- Muslim Families in Global Senegal: money takes care of shame by Beth Buhhenhagen
Since the early 1990s, Beth Buggenhagen has been working with an extended Wolof Muslim family in urban Senegal, following the trajectories, travels and tribulations of various members. Based on her intimate knowledge about their personal lives, this book presents stories about the exchange relations in which several individuals belonging to this family engage – more or less successfully – in order to improve their social status. Although many members of this transnational network are working abroad, the focus is on the households in Senegal. Buggenhagen is particularly concerned with interpreting the everyday life in these homes over the last twenty years as an aspect of the ‘neoliberal moment’, emphasizing people’s efforts to create enduring values in the face of economic volatility.
What makes the book a unique and innovative contribution to the burgeoning literature committed to criticizing neoliberalism is the way it addresses the broad theme of continuity and change. Instead of adopting a short-term perspective on economic crisis or concentrating on the phenomenon of migration, like much recent scholarship, Buggenhagen investigates how the articulation of a moral crisis, evoked in the subtitle of the book with the notion of ‘shame’, is linked to processes over the longue durée, namely the transformation of wealth into values in the context of ritual (family ceremonies) and religion (the Murid brotherhood). The book is organized around the central question of how a society can reproduce itself in terms of its own inherent values when the material basis of its forms of social and symbolic production has shifted. The underlying economic foundations of Wolof Murid communities in the Senegalese post-colony and their entanglements with the restructuring of capital on larger scales are described in the first three chapters. The last four chapters focus on the micro-dynamics of social interaction. Through detailed ethnography of exchange practices, the author provides an understanding of the moral terms in which the economic [End Page 351] realities of contemporary life in an urban Wolof Muslim family are apprehended by its members. The narrative unfolds through the successive introduction of different forms of material, social and spiritual wealth, such as houses, land, cloth, money, religious merit, and credit of ‘social payments’. The meanings they acquire in terms of values – for example, honour, beauty, blessing, prosperity, etc. – are explained by drawing on vernacular conceptions and the respective Wolof terms.
Women’s perspectives on their relations with others, be it as mother, godmother, sister, bride, wife or ex-wife, occupy a dominant position in the text. This reflects not only the positionality of the author, but also the recurrent physical absence of male family members, as well as the relative loss of autonomy and authority of senior men due to the changing material basis of gendered and generational power relations. Buggenhagen clearly demonstrates how female elders are increasingly gaining control over the means of production in households based on junior men’s remittances. Analysing the circulation of cloth is an ingenious device to indicate how these changes are connected to regional history, religion and politics, transnational trade and global markets. While cloth is the basic medium of ritualized gift exchange through which matrilineages are reproduced and female wealth is made visible, it also functions as a metaphor through which the interweaving of different spheres of value creation is made evident for the reader. Its significance is complementary to that of land as a formerly inalienable possession securing the persistence of the patrilineage and the basis of male power. However, the heated public debates in Senegal about women’s ‘wastefulness’ (gaspillage) and the ‘madness’ of ever rising expenditures in the context of family ceremonies indicate that established mechanisms of social reproduction and reciprocity are out of balance. Whereas economic and moral instability reflected in popular criticism of exaggerated bridewealth payments and conspicuous consumption is not new as such, Buggenhagen argues that the recent increase in household debts, based...