Time-spaces practices of care after a family death

We’re pleased to publish our latest paper, Time-space practices of care after a family death in urban Senegal, in Social & Cultural Geography, by Sophie Bowlby, Ruth Evans, Jane Ribbens McCarthy and Joséphine Wouango.  Here is the summary (résumé français ci-dessous)

The paper contributes to studies of care practices and care ethics beyond the Minority world by analysing informal caringscapes after a family death in urban Senegal. Based on the findings of a qualitative study in the cities of Dakar and Kaolack, we explore exchanges of care by the living for the living in the period immediately following the death, and changes in these care practices over the longer term. We focus on mobilities and changing care roles in family lives over time. We demonstrate the central significance of family commitments and concern for the wellbeing of the ‘family’ in caring exchanges. We suggest that a deeply relational understanding of personhood as bound up with family and community underlies many current caring practices in urban Senegal and challenges current conceptualisations of care interdependencies.

Pratiques spatiotemporelles de care après un deuil familial dans le Sénégal urbain

Cette communication contribue à la recherche sur les pratiques du care et de ses éthiques au-delà du monde minoritaire par une analyse des espaces informels du care après un deuil familial dans le Sénégal urbain. Reposant sur les résultats d’une étude quantitative dans les villes de Dakar et de Kaolack, nous explorons les échanges de care des vivants aux vivants pendant la période immédiatement après le décès, et les changements à plus long terme dans ces pratiques de care. Nous nous concentrons sur les mobilités et les rôles évolutifs du care dans les vies familiales au fil du temps. Nous démontrons la signification centrale des responsabilités et des préoccupations familiales pour le bien-être de la « famille » dans les échanges familiaux. Nous suggérons qu’une profonde interprétation des relations de l’identité individuelle comme étant liée à la famille et à la communauté sous-tend beaucoup de pratiques contemporaines du care dans le Sénégal urbain et remet en question les conceptualisations actuelles des interdépendances du care.

Loss and solitude in contemporary urban Senegal: exploring loneliness after a family death

We presented our paper, ‘Loss and solitude in contemporary urban Senegal: exploring loneliness after a family death‘ today in the panel session on Solitude in Africa, convened by Michael Stasik at the European Conference of African Studies 2019, University of Edinburgh. We analysed our dataset for references to ‘alone’, ‘lonely’ and ‘solitude’; feeling alone after a family death was commonly experienced by the majority of interviewees.  It was great to discuss loneliness and solitude in the context of West Africa with contributors and audience members. See our abstract for more details:

While tackling loneliness has risen up the policy agenda in the UK and other affluent societies, solitude and isolation in Africa appears to be a sign of a loss of social status and support and implies greater suffering (Jacquemin, 2010). In this paper, we explore experiences of loneliness after a family death in contemporary urban Senegal. We draw on in-depth interviews with 59 family members living in two cities, Dakar and Kaolack and four focus groups. Many young people and older participants described feeling ‘alone’, both at the moment of death and in the months following the death. These feelings seemed to conflict with the presence of relatives, friends and neighbours in the immediate aftermath of the death, as well as the sense of the presence of the deceased in homespace. While only one participant, a widower, lived alone, many widows expressed a sense of feeling ‘alone’ in their responsibilities to raise their children and manage the household following the widowhood-mourning period. The findings bring into sharp contrast the distinction often made in Anglophone literature between loneliness as a subjective, felt experience and social isolation as a more objective, observable phenomenon. The Wolof notion of Dimbalanté (solidarity/mutual support), which is closely connected to a relational understanding of the self, bound up with the wellbeing of others (often referred to as Ubuntu in Africa), appear central to understanding the meaning of loss and loneliness in contemporary urban Senegal. These findings have significant implications for conceptualising ‘solitude’ in cross-cultural contexts.

Understanding the social contexts of a family death

We are pleased to share our most recent article published from our research with families in urban Senegal. In this article, we try to understand how people made sense of a family death, within the social contexts of their lives. We theorise this in terms of ‘meanings-in-context’, since meanings and contexts are inextricably bound up together and cannot be separated out: meanings are shaped by particular – local and global – contexts. Contexts are also shaped by the meanings through which people experience their life circumstances. We discuss how people made sense of the family death in relation to three main contexts: family, religion, and materiality.

Families are considered to be absolutely central to people’s lives, being the major source of support and security in precarious life circumstances. After a death, then, families were a key source of support and also of motivation, for the future of the family as a whole. When a family member died, it was the role they played in family life that was central to the sense of loss, and they were often described as ‘irreplaceable’ in these terms.

In relation to family and religion (primarily Sufi Islam) particularly, the death was understood very much as a key communal context for making sense of the death. It was only a minority of people who gave a medical cause of death, although others might refer to physical symptoms. Rather, detailed holistic accounts were often given, of events leading up to the death, and the idea that the death was ‘God’s Will’ was frequently mentioned. This idea provided many people with a significant basis for accepting the death, although sometimes this might also mean that ‘too many tears’ might be frowned upon as indicating an inability to accept God’s Will.

The third context that we discuss is materiality, and in particular we consider how emotions were bound up with the material consequences of the death, which could be severe. This particularly contrasts with ideas of affluent Minority worlds, where emotions are generally understood as something separate from material life.

For more in-depth discussion of these ‘meanings-in-context’, read our blogpost and article.

New blogpost on emotionally sensed knowledge

Ruth Evans’ Methods in Motion blogpost shows how an approach of ‘uncomfortable reflexivity’ can help to reveal the work of emotions in cross-cultural research. Thanks to the Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance, The Open University, for publishing this edited version of our original blogpost.

New Social Dynamics in Senegal workshop

Ruth Evans gave a very well received keynote at the New Social Dynamics in Senegal workshop organised by Aurélien Baroiller, Boubacar Barry & Hannah Hoechner, at Université Libre de Bruxelles, Brussels (13-14 March 2017). Her presentation, “Your tears are like pouring hot water on the body”: Caring for the dead and responses to a family death in urban Senegal, explored the social regulation of grief and how care for the dead is expressed. The workshop provided an opportunity to connect with other academics and researchers working in Senegal and think how best to continue the dialogue in future.

Towards an Anthropology of Grief

Ruth Evans was pleased to speak at the recent workshop Towards an Anthropology of Grief organised by Aurélien Baroiller, Laboratoire d’Anthropologie des Mondes Contemporains, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Brussels, Belgium (8-9 March 2017). Ruth’s paper explored the paradox of absence-presence and the importance of time-space practices in understanding continuing care of the dead in urban Senegal. It was an excellent opportunity to discuss the research findings with anthropologists of grief working in diverse contexts globally.

Interpreting ‘grief’ and emotions in cross-cultural contexts

In our latest article in Mortality, we discuss the complex process of translating and interpreting ‘grief’ and emotions in multilingual, cross-cultural settings. Our research in urban Senegal demonstrates the importance of involving interpreters and field researchers throughout the research process. This enabled us to gain insight into the cultural nuances of indigenous languages and how these are translated and potentially re-framed in the process.

Read the full post here.