Pursuing big dreams in Ghana

In September we finally started Fieldwork for Future Migration as Present Fact (FUMI). After long Covid-related delays. We arived with optimism and great ambitions for the project, and found ourselves enveloped by a discourse of big dreams.

The project seeks to understand how migration that has not yet taken place shapes the lives of individuals and the development of societies. Put differently, if young adults imagine a future elsewhere and pin their hopes on leaving, what are the consequences? In many cases, they will not be able to migrate, but their lives might take different turns than if they had imagined a local future.

Our ethnographic fieldwork in Ghana took a step back from the research question and first sought to understand what young adults aspire to in their lives more generally. Only later did we consider the possible role of migration.

Research locations in the FUMI project

We collect data in three West African cities: Tema (Ghana), Serrekunda (The Gambia) and São Vicente (Cape Verde). The project has a mixed-methods design that deeply integrates ethnography and surveys. Our stay in Ghana comprised the first part of our ethnographic fieldwork as well as initial explorations of survey methodology.

The project is funded by a European Research Council (ERC) Consolidating Grant, which awarded solely on the basis of scientific excellence. In other words, this funding prioritizes ground-breaking research in any field, with emphasis on the long-term legacy rather than the short-term usefulness of the new knowledge.

The three locations were selected in order to use the differences within West Africa to explore the role of development processes. Cape Verde has the highest income level in the region, The Gambia is close to the other extreme, and Ghana is in an intermediate position. My colleague Tone Sommerfelt has worked in the Gambia over several decades and I have similarly extensive experience from Cape Verde. But Ghana was new to both of us.

We decided to start the data collection with joint fieldwork in Ghana, developing a shared understanding and methodological approach to the ethnography. We worked with approximately twenty young adults that we followed over several weeks through a combination of interviews and participant observation. Next year we will return to Ghana and follow the same individuals.

Our draft guides for interviews and participant observation were aimed at understanding aspirations for the future. But we had not foreseen that ‘big’, ‘dream’, and ‘big dreams’ would all be such important concepts. Not least because we were two, we recognized the significance of these words early on and were able to adapt.

First, many young adults had a clear idea of a dream in life. ‘What is your dream?’ turned out to be a fertile question in interviews. Second, the dream was often to be ‘big’ in one way or another. This bigness had to do not only with success and respect, but also with being in a position of helping, teaching or providing for others beyond the family. Third, there was widespread appreciation of ‘big dreams’ as a virtuous thing, rather than a lack of realism. Big dreams were even seen as instrumentally valuable, with an understanding that the bigger you dream, the further you can reach. These are themes we will explore in greater depth as we analyze our data and do additional fieldwork.

As part of the project, we will also conduct a survey with 1000 respondents in each of the three cities. During fieldwork in Ghana, Tone and I were joined by our colleagues Maryam Aslany and Mathilde Mjelva, who explored approaches to survey data collection. Trying out different solutions an an early pre-pilot stage was very rewarding and helped us prepare for the challenge of capturing a nuanced and varied reality in a structured survey.