Complexities of elder livelihoods: Changing age-inscriptions and stable norms in three villages in rural West Africa


  • Tabea Häberlein University of Bayreuth



West Africa, elder care, migration, housing, intergenerational support


The intergenerational contract seems to be a dominant social norm of senior care all over the world, in which  older adults are cared for reciprocally by those for whom they have cared. Yet in three villages in northern  Benin and northern Togo, this intergenerational norm seems to be breached, with older adults living alone  and in poverty. However, standardized surveys from a comparative research project established that kin  groups do not abandon their older adults, if one considers the kin group to be containing classificatory  children instead of the nuclear family with biological children and remittances to substitute for daily care.  This article argues that the apparent contradictions between the intergenerational contract and the actual  practices of providing care in old age are not so stark. The creative living arrangements of older adults in  response to social changes of migration do not challenge the intergenerational contract, but instead are the  ways of fulfilling it. The analytical concept of age-inscription (see Alber & Coe in this issue) helps to explain  the gap between discursive norms and individual creative solutions of senior care. The social norm of the  intergenerational contract persists through new age-inscriptions.

Author Biography

Tabea Häberlein, University of Bayreuth

research assistant, chair of Social Anthropology, Kulturwissenschaftliche Fakultät


Aboderin, Isabella. 2004. “Decline in Material Family Support for Older People in Urban Ghana, Africa: Understanding Processes and Causes of Change.” Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences 59B (3): 137-128.

Aguilar, Mario I. 1998. The Politics of Age and Gerontocracy in Africa. Ethnographies of the Past & Memories of the Present. Trenton, Asmara: Africa World Press, Inc.

Alber, Erdmute. 2000. Im Gewand von Herrschaft. Modalitäten der Macht im Borgou (Nord-Benin) 1900-1995. Köln: Köppe.

Alber, Erdmute. 2003. “Denying biological parenthood – Child fosterage in northern Benin.” Ethnos 68 (4): 506-487.

Alber, Erdmute. 2018. Transfers of belonging. Child fostering in West Africa in the 20 th century. Leiden, Boston: Brill.

Alber, Erdmute, and Tabea Häberlein. 2011. “Attachment and care in West African webs of kinship.” In Family, ties, and care, edited by Hans Bertram, and Nancy Ehlert, 481-502. Opladen: Verlag Barbara Budrich.

Apt, Nana Arbara. 1992. “Family Support to elderly people in Ghana.” In Family Support for the Elderly, edited by Hal L. Kendig, and Akiko Hashimoto, and Larry C. Coppard, 203-212. Oxford, New York, Tokyo: Oxford University Press.

Apt, Nana Arbara. 1995. Coping with Old Age in a Changing Africa. Societal change and the elderly Ghanaian. Aldershot: Avebury.

Attané, Anne. 2007. "Choix matrimoniaux : le poids des générations: l’exemple du Burkina Faso." In Les relations intergénérationnelles en Afrique. Approche plurielle, edited by Philippe Antoine, 167-195. Paris : CEPED.

Bertram, Hans. 2000. „Die verborgenen familiären Beziehungen in Deutschland: Die multilokale Mehrgenerationenfamilie.“ In Generationen in Familie und Gesellschaft, edited by Martin Kohli, and Marc Szydlik, 97-121. Wiesbaden: VS.

Colson, Elizabeth. 2000. “The Father as Witch.” Africa 70 (3): 358-333.

De Jong, Willemijn, and Claudia Roth, and Fatoumata Badini-Kinda, and Seema Bhagyanath, eds. 2005. Ageing in Insecurity. Case Studies on Social Security and Gender in India and Burkina Faso/ Vieillir dans l'insécurité. Sécurité sociale et genre en Inde et au Burkina Faso. Études de cas. Münster: Lit-Verlag (Schweizerische Afrikastudien / Études africaines suisses, 5).

Drotbohm, Heike. 2015. “Shifting Care among Families, Social Networks and State Institutions in Times of Crisis. A transnational Cape Verdean perspective.” In Anthropological Perspectives on Care. Work, Kinship and the Life-Course, edited by Erdmute Alber, and Heike Drotbohm, 93-116. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fafchamps, Marcel. 2001. “Intrahousehold Access to Land and Sources of Inefficiency: Theory and Concepts.” In Access to Land, Rural poverty, and Public Action, edited by Alain de Janvry, and Gustavo Gordillo, and Jean-Philippe Platteau, and Elisabeth Sadoulet, 68-96. Oxford: University Press.

Ferguson, James. 1992. “The Cultural Topography of Wealth: Commodity Paths and the Structure of Property in Rural Lesotho.” American Anthropologist Website, May 14. Accessed [May 14, 2018].

Foner, Nancy. 1993. “When the Contract Fails: Care for the Elderly in Nonindustrial Cultures.” In The Changing Contract Across Generations, edited by V. L. Bengston, and W. A. Achenbaum, 101-117. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Förster, Till. 1998. „Das Alter des Mannes. Über Jugend und Alter bei den Senufo (Cote d'Ivoire).“ In Alt und zahm? Alter und Älterwerden in unterschiedlichen Kulturen, edited by Dorle Dracklé, 151- 170. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag (Hamburger Beiträge zur öffentlichen Wissenschaft, 15).

Groger, Lisa, and Suzanne Kunkel. 1995. “Aging and Exchange: Differences between black and white elders.” Journal of Cross-Cultural Gerontology 10 (4): 287-269.

Gruénais, Marc-Eric. 1985. "Aînés, aînées ; cadets, cadettes. Les relations aînés/cadets chez les Mossis du centre (Burkina Faso)." In Age, Pouvoir et Société en Afrique noire, edited by Marc Abélès, and Chantal Collard, 219-245. Montreal: Karthala.

Guyer, Jane I. 1993. “Wealth in People and Self-Realization in Equatorial Africa.” Man, New Series 28 (2): 265-243.

Guyer, Jane I. 1995. “Wealth in People, Wealth in Things – Introduction.” The Journal of African History 36 (1): 90-83.

Guyer, Jane I., and, Samuel M. Eno Belinga. 1995. “Wealth in People as Wealth in Knowledge: Accumulation and Composition in Equatorial Africa.” The Journal of African History 36 (1): 120-91.

Häberlein, Tabea. 2015. “Intergenerational Entanglements: Insights into Perceptions of Care for the Elderly and Life Course in Northern Togo.” In Anthropoplogical perspectives on care: kinship, work and the life-course, edited by Erdmute Alber, and Heike Drotbohm, 159-179. New York: Palgrave Mcmillan.

Häberlein, Tabea. 2016. Generationen-Bande. Ordnung, Praxis und Geschichte der Generationenbeziehungen bei den Lama (Kabiye) im nördlichen Togo. Berlin: Lit-Verlag.

Hollstein, Betina. 2005. „Reziprozität in familialen Generationenbeziehungen.“ In Vom Geben und Nehmen. Zur Soziologie der Reziprozität, edited by Frank Adloff, and Steffen Man, 187-210. Frankfurt/Main, New York: Campus Verlag.

Iliffe, John. 1995. Africans. The History of a Continent. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Leinaweaver, Jessaca. 2010. “Outsourcing Care. How Peruvian Migrants Meet Transnational Family Obligations.” Latin American Perspectives 37 (5): 87-67.

Meillassoux, Claude. 1983. Die wilden Früchte der Frau: über häusliche Produktion und kapitalistische Wirtschaft. Edited and translated by Eva Moldenhauer. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. Distributed by Librairie Francois Maspéro. First published 1975.

Piot, Charles. 1999. Remotely Global. Village Modernity in West Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Radcliffe-Brown, Arthur Reginald. 1971. “On Rules of Decent and Interkin Behavior.” In Readings in Kinship and Social Structure, edited by Nelson Graburn, 87-94. New York: Harper and Row.

Roth, Claudia. 2008. “‘Shameful!’ The inverted intergenerational contract in Bobo-Dioulassou, Burkina Faso.” In Generations in Africa: Connections and Conflicts, edited by Erdmute Alber, and Sjaak van der Geest, and Susan Reynolds Whyte, 47-69. Berlin: Lit-Verlag.

Roth, Claudia. 2010. “Les relations intergénérationelles sous pression.” Autrepart 53 (1): 110-95.

Thelen, Tatjana. 2015. “Care for the Elderly, Migration, Community: Explorations from Rural Romania.” In Anthropological Perspectives on Care. Work, Kinship and the Life-Course, edited by Erdmute Alber, and Heike Drotbohm, 137-155. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Thelen, Tatjana, and Cati Coe, and Erdmute Alber, ed. 2013. The Anthropology of Sibling Relations. New York: Palgave Macmillan.

Ungruhe, Christian. 2010. “Symbols of Success: Youth, Peer Pressure and the Role of Adulthood among Juvenile Male Return Migrants in Ghana.” Childhood 17 (2): 271-259.

Van der Geest, Sjaak. 1997. “Money and respect: The changing value of old age in rural Ghana.” Africa 67 (4): 559-534.

Van der Geest, Sjaak. 2003. “Poverty and the “charm” of old age in Ghana: A note on irony.” In AGIDS, Faces of poverty: Capabilities, mobilization and institutional transformation, Proceedings of

the International CERES Summerschool, 27-44. Amsterdam: AGIDS.

Van Eeuwijk, Piet. 2011. „Altern in Unsicherheit. Gesundheit und Pflege von alten Menschen in Indonesien und Tansania“ In Alter: unbekannt, edited by Carolin Kollewe, and Elmar Schenkel, 83-111. Bielefeld: transcript (Sozialtheorie).

Van Eeuwijk, Piet. 2016. “Elderly providing care for elderly in Tanzania: against conventions – but accepted.” In Ageing in Sub-Saharan Africa. Spaces and Practices of Care, edited by Jaco Hoffman, and Katrien Pype, 71-95. Bristol: Chicago Press.