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Death in the family in urban Senegal

This research project provides the first in-depth understanding of responses to death, care and family relations in urban Africa.
May 2014 - May 2015

Death in the family in urban Senegal

This research project provides the first in-depth understanding of responses to death, care and family relations in urban Africa.

Dr. Ruth Evans (University of Reading) and Dr. Jane McCarthy (The Open University) are leading an innovative research project, funded by The Leverhulme Trust, on 'Death in the family in urban Senegal', with Dr. Sophie Bowlby and Dr. Josephine Wouango (University of Reading), in collaboration with the Laboratoire de Recherches sur les Transformations Economiques et Sociales (LARTES-IFAN), Université Cheikh Anta Diop, Dakar. The project was funded by The Leverhulme Trust (2014-2016), with the final Report (English and  French versions) and Executive Summary (English or French) (available from the project blog) was published in February 2016, with further publications currently under preparation

The findings explore the experiences of family deaths in Senegal and the policy implications. They also suggest that British society is not paying enough attention to how a death may risk pushing families into poverty and could learn valuable lessons from West Africa. This is because the populations of affluent countries like the UK tend to consider grief as an emotional journey. Over-focusing on emotion can result in the financial and material consequences of a family death being neglected. As a result, the UK risks sidelining aspects of bereavement that may directly affect children’s life chances, and may have a significant emotional impact, the researchers say.

Background

The loss of a close adult relative is a significant life transition that almost everyone experiences at some point in the lifecourse. In the global South, the death of a spouse, parent, sibling or other relative may have a range of significant practical, financial and emotional impacts on people's lives, resulting in mourning and grief, intergenerational transfers of wealth, changing caring responsibilities, changing livelihoods and decisions to migrate and increased poverty.

This research project provides the first in-depth understanding of responses to death, care and family relations in urban Africa. The research investigates the material and emotional significance of an adult death in families of different socio-economic status and ethnicities in the dynamic urban context of Senegal. It makes a highly original contribution to studies of death and bereavement, which are predominantly rooted in western, medicalised and individualised frameworks.

Senegal is a particularly appropriate location in which to explore the dynamics of loss and care following the death of a family member; it provides a complex social milieu with a high rate of urbanisation compared to other African countries (48% of the population live in urban areas (ANSD, 2013). Family relations and inheritance practices in Senegal are underpinned by the 'triple heritage' of African, Islamic and colonial influences. Economic crisis, urbanisation, and increasing competition for land, combined with the large, often multigenerational, nature of households, means that increasing pressures are placed on the growing numbers of families living in urban areas. Dr. Evans' exploratory research in Senegal suggested that inheritance disputes were more likely in urban areas, especially among co-wives in polygamous marriages when the husband had significant assets.

Research aims and methods

This study builds on Dr. Evans' pilot work and provides empirical evidence about the significance of a close family death on different family members in two cities with diverse populations; Dakar and Kaolack. Families were selected to reflect a range of socio-economic backgrounds, enabling us to explore varying levels of vulnerability to poverty. We are taking particular care to consider how young people experience a close family death.

The research investigates how continuing bonds with the deceased are expressed across different temporal and spatial contexts. It analyses the ways that practices of care among the living and continuing bonds with the deceased are embedded in gendered and intergenerational relations, along with other social and place-based differences. The research also identifies the policy and practice implications that will assist in improving the social protection of bereaved family members in African cities.

A sample of 30 families that have experienced an adult relative's death in the previous five years living in Dakar and Kaolack were recruited (15 in in each city), along with focus groups of women and young people, as well as interviews with key local informants and leaders, and national policy makers. These families reflected a range of socio-economic backgrounds. In-depth life history interviews were conducted with family members and semi-structured interviews with community leaders and professionals.UK and Senegal Advisory Groups, comprised of policymakers, practitioners and researchers, were established to guide the project.

A series of participatory dissemination workshops were held with young people and adult relatives in Dakar and Kaolack to discuss the findings and rank policy and practice recommendations. Two policy workshops launched the report in Senegal and discussed further the policy and practice implications with government and NGO representatives and religious and local leaders in Dakar and Kaolack. The final report which incorporates the workshop discussions is available from the project blog.

 

Further information

We welcome any relevant information about responses to death and family bereavement, particularly in African contexts.

For further information about the research, please see our project blog or contact:

Dr. Ruth Evans, email: r.evans@reading.ac.uk

Dr. Jane McCarthy: jane.mccarthy@open.ac.uk

 

Learn more about the research programme: Intimate Relationships