Remittances as Spiritual Investment: A Senegalese Perspective

Published on 14th December 2015

Sending remittances is very important for Senegalese. It is seen as a moral obligation. People have been socialized to learn that when they succeed, it is important to give back to the community that produced them. It has always been an obligation for a successful person to help those who are unable to help themselves: for one’s success is really the success of everybody. A person has been successful because he has been helped earlier, and a failure to help others is seen as a moral failure of the person. This moral obligation transcends geographical locations and mobility and is reflected in cultural expectations and practices of sending back remittances to one’s family and relatives.

Generosity has a special importance in African cultures, as it is considered a spiritual investment. Being generous to others does not make one poor, but adds to his or her wealth. It is believed that the more a person gives, the more opportunities he or she will have in life. I personally believe that the more money I have, the more I should be able to send back in remittances. My salary increase here in the U.S. is reflected in the amount of remittances that I regularly send back home: if I have a 2% raise, my family back home will have a 2% raise. Since 1996, there has not been a single month that I haven’t sent money home. It is part of our family’s budget — now managed by my wife. My wife is an American, from Montana. Sending back remittances was one of the first cultural challenges in our relationship. She only fully understood the importance of remittances after staying in Senegal for a year to teach English when we were dating back in 1999. When she came back she had a very different attitude, she understood what the money was being used for and why remittances were so important. Now, she is often more generous than I am when it comes to sending money back to Africa.

Money that is sent back is used both for everyday necessities like food, clothing and shelter, but also to fund ceremonial occasions. Every February we commemorate my Father’s passing and host a gathering of relatives. Some of the money also goes to support business endeavors of various family members.

And some remittances inevitably go towards medical expenses for various family members: I regularly contribute towards my sister-in-law’s diabetes medications. Many Africans start sending money back while they are still students — as did I. The first remittances came from my teaching assistantship salary at the University of Montana. I remember that my first monthly salary was about $750. I would divide the salary in three. One part was for my food and other necessities, the second for my rent, and the third was for sending to Senegal. It is interesting that the same basic division still stands. At that time, all money transfers went through Western Union; there was no other way. During my first full-time teaching job at the Washington State, and later at Boston University, I started exploring other ways of sending money, as Western Union was getting expensive. These included bank transfers as well as specialized money transfer operators that were widespread among Senegalese immigrant communities in the East Coast.

In the first year that I came to the U.S., my Dad died, which was a very traumatic event for our family. With that death, responsibility for the extended family fell on my shoulders. My Mom had 9 children, I was the oldest boy. I decided to travel back home for the funeral service. On the 8th day of mourning, our extended family assembled and held a discussion about the future of our household. According to the local practice, in case of the death of the household head, younger dependents may be assigned to different households, sometimes far from each other, and the family house could be sold. I decided that I won’t let that happen. I decided at the family gathering that our family should remain as one unit, and promised to do my best to financially support that arrangement. I told my siblings: if I eat, you will eat, and the taste of my food will be the taste of your food. And they all agreed that we have to feed the house; the house is not to be sold.

We managed to keep our family together and my brothers are all doing well, some of them have their own businesses. That is the real significance of remittances. Sending back money, even nowadays where there are more options and faster ways of transfer, still entails a lot of logistical effort and time spent on communication. The generosity that is entailed in sending back remittances is often perceived as an investment of a special kind — a spiritual investment. It will generate more opportunities for that person who is extending himself through remittances. And there is often a belief that if a person refuses to help and chooses to save instead, negative consequences can occur. Personally, I credit my successes to my willingness to share, creating flows of abundance for myself and others.

The act of remitting does not necessarily indicate control over the uses of remitted money. The money is considered to belong to the recipients once remittances have changed hands. They could use it to occasionally fund ceremonies and gatherings, or distribute it to others in need. Some supervision and advice may be in order, of course, if remittances are sent in support of a business endeavor. I see my remittances to my Mother as a price and an appreciation of her motherhood. As it is said in our culture, if my Mom is happy, there is no force that can challenge me. A mother has a special connection with her child, which also entails a spiritual connection. Making one’s Mom happy can open doors to unrestricted success — that idea is reflected in local cultural as well as religious cosmology of Senegal. The Senegalese perceptions of generosity and sharing could be contrasted with the Weberian emphasis on saving and accumulating wealth.

Both of these ethics generate wealth and prosperity, but through different mechanisms. Many Senegalese accumulate to spend, thereby opening doors to new abundance. That could be seen as ‘saving spiritually.’

This intertwining of material wealth and wealth in people and relationships can be seen as mediated through ‘spiritual transactions,’ where the concept of Baraka plays a central role. It is used to designate wealth in both a material and immaterial sense, and its generative mechanism is spiritual endorsement — from your family, community, and all the people who have sustained you. When a Senegalese immigrant is sending money back home, he or she is creating wealth that is more enduring in nature.

This understanding of wealth goes beyond concrete relationships between individuals, right to the heart of personhood. Money is just one of many elements to invest in a larger wealth that is both material and immaterial. One can have money and lose it, but the opportunities for wealth generated through sharing are greater than the money itself. Because of that, remittances could perhaps be called ‘selfish investments,’ but only in a broader cosmological sense. The form of Baraka generated through these spiritual transactions is enduring and omnipotent, and underlies the continued relevance of sending back remittances for millions of migrants all over the world.

By Fallou Ngomis

The author  is Associate Professor and Director of the African Language Program at Boston University. Dr. Fallou Ngom’s current research interests include the interactions between African languages and non-African languages, the Africanization of Islam, and Ajami literatures—records of West African languages written in Arabic script. Another fascinating area of Dr. Ngom’s work is language analysis in asylum cases, a sub-field of the new field of forensic linguistics. Dr. Ngom’s work has appeared in the International Journal of the Sociology of Language, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, Language Variation and Change, and African Studies Review, among others.

Courtesy: Boston University: Center for Finance, Law & Policy.

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