Date of Award

December 2017

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Deborah Pellow


Colonialism, Kinship, Migration, Pass Laws, Visas, Zimbabwe

Subject Categories

Social and Behavioral Sciences


Approximately one quarter of Zimbabwean adults left their country of birth during the past twenty years. These sojourners are increasingly dispersed as tightening immigration regimes in preferred destinations and fluctuating global opportunities lead them to places with fewer historical links to Zimbabwe. This dispersive process fractures many families between multiple international locations. Nevertheless, the idea of family remains centrally important to diasporans, who work with relatives around the world to care for children and elders, to acquire important documents like passports, and to prepare for an eventual return home. Following from performative and relational theorizations of kinship, this dissertation argues that collaborative projects are crucibles in which families are forged and reconfigured.

This exploration of how dispersion shapes family life deploys three analytical lenses: history, space and technology. Contemporary journeys are historically linked to a century of dispossession and labor-migration in Southern Africa. Colonial governments used onerous “bioinformational regimes” to subjugate Africans and profit from their labor. Today, former colonial powers deploy similar technologies against descendants of subjugated populations in order to restrict access to opportunity that was produced and spatialized through colonial processes. Concurrently, contemporary diasporans build on the “transferable skills” received from previous generations of sojourners. For instance, they use “spatial subterfuge” and “collaborative parenting” to create families of choice—families which may not conform to either indigenous ideals or immigration regimes.

Each of the many places where diasporans live is imbued with unique structures of opportunity and oppression. These localized social and economic conditions powerfully influence migrant outcomes and shape how they are able to engage in family projects. People in wealthy countries like Canada and the UK have more economic power than relatives in South Africa or Botswana. Women also find more plentiful opportunities than their husbands and brothers, while younger diasporans tend to fare better than parents and elder siblings. Emergent economic differences may upset expectations about how money and power should be distributed in families. Such disjunctures—combined with the challenge of negotiating overwhelming family needs in the context of scarcity—often leads to conflict between relatives.

Distance also results in “separate development” as family members in various locations develop individuated friendships, routines, experiences and even beliefs. These new dimensions of life may be poorly understood by loved ones far away. Today, internet-mediated communications technologies are enabling people in dispersed families to salvage some of this lost relational immediacy. Social media like Facebook enable a degree of passive, contextual monitoring; while group chats on platforms like WhatsApp allow multinational conversations to unfold much as they do over the course of a leisurely weekend visit. New discursive registers like the “meme” even allow pluralistic discussions about important questions of collective interest, as everyone with a claim on being “Zimbabwean” creatively weighs in on the meaning of this identity, and as Zimbabweans of various backgrounds who live in divergent spaces debate whether the spoils of migration are worth its dangers and sacrifices.

This dissertation accordingly examines how families negotiate the marked challenges of prolonged separation and international dispersion, and how these efforts relate to negotiations of identity and belonging in the broader Zimbabwean diaspora. These interlinked questions of collaboration and conflict, continuity and change, proximity and distance are similarly important in many other migrant communities, as increasingly restrictive immigration regimes and the fluctuating global economy shape who is able to move and where they may settle.


Open Access