them to maintain a vast network of clients (Mazzucato 2008), who are also potential debtors to whom they can turn for support when in difficulty. Therefore, sending money home is both a social and an economic capitalization.

2As time goes by, though, emigrants often perceive the demands of their original families as excessive (Dieng 2008). Frequently, they consider that the families’ repeated requests for money compel them to sacrifice their personal projects, both in the immigration country and in the home country (Daffé 2008, Riccio 2008). Over time, they have thus developed various strategies to come to terms with their families’ recurrent demands for cash and with the control over the use of remittances, which are closely related.

3In this article, I will consider an original case of reorganization of remittances through a website offering migrants the opportunity to purchase at a distance the provisions they want to be delivered to their families in Senegal. This case study highlights the tensions that surround the practices of support within families living in transnational spaces and shows how migration can encourage migrants to reorganize such relations, renegotiating their obligations of solidarity and thus, more broadly, promoting social change.

  • 1  This was part of a research project funded by the French National Research Agency, called SYSAV, S (...)

4The analysis I shall present is based on material I gathered in Marseille in 2008 and in Dakar in 2009 in the course of an anthropological research on Senegalese returnees’ entrepreneurial activities1. In Marseille, I interviewed thirty Senegalese entrepreneurs, all of whom were active in commerce. During my fieldwork in Dakar, I interviewed twenty returnee entrepreneurs and carried out participant observation with ten of them. The individuals I interviewed were born in Dakar, Thiès and Saint-Louis and were all of Wolof descent. The Dakar area residents worked in the service sector. Their activities covered a wide range of services, stretching from business-aimed consulting for individuals and enterprises, law and tax counselling, and competitor monitoring, to the import/export of different merchandise (car spare parts, building materials), software and hardware training courses, cooking lessons, dental surgery and, of course, e-commerce. In the course of my observations, I spent considerable time with the local staff of the website, following their daily activities in the office, in the warehouse and on delivery runs to migrants’ households in Dakar.

The central role of emigration in contemporary Senegal

  • 2  The first ones to depart as conscripts were residents of the four coastal municipalities of Dakar, (...)

5Senegal has a long history of emigration towards Europe. It started in the first decades of the 20th century, when many men served as conscripts in the French colonial army, forming the Senegalese Riflemen corps2, while others worked as stokers in the navy. However, massive emigration occurred at the same time as the post-war reconstruction of France. Often called by the French employment office of foreign workers (ONI), Senegalese men arrived in the Métropole to offer workforce to the economic growth of the boom period (1947-1974). From the 1970s onward, Senegalese migration increased as a response to the major droughts that hit the African continent, and became a means of endemic reaction to the country’s difficult living conditions. With the permanent closure of European borders to labour immigration (1974), though, migratory circulation became more difficult. As a result, migration stabilised and became family-based.

6Senegalese emigration was initially conceived on a rotating basis (the noria – watermill – model) and was embedded in a household strategy aimed at maximizing income sources while reducing risks due to uncontrolled events affecting agriculture and the household economy. Emigration was then mainly undertaken by young men who went to France to work for a few years while regularly sending funds back home. They remained in migration just long enough to put aside a little money and then returned to the old country to get married and raise a family. When they returned home they were substituted in migration by other young men of the household (Quiminal 1991). When labour migration was stopped in 1974, family reunions became the main way to enter the country legally and first-migrant men began to bring their wives to France from the home country (Nicollet 1992, Timera 1996).

  • 3  Here I will not tackle the debate on autonomous or imposed marriage choices in Senegal, but there (...)

7Family migration can be the result of a decision taken both at the household level and at the individual level. At the household level, a marriage between a migrant (mostly a first-migrant man) and a non-migrant, especially within the same extended family (frequently among Wolofs, spouses are crossed cousins) can often be arranged and is part of a strategy aiming at broadening family income possibilities. But marriage with an emigrant can also take place outside the family network, as an individual strategy to migrate legally, given the difficulty of emigrating for reasons other than family reunion, or as a disinterested love choice3.

8Another important wave of migration is composed by students and young people from wealthier families who go to France to complete their higher education and their professional training. It is a broad-based phenomenon that has been ongoing since the 1960s and is now so widespread that some researchers refer to it as “brain drain”.

9France, the former colonial power, used to be the first destination for Senegalese immigrants, but nowadays, other countries attract the bulk of migration flows. Italy, Spain and the U.S. are currently among the most sought-after destinations, and China is becoming a new frontier for Senegalese migration (Diop 2008a). Most Senegalese migrations, though, are intracontinental, and target other wealthier countries both in West and in Central Africa (Lessault et Beauchemin 2009).

10Migration has become a fact of life in Senegal, as today, almost every family has at least one member who has emigrated. It is certainly the consequence of a multiplicity of reasons and motivations, which are often quoted together by emigrants to justify their departure (Dalen et al. 2005). The main reasons have to do with the necessity to find a source of income for the household, due to current difficulties in agriculture and salaried employment, which sum with shortcomings in the social system (as the lack of Social Security, the difficulty of access to healthcare, etc.). But, when they explain the reasons that pushed them to emigrate, migrants also refer to the desire to pursue a personal life path based on individual projects, getting away from the pressure of families that they sometimes perceive as “financial predators” (Dieng 2008). For young adults who have a job, family solidarity obligations are often an obstacle to the fulfilment of their own aspirations and projects (such as the construction of a personal family life, or an independent career) which they are thus obliged to postpone indefinitely.

11Moreover, among unemployed, often educated and deceived youth, a “culture of emigration” is increasingly influential (Riccio 2007). Given the lack of perspectives in Senegal, young people perceive emigration as a necessary step to fulfill their life and their destiny. Emigration is considered as an act of maturation and maturity, after which one can return to the home country with a deep feeling of valorisation and pride (Daffé 2008). The emigrant who has succeeded, in effect, accesses to a status of social “adulthood”, leaving social dependence on the family (the condition of permanent “junior”), the duration of which is increasingly extending for young people because of the country’s chronic material deprivation (Fouquet 2008). Moreover, returning migrants are often perceived as “those who achieved success”. People who were able to achieve important goals (having a home and a car, starting a business, marrying several wives and, last but not least, having clients) and who, for these reasons, enjoy a high and prestigious social status (Riccio 2005).

12So, although the reasons to migrate are various, the link between the individual and his family is always crucial in determining them. Whether the migrant occupies a position of resource “redistributor” within family networks, on whom other family members depend, or whether he plays the role of dependent “junior,” due to his lack of resources, the relationship always appears central and binding. While some leave Senegal to escape its constraining character, others leave to change their position in it.

Family ties and the logic of the debt

13As in other African settings, in Senegal, emigration is more often a family project in which the whole group takes part, than an individual adventure (Stark et Lucas 1988). Most times, senior members decide who will migrate, among the cohort of young candidates willing to leave, in order to guarantee the family’s living (Fleischer 2007).

14The group members who invest in the emigrant, helping him to leave, expect to receive part of the resources he will accumulate in return. Heads of family groups, households that may include several wives, their sons and their children, are the first to propagate this conception of migration and family ties. As one Senegal River Basin villager told an anthropologist who asked him about issues of emigration: “Children are like a credit to us. When they go to France, it is to repay what they owe” (Quiminal 2009).

15Community ties are central in the organization of West African societies. The strong solidarity that knits social groups together is based on what was defined as the principle of the “infinite debt” (Marie 1997a, 1998). This binds the individual to the group to which he belongs by virtue of a cyclical system of advances and redistributions (Meillassoux 1975). Following this logic, the individual must indefinitely repay his social group for the feeding, care and education he received when he was a child, or as long as he was a “dependent” that is to say, under the care of the elderly (Viti 2005). Dependence, social control and subordination – which are structured according to age and gender and rank young people lower than elders and women lower than men – are features of West African family relations (Viti 2007: 187). Kinship relations determine both the social roles that the individual assumes throughout his life and the fields of solidarity, protection and obligation within which he is included (Diop 1985).

16From birth, individuals are socialized into a system of norms that, on one hand, includes them in hierarchical relations of personal dependence, and, on the other hand, promotes an anti-individualistic lifestyle, based on communal solidarity and sharing, that includes and supports any member of the group. Being included in such social groups generates expectations, obligations and responsibilities that can be constraining for the individual (Tiemoko 2004). Along with the ward (in both senses of charge and protection) that the group exercises over the individual, this leaves little room for the expression and the satisfaction of individual aspirations.

17Several voices have risen to underscore a crisis of the Senegalese family based on the communitarian logic. Family heads, in urban as well as in rural areas, have a very hard time covering their elementary social obligations towards their children, such as providing nutrition and education (Diop 2008b). The informal welfare system of the communitarian organization does not work in many areas, and individuals are more and more compelled to step out of the communitarian circuits and to reach a forced autonomy, often synonymous with marginalization (Marie 1997b, Viti 2007). Various existential experiences, such as rural-urban migration, modernization of the labour sector, urban life, education and migration, lead to a hybridization of lifestyles and of social organization itself, encouraging individuals to reflect critically on their affiliations, their lifestyle and their personal identity, and to rethink and redefine their community obligations.

Money transfers and harvest of individual resources

18Regardless of whether they aspire to more autonomous family relations or not, most emigrants never cut their ties with their original family. One way they maintain these bonds is by sending money and goods, even irregularly and in small amounts (Blanchard 2007). Emigrants’ monthly money transfers are necessary to the budget of the families left behind, who often become dependent on them, which may cause a decline in the productivity of the households that receive money (Gubert 2008). Remittances are mostly used as income and are estimated to cover from 30% to 80% of the household’s expenses (Condé et Diagne 1986). Thus, such money transfers, which were at first sporadic revenues, became a permanent source of income (Daffé 2008). They cover the household’s needs of food, healthcare and schooling, but they also have an “insurance” function, as they can be used to cover exceptional and unplanned expenses (Gubert 2008). As in other contexts, very little is left, at the end of the month, for “productive” investments that could foster the household’s economic autonomy (Goldring 2004).

19Moreover, research in the West African context indicates that, along with their primary use for consumption and improvement of the family’s living standard, remittances are also employed for social events and celebrations (Tiemoko 2004). In other words, they are often used also for purposes that go beyond what migrants may have imagined for the money they sent (Daffé 2008, Dieng 2008).

20The use of the money sent by emigrants to the families left behind has been studied for a long time, as it constitutes one of the most important issues in these long-distance relationships. In the early days, the migration system (consisting of networks that facilitated migrants’ departure, provided their hosting in workers’ hostels – foyers – and supported their professional integration in France) was impregnated with representations and practices based on the power of the elderly and on community social control, sanctioning migrants’ attempts to move away from what was considered their main objective, that is, taking charge, temporarily and partially, of some of the needs of their original household (Timera 1996, Daum 1998, Quiminal 2006).

21Research carried out in the French context, that deals mainly with Soninké emigrants, shows that over time they have moved from sending money on an individual basis, to collective sending practices, through the establishment of “village mutual funds” (caisses) handled by the elderly (Quiminal 1991). At the individual level, emigrants have had to cope with pressing requests. The requests for money from household heads are often perceived as a constant weight, as exaggerated demands that exploit the guilt of the emigrant, blamed for being far away from the family (Daum 1998: 118). Emigrants’ situations are not taken into account by their families, who make no association between their work and the sums they ask for. Regardless of their positions in France, migrants are considered as the ones “who have access” to the money (Quiminal 1991:130).

22Through the village funds, groups of emigrants of the same origin, who share the same place of residence in France, jointly send remittances to their villages. Over time, many village funds have been transformed into village associations. In this context, migrants act as a collective force and move within an institutional framework, which replaces the submission to relations of personal dependence with the submission to the association’s legal regulation. These associations intend to rationalize the use of migrants’ savings, promoting initiatives (such as the construction of a well or a dispensary) that override traditional power structures (Quiminal 2001) and that aim to transform the economy of the receiving communities in order to unravel the dependency relationship that binds them to emigration (Daum 1998, Fall 2008, Sall 2008). Over the years, the practice of collective sending has been also gradually called into question, especially by young emigrants who wish to keep more of their earnings for themselves and for their projects, refusing to hand over their salaries to their elders.

23As one can see, the issue of emigration money management brings us to address an even more pervasive and fundamental one, that of the opposition between elders and juniors within family and social relations. Research in West Africa shows that the money sent by the young emigrants of a household is considered as something to which the patriarch is entitled, as he is entitled to any other performance of his dependants, according to the implacable logic of the debt, which the elderly entertain assiduously (Quiminal 2006 : 241). This practice is also perpetuated thanks to the fact that as long as emigrants are absent, they are considered as juniors (Quiminal 2001).

24But when the system of village associations, born to be a source of partial and time-constrained support, clashes with the long-term settlement in migration, the tensions that oppose generations within families increase (Dia 2008). From the late ’90s onward, some studies report migrants’ efforts to put into practice collective strategies to avoid sending cash while continuing to support their families (Quiminal 2001, Daum 1998). Such is the case of purchasing cooperatives: emigrants buy food directly from the cooperative, after assessing the needs of their family. In this way they hope to rationalize the expenditure related to household consumption and to prevent the money from being invested in prestige goods (Daum 1998: 53, 54). It is a new practice, which undermines the management of money by the elderly without directly attacking the organization of family relations. In the context of “cereal banks” (Daum 1998) and cooperative stores observed in the area of Kayes, Mali, migrants pool their contributions to finance the construction of a warehouse and buy the stock of food needed. These are delivered to the household heads, who can get them directly at the warehouse through a personalized “voucher”. In the first half of the ’90s, the orders were sent via fax to the rural radio in Kayes, which informed the community warehouses’ operators of their arrival (ibid.).

25These practices induce a shift of responsibilities within families (Daum 1998), because family heads no longer have complete freedom of decision over the destination of the money earned in France, which, on the contrary, is in the hands of their sons who emigrated. The community logic dominated by the demarcation line between elders and juniors (and by support and respect rules that derived from it) is still meaningful and pervasive, but the roles have become less rigid (ibid. 58). The head of the family is respected, but he loses some of his prerogatives, in particular those of household consumption control. In fact, though the elderly maintain their surveillance over the distribution of the stock, its supply is now in the hands of the “youngsters”.

Senegalese migrants facing the unproductive and unpredictable use of remittances

26While the Malian cooperative movement has been widely described and analysed, similar studies on Senegal and Wolof are much rarer. The emigrants I met consider their presence in migration as “indefinite” and wish to enter into a process of social ascent that is difficult to reconcile with the investment of the bulk of their savings in their country of origin. In this sense, the new economic constraints generated by the meaning ascribed to migration weaken the mobilization in favour of the place of origin (Dia 2008). Migrants’ economic investments focus on children’s education, business plans and house buying in the country they have settled. They are thus confronted with demands for cash that clash with their actual economic possibilities, but also with their life projects and with the way they conceive their existence, that is, more as an individual path than as a singular expression of the group. A stable settlement in migration and a spread of different conceptions of family relations and of the individual’s place in the extended family lead then to a rehash of the practices of remote family support. This generates great tensions with the family left behind and in particular with the patriarchs, who believe that the requests for money they address to their children should always be honoured.

27The problem of migrants’ lack of control over the way remittances are used is well documented in the literature, as is the issue of productive inefficiencies in intra-households allocation. Here, I do not want to get into the debate on the positive or negative relation between migration, remittances and development in the countries of outgoing migration, which is a hot discussion topic extensively examined in international literature (Stark et Lucas 1988, Durand et al. 1996, Massey et al. 1998, Taylor 1999, Gonin et Lacroix 2005, Nyberg Sørensen 2005, De Haas 2010). Instead I will take into account migrants’ comments, in order to analyse the stakes in their support practices and how they consequently rework the relations that bind them to the families they have left behind.

28The migrants I interviewed complained about their original families’ misuse of remittance, stating that they demand much more than is necessary to meet a household’s current needs. As one migrant woman living in France said:

My mother sent me to France so that I could send her money. I send money to my family, to my mother, but also to my brother, who ask for my help, and to a sister-in-law. This month, I had to send 300 euros; usually I send 150 euros per month, 200 with the sending fee. They call me and talk to me about the problems they have, which can be an apartment rent or a child clothing expense, and I feel compelled to do what they expect. But it is something that is not good, because with my husband, who sends money to his family, we can never put any money aside. We can’t realise our projects this way, because we send all our money to Africa. We work all the time and all we are doing is depriving ourselves. We tried to invest there, so they could work and stop asking us for money. But the money we sent for entrepreneurial projects has always been diverted; they’ve kept it for themselves. Now, we don’t send money for projects anymore because we’ve understood that it will always be diverted. I’ve stopped worrying about it: now I know that everything I send is for them. If they use it to work, it’s good for them, otherwise it’s their problem. I know I’m wasting this money, this money is for them, not for me. (S., interviewed 2008, Marseille).

29During my fieldwork, I observed that, especially among emigrants who have a stable, long-term life project in the immigration country, complaints arise about the unproductive use of the funds they transfer and the dependence dynamics that develop around this money (Blanchard 2011).

30Migrants deplored that the money they sent was quickly absorbed by the family and that its use seemed to be uncontrollable and not limited to basic expenses such as food, clothing, housing, health and schooling. They thought that a part of it was invested in conspicuous spending and in social circuits, such as tontines, family networks and ceremonies. Thus, emigrants seek to stand up against what they see as a practice of exploitation, by different means. Some try to negotiate the amount of remittances or the spread of beneficiaries, at the price of concealing their true economic situation and creating tension and conflicts that they resolve piecemeal. Others imagine business development projects with family members who stay behind, sending funds that are quantified to meet the needs of the business. In the interviews I collected, though, it appears that the money migrants send to carry out an entrepreneurial project is quickly “neutralized,” absorbed in family circuits.

Facing family demands while managing remittance expenditure: the invention of

31A highly original example of how some Senegalese emigrants are collectively organizing to respond to their original families’ demands is, a website that offers the possibility to mail-order purchase groceries, appliances and building materials, that are delivered in Senegal.

32The website was born in 2006 from an idea of Senegalese women entrepreneurs who emigrated to the United States. Women being the cause of this initiative is certainly not trivial. Through their socialization, Senegalese women integrate strong injunctions to conform to the specific gendered role of obedient daughters, sisters and wives exclusively devoted to family life (Diop 1985). Although they rework this role or adhere to it only partially, supporting the original family through migration, especially when it comes to elderly women, remains essential to the definition of their social identity. Moreover, being those in charge of everyday household expenditures, women are more skilled than men at calculating the relation between the money they send and the domestic spending it is supposed to cover. Nor is it by chance that the idea arose among women entrepreneurs (in most cases, hairdressing-salon managers): they are used to manage their income personally and, more importantly, they have an interest in keeping as much money as possible for the development of their businesses. These women, who had been in the United States for more than a decade, saw the sum they remitted, accurately calculated to cover daily household needs, constantly exceeded. They then imagined a strategy to reduce and control the amount of transfers, in order to contrast the logic of unchecked dependence and the diversion of funds, without severing their ties with their original families.

33They decided to appeal to a young fellow of 34, a computer engineer who had settled in Washington ten years before, in order to develop a website for the long-distance sale of provisions. Here is how one of the founding partners traces the genesis of

Immigrants, Senegalese women, gave Issa the idea that it needed to be done. Women who are in the United States, women who run hair salons. They send money, but... by the 15th of the month the money is finished, there is nothing left, it’s gone... And then the family calls you again. So that’s how the idea came to their mind. Because the Senegalese who are abroad send money to help the families they have left here. Instead of sending money, we give these people the chance to fill their families’ pantry, because with cash, you never really know where it goes, the family can use it for other purposes. Here we give people the chance to send necessities, things that will remain in the family.

Indeed,, as its presentation page claims, aims to:

Facilitate the provisioning of our families, relatives or friends residing in Senegal. We are aware of every emigrant’s chief concern: to assure the wellbeing of the family left behind, and’s mission is to simplify this task! Our team of professionals offers an unequalled quality of service. Wherever you are in the world, it takes only a few minutes and a few clicks to do your family’s grocery shopping and save as well. Our prices are competitive and our staff, extremely friendly and professional…. If sending money to support a loved one is sometimes a challenge because of various uncertainties, at no order is too small or too large. You can let your family do its shopping at Senboutique at any time. Our system has enabled families to reconnect and consistently helps many emigrants in the management of the family.... Thanks to our fast and reliable system, your families in Senegal are just a few clicks away from your generosity and a regular food supply.’s presentation page cleverly references the most delicate issues in long-distance relations between emigrants and their families – issues everyone is aware of, but few talk about, especially with their relatives in order not to aggravate tensions within family relations that may have been already weakened by the departure in migration – and proposes an innovative solution, by offering to purchase at a distance everything necessary to provision a family. Thus basic goods become the object of transactions between emigrants and the families they left behind, eliminating, at least in theory, the risk involved in sending “uncontrollable” money. In 2009, users were US, Canadian, French, Italian and Spanish residents. Thus the impact of the website can be considered as significant, as the news of its existence is spreading by word of mouth both in Senegal and in emigration countries. So far, I cannot measure it precisely, though, as the site managers I have contacted have refused to give me the exact number of customers. Further research needs to be done in order to evaluate the impact of this practice.

35On provisions can be purchased by baskets, or by units. The composition of the baskets indicates the care with which the site has been designed in order to meet families’ real needs – offering the highest quality products that are available on the local market and that are the most purchased by households – and to correspond as closely as possible to the nutritional practices of local people.

  • 4  Price updated April 7, 2012. The baskets’ price is considered quite high by emigrants abroad, indi (...)

36The basic product offered by the website is the Sakanal Basket (sakanal means “saving”, “not wasting” in Wolof), designed for small, medium and large families. The products offered are the same in each format (each of which has a woman’s name), but the amount varies depending on family size, as they are supposed to meet a family’s monthly needs. The small-family (5-6 persons) “Adja” Basket is priced at USD 1364 and includes:

  • 50 kg bag of perfumed rice;

  • 1 case of Senegalese peanut oil (12 litres);

  • 1 case of imported sugar (5 kg);

  • 1 large jar of tomato concentrate (2 kg);

  • 4 x 400 g packets of powdered milk;

  • 1 case (24 units) laundry soap.

37The payment for purchases is also accepted in euros, Canadian dollars, Swiss francs or British pounds, and the buyer has the option to fill the basket adding products he selects personally, or including cash.

  • 5  The Senegalese name for the Feast of Sacrifice.

38Other baskets are designed for special occasions, such as the “Ramadan Special Basket” or the “Tabaski5 Special Basket” which complement the “basics” with luxury foods usually consumed on the occasion of these festivities, including the opportunity to buy a mutton.

The news of the existence of the website took several months to spread and the clientele of regulars established itself after a while. Today, serves a variable number of clients, from a minimum of fifty to a maximum of a hundred and fifty per month. Most orders are made at the end of the month, when the website receives an average of 7-10 orders per day, especially for baskets. Some of these orders are made on a regular basis so that deliveries are made even before orders are received. Deliveries are made by employees, who took taxis to destinations in Dakar and in the countryside until 2010, before bought a van to lower delivery costs by making regular delivery runs.

39Nevertheless, from the outset, problems arose with the families receiving deliveries. Even though the practice is implemented without any previous consultation between the migrant and his family, nobody is fooled about the risks it is intended to manage and the dynamics it aims to contrast. Deliverers have faced a number of conflictual situations, with receivers sometimes assaulting them, saying that they did not want to “benefit” from such a service and preferred to have money instead. Sometimes recipient families complained about the food, saying it was not of good quality. Of course, one can assume the complaints really do concern the quality of food offered, but this doesn’t seem very plausible because offers its customers high-quality products, the products most purchased by the local population that can afford them. In my opinion, the complaints seem to target the food, instead of expressing the disappointment of not being able to manage what some families consider extra income to invest in different sectors of the household economy, including that of conspicuous consumption. As it loses its materiality, this money cannot be used as they see fit and they are thus forced to “curb their spending”.

40The money from emigration, in other words, is conceived by the families of emigrants as having several functions, among which covering subsistence requirements is just one. In this respect, what I call a “culture of assistance” develops, which enables emigrants’ families to avoid income-generating activities because they can rely on remittances from emigrants. We are dealing here with a misunderstanding that generates a number of tensions in the families between those who have stayed and those who have gone away – the former demanding a vast part of the money of emigrants, assuming that it is easier to earn than it is in reality, the latter seeing the fruits of their efforts relentlessly absorbed by families that some perceive as tendentially parasitic.

41Nevertheless it is clear that receiving provisions is crucial for the majority of families. Many people call the delivery service to see if the order has been received and to request about delivery schedules. The contribution of emigrants is a lifeline for families back home, many of whom are in need. Emigrants are aware of this, and for them, it is not only a motive of pride, it’s also a reason to keep alive the links with their families and to send cash in addition to grocery purchases, when it is necessary, in order to cover “exceptional” expenses such as medical care, schooling, etc.

42However, by substituting monthly remittances with monthly orders, migrants redefine the meaning of such transfers, narrow their use and express the need to better control the money they send.


43The tensions surrounding the new support practices to which gives rise suggest that, in migration, as in Senegal, two different ways to interpret social bonds and economic action overlap, and with these, two different ways to interpret migration and its outcomes.

44On one hand, there are constant references to the compelling character of family bonds and to their material consequences, like the obligation of indefinite support for the elderly and for family members in general. On the other hand, there is a strong drive to circumscribe the pervasive obligation of solidarity toward the original family and to pursue more autonomous paths in life. Labour also appears to be conceived differently: on one hand as an individual activity, leading to personal growth and capital accumulation for the individual, and on the other hand as a community service for the benefit of the extended family. These two conceptions of labour, migration and family relations coexist, but they seem to reach a collision point when the emigration experience consolidates in a life-long project, particularly on the sensitive issue of the material support emigrants owe their original families. For the families, that support should be unlimited and unmeasured, fitting into the context of indefinite and never-ending funding, while for the emigrant, it is understood as sustenance that is due, but limited, targeted to meet the real needs of the family and not meant to be used indiscriminately.

45The clash between these different representations of the relations between the individual and the family group is not peculiar to the migratory situation, as it can also be observed in emigrants’ home countries (Marie 1997b, Hussein [1989] 1993). What is specific is the fact that migration introduces a physical, emotional and cultural distance that makes it easier to bring to light such tensions and to enforce strategies to come to terms with the strains the community system imposes on individuals. Far from the control of their family group, migrants are able to express their discontent with the obligation of solidarity and with the rules of community belonging. So, their new family support practice, through online grocery shopping, heralds a change in the relationships within migrants’ families, and especially in the un-balanced relations between juniors and elderlies, without the necessity of clarifying or discussing it. Sending orders is, per se, a message indicating a change in the dynamics of assistance, or of dependence, redefining the amplitude of the “infinite debt” and turning it into a moral duty of support measured in relation with the real needs of the family.

46This case study attests to the consolidation of practices of “avoidance” of the infinite character of debt and of individual management of the proceeds of emigration. It also shows how the latter are adapted to new communication technologies and how they evolve in relation to the spread of new means in handling family relations at a distance (by phone, fax and e-commerce). These practices speed up the subversion of the junior/elderly relation that is at the base of the family organization, and more generally of social organization in West Africa. These relations, which are already subjected to tensions and mutations, are further shaken by the needs and opportunities presented by migration.

  • 6  Anyone can use a computer and can access Internet, which does not mean everyone, especially in the (...)

47We have seen that practices of “avoidance” of cash sending, substituting cash with the direct purchase of food, were already widespread in some emigration contexts, through phone calls to local shops, using the fax and the radio, or by creating purchasing cooperatives or village cooperative warehouses. They were, however, limited to single initiatives or, at most, performed at a village scale. The originality of lies on the fact that this website offers the opportunity to “institutionalize” these practices, and hence to disseminate them, by placing on the market and making (potentially) available to everyone a ready-to-use and impersonal means of “avoidance” (impersonal because it does not function on the basis of personal relations), offering in a generic way and to anyone6 the possibility to restrict obligations of redistribution. Therefore, the novelty of Senboutique is that it spreads a new collective practice, potentially on a worldwide basis, which, we can assume, will speed up the expansion of new support systems and new family relationships – diffusing them as current practice, and not as the expression of an individual particularity. By institutionalizing these practices, legitimates them and contributes to the transformation of the social relations that they involve, manifest and encourage.

48Through the use of, moreover, emigrants show that they no longer accept to be confined to the role of “family suppliers”, but that, through emigration and the subversion of the meaning the elderly assign to it, they claim to access the status of independent adults and to reshape family relationships in which they participate. What is original is that they do so through the use of ICT, i.e. using the Internet, a resource which the elderly often do not have access to, due to the lack of means and of the training needed to use it, as an element and a means of demarcation. Family relations’ transformations are thus accelerated also due to the generation gap created by the use of new communication technologies.

49In conclusion, this case study confirms that emigration accelerates social transformation, advocates greater autonomy for the individual within family relations and encourages emigrants to move beyond what is for some of them an unbearable condition of exploitation, without shrugging off their responsibilities toward their original families and without going so far as to the break off relations. Indeed, as illustrated by the case study, emigrants’ action remains embedded in the idea of family solidarity, rethought and reworked in emigrants’ own terms.

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1  This was part of a research project funded by the French National Research Agency, called SYSAV, Systèmes de savoirs et d’apprentissage en Afrique, studying circulation of knowledge and know-how in Africa and between Africa and Europe.

2  The first ones to depart as conscripts were residents of the four coastal municipalities of Dakar, Rufisque, Saint Louis and Gorée, who were considered French citizens.

3  Here I will not tackle the debate on autonomous or imposed marriage choices in Senegal, but there are clearly important differences and crucial stakes in each marriage practice.

4  Price updated April 7, 2012. The baskets’ price is considered quite high by emigrants abroad, indicating that such a service is not accessible to everyone.

5  The Senegalese name for the Feast of Sacrifice.

6  Anyone can use a computer and can access Internet, which does not mean everyone, especially in the African context.

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Melissa Blanchard, « Sending money or purchasing provisions?  »Journal des africanistes, 84-1 | 2014, 40-58.

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Melissa Blanchard, « Sending money or purchasing provisions?  »Journal des africanistes [En ligne], 84-1 | 2014, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2014, consulté le 27 janvier 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Melissa Blanchard

Dr., Institut d’ethnologie méditerranéenne, européenne et comparative (IDEMEC), CNRS/Aix-Marseille université, France

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