Family Ties

Hassane Diagne and his family Familie @Christian Bobst
In large parts of Africa, people live in extended families. Often, the more children, cousins, nieces and aunts under one roof, the better. In Senegal, Angela Köckritz has observed how society is held together in this way – and how economic development is slowed down.

She rolled out at five in the morning, she says. Like every day, she manoeuvred her wheelchair past sooty buses and taxis with the strength of her arms, dodged flying traders and potholes until she reached her post in the centre of Dakar, the Senegalese capital. There is always a lot of city folk on the move there, men in elegant shirt dresses, ladies in colourful costumes, itinerant fruit sellers balancing their wares in boxes on their heads, schoolchildren in uniform. Awa Fall let her cup jingle with coins. Every now and then someone would drop a few more coins in, she says. But most people just passed her by.
Now it is evening and Awa Fall is back in her room, which she shares with two friends, wheelchair users like her. It is on the ground floor of an apartment building. Three beds, a cupboard, a plastic bag with belongings. On the wall they have hung photos of themselves looking like princesses, perfectly coiffed and elaborately made up.
Awa Fall is 40 years old and has a friendly round face; in her loose leopard print dress she looks robust and fragile at the same time. She tells how ashamed she is of having to beg – „me, with all my pride. I would much rather work.“ She would like to tailor, make jewellery, but every time she asks for a job she gets a refusal, she says.
It was a wrongly administered injection that robbed her of the ability to walk as a child. Maybe during a vaccination, Awa Fall does not know. She comes from a village about 200 kilometres away. When her parents died, she moved to the metropolis with her two friends. „It was a shock.“ There was no one waiting for them, no one they knew, they slept under the open sky. In the meantime, the three can rent their room, but their income from begging fluctuates ominously. Now, in the pandemic, especially many people are keeping their money together. „There are days when we don’t have enough to make ourselves something to eat in the evening,“ says Awa Fall.
A wheelchair user who begs her way through a large African city. One could hardly think a struggle for existence could be more brutal. You might think that Awa Fall has to use all her energy and all her meagre financial means to secure a reasonably bearable life for herself. But here in Senegal, things are not always as they seem to be to the Western gaze.
Awa Fall moved to Dakar after her parents died because she has seven younger siblings. No matter how little she can afford, Awa Fall always sends money home to them in the village. Sometimes it takes a week until the next transfer, sometimes it takes longer; sometimes it is the equivalent of eight euros, sometimes it is more. A sick aunt also lives off her support. When asked why she does this and what it means to her, Awa Fall shrugs her shoulders: „I just want to help my family“. Eight relatives – she cares for more people than most single earners in affluent Germany.
Much thought has been given to Africa’s economic situation. Countless articles, studies and books have traced the reasons why people here are on average worse off financially than those on other continents. Most of these texts were written by Western researchers, and most of them appeared in magazines and publishing houses in Europe and the USA. They are about the unjust global economic order, about the overexploitation of African raw materials, from which only a narrow local elite profits alongside international corporations, about the lack of industrialisation, about corruption and mismanagement. „Since the morning of independence, Africa has been described as the continent that got off to a false start and has been drifting ever since: a dying monster,“ writes Senegalese philosopher Felwine Sarr, one of Africa’s most important postcolonial thinkers, in his book Afrotopia. „The presence of people on earth is now only noted mediated by gross national product or world market position.“
For the most part, the studies are not about the extended family.
There are many people like Awa Fall in Dakar. The cleaning lady who has to pump the neighbours to feed herself and her children, but sends money to uncles and aunts. The security guard who feeds not only his wife and children, but dozens of family members with his small salary.

The student who not only finances her studies with a job, but also her brother’s family. Awa Fall’s flatmates also give a large part of what they beg to relatives. And often the money then moves on, to even more distant relatives. It always has to flow, it is never allowed to rest.
Hardly anything shapes the everyday life of many people in Africa as much as the awareness of a special obligation towards one’s own relatives. The extended family is a blessing and a burden, a gift and a burden. It produces solidarity and resentment, happiness and despair. It makes people’s lives richer and poorer at the same time, and who would know this better than Hassane Diagne?
Hassane Diagne makes sure that the money is on the move. Day after day, he organises the great redistribution. Diagne, 36, stands in his small shop, the window of which is adorned with a row of stickers with company logos: Western Union, MoneyGram, Orange Money, Wari. All providers of money transfers. Diagne has thought carefully about everything in here. The inconspicuous water bottle in which slips of paper with Muslim verses are dissolved, a charm to attract as many customers as possible. The mirror in which the customers, while waiting for their money, casually see the products behind them that Diagne also offers. Cream, perfume, exercise books. „I want to take advantage of the few seconds of adrenaline when the customer gets his money,“ Hassane Diagne says and laughs. He is a funny guy with warm eyes who loves debating and socialising. He opened his first cybercafé when he was 20 and is constantly thinking of new business ideas.
This one was a pretty good one. Diagne cannot complain about a lack of customers. Those who collect money from him usually have it from relatives, those who deposit money usually send it to relatives, he says. And for every transfer, Hassane Diagne gets a commission. He also has a few side businesses, all in all he earns more than 3000 euros a month, which is a lot in a country where the average income is 1300 euros – a year. „I could live like a European,“ says Diagne. If it weren’t for what he calls „the system“. The extended family. Hassane Diagne himself has one, of course. And they use up all the money.
After work, Diagne locks his shop with thick locks. He gets into his car and drives to his elegant house. When he opens the door, one big hello begins. Several children throw themselves at him, cousins pat him on the shoulders, his mother and grandmother wave at him from the couch, his sister and one of his two wives want to know how his day was. Hassane Diagne enjoys all the shuffling and calling around, you can tell. 19 of his relatives live in the house and in the flat he has rented in addition.
He pays for the living expenses, for electricity, gas and food. He pays for the public schools for four of his own children and six nephews; these school fees alone amount to the equivalent of more than 530 euros per month. In addition, like the beggar Awa Fall, he also transfers money to his family’s home village, to countless other relatives – and to people who are not related to him, but to whom he also feels obliged because they come from the same place. „If you are a helpful son,“ says Hassane Diagne, „you are everyone’s son.“
Whether at work during the day or at home in the evening, his phone is constantly ringing: „Heyyyy, that you’re also calling!“, Hassane Diagne then says. Or: „Hallloooo, what a surprise!“ Some supplicants are needy, others comfortable, some modest, others demanding. Some are threateningly ill, others would like a bigger flat-screen TV. Diagne still has two older brothers who live in the USA and help him provide something for all these people. But he takes care of most of it.
Hassane Diagne is a born entrepreneur. He would like to venture into new things, create jobs, invest. For that, he would have to save up capital or be able to service a loan at the bank. Of course, like businessmen in rich countries, he has learned to calculate investments and prepare cost plans, he says. „But the system forces you not to do it.“
The extended family’s costs are not just high; above all, they are incalculable. Hospital bills. Births. Funerals. Someone constantly wants something, but what exactly follows no business logic, but the chaotic logic of life. „An African entrepreneur cannot afford to save. Your costs are your costs.“
Diagne has two bank accounts, money is constantly flowing out of them, he constantly has to make an effort to fill them.

When he is not in his shop, he also repairs computers and works as an IT specialist, he sells computer accessories and works as an agent for real estate and cars. Everything for the extended family. Hassane Diagne, the man who earns as much as few people in Senegal, shimmies from expense to expense, sometimes borrowing money from friends without his relatives knowing. Hassane Diagne says: „The income I earn is not mine. What we have only flows through us. I am the one who passes it on.“
Diagne has never known it any other way. His father, a farmer who has since died, was the first from the village to venture with his family to the capital – and thus became the focal point for all those who followed him. More and more relatives from the countryside moved in with them, and the father took care of them. When Hassane was ten, his father sent him back to the village, and Hassane stayed there for five years. Even today, children are often sent to their parents‘ old home for months at a time; Hassane Diagne calls it „inoculation the Senegalese way“. An inoculation against the temptations of the big city, against individualism and isolation.
In Dakar, an average of eight people live together in one household, and out in the countryside many more – in Germany, there are fewer than two people, and in almost every second German household there is only one person. In Senegal, 35 percent of married people live in polygamous marriages, like Hassane Diagne with his two wives, and each Senegalese woman has an average of 4.9 children – in Germany it is 1.5.
„The nuclear family does not exist in Senegal,“ says sociologist Fatou Sow of the University Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar. „Even when a family lives as a nuclear family, the bonds of solidarity extend far beyond the household.“
And solidarity just means, not only in Hassane Diagne’s case: the pressure for constant redistribution makes it difficult to draw up a plan for one’s own future.
For a long time, sociologists and historians believed that in Europe, too, most people’s everyday life took place in the extended family – and that this only changed when, around 1800, the triumphant march of industrialisation drove people into the cities, where they worked in factories or offices and lived in flats, husband and wife and a few children.
We now know that the nuclear family was widespread in Europe much earlier. There were large families, especially among the wealthy and nobility, but in the 11th century, for example, families in a rural area in France studied by historians had no more than three children on average. In Central and Western Europe, men and women even then married later than in the rest of the world, between the ages of 25 and 29. And because people did not have a high life expectancy at that time, three generations did not live under one roof very often.
If you believe the British social anthropologist Jack Goody, the power of the European extended family was already broken when the Church consolidated its influence on the continent in late antiquity. Christian morality condemned divorce, concubinage and the marriage among distant relatives typical of extended families; it strengthened the bond of the spouses – and thus the nuclear family. The church profited economically from this, because the assets of childless couples or widows that would previously have ended up with relatives were now often transferred to the church.
North of the Mediterranean, the European economic man was formed over centuries, who on his way to modernity detached himself from social ties, from traditions and communities, and became increasingly individualistic. South of the Mediterranean, homo socius continued to dominate. The social man.
That is what Abdoulaye-Bara Diop calls him. The Senegalese sociologist has studied the social structure of the Wolof, the largest of 20 ethnic groups in Senegal. Their idea of what wealth is can be found in many areas of Africa. For the Wolof, wealth is traditionally first and foremost wealth in people.
Scholars are convinced that this is due to the labour-intensive agriculture in West Africa: in pre-colonial times, several women and many children meant more labour in the fields, in the household and in care. They enabled a man to form alliances with other extended families, they conferred prestige. The sons of the patriarch lived with their families on the patriarch’s land, they cultivated the fields with him, formed an economic and supply unit that included dozens, sometimes more than a hundred people. The survival of the clan was paramount, the individual had to subordinate himself to the family hierarchy. Everything was shared.

This was the world the Europeans found when they settled on the coasts of Senegal from the 15th century onwards to trade slaves. It was not until the 19th century that the French penetrated the entire country. They wanted to exploit its resources, the colony was to supply mainly peanuts. They built railways, created administrative districts, founded schools. Their subjects, the Senegalese, were supposed to learn to speak, feel and live like French people – which would also have meant not being polygamous, i.e. living in smaller families. That did not work.
Mali Dieng, 67, a slender man with a quiet voice who worked as a bricklayer for a long time, sits on the bed with his wife in their turquoise-painted parlour. The two share a small house in Dakar with other families just behind the Atlantic beach. Dieng is watching the television, where the president is giving a speech in French, the official language in Senegal. Mali Dieng barely understands French, as do the majority of Senegalese; the everyday language in the country is Wolof. „The state,“ Dieng says, taking a long look at the declaiming president, „is very, very far from us. Family and community support is much more important.“
Senegal is anything but a failed state. Compared to neighbouring countries, it is a stable democracy. But in the everyday life of most citizens, in the everyday life of people like beggar Awa Fall, entrepreneur Hassane Diagne and bricklayer Mali Dieng, the state does not play a big role. And that also has to do with the colonial past.
On the one hand, the colonial power actually succeeded in bringing Senegal under its control at the time. In the countryside, men neglected the fields of the extended families and began to grow peanuts on their own account, which they sold to the French negotiators. They now hardly worked for the common good of the family. Parts of the old social order disintegrated. Elsewhere in Africa, a similar change was taking place.
On the other hand, the Western model of the state could not simply be imposed on another culture. The French lacked money and personnel, and their influence on the population remained limited. The old was not replaced by the new, the social man was not transformed into an economic man according to the European model. A both/and arose, something quite unique between the old sense of community in the extended family and a new capitalist egoism. Between tradition and change. Between the logic of the clan and a western model of the state.
„We have lived modernity, rejected it, accepted it, deconstructed it, reconfigured it,“ says sociologist Fatou Sow. „We have transformed modernity.“
If many Senegalese avoid paying taxes today, it is because the state is still an imported product from Europe for them, says Ahmadou Aly Mbaye, economist and rector of Cheikh Anta Diop University. „They don’t understand it as their state.“ So it lacks the means to build a system of social protection.
When Mali Dieng, a mason, was a young man, in the post-independence period six decades ago, he hoped for a state capable of acting. A state that would help him achieve security and modest prosperity and fulfil the promise of numerous international experts that could be heard everywhere at the time: The future belongs to Africa. And for a while, it didn’t look so bad. „There were Senegalese industrial companies and construction firms, I worked for one of them and had a permanent contract,“ Dieng says. He paid taxes. „I had a good life then.“
In the 1970s, however, Senegal plunged into recession after a drought. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund told the government to open the country to the world market so it could export more products. But Senegalese industry was no match for the competition: imports from abroad began to flood the domestic market. „In the following decades, one company after another shut down,“ says Dieng. „Including the one where I worked.“ Regular jobs fell away. Today, 96 per cent of jobs are in the informal sector. Almost all artisans, shop assistants and drivers work without insurance, without pension rights, without the expectation that the state will be there for them. They pay no taxes.
Not long ago, Mali Dieng was one of them. He got his orders from a group of people who still manage to climb the social ladder in the new era. Only elsewhere: in Europe. Dieng worked as a bricklayer for migrants who had come into money abroad and were now having houses built for them in their old homeland of Senegal. Magnificent beach villas in pink and yellow.

Palaces of longing. They are not far from his little room.
When Mali Dieng looks out of the window at night, he sometimes sees young people boarding the huge, colourfully painted wooden boats in which they set off on the one or two-week journey to the Canaries. Many never arrive. Those who do make it „are under a lot of pressure to succeed“, says Julia Stier, who researches the migration of West Africans to Germany at the Science Centre Berlin. The extended family back home expects financial support. Officially, remittances from abroad account for ten per cent of Senegal’s gross domestic product, unofficially it could be twice as much, says Stier.
In the Corona crisis, the flow of money has become narrower. Dieng can no longer get jobs. His wife is sick, they have no pension. What they have left is help from the adults of their seven children. Sometimes the neighbours also give them money. For the imperative of personal, direct solidarity in a country that lacks an anonymous, bureaucratic welfare state – in Senegal it is not limited to relatives.
With the dignity of a bank director, Mbene Ndao, 63, sits on a colourful mat in a shell building by the sea. Next to her is a large calabash, a cut-open bottle gourd. Around her, two dozen women have taken their seats. A market vendor, a child in a shawl on her back, stands up and casually throws three 10,000-franc notes into the calabash, about 46 euros in total. Next is a businesswoman, she pays for her neighbour, „she’s indisposed today“. Then a housewife. Madame Ndao calls each one individually, nods and looks stern. Her assistant sits next to her. In the end, the calabash is bulging with almost two million West African francs, more than 3,000 euros.
Mbene Ndao, a lady of resolute charm, manages several tontines, so-called savings circles for women. In this tontine, which Madame Ndao has named „The Big Win“, all the participants pay in the same amount each time. Then two of them share the total amount. So in the long run, the women receive as much as they put into the calabash. The advantage is that the women can save at all. This is not a matter of course in a country where only a few have an account at a bank. If a relative or acquaintance comes and asks for money, Madame Ndao’s women can answer face-saving: I’m afraid I have to serve my tontine!
In her main profession, Ndao is a masseuse for Reiki, a Japanese healing art that also exists in Senegal. She doesn’t earn any money with the tontines, but that doesn’t mean that the saving circles are just some hobby: They raise awareness and reputation. Ndao manages the deposits of 300 to 400 women, and she also lends her own money to numerous other women – without any interest, Islam forbids that. „But if you do something good, good things will happen to you,“ she says. In this way, she has become an influential personality who is even courted by politicians – they hope to get an election recommendation from her.
According to the French-Nigerian anthropologist Olivier de Sardan, people in Africa have much larger social networks than Asians, Europeans, Americans. And they do so in an entirely analogue way, beyond Facebook and Instagram. Madame Ndao estimates that she has thousands of contacts. New ones are constantly being added, some are inherited. „If my grandmother has built up a friendship with the grandmother of another woman, then it is up to me and her granddaughter to maintain this relationship,“ she says. And, „contacts are much more important than money.“
In Senegal, it is not always easy to separate one from the other.
The old system of mutual aid, gifts and favours: It pervades the societies of many African countries. Even kinship relationships are extended. People then introduce women as their mothers who are actually aunts, concubines of the father or neighbours. „My mum used to say, ‚Wherever you go, find a mum.‘ Never be individualistic, neither in poverty nor in wealth.“ So says Mariama Ndoye, a Senegalese writer. She says, „Kinship is not just in the blood, it is a behaviour.“
When everyone can theoretically be everyone else’s relative, something very precious emerges: social cohesion. Warmth. Closeness. Connectedness.
You can see it when wheelchair user Awa Fall meets other wheelchair users for lunch. Then they sit on a mat by the roadside, eat, laugh, chat. Whenever one of them falls ill or has a wedding or christening to celebrate, they all chip in to pay the bill.

You can guess it when you ask entrepreneur Hassane Diagne if he sometimes feels the need to be alone. The question surprises him. „I just like to be surrounded by people,“ he says. „I believe in the extended family.“
You also get an inkling of this when mason Mali Dieng talks about his neighbourhood, where everyone knows everyone in the middle of the big city. Virtually all of his jobs are completed on a basis of trust. People like him, who work in the informal sector, have almost no chance of suing a business partner who does not want to pay in court. Nevertheless, they get their money.
And one experiences it when the money manager Mbene Ndao goes to a neighbour’s wedding party in the evening. More than 100 women have gathered in an alley, one dressed more grandly than the other. Those who do not own gold jewellery have borrowed it from somewhere. Those who lack a fancy handbag have got one from a friend. It is the part of the celebration where relatives, friends and neighbours hand over their gifts to the mother of the bride, the bride herself has her own celebration close by. Piles of cloths, kitchen pots, teapots and tea glasses are stacked on the floor. Some women are drumming on upturned plastic vats, others are dancing, and a singer is goading everyone with a screeching crescendo to give even more: „Now come the two wives of the uncle! Let’s see which one is more generous. The first? The second? And now, hiiiier, an old friend of the bride’s mother, what has she brought?“
With a dramatic gesture, the old friend pulls up one banknote after the other, holds it up to the light in front of everyone and throws it into the bride’s mother’s lap – while next to her, in all the commotion, one of the bride’s sisters neatly notes down in a notebook who has given how much.
In Senegal, many women have a booklet like this. It helps not to lose track of all the gifts. At the next opportunity, the recipient will give the giver an equivalent or more expensive gift, which will in turn be answered with a gift in return. And so it goes on, for a lifetime. Such gift relationships are also sometimes passed down from generation to generation.
In the past, it was all about small sums, the traditional spirit of bartering. In the meantime, however, the value of the gifts has become so high in some places that some women go into debt to meet their obligation. The government has tried to curb this custom by law – but no one cares. The traditional back and forth of favours has merged with the modern spirit of capitalism. It has become monstrous. Solidarity often turns into stress. Many suffer from this. The parliamentarian who is besieged from all sides to hire her cousins, nieces and neighbours – in politics, the compulsion for personal help often leads to corruption and nepotism. The well-paid employee of a development aid organisation who suffers burn-out in the face of countless supplicants. The young man who switches off his phone for a month after his trip to Europe because too many acquaintances ask if he brought them trainers or an iPhone.
When Gnilane Kane, 36, a trained lawyer, mother of a six-year-old and a newborn, met her future husband, a computer scientist, at university, they quickly agreed: „We dare. We live alone. As a nuclear family, without parents and uncles and cousins. In the meantime, you meet more young couples in Dakar who want to be free from the demands of the family. They want to raise their children without anyone interfering. They say: „We can’t afford more than two or three children in the city.
After their wedding seven years ago, Kane and her husband moved into a cosy flat near the sea. A middle-class idyll, radically different from the world of the extended family in which Gnilane Kane grew up. Her mother, she says, always cooked in great quantities, someone always spontaneously came over for dinner. Gnilane and the other children moved around unsupervised and no one worried because everyone knew everyone else. The father lived polygamously and was almost always absent. „In a world like that, you learn to share,“ Gnilane Kane says.
Today, she and her husband live as a nuclear family as planned – but they also support Gnilane’s sister and sister-in-law and their families financially.
The longer you listen to Gnilane Kane, the more clearly you sense her ambivalence. On the one hand, she appreciates this life. On the other hand, she seems to regret that her children do not grow up with the same openness as she did. As a child, it was normal for her to sit on everyone’s lap. Her daughter does not do that.

The European family model is an ideal for many young Senegalese, the anonymity and atomisation of western societies are not.
Hassane Diagne, the owner of the money transfer shop, would like to invest in something that does not yet exist in Senegal, he says. Old people here are cared for and looked after at home, as it has always been. They live together with children and grandchildren, receive human warmth from their families.
That could change, Diagne believes. If he had the chance to save up capital, he would build the first Senegalese home for the elderly. „A safe investment.“
And what would he do with the profits?
„They would be for my family, of course.“
Maybe one day Gnilane Kane and her husband will be among those who move into a Senegalese retirement home. „We have decided to do everything we can so that when we retire we don’t have to rely on our children.“ Her daughter Anastasie is developing quite differently than she did back then, Kane says. She doesn’t run around the neighbourhood unsupervised with friends. The connection with her father is much closer, she says. „We talk more about what she sees, we are closer. At her age, I spent all my time with other kids. I wouldn’t say she’s more intelligent, but she’s more bright. She asks more questions.“
But when Anastasie started going to daycare a few years ago, her teacher told Gnilane Kane, „Your daughter doesn’t like to share.“

Published on the 17th June 2021 in Zeit Dossier, translated by deepl