In the late nineteenth century, the French, British, and Portuguese colonial governments drew borders between the colonies of Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, and Guinea to divide and separate the peoples of these colonies. Based on ethnographic and archival research in six countries, “Belonging beyond Boundaries” argues that colonial governments never successfully controlled these borders, and that precolonial territorial strategies and networks have persisted to the present. Borderland communities made and remade spatial networks for a variety of reasons, adjusting their geographies in the face of state efforts to control and monitor movement. This research demonstrates that these communities used shifting migration strategies to consistently produce and reproduce alternative visions of space and place that challenged colonial and postcolonial ideas of territory as bounded space, using their border location to gain political autonomy and successfully disengage from colonial and postcolonial states.


ACLS Fellowship Program, 2022


Alternative Geographies: Mobility, Citizenship and Autonomy in a West African Borderland

Named Award

ACLS Centennial Fellow in the Dynamics of Place




Studies of African—and global—borderlands usually proceed by analyzing how borders and human mobility shape and are shaped by states. In Africa, most studies argue that mostly fluid and flexible precolonial ideas of territorial space were quickly replaced by Western conceptions. However, this research demonstrates the durability and adaptation of alternative, fluid geographies, grounded in borderland conceptions of space and place. Based on oral history and archival research in six countries, this study argues that borderland residents in four colonies/states—Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, and Guinea—used fluid ideas of boundaries, citizenship, and community to build durable, cross-border networks. Using a variety of strategies tied to mobility, communities produced and reproduced their own territorial spaces, forged in the aftermath of colonial partition. This work is a sociocultural, economic, religious, and political history of these alternative geographies and communities, and their spatial relationship over several centuries, though primarily focused on the period from the 1860s to the present. These alternative or parallel geographies allowed West Africans to create a multinational space characterized by mobility, fluidity, and connectivity, selectively engaging with the official spaces of bounded nation-states.