Migration, family and the changing significance of absence in Senegal

In the Senegambian region, mobility has long been an important aspect of familial arrangements, from polygamous marriages in which men move between wives’ homes to the circulation of children between households. With increasing migration throughout the 20th century, these regional patterns have been extended across continents, such that transnational marriage and parenting have become an ordinary part of life for many Senegalese families. At the same time, in Wolof-speaking Senegal certain forms of absence are valued so long as they are predicated on the substitution of the absent person with someone appropriate, and on eventual presence. Increasingly however, the ability to move back and forth for visits, and to be reunified with children or spouses, have become severely curtailed by the restrictiveness of immigration policies in Europe and elsewhere. Protracted periods of immobility thus radically transform the experience of living in transnational families. This paper suggests that the social significance of absence, and the ability to ‘live apart together’ that is often celebrated in popular discourse as well as in studies of Senegalese migration, are being transformed by forced immobility.