Much of this applies also to the book’s central Beninese case study. Beninese socio-cultural groups are widely regarded as communalistic (Argyle 1966; Mercier 1973; Alber 2003; Morganti 2011). This is expressed in communal living and eating arrangements, group linguistics and collective property management (Argyle 1966: 137; Kopytoff 2005: 131). It is also expressed in the organisation of family life. Nuclear families of the Western variety are rare in Benin, and extended families engaged in shared caregiving are the norm. At the day-to-day level, this shared caregiving involves a diffuse, collectivised approach to the chores of childrearing—errant children will often be berated by any present elder, while older children will wash their younger peers as adults perform more complex household tasks. At the ‘structural’ level, children will commonly live with adults other than their biological parents. Of the 10 children and young people I lived with in Cotonou in 2007, for instance, only 2 were the biological offspring of the household head. This was typical: one author estimates that as many as 17% of 6- to 9-year-olds and 22% of 10- to 14-year-olds live in households other than those of their biological parents in Benin (Pilon 2003: 11), which has been corroborated also by the census (MPD and INSAE 2003: xxxii).
Such social parenthood is designed to secure both collective responsibility sharing and collective resource sharing (Adihou and ASI 1998: 5). In a socio-centric space in which the collective is key, individuals (and especially children) are conceived as collective assets that have to be formed for the good of the collective and to which different members of the collective must have access. Children will thus often be placed away from their parents precisely to allow different parts of the wider collective to access the value and labour power that they represent (Isiugo-Abanihe 1985; Akresh 2005). Alber shows this in her study of the Baatombu, who reallocate children between households according to gendered (and generationally conditioned) labour needs (2003: 488). Otherwise, as Adihou explains, children move so as to be socialised into the autonomous, responsible, contributing members of the collective that they are required to be. Sometimes this will include being sent to elders who are considered more authoritarian (where discipline is necessary) (Adihou and ASI 1998: 9), while at others, it will be to relatives who simply live in different places, in order to teach the young ‘to adapt and cope in different environments’ (Le Biavant-Aureggio 1994/5: 22).