Father, Sons and the State: Discipline and Punishment in a Wolof Hinterland

Gettysburg College
Cultural Anthropology (Impact Factor: 2.95). 01/2009; 24(1):33 - 67. DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1360.2009.00026.x


This essay builds on fieldwork in rural Senegal to examine three cases in which elder household heads called on gendarmes to physically discipline rebellious youths. These cases, which revolved around harsh acts of corporal punishment, invite inquiry into common assumptions about African families and states. The first assumption is the common dichotomy drawn between African youths, portrayed as modern and menacing, and African elders, portrayed as “traditional” and hence benign. The second assumption is the dichotomy drawn between the African family, conceived as solidary and nurturing, and the African state, conceived as alien and predatory. In examining these cases of discipline and punishment, this essay reveals the ever-shifting power relations that link Wolof household heads, dependent junior males, and state agents, and simultaneously introduces new questions about the morality of farmer–state relations and generational conflict. My analysis reveals the spatial geography of Senegal's youth crisis, which takes different forms in rural and urban locales. The anxiety of rural patriarchs is fed by a fear-mongering media obsessed with youthful anarchy in the cities, and a long-standing political rhetoric about the threat of rural out-migration. Elder men in the countryside, who experience diminishing household authority under neoliberalism, make proactive efforts to keep the urban youth crisis at bay. They seek to augment their domestic power by reestablishing links with a state that has long bolstered patriarchy but whose power is currently in decline. By lending patriarchs their coercive force, gendarmes attempt to accomplish through private, indirect means, what the postcolonial state is unable to do: maintain social order by reining in disruptive youths. The harsh disciplinary measures that gendarmes employ are not alien to Wolof culture, but integral to Wolof conceptions of child rearing.

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    • "In Sierra Leone , long - term war is argued to prolong dependent youth , relegating marriage , employment and economic autonomy to an unattainable fantasy ( Shaw , 2007 ) . In Senegal , Perry ( 2009 ) constructs the brutal discipline of male youth by family elders , acting in tandem with state gendarmes , as an attempt to forge new power and recover diminishing authority under Senegal ' s structural adjustment reforms . Whilst appearing new , these extreme forms of violence reflect culturally condoned practices of disciplining rebellious male youth , and support rather than undermine the prevailing familial moral order . "
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