As you receive with one hand, so should you give with the other”: The Mutual-Help Practices of Cape Verdeans on the Lisbon Periphery

Samuel Weeks
Instituto de Ciências Sociais, Universidade de Lisboa

Rural Cape Verdeans employ a number of mutual-help practices to mitigate the uncertainties surrounding activities fundamental to their subsistence. One of these practices is djunta mon (“to work together”), a loosely planned, non-monetized system of allocating labor at peak intervals during the islands’ notoriously unpredictable growing season. By means of djunta mon, neighbors or family members work in each other’s fields until the tasks of every land-owning participant, such as planting, weeding, and harvesting, are complete. Alongside djunta mon in rural Cape Verde exist a number of other non-remunerated mutual-help practices, such as ajuda mútua, entreajuda, and laja kaza (“to add concrete to one’s house”). While less visible than djunta mon, they are nonetheless equally as important in completing tasks essential to life in the Cape Verdean countryside, such as building water cisterns and constructing and expanding homes.
In this paper, I will attempt to show how Cape Verdean immigrants, many of whom live in the city’s peripheral neighborhoods, have adapted the mutual-help practices of rural Cape Verde to a new, transnational context. The iterations of these practices in the Lisbon Metropolitan Area differ from their rural counterparts in that they involve fewer people (mostly women), take place on a year-round basis, and are concerned primarily with domestic work. They also help people find employment, access childcare, secure interest-free credit, construct or repair houses, share scarce household appliances, and “consume” (without purchasing) circulating goods such as clothing, jewelry, and consumer products. In the paper, I will argue that extensive mutual-help ties ensure Cape Verdean migrants in Lisbon a sufficient pool of family and friends upon which they can rely for support and assistance. In this sense, the wide extent and range of Cape Verdean kinship and neighborly networks introduce an element of stability into what are situations frequently marked by precariousness and hardship.
An additional element I will explore is the perception among Cape Verdean immigrants that these mutual-help practices seem to be occurring with less frequency. Whereas Cape Verdeans used to expect the aid of others in helping them to “get by,” my informants contend that their friends and family are increasingly hesitant to do so, even in the current crisis. As such, Cape Verdean migrants in Lisbon express empathy for the misfortune of others, but often fail to act in helping them improve their circumstances. While this shift is in part due to the availability of other means of support, such as state assistance, I will contend that the changing attitude of Cape Verdeans in Lisbon towards mutual help is also due to their encountering hegemonic, neoliberal notions of “self-accountability.” As a result, Cape Verdeans perceive that their mutual-help practices are in decline, while simultaneously needing the material support that they provide. A wider aim of this paper is therefore to investigate the influence of these and other dynamics on the mutual-help practices that Cape Verdean immigrants currently employ in the transnational context of the Lisbon periphery.

Keywords: Cape Verde, Lisbon, social economy, mutual-help practices, exchange networks

Biographic note
Samuel Weeks
is an MA student in social and cultural anthropology at the University of Lisbon’s Institute of Social Sciences (ICS-UL). He studied at the University of CapeTown (South Africa) in 2005 and worked on the Island of Fogo in Cape Verde from2006 to 2008. Currently, Samuel is studying the mutual-help practices of CapeVerdean labor migrants residing in the Lisbon Metropolitan Area. Beginning next academic year (2012-13), he will start a Ph.D. in sociocultural anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) under the direction of Nancy Levine, Sherry Ortner, and Sondra Hale