The lives, status, and image of immigrants may constitute the single-most urgent human issue of our time. In an arresting and captivating new study of Cameroonian mothers now living in Berlin, Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg challenges just about everything we thought we knew about immigrants. Living as migrants in a nation infamous for its twentieth-century genocides against “others,” these educated, often middle-class women demonstrate over and over again the common impulses that define our shared humanity.
Mothers on the Move: Reproducing Belonging between Africa and Europe was recently published by the University of Chicago Press (2016).
Daniel J. Smith calls it
“a wonderful book full of rich and compelling ethnographic cases.”
And Cati Coe calls it
“[a] sensitive, well-grounded, and beautifully written study of the
dilemmas immigrant mothers face when they migrate.”
You can find a Table of Contents here.
Read a free preview from the Introduction here.
The publisher offers complementary desk copies and exam copies to instructors here.
From the website of Carleton College (where she is the Broom Professor of Social Demography and Anthropology, and Director of Africana Studies), you can find Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg’s institutional home page here.
I recently interviewed Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg online about her new book. Here’s what she had to say (AG = Alma Gottlieb; PFS = Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg):
Photo by Alma Gottlieb
Interview with Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg
AG: Your early research focused on the lives of women in Cameroon. This book focuses on women who’ve left Cameroon to re-start their lives in Berlin. What inspired you–both to switch fieldsites to a new continent, and to write a book on a new subject?
PFS: Each research project has opened up new questions and curiosities. Following these leads has led me to new fieldsites within Cameroon, and then within Europe. Along the way, I am not only following up on questions raised by prior research projects, but I’m also following people from the same ethnic group and region—sometimes even the same people, or their friends and children—from the countryside to the city, and on to Berlin or Paris.
And I’ve always been interested in women’s lives, in reproduction and family-making, and in tensions between belonging and marginalization. Thus, even though I’ve switched fieldsites, there’s a lot of continuity in my work. The transnational migration aspect is new, but otherwise this book is not about an entirely new subject.
Even my next planned research project—about ways in which the contexts of reception matter for Cameroonians’ changing notions of transnational family obligations—continues along these lines, while bringing me to new sites (Paris, Cape Town).
AG: That should be a wonderful new project.
Meanwhile, Western media images of migrants and refugees tend to focus on the poorest of the poor—those in desperate conditions, in need of serious outlays of both aid and
sympathy. The West African migrants you profile are mostly highly educated, and at least middle-class. Did you choose to focus on this group of semi-invisible migrants to challenge stereotypes? What lessons can they teach Western readers?
PFS: Yes, I do aim to challenge stereotypes. I tell one among many possible stories about African migration and family-making in Europe. Other important stories have been told about migration and the search for well-being. I fear that some of these narratives end up reinforcing stereotypes of “the African migrant” as illegal(ized), impoverished, and in need of help.
In dialogue with my Cameroonian interlocutors and colleagues, I became aware of the pain caused by the repetition of a one-sided story of abjection. Stereotypes hurt. However well-meaning, fundraising campaigns portraying poor, helpless African women and children belie the energy, intelligence, and educational resources of Cameroonian immigrant women. Without sugarcoating the hardships of migration, it’s important to let readers know that the story of abjection does not fit the data for Cameroonian immigrants to Berlin.
There are enormous distinctions in women’s lives depending not only on class background and class attainment, but also immigration status upon entering the new country, as well as the ability (or lack thereof) to maintain or obtain regularized immigration status. These critical distinctions often lead to vastly differing reproductive strategies, which in turn are linked to different ways that women seek a sense of belonging in multiple communities.
As anthropologists we look for both patterns and particularities. The former are important for telling a coherent, social-scientific story; the multiple stories of particular individuals’ lives are important to work against typification, which is by definition reductionist.
AG: Your book details examples of daily racism that Cameroonian immigrants experience in Berlin . . . yet, new Cameroonian migrants continue arriving. In the wake of Germany’s role in WWII aiming to annihilate Jews, Roma, gays, and other groups of people that white Germans dubbed “Others,” how do you explain the decisions of these African elites to emigrate, of all places, to Germany?
PFS: There are many reasons that Cameroonian migrants—and as we know from the news, many, many others—choose to emigrate to Germany. Economics is primary—because of the country’s strong economy and job opportunities. Especially important to upwardly-mobile Cameroonians is Germany’s almost-free university education. And, interestingly, many Cameroonians appreciate the fact that it is not France. Cameroonian migrants in both Germany and France—and, as I learned this summer, those who remain home in Cameroon—perceive that immigration bureaucracy works more reliably and predictably in Germany than it does in France. Even if the UN, in its Decade for People of African Descent, finds significant structural racism in Germany, native-born Germans hold a variety of political and ideological positions. Thus, despite the catastrophic history of racism in their country, some Germans are more aware of inherent racism, and eager to discuss it, than are their counterparts in countries with less tainted histories. And, for all its faults (past and present), Germany is certainly more welcoming to refugees than is the U.S. in the current Trump era.
Still, the common question posed often by Germans to immigrants in daily life, “Where do you come from?” haunts Cameroonian parents and their children in Germany, as does the general image of “Africa” that is portrayed in mass media. One Cameroonian mother told me a poignant story about her seven-year-old son’s visit to Cameroon. “This isn’t Africa, mom,” he exclaimed. There were no lions or giraffes, not even a little monkey in the big port city of Douala. Instead, while visiting his urban cousins, he experienced air-conditioned office buildings with elevators, manicured gardens, and schoolchildren in neatly pressed uniforms. None of this fit with the image of game parks and starving, half-naked children that the boy had learned about from television.
AG: Wow, what a moving (and disturbing) story. It reminds me of all the mini-stories you write about the women whose lives you’ve followed in Berlin. These women will feel very much like real people to a reader–individuals with their own idiosyncratic biographies and challenges, rather than what Renato Rosaldo might call the dreaded Group Noun (which, in this case, would be a single kind of person we could categorize as “Cameroonian women migrants”). Why did you decide to feature a number of individual women, and how did you decide on these particular women to feature?
PFS: In this book I aim to portray the voices of individual women, each with her own concerns, challenges, resources, and desires. I mentioned earlier that I want to work against stereotypes and typification. This doesn’t mean that I don’t look for patterns in Cameroonian migrant women’s lives. Of course I do! Migrant women share predicaments of belonging, reproduction, and connection that are created and/or exacerbated by migration. But, shaped by their diverse biographies and circumstances, each woman manages these predicaments in her own way. I decided to feature particular women because they illustrated the diversity of women’s experiences and strategies.
When women told me about their lives, I was just fascinated by how their individual characters came through. I think of Maria telling me her love story—starting with her surprise meeting with a childhood sweetheart in Berlin—while showing me her family photo album. Or of Mrs. Black’s anguish that her white German husband just couldn’t or wouldn’t understand how important it was to her to help her extended family with gifts of cash.
I’d like to add something else about stories. Cameroonian migrant mothers share stories, or anecdotes from their lives, with one another. This is just a normal part of socializing. My book shows how, through stories, individual experiences are communicated and become crystallized into collectively held orientations toward the world, toward a new context.
AG: One of the key concepts you deploy in the book is the notion of “affective circuits.” Can you speak about how you seized on that metaphor from electrical engineering to speak to the issues concerning migration that you are tackling?
PFS: I didn’t invent the term. I got the idea from our fellow anthropologists, Jennifer Cole and Christian Groes, who had invited me to contribute to an edited volume on affective circuits. I loved the layers of metaphors—gesturing simultaneously toward research on migration circuits and toward electrical engineering—so I took the idea and ran with it, developing the notion further. So often in studies of social capital, researchers write as if economic and informational flows along network ties are constant. But the network ties of the women I studied were neither constant nor additive. Women dropped some relationships, gained others, and then renewed old ties, depending upon how their circumstances and their feelings changed. Neither words (whether loving or nagging) nor money nor presents flowed continuously along women’s social connections; the flows stop and start and must be managed. And this careful management that women do is all bound up in the feelings they have toward their families, their fellow migrants, and the German bureaucrats they meet.
AG: Indeed. Moreover, in Berlin, the children of the migrants you’ve followed are growing up in very different circumstances from the childhoods of their parents. You’ve highlighted the term “Belonging” in your subtitle. Can you talk about the different issues that the two generations experience as black migrants in a predominantly white nation?
PFS: What an interesting question, with many layers! Some aspects of belonging are not questioned in Cameroon, but are brought to consciousness in Germany. One difference is that parents, growing up in Cameroon, largely didn’t have to worry about being black. They didn’t grow up as a “minority”—but their children do. On the other hand, the children of migrants grow up fluent in German, and they get early practice in code-switching between forms of behavior deemed appropriate in “German” vs. “Cameroonian” settings. Language learning and cultural adaptation are more challenging and self-conscious for their parents.
Another difference is that migrants who arrived in Germany as adults had earlier experienced challenges of belonging in Cameroon. It may seem surprising that individuals have a hard time belonging in their country of origin, but the legacies of Cameroon’s complex colonial history (which included three different colonial powers—Germany, France, and England) mean that people of certain ethnic groups and regions are disadvantaged on the national scene. These groups—for example, the Bamiléké and English-speaking Cameroonians—make up a large proportion of the Cameroonian diaspora. Their children, by contrast, grow up in Germany with a different view of their homeland—a place of origin, a place to visit, a place where Grandma and Grandpa live.
Still another difference in migrants’ experiences concerns recent historical change in Germany. Earlier migrants faced many more challenges than do more recent migrants, because there are now settled migrants and migrant organizations that can ease newcomers’ transition to life in Germany.
AG: In the US, we now have a president who campaigned on a platform of drastically restricting immigration, and many of his supporters easily denounce whole groups of immigrants. Alongside health care reform, restricting immigration (including refugee applications) has been one of Trump’s major agendas. What do the experiences of Cameroonian immigrant women in Germany have to teach us in the US?
PFS: Immigrants can bring a lot to our country. Overall, immigrants are more law-abiding than native-born Americans, and in terms of college and post-graduate degrees, they are better educated. Immigrants tend to be ambitious, making many personal sacrifices for the well-being of their children and families. We have a lot to learn from them when we consider “family values,” and perhaps even reconsider what family can mean. Providing chances and being welcoming allows these immigrants to contribute to society.