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Bulgur Marriages and "Big" Women: Navigating Relatedness in Guinean Refugee Camps

From: Anthropological Quarterly
Volume 80, Number 2, Spring 2007
pp. 355-378 | 10.1353/anq.2007.0025

Abstract

The humanitarian community's definition of family and household provides an organizational framework that determines how benefits are offered to refugees. As a result, in refugee camps, social relations become a means to access resources as well as a measure of security, rights, and responsibilities. Bulgur marriage is a disparaging term used by Sierra Leonean refugees in Guinean camps to refer to conjugal unions based on the sharing of bulgur wheat provided by the United Nations World Food Program (UNWFP). For the participants, this arrangement is a form of kinship that carries weight socially, materially, and affectively. An ethnography of "bulgur wives" reveals subtle aspects of navigating relatedness in unstable environments. Their non-linear journeys involve dead ends and censure as well as opportunities to become "big" women in the community. This article examines the moral ambiguity of bulgur marriages, exploring the potential and pitfalls of these new forms of relatedness.