Connecting the spots

Notes on migration and environment from a geographical perspective

Vera Tolo

Vera Tolo

Vera Tolo is a PhD student and research associate at the University of Bonn, working on the “Resilience, collapse and reorganization in complex coupled social-ecological systems (SES) in Africa” (RCR) Project. Within this project, she works on translocal relations and the reorganization of socio-ecological systems in Kenya. Her research interests lie in the fields of geography, sociology, and development economics, with a focus on food security, vulnerability, and migration.

Oct 29th 2014 by Vera Tolo

A Kenyan marriage and a European perception

We talk about migration all the time. The word appears everywhere in different contexts: Migration as a challenge, migration as adaptation, environmental migration, to name a few. We hear and read the word almost every day in the media.

Everyone seems to know what is meant by the term “migration”. But when we look at it more precisely: Isn´t its meaning becoming less and less concrete? There is a tendency to use the term “migration” when it comes to unskilled labor and “unwanted” immigrants, whereas we use “mobility” when we talk about “brain drain” and highly skilled professionals. Migration then is seen as a socioeconomic and political challenge to the receiving regions, cities or countries; unlike mobility, which is considered an increasingly important and positive .characteristic in a globalized world.

Considering this, we then have to ask ourselves what notions of  “migration” and “mobility” mean in science, politics, media and, more than ever, in the everyday lives of those being classified as migrants. What about the migrants’ perspective? Would they call and think of themselves as migrants, too? And how do they live and experience “migration” in their daily lives? What does “being mobile” mean to them, their families, and friends? How does it affect their lives at home and at their places of destination?  

To find out, I went to Kenya in February and talked to migrant laborers at flower farms in Naivasha. Being one of the big export industries in Kenya, flower farms attract many workers from all over the country. Since the 1980s, especially between Western Kenya and the flower hub of Naivasha, a strong and enduring migration system has flourished.

Upon arriving in Naivasha, I talked to male and female workers about their experiences with what I framed being “mobile”. I asked them about the connections they keep to the people they left behind, about what they share with them, and about the importance of such relations for their lives and well-being. My aim was to gain better insight into how migration and migration-induced relations, or translocal relations that connect multiple localities and different people over time and space, emerge; what they are made of and how they are being kept up.

One day, after having a chat with a few women on their long-distance relationships with their husbands, I had a nagging feeling about all of the questions I prepared. I had the feeling that I was missing something essential about the women’s attitude towards the “translocal”. When I was about to call my partner in Germany it suddenly became clear to me: From my European point of view I could not understand how couples in Kenya managed to keep up their relationships while being separated for most of the year! In Germany, it is commonplace to bring your family along, if you relocate for an extended period of time; whereas in Kenya, it is customary that families are left at home when people go out to work somewhere else.

Irene, a woman living in Western Kenya whose husband I met in Naivasha, explained to me, that even on her wedding day she knew that she and her husband would be separated for most of the time. Though I was aware of the fact that many married couples in Kenya live that way, subconsciously I was thinking of Irene’s translocal relationship with her husband George as something not desirable and difficult to put up with.   

When I asked her about how she manages to make her marriage work despite the spatial separation from George, this is what she said:

You know: I trust him so much, and he trusts me. I know that if I mess up something with my life I have a husband somewhere searching for me. He doesn´t only think about him, but about the whole family. The most important thing is: Let him know that you are back at home and he knows where to go.” 

After mulling it over for a while, I thought that a very crucial ingredient for functioning, fruitful translocal relations might be trust. Many people I met in Kenya supported others somewhere else – but the best working and most beneficial relations for both sides were those based on trust. I also thought that my view on Irene’s relationship differed a lot from hers. Irene never experienced migration and separation as a “cut” in her life, but as a very common part of it. She also did not consider her family as being split, but as a unit that benefits from being in different places.

Of course, I do not have a pat answer to all of the questions I asked above in this blog post, but understanding this simple component of trust is one step towards understanding translocality from the perspective of someone mobile, above and beyond my scholarly assumptions and knowledge. This insight now serves as a starting point for me to further investigate “translocality” amongst migrant workers in Kenya. Certainly, it reminds me that self-reflection amongst researchers remains very, very crucial for good quality research in a foreign (social) environment, which sometimes tends to be forgotten.