CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1In this book the American anthropologist Cati Coe offers an original perspective on organizing long-distance parenting after international migration. The subject is not new in the literature on transnational families and the parent-child separation involved, but Coe develops arguments that run counter to most analyses. Drawing on a multi-site ethnographic study of Ghanaian immigrants in the United States and their families in Ghana, a comparison of these situations with those engendered by migrations within Ghana, and a long-term historical overview from the mid-nineteenth to the early twenty-first century, the author lays out the workings of contemporary intergenerational relationships. The work thus achieves its goal of offering a fresh, richly documented perspective on the subject.

2As in many African countries, IMF budget cuts in the 1970s and 1980s considerably reduced job opportunities for the middle class in Ghana, whose members had been the primary beneficiaries of state civil service jobs. Coe explains how transnational migrants cope with the contradictions generated by various state policies (immigration, family, education and others) and the forces of global capitalism; specifically, how they adapt and “reshuffle” their parenting, kinship and gender “repertoires.” A “repertoire” as she explains it (pp. 14-29) is a concept close to the notion of habitus, covering a combination of beliefs, practices and resources that people acquire throughout their lives and use to interpret, evaluate, and adapt to situations (p. 5). It is widely understood that the families who leave Ghana are not those with the least economic, educational or social capital. Indeed, the Ghanaian urban middle class emigrated to maintain their relatively high standard of living (p. 90). This book details the history of family repertoires as they concern parent-child separation, a situation that, whatever other effects it may have, still conflicts with the Ghanaian middle-class ideal of “living together” as a family.

3Coe, whose research included study of legal files on family conflicts and interviews with grandparents caring for their emigrant children’s children in Ghana, retraces a long history of intergenerational relationships (Chapter 1). She then explains how internal migration, women’s entry into the workforce, and the fact that in Ghanaian tradition several adults may take care of children, including ones who are not their own, may make parent-child separation seem an ordinary not to say normal event. The historical perspective allows for closely analysing what is new and what traditional in the ways these families organize their lives in response to international migration. Coe argues that “exchanges between young people and their kin that centered on debt changed, over time, to become reciprocities of care as they are understood in transnational families today” (pp. 40-41). Repertoires that are being challenged today by international migration have in fact been adapted or “reformulated” several times “in response to changing economic conditions at a particular historical moment” (for example, during the early twentieth-century boom in cocoa production for exportation). Parent-child separation is therefore not a new situation engendered by international migration or a practice that necessarily causes pain and suffering; rather it figures in the possibilities encompassed by Ghanaian family repertoires. Regarding what is called child “fostering,” Coe explains: “Because the sharing of care for children is so normal in Akuapem, there is no equivalent Twi word for the practice” (p. 63).

4Nonetheless, the reasons for separation have changed, and decreased in number over time. The urban middle class ideology holding that good parents raise their children themselves worked to stigmatize fostering, which was practiced primarily at crisis moments or in situations of poverty. During the 1990s country girls began coming to the city to find work as maids. Children have “tended to circulate to live with wealthier relatives.” But international migration did bring about a major change: middle-class parents in the United States are now entrusting their children to poorer family members back in Ghana (Chapter 6): “transnational migrants have trouble bringing their own children, much less the children of their own siblings, to live with them in the United States” (p. 28).

5Legal migration possibilities, childcare options, and reasons cited for sending a child to Ghana vary by child’s age and place of birth (Ghana or the US). Coe presents three family configurations and the issues involved in them. The first is children born in Ghana and “left behind” by emigrating parents (Chapter 3). Here Coe explains the impact of American immigration law on transnational families and what the real possibilities of family reunification are. She analyses the law of 1990 and the “diversity lottery” (which accounts for nearly a third of legal Ghanaian entries to the US) as well as obstacles to child emigration such as age limit, length of formalities, the administrative, transport, and legal costs involved, and number of requisite documents.

6She then turns to the situation of US-born babies “posted” home to grandmothers, aunts or female cousins in Ghana (Chapter 4). The case of these children, born American citizens but sent back to parents’ home country for a few years, points up the weakness of American institutional arrangements for caring for young children. In Ghana, children have access to public day care or preschools, whereas in the US they can only enter public school at the age of 5. “The Children’s Defense Fund reported that in 2008, the annual cost of day care [in the US] was similar to the annual in-state tuition at four-year colleges” (p. 123). Working-class Americans themselves often cannot afford formal day care; they too rely on grandparents, but that resource is not usually directly available to immigrant parents.

7The last situation Coe examines is teenagers born in either Ghana or the US but raised in the US who then get sent to Ghana. Ghanaian immigrant parents frequently mention a clash between the way they raise their children and how those children behave, qualifying that behaviour as “American” rather than “Ghanaian.” Here the author enjoins us not to take respondents’ “rigid and oppositional” definitions of national cultures at face value; she puts the imperative felt by Ghanaian parents not to “lose your child in America” (p. 131) back into the contemporary context of intergenerational relations based on long-term reciprocity: parents desire their children to be humble, disciplined and respectful in their behaviour as this ensures they have been properly raised and will reimburse parents’ “investment” in them.

8Consequently, children’s experience of separation varies by age, family history and parents’ situation in the US (Chapter 7). This is related to another component of family repertoires, the importance attaching to material care: being a good parent may mean being able to pay for children’s education and future. In this chapter, Coe focuses on the notion of the “materiality of love.” Family repertoires forged and consolidated over time are nonetheless activated differently in response to international migration. Some middle-class emigrant parents who decide to send their children back to Ghana develop new strategies, such as hiring a caregiver to live in the house they own in the home country, thereby maintaining from afar their position as head of household.

9A major strength of this book is to have documented in great detail the flexibility with which Ghanaian parents adapt their family repertoires to each new situation. Few studies on transnational family life encompass not only the historical dimension but also family relationships prior to international migration and how those situations compare with those of country-to-city migrant families. Coe’s research, based on an extraordinarily rich body of multi-site ethnographic material, fills this gap with scientific clarity and fine methodological acuity.

Uploaded on on 03/02/2017
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