Mystic motives: Re-evaluating clandestine migration out of Senegal

As part of the Lunchtime Seminar Series, the African Centre for Migration & Society invites you to a seminar titled Mystic motives: Re-evaluating clandestine migration out of Senegal presented by Stephanie Maher (African Centre for Migration & Society, University of the Witwatersrand).

Between 2006 and 2008, tens of thousands of young predominantly male boat migrants left the shores of West Africa in the hopes of reaching the Spanish Canary Islands. At the time, policy analysts explained the exodus as being motivated primarily by ‘brute poverty’. Since then, anthropologists have nuanced this strictly fiscal interpretation by exploring how other social factors contributed to clandestine departures, such as the inability of youth in Africa to achieve ‘social adulthood’. While such scholarship complicates the broad strokes approach of policy analysis by attending to the difficulties of obtaining upward social mobility in climates of austerity and volatility, it remains largely centered on the economics of individual status and neglects the reality of fulfilling spiritual obligations in a world of increasingly restricted borders. This presentation offers another reading of the motivating factors by arguing that economic motives, though profound, cannot be divorced from their socio-religious milieu. Rather, migration is often a mode of aspiring to piety and striving to sustain communities back home in morally valuable ways. As such, migrants are both economic and religious actors embedded in spiritual economies of reciprocity and obligation. In particular, clandestine migrants in Senegal are faced with the peculiar challenge of seeking religious fulfillment in a world where legal paths to mobility have been progressively foreclosed. By analyzing the narratives of refoulés (forcibly returned migrants) in Senegal, this presentation will reveal how migration is not simply a response to ‘brute poverty’ or the desire for individual status, but is also linked to spiritual aspirations and the compelling desire to care for kin and community. Understanding these motivations is critical to appreciating contemporary patterns of mobility across the Mediterranean today.


Stephanie Maher joined the African Center for Migration & Society as a postdoctoral fellow in 2017. She previously conducted ethnographic research on clandestine migration, religious aspiration, and forced repatriation in Senegal (2008-2014), and received her Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Washington in 2015. Building on her previous work with West African migrants, her current research examines the extent to which immigrants and refugees in South African townships use their religious affiliations to access resources such as housing and employment, and how faith-based organizations constitute a new form of political authority in urban South Africa.

Date: Tuesday 19 September 2017

Time: 12.30 -13.30

Venue: ACMS Seminar Room 2163, South East Wing, Second Floor, Solomon Mahlangu House, University of the Witwatersrand East Campus