Cati Coe headshotMany Ghanaian parents in the United States turn to their relatives in Ghana to help raise their children for short or long periods, relying on a common informal practice known in the anthropological literature of West Africa as “fostering.” For the past seven years, my research has been exploring why Ghanaian immigrant parents and their children live apart, and how parents, children, and caregivers feel about these arrangements.

I began my research, however, by examining the history of fosterage practices. In particular, I became interested in other historical work which suggested that as slavery declined in West Africa, debt pawning became a substitute for slavery, a means by which men continued to raise capital and gain access to (mainly female and child) labor. Was it possible that as pawning itself declined, fosterage replaced it? “How Debt Became Care: Child Pawning and Its Transformations in Akuapem, the Gold Coast, 1874-1929,” just published in the journal Africa examines that question in the context of Akuapem, an area of southern Ghana during the rapid expansion of cocoa production in the early twentieth century. Analyzing court cases, missionary periodicals, and oral histories collected about the cocoa boom, the article argues that pawning instead transformed into long-term care relations with children.

Rutgers enabled this research in numerous ways. Most directly, over two summers, through the Research Council and the Childhood Studies Center, Rutgers supplied me with two small grants which I used to travel to four archives and libraries across three continents: the Basel Mission Archives in Basel, Switzerland; the National Archives in Ghana and the Eastern Regional Archives in Koforidua, both in Ghana; and to the Northwestern University Africana Library, in Evanston, Illinois, where the notes and papers of a geographer who studied the cocoa boom had been deposited. The library system at Rutgers also gave me access to important and recent scholarly articles and books in history and anthropology on slavery, pawning, and fosterage in West Africa and elsewhere. Having colleagues who are also scholars helped me refine my questions and approach. Bolstered by the small grants and conversations with colleagues, I was able to receive more substantial funding from the National Science Foundation and the Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research to examine contemporary practices of fosterage among Ghanaian immigrants. I am extremely grateful to be at an institution which supports indepth and long-term research.

About Cati Coe

Associate Professor of Anthropology
Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice