Mothers on the Move: Reproducing Belonging between Africa and Europe

Mothers on the Move: Reproducing Belonging between Africa and Europe. Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016, 243 pp.

Mothers on the Move brings together two fields of research that usually are discussed without much connection to each other: migration and reproduction. By following Cameroonian mothers in their efforts to forge families as they move back and forth between Cameroon and Germany as students, spouses, and workers, Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg brings into focus migration and reproduction as spheres of equal significance, rather than presenting one as a subfield of the other. In her rich ethnography, she shows how these spheres intersect in multiple ways as migrating mothers engage in the various processes of creating and maintaining belonging to multiple social locations and groups. Feldman-Savelsberg’s central argument is that mothers on the move manage belonging and the insecurity surrounding reproduction by purposefully embedding themselves and their children in various social networks as they find partners, are pregnant, give birth, and care for children.

The book is informed by the author’s more than three decades of research about Cameroonian motherhood. In three interlinked research projects, Feldman-Savelsberg followed mothers and their reproductive lives from a Bamiléké kingdom in the countryside of the Cameroonian Grassfields during the mid-1980s, to Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital city during the late 1990s and early 2000s, and finally to Berlin in 2010–2011. This last project is the source of most of the data for this volume. The book’s empirical richness is one of its main assets.

Feldman-Savelsberg centers her analysis on the stories of about 30 mothers. She followed them to various events and settings, including homes, live-cycle events, meetings of migrant organizations, daycare centers, and social service agencies in Berlin. In addition, she interviewed staff in family planning centers, medical clinics, and social service and immigration offices. The book is organized into six chapters, preceded by a short preface. In the Introduction, Feldman-Savelsberg builds her argument on four concepts—reproductive insecurity, belonging, affective circuits, and legal consciousness—that she expounds ethnographically in the following chapters. These proceed from the past to the present, and from Cameroon to Germany, gradually expanding the plane of analysis both in time and space.

Chapter 2 focuses on Cameroon and shows how women of Bamiléké and Grassfields origins confront a long history of colonial- and post-colonial political and economic disturbances. Together with the predicaments of marriage and maternity, these conditions add to women’s reproductive insecurity. For at least the last half century, due to such challenges, women have been migrating from villages to cities, where they try to maintain connections with kin at their place of origin and link up with hometown associations of non-kin. This sets the historical and political background for their migration within Cameroon and to Germany for jobs, higher education and family-building.

Chapters 3 and 4 address the social networks that are formed and transformed when Cameroonian migrant mothers, who come to Germany predominantly for higher education and to join their partners, start families (Chapter 3) and raise children (Chapter 4). Feldman-Savelsberg stresses the dynamic and emotive nature of the financial, advisory, physical, and symbolic exchanges that are effectuated between mothers, their partners, kin in Cameroon, peers, and fellow migrants. Money, goods, love, moral and practical support, rumors, intrusive questions, and annoying demands flow through such affective circuits in relation to marriage, childbirth, and child-rearing. In so doing, migrant mothers actively engage in and shape these social networks. They thus maintain belonging both to their places of origin and places of migration through and for their children. Likewise, when migrant mothers have their pre-school children attend the Kita, the day care center, where they learn the German language and German behavioral codes, and later work to support their children in school, they build and manage social support networks that help them balance their children’s anchoring in a Cameroonian identity with their integration into German society.

Chapter 5 examines the affective circuits among the diasporic community in Berlin through a series of scenes from the organizational activities of Cameroon hometown associations. Such formally organized, publicly registered groups are open to Cameroonians sharing an affinity to a particular home place in Cameroon and provide support in terms of goods and organizational and moral support for life-cycle events and crises, including birth, marriage, hospitalization, and death. By meticulously describing a routine association meeting, a year-end party, a celebration of the birth of a baby, a program for transmitting ”Cameroonian cultural traditions” to children, and a grandfather’s wake, Feldman-Savelsberg shows both the potentials and limits of civic engagement in migrant community organization. Here and in the final chapter, when the author supplements what mothers say with an in-depth description of what they actual do in concrete events, the book is at its best.

Chapter 6 explores migrant mothers’ strategies of dealing with the German state agencies that regulate migration, health and reproduction, and child care. It does so through the theoretical framework of legal consciousness, highlighting how law is experienced and understood, rather than looking at law merely as a system of legal norms and procedures. By drawing on her own experience as a migrant mother in Germany and by following mothers from Cameroon and other African countries through the legal–bureaucratic labyrinth of state organizations and charitable NGOs, Feldman-Savelsberg shows how the state simultaneously provides support and security and creates risks, in particular when the residency status of mothers is insecure. Through these encounters with state officials and agencies, but also through stories about such encounters that circulate within the migrant community, mothers partly change their Cameroonian ideas and practices around kinship. Their strategy of coming to terms with German cultural ideas and practices about partnership, marriage,  childbirth, and child rearing forms part of a new legal consciousness.

Mothers on the Move manages to bring together migration and reproduction in fresh ways through a rich ethnographic case, situated in a broad temporal and spatial frame. A weakness of the text, however, is that the author hardly goes beyond her own case, either ethnographically or theoretically. A more comparative approach would probably have better explicated the specificities of the Cameroon/German case. Likewise, the author could have engaged more thoroughly in the theoretical debates surrounding migration and kinship/reproduction, for example in terms of place-making, deservingness, relatedness, or the biopolitics of procreation. Thus, the book misses the opportunity to make a substantive contribution to theory about how migration and reproduction intersect. This shortcoming has to do with the methodological limitations of the book, which relies too much on people’s accounts. Taking a more performative and “embodied” route to reproductive insecurity and belonging (e.g., by focusing on the senses, the environment, and the interpersonal/interobjective qualities of affect) probably would have better captured the role that places (and not only social groups) have for the production and maintenance of belonging.

Nevertheless, Mothers on the Move is an excellent study of how African mothers deal with the double challenge of transnational migration and reproduction. Feldman-Savelsberg’s clear argument and eloquent writing make the book suitable for undergraduates as well as interested readers beyond the academic field. The book is a good candidate for use in courses in anthropology, migration studies, kinship studies, African studies, and care. It is, however, less suitable for medical anthropology courses, as it stops short of spelling out the implications for reproductive health and management of sickness.