Art and Literature

Sutura and the gendered moral economy of post-adjustment crisis Senegal

Fatoumata Seck

"As someone who works primarily with fiction and narratives in general, I'm interested in how sutura materializes on the page beyond just seeing the word written in a speech bubble," states Fatoumata Seck, a literary scholar and assistant professor of French. In June 2021, Seck presented material from a forthcoming book on this subject in a talk titled "Gender, Economy, and the Social Imaginary in Senegalese Popular Culture" for the Clayman Institute Faculty Fellows program. 

Sutura references a practice of discretion and protection influenced by Senegal's Wolof cultural and Islamic religious values. Seck focuses on sutura within the context of household management, which she defines as "a tacit nondisclosure agreement around any action necessary for keeping up appearances and a contract of confidentiality regarding the couple's finances that has gradually applied more to women than to men." Seck applies sutura as a heuristic device to analyze the gendered dynamics of the economic crisis that emerged in Senegal after implementing structural adjustment policies in the late twentieth century. "Sutura can help us understand questions of moral economy not just because it is central to household finances, but also because the very meaning of the word lends itself to such questions," says Seck.  

In this talk, Seck primarily focused on a comic series titled Goorgoorlou, authored by Alphonse Mendy, who wrote under the pen name T.T. Fons. Named after its main character, the comic stars a Senegalese husband and his wife, Diek. The comics depict Goorgoorlou making a daily attempt to secure "the daily household expenditure" to provide for his family despite the economic upheaval. More often than not, Goorgoorlou comes up short and urges his wife to figure out a way to fill the gap. However, Seck keenly observes that, unlike her husband's strategies that take up most of the comic's narratives, Diek's attempts to substantiate the household's provisions often go unrecorded within the comic's panes and instead occur in the gutter or blank spaces of the page. Therefore, readers often observe the results of Diek's efforts though Mendy hints at the nature of this labor, for example, through the ways Goorgoorlou celebrates her ingenuity. 

Seck asserts that this comic, like many other Senegalese cultural productions, depicts the feminization of sutura as a modern practice that exploits women's reproductive labor, particularly married women and mothers, to overcompensate for the under- and unemployment of the men in their families.

Seck asserts that this comic, like many other Senegalese cultural productions, depicts the feminization of sutura as a modern practice that exploits women's reproductive labor, particularly married women and mothers, to overcompensate for the under- and unemployment of the men in their families. While not representative of all Senegalese families, the comics depict aspects of life for lower-income households that reside in the periphery of the capital city of Dakar. Seck clarifies that while structural adjustment policies increased the impoverishment of Senegalese men, they also precipitated the growth and diversification of economic activities among Senegalese women. These tensions thus created greater demand on the incomes of women within families through sutura. Indeed, Seck explains that "when it is used following a possessive adjective, for example, "sama sutura" (my sutura), the word can mean "my means of subsistence/my bread and butter." Seck then goes on to further state that "in that sense, it is Goorgoorlou's sutura itself that is threatened by the structural adjustment policies."

Like the blank spaces of the comic, the principles of protection and discretion in sutura hold that Senegalese women be the custodian of the family's honor by keeping their significant contributions private or by being careful to avoid public acknowledgment that overshadows the role of men as providers, which therefore conceals the ways their reproductive labor contributes to the household's and the nation's wellbeing. For example, in one comic Seck describes, Goorgoorlou requests Diek prepare a chicken lunch that he can offer to a shopkeeper in exchange for a sheep. The comic displays her leaving Goorgoorlou's presence to begin her task before depicting an exchange between her husband and the shopkeeper. She reappears again, carrying a prepared chicken, only after she fully completes her work, leaving the strategies Diek used to procure this meal to the reader's imagination. Such consistent erasure of Diek's work prompts Seck to ask, "Is the woman's solution not worthy of a scene?"

Overall, Seck argues that through this comic, its creator Mendy "does not simply reproduce stereotypes," but rather "uses them to show through satire the tensions these gender roles were under in the crisis." For example, the main character's name, Goorgoorlou, means "to act like a man" and "to exert oneself," implying a connection between masculinity and paid labor. In this post-adjustment-crisis world, the word also encompasses those who use their wits to make some earnings, typically just enough to live hand to mouth. Likewise, Diek's name refers both to a woman or a lady and emerges both in gendered and classed contexts. However, the realities of how much the household relies on Diek's labor to supplement Goorgoorlou's provisions betrays how structural adjustment threatened the livelihoods of men and relies on the reproductive labor of women to maintain society.

Seck asserts that if the comic offers a fictionalization of Senegalese realities, "then the displacement of women's work into the gutters can be read as a fictionalization of sutura as practiced by women in their households, or as an invitation to consider the metafictional aspect of the gutter." Therefore, by theorizing about the blank space between comic panes, Seck provides a means to think about how structural adjustment policies affected Senegalese women. In particular, Seck's reading of a figure like Diek reveals how sutura relates to the ideal archetype of women in this society as resilient wives, nurturing mothers, and faithful companions. Thus, rather than treat the blank space of the gutter as an absence of women, Seck uses sutura as a framework to speculate and imagine more nuanced representations of women in Senegalese popular culture.