The effects of labor migration depend in part on who makes the migration decision, and the basis of that decision. Decisions by individuals not only affect village and family consumption levels, they may also start or enhance processes which transform rural social organization.
Dar Masalit district of northern Darfur, Sudan lies on the border with Chad, in the southern half of the Sahel. It became an independent polity under a Masalit Sultan in the late 19th century. The Sultan was accepted as head of a Native Administration by the British upon their occupation of the area in 1922. The Native Administration is now almost completely replaced by Sudanese national political institutions.
Approximately twenty percent of the people of the area are nomadic Arabs. The remainder are sedentary farmers, of whom the Masalit form the largest ethnic group. The Masalit local economy is based on millet cultivation and to a lesser extent livestock, while exports include ground nuts, sesame and animal hides. The Masalit and other peoples from the area often work as migrant laborers.
Mobility is not new to the Masalit. For hundreds of years, they have been moving and expanding in the area. Villages were constantly being founded; founders would clear land and invite people from other villages to join them. As soil fertility was exhausted, fields were abandoned and new ones cut.
With British occupation, borders were fixed and emigration restricted. In the 1920s and 1930s, French policies in Chad drove many people across the border where they were welcomed by local village founders, but land became scarce as a result. Where people had previously owned several fields, their children inherited only one or two each. The situation became more serious in the 1970s due to new immigration from Chad, greater cash needs, and declining rainfall. Today, land scarcity is a fact of life.
Many families have moved to areas in eastern Sudan and southern Darfur, where they have cleared lands and joined existing villages. However, labor migration - individuals migrating temporarily as laborers only became common in the 1950s. Today, labor migrants stream steadily to the more highly capitalized eastern Sudan.
The majority of labor migrants, primarily men in the 15-40 age range, go to the plantations of the Gedaref-Kassala area in eastern Sudan, where they work as agricultural laborers. Some migrants obtain urban employment, and a few go to Libya or Saudi Arabia. Male agricultural laborers live in barracks; a laborer cannot support a family there. The high costs of transport also discourage men from bringing wives or families with them. Thus, while female emigrants from Dar Masalit may resettle with their families or join relatively well-paid husbands in urban jobs, they do not usually accompany agricultural laborers.
Migrants spend one to five years, and sometimes more, at a time in the eastern areas. They say they go to earn money. While most of them do have periods of plenty in the East, they usually return home with little to show for their efforts. They may have new clothing and presents of clothing for their families - perhaps even a little cash - but rarely does a migrant bring enough to buy a cow, a sewing machine, or a start in trade. It is also very rare for a migrant to remit any cash while away. When a rural migrant returns from employment in Saudi Arabia with cassette players, trunks of clothing, and money to invest, it is spoken of throughout the Dar. But to date none has returned permanently to Dar Masalit.
The decision to migratè is made by individuals. A man may consult his wife, but she cannot stop him from going, although she often wants to. Young men are not sent away by their parents, as in some areas. The most common pattern for young men is to run away, as they put it; they point out that if they asked permission it might be refused, so it is better not to ask. Thus, labor migrants frequently choose to migrate without the consent of their families. To understand this trend, we must consider the rights and duties among family members, including patterns of access to land and labor.
Men, women and children in Dar Masalit can cultivate land, own animals, and make decisions about production and consumption. A family is united through relationships of rights and obligations among its members. Men and women marry by their early twenties. The groom pays a bridewealth and then lives with his wife's family in brideservice for a time. Afterwards, the couple may stay or leave, depending on the availability of land. Wives and mothers perform the arduous tasks of cooking and drawing water for their husbands and children. Husbands are responsible for building and maintaining houses and compounds which belong to their wives; upon divorce a woman and her children may keep it. Men are responsible for clothing their families, formerly by growing, spinning and weaving cotton but currently by purchasing fabrics and paying a tailor to sew them. Men are also expected to provide cash for the other needs of the household - taxes, tea and sugar, meat, oil, salt - and even wood and water in the small towns. However, less than half of women who have been married are currently involved in a monogamous marriage. Due to polygyny, low rates of remarriage by divorcees and widows, and migration by husbands, the majority of women and children do not have the full commitment of a man to their family. Further, there is no clear definition of how men should dispose of their money: an individual is always torn between personal family wishes. To men, the desires of their wives and children for clothing, etc. although extremely low by standards elsewhere in Sudan, often exceed their abilities to provide. However, the family's needs must be met as much as possible if good family relations are to be maintained and extra-familial complaints avoided.
Husbands and wives usually have separate fields and do not have rights to each other's labor on their fields. They may help each other, and they certainly have an interest in each other's planting decisions, but ultimately they are independent.
Children work on their mother's crops, and although they may help their father, they are not obligated to do so. The labor of adolescents is valuable, but also difficult for either mothers or fathers to obtain. Adolescents are influenced by persuasion, affection, and moral injunctions, but both they and their parents accept that their own needs are becoming distinct and legitimate. If parents cannot provide their older children with the land or money they need, they cannot expect to elicit much assistance from them on the farm.
The young of both sexes are employed by non-relatives, and young men have the option of migrating to seek opportunities elsewhere. As migrants, they are independent and hope to be able to provide for themselves at a higher level than they were accustomed to as dependent sons. As land becomes more scarce and the cash needs of the young become greater, the ability of parents to provide an attractive alternative to migration is reduced. Thus, it is only a small surprise when sons run away.
Many married men also find advantages in labor migration although they may be reluctant to leave their fields in the care of wives or children. Being older and more experienced, they stand a better chance of finding well-paid work in eastern Sudan. Also, migration may be the only alternative to living in rural poverty where poor families have less clothing, tea and meat. As a resident, a husband and father feels this is his responsibility but a migrant husband fends for himself alone. He is largely insulated from the cash demands of his family. Although he may hope to resettle his family, after a few cycles of temporary migration he grows older and his family grows larger. The costs of resettlement become prohibitive, and labor migration becomes a way of life.
Wives of migrants, like divorced and widowed mothers, must fend for themselves and their families. While they have one less mouth to feed, they also have less cash. For women, the sources of cash besides husbands and fathers are few, and most are less renumerative than those available to men. In addition to growing cash crops, men can engage in a number of small manufacturing or service enterprises to earn cash. For women, brewing is the only non-agricultural activity which turns a slight profit. Women with land can grow ground nuts, while others can work as laborers. Although women grow fewer groundnuts than men, perhaps due to the demands of domestic labor, they are an important source of cash for them. They cannot, however, attain the standard of living of a woman whose husband is present and has a cash income.
Women's greater orientation to local agriculture affects patterns of land use. Land rights are both maintained and obtained by use. Thus by clearing fallow, one makes it one's own; by letting a field go idle, it is lost. This principle also applies in other contexts. For example, if a parent loans a field to a child to use for some years, and then dies, it is usually accepted that that child will continue to cultivate that plot. If a man loans a field to his wife, and she uses it to feed herself and their children, then in the event of a divorce the field will belong to her, or to the children through her. In the past, when men cleared fallow, there was a constant flow of land to women from husbands and fathers. Nowadays, this flow continues, but no male-owned land is added to the total. Because men are absent much of the time, they cannot acquire rights over their parent's land or maintain rights over their own. As women get involved in labor intensive cash crops, they are more willing to share cultivation with a daughter, giving her rights on the land. Increasingly, agriculture is a woman's occupation.
This trend is already apparent. In two villages surveyed, only 42% of fields cultivated by farmers over 40 were farmed by women. However, 67% of fields cultivated by farmers age 40 and under were cultivated by women. The same trend is reflected in ownership. Thus, women are becoming more specialized in agriculture while men are more and more dependent on the fields of their wives when they are in Dar Masalit. This increases the inability of husbands to provide for their families' cash needs, or attract their sons to settle in Dar Masalit. Thus the division of labor tends to be extreme. Women farm and raise families in Dar Masalit, while most men find employment hundreds of miles away. Marriage in many cases involves very limited interaction between husband and wife. For some men in the east and women in the west, it is already superfluous. There are high rates of unmarried women in Dar Masalit, and communities of Masalit bachelors in Gedaref.
With the reduced population of men and the agricultural specialization of women, the diversity of the rural economy has diminished. Since fewer goods are produced and traded locally, market goods are more important. Village merchants, mainly non-Masalit, accumulate cash crops and distribute market goods. They are also major employers of agricultural labor.
Labor migration, rather than resulting in investment or remittances to the rural area, or an integration of town and country, leads instead to an increased differentiation in the population's productive activities. The adult male population is brought into the cash economy directly, through labor on capitalized schemes, while the female population produces for the market through agriculture.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.