Shoes, clothes, bags, pasta, sauces, sparkling wine …… Leontina spends all year hunting for discounted goodies for her relatives in Africa.
Two huge cardboard boxes are so full they can’t fit anymore. Leontina’s high-fashion bag is stuffed with exercise books, more than 20 batik cloths, piles of toothbrushes, moisturizers, skates that her daughter wears too small, pasta, tomato sauce, headphones and garbage bags. At this moment, Leontina put two more large pillows on the box, she said, “This is for my mother, who is 84 years old.” The next day, the courier company would come to her door and remove the large box she had been packing for months and send it back to her birthplace in Côte d’Ivoire. Leontine, whose family is in carpentry, came to France in the early 2000s.
Fatoumata’s husband stood at the top of a plastic bucket with a capacity of more than 200 liters, stepped on the clothes in the bucket, struggled to make a little space and finally stuffed two shirts, three or four T-shirts and a pair of pants into the bucket. The vat would arrive in Abidjan, the economic capital of Côte d’Ivoire, a month later by water.
Once the packages were packed for mailing, Leontine and Fatoumata were able to move on to the second phase of the project: stuffing all the things they would be taking home “in person” for the summer into two large suitcases and a duffel bag. These bags, in addition to a few personal items, are full of gifts for the family. In these gifts, they invest a lot of energy and most of the savings throughout the year. Every year when they go home, they have to do this.
Most of these “migrant” African women come from West Africa and the Maghreb. For them, preparing gifts is a very tiring task. Bringing gifts to relatives to “make them happy” is intertwined with a “moral obligation” or “pressure to do something about it”. Their relatives at home have many wonderful illusions about life in Europe and wait for their sisters returning home from Europe like saviors.
In the eyes of their relatives, they live in Paris, deal with white people all the time, have their own bank accounts and are extremely wealthy. But in reality, they are just minimum wage nannies, cosmetic counters, caterers, and single mothers. They even have to work four jobs a day to support themselves and save money to buy gifts for their relatives back home.
These African women often make the decision to return to their home countries each fall and pay for their airfare in three to four installments at the beginning of the following year. But whether or not they return depends on whether the gifts are properly prepared. They also have a golden rule: don’t tell anyone about their return. That’s what Leontine, Fatoumata and Rita, who work as nannies in Paris, say, and all three of them have learned from past experiences.
”There are always younger siblings clamoring for Apple phones or tablets. I can’t even afford to buy one myself.” Fatoumata said, “If they knew you were going back, they would keep calling you.” Rita continued, “On the day of your return, they will wait for you at your place all the time, and some will even call a bunch of people to pick you up at the airport!” From then on, Rita only told her cousin about her return. And Fatoumata didn’t tell anyone but her mother.
| New vs. Used |
The large cardboard boxes and plastic bins contained no high-end goods, mostly second-hand clothes without logos and cheap daily necessities. When preparing her gift, Leontina’s first thought was of her mother. “She’s the only person for whom I would pick the moon.” Then came the people she was close to, she says, “and the rest, if they asked, I said, ‘Try.’ But if you throw a shopping list at me, I’m definitely not going to take it.” When her nephew was getting his MD degree, Leontina sent him two bottles of sparkling wine. Other than that, the rest of the gifts were mostly for the daily needs of relatives back home. “Of course you can buy toilet paper in Africa, but here, such a big packet is only five euros.” Leontina said.
Fatoumata said, “All the money we earn in France goes to our relatives in Africa. Back in Africa, we have to commit ourselves again to feed and drink well for our relatives.”
If you spread the purchasing budget over 12 months, you have to save 80 to 100 euros per month for this – a strategy all three African women have adopted. Rita says, “I don’t miss the twice-yearly sale season. You can buy a lot of things at flea markets, too.” Formerly an elementary school teacher in Abidjan, Rita came to France 23 years ago to reunite with her husband, who was an accountant, and then, like many foreign African women, took up nanny work to have legal status.
In Rita’s suitcase, there are brand new items and second-hand goods. She felt she couldn’t give her brother, who was a judge in Abidjan, a gift that was too shabby: “It would be better to give my brother a bunch of cheap shirts from C&A than to buy a nice one at Old Frederica during the sale season.” Rita also bought her sister-in-law a nice pair of shoes. “My aunt wanted chili, pepper, tinfoil and garbage bags. All these things can be expensive in Africa.” She said.
| Maximize the space in your suitcase
If the food is too heavy to get on a plane, it has to be sent by water two months in advance. At the end of winter, Fatoumata goes to the supermarkets to look for discounted items. There are always “buy two, get one free” and “buy one, get one free” events to stock up on pâtés, cookies, cereals, milk powder, jams and condiments. “If you buy more in Paris, you won’t have to worry about it back home.” Fatoumata said. Rita, who has four daughters, said, “When I stay with relatives, I can’t just cook for my own children, but also for my brother’s 10 children. You have to buy more.”
Shipping costs are about 90 euros per carton and 150 to 180 euros per plastic bucket. For one ticket, you can check in two 23-kilogram suitcases and a 12-kilogram carry-on bag. Every kilo has to be put to good use, and Rita has long been an expert on the subject. According to anthropologist Jean-Pierre Dozon, “Returning home with a gift is, above all, a way to tell my folks that I’m doing well and that immigration is not a lost cause. Moreover, they are afraid of retribution. Don’t forget that witchcraft is very prevalent in Africa. They feel that even if they stay away from Africa, they can’t escape from witchcraft, and if they don’t do something for your parents who gave birth to you and for your relatives and villagers, they will be punished one day.” Rita also said, “Moral or traditional culture, you have to support your mom and dad, no matter what the perspective is. If you don’t send money back, people will point fingers and say you’re an unfilial and evil person.”
The debt of upbringing can never be repaid by children. “From the moment they leave the country, they are saddled with a moral debt,” says Chiara Block, a migration studies scholar in Côte d’Ivoire. Rita adds, “I always worry that I will be accused of ingratitude. Bringing these gifts is a way to say, ‘I’m in Europe, but I’m still thinking of you.'” Of course, men don’t escape the moral debt, but they contribute to their hometowns in a different way than women do. Men will fund the construction of hospitals and drinking water systems in their hometowns, and they will buy things for their families, but usually it’s items like car parts and tractor parts.
Rita said, “I always worry that I will be accused of ingratitude. I brought these gifts to say, ‘I’m in Europe, but I’m thinking of you.'”
| Financial and moral pressures |
Geneviève is a single mother with five children. in the fall of 2018, her husband died, her mother is elderly and her sister just got married. in 2019, she returns for the first time to the Ivory Coast, which she left 20 years ago. Geneviève had prepared two large suitcases containing a 20 euro bottle of perfume from a wholesale market in the northern suburbs of Paris, designer sneakers purchased online at half price, clothes for her children, and more. But she knew that there was not nearly enough for everyone to share, and she even got scared at the sight of the cash register.
Her monthly salary of 1,900 euros in Paris (working 50 hours a week) was barely enough to cover the expenses of her small family. But relatives back home would not understand. “I have to pay rent, pay taxes, eat and send my children to school …… but for them, 1,900 euros is 1.2 million West African francs. To be a nanny in Africa is to earn 80,000 to 100,000 CFA francs a month, which is almost 120 to 150 euros.” Geneviève has four siblings, and she is the only one living in France. “They all count on me. ……” With no choice but to use her own tanti-pension to procure gifts, Geneviève has no choice but to use her tanti-pension.
A tanti-pension is a form of private, self-directed savings in which each member deposits a certain amount each month and then takes turns drawing on it. Geneviève received 4,500 euros in time for the summer holidays after she applied for a withdrawal. “It’s good to have this money. I bought cell phones for my two brothers, a wedding dress for my sister, and funded some for the village.” She said. If the brothers want to start a business, like a kiosk or a small restaurant or something, she will also finance them. “As long as they can make money. That way I don’t have to send them money ……,” Geneviève said.
Stealing back home and having a few days to breathe. Leontina returned home for a week’s rest before she started distributing gifts. My sister-in-law, who usually takes care of my mom, got to be the first to pick out the batik fabric. Although the fabric was available in local African markets, the ones brought back from Europe were as popular as if they had been gilded. “The cousins like the ones they buy from Europe, they think the quality is different.” Leontina says.
After all that effort and bringing back so many gifts, is it free from all the trouble? Of course not. “When we go to a restaurant, we definitely have to pay for the check. If we don’t check out, someone will yell, ‘Hey, Parisians, you have all the money you need, get out the euros!'” Fatoumata says, “All the money we make in France goes to our African relatives. When we go back to Africa, we have to condescend again to feed and drink well for our relatives. They think it’s easy to make money in France. They don’t even know how hard life is over here.”
At the end of August, the returning African women return to Paris, empty-handed and with bank accounts about to reach the bottom. And yet they start to think: What should they take with them when they return home next summer?
| Taking a Breather
Some African women, especially young ones, often can’t handle such pressure. “At first, I would prepare several boxes of clothes and shoes and pay an extra 150 euros for overweight luggage.” said Elise, who was born in Cameroon. She works as a cosmetics counter clerk in Paris. “I lasted three years. But now, every time I go back home, I don’t live at my relatives’ house and I don’t bring anything. Just give them 50,000 CFA francs (75 euros) and buy whatever they like. It’s all about money anyway.” She said.
Fatoumata’s husband had enough, too. He came to Europe 22 years ago. At one time, he was all about making a good life for his folks. But in the past few years, he too has been disappointed. “I bought a friend a pair of pants and two polo shirts before, only to have him question why I didn’t buy shoes. That’s how he even thanked me.” He said in exasperation. It didn’t take him long to find out again that the two houses he had invested in back home never actually existed. After that, he never held out any hope for Africa. He even said to Fatoumata, “It’s none of our business what other people think. It’s not worth making life so hard for these ungrateful people.”
Before returning to the Ivory Coast, Leontina would send her clothes and other daily necessities by water. These are gifts she has saved up for months.
At the end of August, the returning African women return to Paris, empty-handed and with bank accounts about to run dry. But then they start to think: What should they bring back next summer? Or should they go back the year after next, so that they can catch their breath? In any case, as soon as the idea of returning to their homeland came to their minds, Leontina and Geneviève packed several large suitcases and Fatoumata added a large plastic bucket to the grocery room at home. From that moment on, they began another long round of gift preparation.