Are globalisation and social mobility leading to the demise of African modes of child fostering? – Fellows’ seminar by Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg

“Cameroonians in Berlin and Paris—and, to a lesser extent, their kin in Yaoundé—are developing new kinscripts, moving from the generalised reciprocity of ‘all our kin’ to an emphasis on ‘just for my kids’,” said STIAS fellow Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton College, Minnesota.

“This work explores the puzzling absence of a social form—child fostering—and a turn toward a new way of thinking about kinship and caring for children among a group of African migrants to Europe. Contrary to common practice just a few decades ago, Cameroonian migrants to Germany and France rarely send toddlers home to granny, rebellious teens home to auntie, or foster-in their less advantaged relatives,” she said.

“In our era of mass migration, understanding migrant families’ efforts to forge and maintain meaningful social and civic ties is more important than ever,” she added. Her current book project builds on her earlier ethnographic work on Cameroonian migrant mothers in Berlin (Mothers on the Move: Reproducing Belonging between Africa and Europe). By examining broader changes in norms, it speaks to the intimate, familial side of issues such as an emerging African middle class, global mobility, immigrant ‘integration’, and our obligations to care for one another.

Feldman-Savelsberg - 1STIAS fellow Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg during her seminar presentation on 8 November 2018

Feldman-Savelsberg’s observations are based on long-term participant observation research that has included many years of in-depth interviews and tracing of the changing life stories of Cameroonian immigrants in Berlin and Paris as well as their relatives in rural and urban Cameroon.

Cameroon was colonised by both Germany and France, and therefore there are links of language, culture and education opportunities between the three countries. From the 1980s Cameroonians could access scholarships to study in Germany. There are an estimated 16 000 Cameroonians living in Berlin and as many as 40 000 to 196 000 in Paris. “France has a longer history of migration from Cameroon – nearly a century – and many of these immigrants now have adult children raised in France,” said Feldman-Savelsberg.

The pattern is often initial migration from rural to urban areas followed by international migration with education and improved employment opportunities being the major drivers.

Fostering in and out

Fostering can be both ‘in’ or ‘out’ and usually refers to caring for a non-birth child by extended family. It does not involve the surrender of legal rights and the children often exercise decision making in the situation.

“Fostering out or in is usually about accessing greater resources through the wider moral economy of kinship and may be seen as offering expanded networks and opportunities for the family,” continued Feldman-Savelsberg. It involves different models including children migrating to urban areas or transnationally for improved educational opportunities or being left to be looked after by grandparents while their parents pursue employment opportunities.

“For example, single mothers may leave behind children while pursuing education or career opportunities. For many mothers who establish new families in the place of migration, this is a permanent arrangement. Other mothers, once established in a new place, send for their children.”

“Enhancing education is the enduring reason for fostering.”

Fostering is part of a wider circuit of exchanges among kin residing in Cameroon and in Europe, that may involve flows of money, goods, medicine, moral support, as well as children– a redistribution of resources within families stretched across continents.

Feldman-Savelsberg pointed out that immigration policies, family law, and social service provision can act as hindrances, facilitators, and, even substitutes, for fostering. ‘Fortress Europe’ with its increasing restrictions plays a role in changing fostering patterns but these differ between countries.

“The European Union defines family as biological children under 18 and the legal situation reinforces the notion that the best people to raise a child are its biological parents,” said Feldman-Savelsberg, “but implementation differs. Germany is more bureaucratic but more predictable. In Germany there are also rules about how many people may live per square metre. The French are more flexible and arbitrary in their implementation of immigration law, creating cracks in the system that allow foster children to regularise their legal status after many years of living in France.”

“This sometimes means there is a veil of secrecy around fostering and ongoing worries about being reported.”

“Public provision of childcare and subsidies are also important. Germany offers free daycare up to age 6. Working parents thus can more easily raise their own children, and, through the daycare centre, develop a supportive network with other migrant parents. This means the state effectively provides a functional substitute for fostering.”

Middle classing

But besides changing legal and practical aspects, Feldman-Savelsberg believes that traditional fostering models are being influenced by the “aspirational efforts of middle classing”.

“This profound change in obligations toward kin and children reveals effects of social class as migrant mothers pursue social mobility,” she said.

“Cameroonian parents perceive social class not only as access to material goods, but also to a system of prestige – recognition of social worth. Cameroonian parents hope that middle-class achievement will help them overcome the stigma of race and migration.”

“These migrants want to fulfill the global scripts of family life – the nuclear family, raising one’s own children, being educated, upwardly mobile and belonging to the middle class,” she added.

“This is leading to conflicting narratives of transnational families with generations hotly debating the desirability of fostering. But what is increasingly clear is that migrants rarely post their children back even if the grandparents beg.”

There is also no doubt that middle-class desires and anxieties affect child rearing. Families are increasingly limiting the number of biological children – emphasising quality over quantity; concentrating their resources and efforts within the nuclear family; and children are being developed through participation in organised activities where they gain the symbolic and cultural capital associated with higher status.

Interviewees saw this as taking advantage of the opportunities of migration and making the parents’ sacrifice worthwhile. “The child’s success reciprocates the hardships.”

And Feldman-Savelsberg sees this as leading to changing ideas of kinship obligations.

“The scope of kinship is narrowing,” she said. “We have to understand new ways of thinking about kinship. New kinship is diagnostic of citizenship and class in the pursuit of mobility.”

But she is also keen to emphasise that this is not a strategically calculated move for many.

“People are simply trying to figure out how to raise their children to optimise their future. It may mean migrants don’t sacrifice for relatives as in the past but it’s about adapting cultural practices to the realities of globalisation.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw

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