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Adolescent Decisions

From the interviews I conducted with young males who had migrated to Abeokuta in their later adolescence, it was apparent that many had chosen to do so independently and without the prompting of their parents. This is entirely in keeping with local age and gender norms, as teenage boys are progressively incorporated into social manhood and thus afforded both the freedoms and responsibilities conferred by that status. What were their major reasons for moving?9

Without question, the single most important factor was money. This was illustrated throughout my interviews by the particular use of the Fon word ‘ya’—‘poverty’. Ya was almost universally the answer to questions like ‘Why did you move to Abeokuta?’ or ‘Why do you think that others move?’ But when I probed and asked people whether ya meant starvation, or whether the poor would go without food if they stayed in the village, almost everyone responded with an amused or bemused ‘no.’ ‘People don’t die of hunger in this village,’ one youngster pointedly said, before his friend explained that, ‘It’s not that people starve here, it’s just that there’s no money for you if you stay.’ Ya does not mean destitution then; it denotes the lack of cash necessary ‘to evolve.’

Such linguistic digging was unnecessary in much of my research. As the migration histories provided in this chapter make clear, money is as absolutely central to life plans in this part of Benin as it is anywhere else under capitalism, and people openly admit it. This is why migration has become so naturalised as the near-inevitable means to access it. During my fieldwork in 2012, for instance, I visited a school attended by youths from two of my case study villages in Za-Kpota. Some had been to the quarries but most had not. When I introduced myself and my research to a class of 40, I asked why they thought that people all seemed to see migration to Abeokuta as such a good thing. A veritable sea of voices erupted: ‘Akwe! Akwe!’ What is ‘akwe?’ I asked my research assistant. ‘Money,’ he grinned.

Money’s centrality is echoed also in the following responses, taken from two focus group discussions conducted in Sehere and Atome villages. The speakers here range from former migrants to the quarries to school-going youth who have not yet migrated. We have asked people what they think of migration generally and why people move to Abeokuta specifically:

“I think migrating is very good, because there’s no money here, but when someone leaves they can come back with lots of money.” There were many of echoes and numerous nods of agreement.

“When I work in Nigeria, I earn some money and am able to put some aside to buy a motorbike, buy electricity for my house, or other such things.

I can keep migrating back and forth like this every time I need to put together some funds.”

The girls, through their elected spokesperson, said that they also thought leaving was good, “Because there is no money in the village and because the people who leave come back with money, are able to build things for themselves, and can then quickly get married.”

These perspectives were reflective of thinking both in my case study villages and among the young males who were actually working in Abeokuta. They have been echoed in all of the similar studies conducted in artisanal quarry economies elsewhere in the region (e.g. Gratz 2003, 2009; Hilson 2008; Okyere 2012), as well as in studies with teenage labour migrants engaged in other types of work that are equated with trafficking (Castle and Diarra 2003; Huijsmans and Baker 2012; Morganti 2011).10

But money is never seen as an end in itself. Its acquisition is always contextualised within wider social relations, responsibilities and ambitions. In terms of responsibilities, contribution to the wider family economy was most significant for my interviewees. This was evidenced especially clearly in how many youngsters had handed their wages over to their fathers directly upon returning from Nigeria. ‘It’s the done thing,’ one said, as he explained that it was normal both to wish to contribute to the family and to defer to paternal authority when one does not wish to, even if one otherwise enjoys the ‘independence’ of near-manhood. In reflecting on this, Tim articulated what became a kind of motif during my interviews: migrating to Abeokuta, he said, allows you to return and ‘put a roof over your father’s house.’ When he first went to the quarries as a teenager, his goal was precisely to roof his father’s house; then, as a gravel pit patron, he saw himself facilitating the same for the next generation. Peter (whom we first saw earlier) was an example of that generation. Having migrated with Tim at the age of 17 and with his family in mind, he returned two years later and handed his wages over to his father, who used them for the family dwelling.

More individualised motives though are also significant for these young money-makers. These include the attainment of social status or the acquisition of material resources necessary for the transition into manhood and marriage. In terms of status, the major refrain I heard was that successful mobility helps you become ‘considered’ or ‘known.’ This is an essential goal for many people in the region, and successful mobility is a principal means of achieving it. Numerous interviewees explained that returning from Abeokuta with material goods such as a motorbike or a generator represents tangible evidence of an individual’s successful migration and thus constitutes a path on their road to being considered. In one especially revealing instance, a young man rode past the group I was talking to in Tenga village on precisely the motorbike with which he had just returned from Abeokuta. Immediately, and amidst much boisterousness, members of the group began gesticulating to him as a case in point of what constituted a newly ‘considered’ returnee.

Manhood and the crucial life transition to marriage were also linked to material success amongst my migrant interviewees. In Benin, and in contrast to what is asserted by the ideology of Western Childhood, when and how one transitions from boy to man is neither fixed nor universally determined by biological age. Instead, it is contingent on the attainment of economic independence. In one group interview, for example, an adolescent explained to me that one is a man in his community ‘when he works and eats without the help of his parents.’ This was echoed by a second young man, who explained that being a man in his village means ‘farming, having a big harvest, and being able to sell your crops.’ However, as many youth lamented during our discussions, this is more difficult now than ever. Because where being self-sufficient through farming had historically been the major pathway, today that pathway is blocked by declining soil fertility, the decreasing size of landholdings and the increasing importance of the cash economy. As such, these youth are what Sommers calls ‘stuck,’ and they consequently need new strategies for self-articulation (2012). Labour migration is their go-to solution.11

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