Have you ever tried to explain your dissertation to your family? Your students? Strangers or acquaintances you barely know? This is a trying task. My dissertation focuses on mobility and migration between four different West African countries (Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, and Guinea), looking at the multitude of reasons people moved and the larger meaning of all of this movement. One of the biggest challenges I face in explaining all of this is the diversity of perspectives from the people with whom I spoke. Oftentimes reasons vary, perspectives vary, and the individual voices can get lost in 350 pages of historical arguments and narrative.
My research is based on unnecessarily large amounts of archival research, plus 220 interviews I conducted in rural parts of Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau. The documents often tell similar stories, of governments seeking (and generally failing) to control borders and movement, although their attitude towards these movements depends on the period and perceived need for economic migrants and/or security concerns. But what about the voices of the individual migrants themselves? These are rarely seen in documents, and thus must be brought out through interviews.
Each person’s story differs. Many from Guinea-Bissau and Guinea served as seasonal migrant farmers. Many of these farmers had good experiences, using their time in Senegal and Gambia to earn money they could use to buy goods unavailable at home, pay colonial taxes, and save up money to build their own homes and start a family. Some of these farmers went year after year, spending over a decade traveling to another colony/country for months at a time planting and harvesting peanuts. In many cases, these farmers became integrated into their host communities and set down roots. Others went once and decided to never go again. I also interviewed many people who fled violence and economic depression in search of a better life. Others simply crossed borders looking for better farm and pastureland.
When I decided to apply for the CHI Fellowship, I wanted a place where these voices could speak for themselves. My dissertation does not feature long excerpts from interviews because it’s already 350 pages long without them. While the voices of my interlocutors are throughout my dissertation, I am not able to capture the full extent of what they said. I want their voices to be available to the public, as a tool for public memory, for scholarship, and for teaching.
This has not always been the easiest process, but as I come to the last few weeks, I am grateful for the opportunity. It has reminded me whose stories center my research. Too often it is easy to forget that history is not just a series of newsworthy events and processes, but the combination of many people whose collective actions form a rich and cacophonous story.