I work on the social and labour history of West Africa. In general, I am interested in the value of work: how is value attributed to different types of work, carried out by different categories of persons? How does exploitation work? I have been exploring these questions along five main axes of inquiry.
1. Slavery and emancipation in African history
In most of Africa slavery was abolished in the early 20th century. Colonial legal abolition was only one of multiple factors contributing to the emancipation of enslaved persons, and colonial regimes introduced new forms of unfreedom. In some African regions the actual emancipation of slaves has been a recent process, shaped at once by global, regional, and local dynamics – and most of all, by the strategies of (ex-)slaves. My research on African slavery is an attempt to write a social and labor history of Africa that focuses on the experience of workers.
2. Sexual and conjugal slavery
Enslaved men and women experience slavery differently. Like enslaved men, enslaved women are valuable as exploitable workers and capital assets. Deep-rooted gender inequalities and the sexual division of labour slowed down the process of emancipation for women of slave descent because women had fewer opportunities of autonomous economic mobility. Their exploitation was more acceptable to society and more difficult to resist for women whose vulnerability was an outcome of their narrow options. But slave women were not only valued as exploitable workers. They were valued, too, as sources of sexual pleasure and as potential mothers. The continuing demand for women’s sexual and reproductive potential fuels ongoing trafficking and sexual slavery. In wartime, this results in the systematic abduction and abuse of women by militants. One strand of my research on slavery, carried out in collaboration with other researchers of the CSiW network, attempts to contextualize historically the sexual enslavement of women in contemporary African wars.
3. Mobility and migrations
I see the migrant as the hero of history. Alone or with the help of support networks, migrants take it upon themselves to overcome abroad challenges that they cannot overcome at home. A migrant is a person with a project, who believes in his/her capacity to make his/her project work. Although migration is not always a choice made freely, a migrant’s trajectory reflects careful assessment either by migrants moving independently, or by those who force migrants to move. Researching why and how people move provides fundamental insights into social and labor history.
4. Deconstructing developmentalism
What explains, historically, the rise of a will to develop others? What are the consequences of representing certain societies, groups, or persons as in need to be developed? How did certain persons or institutions come to be seen as ‘developers’? My work does not ask whether Africans have been, are being, or will be ‘developed’ by others or themselves. Rather, I am interested into why and how Africans came to be seen as humans who had to be ‘developed’, by whom, and with what consequences for power relations. Like colonialism, developmentalism is a social and historical explanandum. I have been inquiring into the consequences of developmentalism for the management of labor and the experience of workers.
5. Environmental history
Most of my research has focused geographically on the Central Sahel, a region at the edge of the Sahara, and particularly on Hausa-speaking and Tamasheq-speaking societies living in the southern half of today’s Republic of Niger. Research in this region has made it clear to me that place shapes how people move, what they do, and how they relate to others. Some of my work focuses on conditions imposed on agency by the environment, and vice-versa, by the quintessentially political action of turning space into place.
My research follows an approach that I call historical perspectivalism. This approach sees history as the outcome of people’s positioned perspectives and projects, and their unintended consequences. I owe to my anthropological training a concern with context, defined broadly to encompass ecology, politics, economy, culture, and the social institutions in which individuals are embedded and that influence their choices.