All for a Container! Return Migration, Transport Technologies, and Love Affairs

in Transfers


This article analyzes the articulation between mobility and technology within life trajectories marked by migration, exile, and the search for economic achievement. It does so by focusing on a Nigerian couple’s (attempted) itinerary of return migration from Italy to Nigeria, and on the tensions that surround the role played by a specific transport technology, the shipping container, within this process. It highlights how, throughout the itinerary that brings the container from Italy to Nigeria, its social meaning and that of the cargo stored in it become the center of a series of tense interactions, in which diverging imaginaries about transnational mobility, migration, and life abroad come to the fore, and provoke radical transformations in the life of the people involved in the itinerary of the container itself.

Among the wide range of mobilities that have come to preoccupy the social sciences over the past few years, migration occupies a special place.1 As Nikos Papastergiadis points out, in fact, “migration, in its endless motion, surrounds and pervades almost all aspects of contemporary society,”2 thus becoming a metaphorical crossroad for the different kinds of mobility (social, economic, material, virtual, symbolic) that crisscross contemporary societies all over the world.3 Migration and the mobility that it entails are seen as entertaining a particular relationship with the processes of construction of the modern subject.4 They participate in the reformulation of social understandings of identity and belonging, and they orient the processes of construction of the self through specific, motion-based “drives,”5 and “aspirations.”6

In this context, transport and communication technologies have a particularly relevant role. By facilitating and accelerating the motion of people, objects, and ideas, they foster the creation of transnational networks that make long-distance migration possible, and the connection between destination countries and the homeland easier. Within this framework, communication technologies have received wide scholarly attention,7 while less interest has been directed to the migration “journey” itself, and to the technologies adopted in order to achieve it.8 Even less has been the attention given to the relationship existing between transport technologies and the often “neglected topic” of return migration.9 It must be emphasized, in fact, that, while much scholarship in migration studies has focused on Southeast to Northwest migration itineraries, “the current trends of global migration reveal a far more multidirectional phase [that] can be best described as turbulent, a fluid but structured movement, with multidirectional and reversible trajectories.”10 The effects of the 2008 global financial crisis have accelerated an already existing dynamic of disruption of the unidirectional model that used to ground much of migration studies,11 and return migration from Western regions of the world toward African, Latino-American, and Asian countries has become an important subject of research for migration studies scholars.12

This article is positioned at the crossroads of these neglected areas of both migration studies and technology and mobility studies. It intends to shed light on them by adopting an Africa-focused perspective to the study of mobility, and by putting African experiences at the center of the inquiry. In order to do so, the article focuses on what might be defined as an “extended case study.” In Max Gluckman’s terms this consists in “taking a series of specific incidents affecting the same persons or groups, through a long period of time, and showing [the] change of social relations among these persons and groups, within the framework of their social system and culture,” in order to move from the micro level of everyday individual social practices to the macro level of social and anthropological theory.13 The case this article focuses on is the story of a Nigerian couple’s (attempted) itinerary of return migration from Italy to Nigeria, and the analysis of the role played by a specific transport technology (the shipping container) and by the cargo concealed in it within this process. By focusing on an attempted, rather than achieved, return, this article argues, together with some recent scholarship on migration,14 for the importance of focusing on failed migration (or return migration) attempts and, ultimately, on immobility, that is, on the impossibility for certain categories of people to move back and forth across borders provoked by the increasingly restrictive regulations implemented by many countries in both the southern and northern hemispheres of the world. Such a focus off ers the chance to highlight the relational and political dimensions inherent to mobility and helps bring to light the complex web of tensions underlying migration processes and their multiple networks.15 It also helps in emphasizing the role that these restrictions have in influencing the way people imagine (and idealize) migration and life abroad.16

The first part of the article introduces one of the protagonists of this essay, the one that has somehow triggered the development of the entire story discussed here: the shipping container. It provides a brief background to the history of the container’s role in the transformation of maritime trade worldwide, and questions the metaphoric meaning that this object has acquired over the past few years for mobile subjects such as the protagonists of this article. A detailed account and an analytical interpretation follow, describing the experience of Larry Imasuen and Venus Amadi (the two Nigerians whose attempted return to Nigeria this article focuses on),17 and the way the relationship between them, and between them and their families transforms parallel to the container’s itinerary from Italy to Nigeria. Finally, the concluding part connects the different issues presented throughout the article to the key topics of transnational mobility, return migration, and shipping container technologies.

On “Continere”: Container, Containment, and Contents

The introduction of shipping containers in the 1950s radically modified the global geography, economy, and organization of maritime trade.18 Since then, and through their progressive global affirmation throughout the 1970s (in connection with the Vietnam War), most of the shipping of solid cargo has moved from break-bulk ships to containerized shipping. We might say that the switch to container shipping has been one of the main agents of commodity globalization in the second half of the twentieth century. Today, almost 90 percent of world trade happens by sea, and more than 60 percent of it via container.19 Beyond transforming the economic structure of global trade, cargo containerization has also had an impact on the transformation of the relationship between people and commodities. By reducing the costs of transportation and making goods’ mobility almost invisible to the consumer’s eyes, in fact, containerization created what Thomas Birtchnell and John Urry call “a magic system” that, by hiding the materiality of the cargo’s mobility, make commodities acquire a fetish-like aura.20

In Africa, trade via container became mainstream, as in the rest of the world, during the 1970s, but initially it did not have a positive impact on African economies. On the contrary, throughout the 1980s it contributed to their marginalization. As Poul Pedersen evidenced, “the transport improvement achieved through containerization initially primarily benefited transport of manufactured goods. In an African context it therefore benefited the import trade and not exports, which mostly consisted of bulk goods. This generally led to lack of return freight for the shipping lines and therefore high transport rates.”21 This new shipping strategy imposed itself all over the continent, and played an important role in redefining regional infrastructural and economic geographies. Local governments invested in restructuring and transforming the main ports in order to attract the interest of leading shipping companies, whose power in conditioning local politics and economies became, as a result, particularly relevant.

However, in order to understand the economic impact of the introduction of container shipping on the life of African people, rather than basing our analysis on macroeconomic numbers (which Morten Jerven has shown to be questionable in regard to the study of Africa,),22 we need to follow, as this article attempts to do, the sociotechnical frictions that surround specific containers’ itineraries between Africa and other regions of the world. In this way, we can “critically examine the encounters of incoming technologies with local creativities, cultures, societies, and territorialities,” and “break away from taken-for-granted assumptions about technology transfer, according to which most technology travels from the Global North to the Global South, where it is adopted for the common good.”23 Beyond the macrodynamics discussed above, the introduction and consolidation of container shipping in Africa also influenced the life of small traders and migrants, off ering, thanks to its economic aff ordability, new, unexpected possibilities for the creation of social, economic, and commercial links with the motherland. The commercial sector that has probably been aff ected the most in this sense is that of the secondhand car trade. It is in this area that most of the people for whom trading is not the main profession have come to use containers. As some of the existing research on secondhand car business in Africa suggest, in fact, this is a sector within which professional traders often compete with one-off car importers, who buy cars abroad for family members back home or, as in the case of the Nigerian man whose experiences will be discussed in the next sections, send back minibuses and other vehicles to start a business of their own in their home country.24

As the nature of these small-scale transactions suggests, beyond occupying a central role in global commercial trade, the container has also acquired a number of specific social and cultural connotations connected to the different contexts and natures of its use. The shipping container that is at the center of the Nigerian couple’s attempted return to Nigeria confirms this point. In the couple’s life, as in that of the people interacting with it, the container means more than its mere economic value or that of the things stored in it. It is more than simply a means to send things from one place to another. It does perform this role, of course, but the overall social and cultural meanings that it acquires are multiple and more complex than that. As the etymology of the word container suggests (from the Latin continere, “to hold together”), the container not only transports things within itself but also holds them together, becoming, in the context of Larry and Venus’s story as well as in the experience of many other migrants around the world, a sort of metaphorical (but also very much physical) box that keeps together the life abroad and the one left behind in the homeland; the expectations and aspirations of the people that migrated and those of the family and friends who stayed home; the present (in this case, the life in Italy), the past (the childhood and adolescence spent in the country of origin), and the future (in this case, the desired new life that will begin once back in Nigeria). What Birtchnell and Urry define as the “the magic system” of “cargomobilities” created by the introduction of shipping containers acquires here a rather different kind of magic value,25 which ends up making commodities’ mobility more visible and socially dense, rather than invisible and socially anonymous. In relation to the cargomobilities of the kind analyzed in this article, in fact, diverging ways of conceiving transnational migration, wealth, success, family relationships, and also ethnicity, religion, and morality articulate themselves and come to the surface, at times provoking (as in the case analyzed here) social and cultural conflicts related precisely to the regulation of those forms of (material, economic, social) mobility that the container expedition was supposed to foster.

Larry Imasuen, Venus Amadi, and the container

I met Larry Imasuen during my PhD research around mid-2009. He arrived in Italy in 2003 and, as many other Nigerians who migrate to Italy, he did not plan to stay for a long time.26 His project was similar to that of many other migrants, in Italy as elsewhere, that is, to save a good amount of money and then begin a new life in Nigeria.27 He had arrived in Italy illegally through Morocco and Spain, and this had made his life in Italy harder, especially during the first few years. In fact, the reality of everyday life in Italy revealed itself to be much different and harder than the one he had dreamed about before leaving Nigeria,28 and the social pressure toward economic performance (in the form of regular and generous remittances) from his family and friends back home had become almost unbearable.29 Things started getting better when he met Venus, a Nigerian woman who had already spent a few years in Italy. She owned an apartment and worked as a housemaid for an Italian family. Despite (or perhaps because of) the economic and social disparities, and the different ethnic backgrounds,30 that separated them, Larry and Venus fell in love and started a long-term relationship. As a result, Larry’s life became more stable: he did not have a permanent job yet, but he had a roof over his head and a person to share his life with. He started doing many jobs at the same time, which included nightclub bouncer, film actor and director (in locally produced Nollywood-style videos),31 taxi driver in the local Nigerian informal taxi network (the “Kabu-Kabu” service, as Nigerians in Turin dub it),32 and dealer in secondhand cars and electronics. The latter activity was strictly connected to Larry’s project of going back, sooner or later, to Nigeria to begin a new life. When I first met him he had almost filled his first shipping container. Beyond refrigerators, televisions, and washing machines, he was also ready to send a secondhand Mercedes (which he would display as a symbol of his new social status as a successful returnee),33 and a second hand minivan, which he wished to transform into a collective taxi in order to rent it out to a driver in Lagos. If the first container expedition were to work out well, he had plans to invest more in this trade and become a secondhand electronics and car dealer, with business connections in both Nigeria and Europe.34

Before we go any further, it is useful to underline that Larry and Venus’s relationship, and more generally long-term relationships among Nigerian migrants in Italy, are an exception rather than the norm. For reasons connected to both historical and social factors characterizing migration flows between Nigeria and Italy, most Nigerian women arrive on the peninsula through prostitution-trafficking, and during their first few years in the country they prostitute themselves to pay back the person (often a madam already living in Italy) who sponsored their trip.35 During this period of their lives, these women might have occasional relationships with Nigerian men beyond prostitution, but these liaisons are, in most cases, short and troubled because of the hostile economic and social conditions within which they take place.36 After they have paid their debt, many of these women leave prostitution and try to get a normal job. At this point, some if not most of them are willing to settle down and build a family, but this is often difficult because of their past. Hence, it is not rare to hear about women who pay to have what we can call a “social husband.”37 The men who enter such deals are generally accorded a certain sexual freedom in exchange for publicly performing the role of husbands. While Larry and Venus did not go through a similar experience, it is useful to keep in mind the existence of such practices in order to better understand the rest of the story, and the reaction of some of both Larry’s and Venus’s family members to the idea of Larry and Venus resettling in Nigeria as a couple.

However, whatever the reasons that pushed Venus and Larry together, their relationship grew stronger over the years, and they decided to have a child. Throughout these years, Venus kept working as a housemaid, but she also had, as Larry did, plans to organize a future resettlement in Nigeria. Her dream was to open a shop in her hometown, and entrust its management to her sister for a few years, until the time finally came for her, Larry, and their child to resettle. With this in mind, she had started to accumulate goods for the shop. She bought shoes and clothes in Naples, tomato paste and Italian wine in Northern Italy, and many other things on the local market in Turin. Not long after I met her, she told me that she had accumulated enough things to start a small business, and was ready to send a first expedition back to Nigeria via container, together with the things that Larry had collected.

The initial plan the couple had in mind was to travel together to Nigeria for a couple of months in order to clear the container, start the different business activities they had planned (the shop in Venus’s hometown, the secondhand electronics and car business, and the public transport deal in Lagos), and also introduce each other (and their child) to their respective families (neither Venus nor Larry had in fact been back to Nigeria since they had left the country, and neither of them had ever met his/her partner’s family). During the final stage of the trip’s organization, however, Larry found out that the renewal of his Italian visa had been delayed, which prevented him from leaving the country. Instead of waiting, the couple finally decided that Venus would travel alone with their child to manage the container clearance in Lagos, and meet Larry’s family back in his hometown.

As the existing literature on return migration emphasizes, for many Africans in the diaspora, the dream of going home one day is an integral part of the initial migration project. It is in fact a movement whose fantasy exists in most people’s minds from the beginning of their migratory experience, and often throughout its duration.38 In this context, Larry and Venus’s container represents a first step in the process that will transform their aspiration of returning to their homeland into reality. Larry often referred to this aspect during the discussions we had in Italy, over the months that preceded the departure of the container: “If this expedition works out well,” he would often say, “I will not stay much longer here in Italy. Just a few more years and I will go back.” They were both aware that the return process could be long and complex, but the first step was an important one.

From an analytical point of view, here the container and the goods stored in it are invested with emotionally charged expectations; they partly come to symbolize these expectations, to give them a material referent. In a way, they can be seen as the objects of what Birtchnell and Urry label as “cargo cults,” but the cult that they inspire is a rather secular one. It has in fact less to do with the religious feelings that the hidden, magic-like mobility of commodities suggested to the non-Western colonial societies mentioned by Birtchnell and Urry than with a very mundane belief in the connection between material wealth, economic achievement, and social recognition.39 In this sense, for Larry and Venus, having the container filled was already the sign of a significant achievement that made them proud and optimistic about the future. It attested to their hard work in Italy and symbolized that a future beyond the precariousness, vulnerability, and uncertainty of their present was within reach. Ultimately, the (filled) container was an object able to strengthen Larry and Venus’s self-confidence. They were no longer dreaming about economic success—they were living it, and they believed the container and its cargo to be evidence of this change in their life.

Conflicting Aspirations of (Im)mobility

I happened to be in Nigeria at the time Venus went there to receive the container. When she arrived in Nigeria she called me, and we planned to meet a few days later, but only after she had paid a visit to Larry’s family and her own in the eastern part of the country. A couple of days before our meeting, Larry called me from Italy asking if I could get in touch with Venus, because he could not reach her anymore. I tried, and when she finally took the call and understood I was calling on behalf of Larry, I struggled to convince her not to hang up straight away. I quickly understood that something had gone wrong, but it took me a few days and countless phone conversations with both Larry and Venus to figure out what had happened.

As I later understood, the arrival of the container had become the catalyst for a series of tensions between the Imasuens and the Amadis, which pushed the couple to a violent fight, and finally to a radical breakup. In fact, both families were anxiously waiting for the arrival of the container, and neither of them was fully aware of (or had fully accepted) the fact that its content had to be shared with someone else. As soon as Venus arrived in her hometown (before the arrival of the container), her brother and uncle tried to convince her that it was not right to share the container’s content with Larry’s family. In their opinion, Larry was only a rogue, who stayed with her to take advantage of her house and money. She defended Larry against these accusations, decided to go to Larry’s hometown to meet his family, and hopefully to get some moral support from them. But this turned out to be a bad idea. Larry’s mother had in fact decided that since Larry and Venus had not yet performed the traditional marriage, Venus should go through a series of rituals to ensure Larry’s family of her loyalty and fidelity to Larry. Furthermore, David (their son) would have to be circumcised in the traditional way, and would have to spend a few days away from Venus, under the care of Larry’s relatives. Venus refused to accept these conditions and left, profoundly upset. As a consequence of Venus’s behavior, Larry’s relatives became suspicious about her intentions, and told Larry that she did not want to perform the ritual because she was unfaithful and wanted to cheat him and keep the container’s cargo for herself. Being in Italy, far away from the ongoing drama, Larry had trouble understanding what was going on and tried to convince Venus to perform the rituals, at least to calm his mother and relatives down, but she refused, and considered Larry’s attempt to convince her as a sign of mistrust.

As mentioned earlier, Larry and Venus belong to two different ethnic groups, and ethnic mistrust between the two families is a factor that started playing an important role at this point in the story. The episode of the ritual that Venus refused to perform accentuated the existing tensions related to the partition of the container’s contents, providing a larger, culturally grounded framework within which to resignify a conflict based, in fact, on revenue sharing and resource allocation. For both Larry and Venus’s families, the container and its cargo are here objects of desire linked to popular fantasies about migration and the economic advantages of living abroad; in many ways they represent the climax of these fantasies.40 At the same time, while causing the growth of expectations about the possibilities of economic and social mobility, the imminent arrival of the container also produces the fear that something or someone could interfere with the achievement of these possibilities, thus pushing the two families to mobilize culturally and religiously grounded frameworks of explanations (i.e., the issue of the ritual that Venus refuses to perform) to justify their opposition to the partition of the cargo.

The way Larry and Venus’s families react to Venus’s return to Nigeria and to the arrival of the container is a very stressful experience for the couple. It makes them aware of the fact that, while they might have long dreamed about returning home, their families have probably developed more ambiguous expectations. In fact, while migration is associated with success and upward mobility, return, unless supported by consistent proof of enduring economic prosperity, can quickly spread rumors of failure among both family members and friends.41 In this sense, the container’s arrival becomes the material manifestation of a return whose real causes are unclear and viewed with suspicion. Return also means the end of regular remittances, and inevitably creates anxieties among the group of those who have become accustomed to depending for daily survival on economic support coming from family members abroad. As Giulia Sinatti points out, “similar dependency patterns are difficult to break away from,” as migrants’ “definitive return to their place of origin may spell an end to these local benefits,” thus making a sustainable return impossible.42

Larry and Venus’s aspiration of returning home (their dream of mobility back to Nigeria) conflicts here with their families’ idea of what the mobility pattern of a migrant person should be: since Larry and Venus have managed to reach Europe, they are supposed to remain there; they moved in order to become “immobile” there. Beyond being an object of desire, then, the container is, for Larry and Venus’s families, also the metaphor for a menace—their ceasing to be the privileged beneficiaries of their migrant family members’ work. The ambiguous position that the container and its cargo acquire in this context reflects the complex intertwining of solidarity and coercion that defines the relationship between migrants and their families back home, and grounds the multifaceted social significance of remittances in many contexts, in Africa as elsewhere.43


Meanwhile, the container had arrived at the Apapa port in Lagos, and Venus had to return to the city to coordinate the clearing. The task revealed itself to be much harder than predicted. The length of Lagos port bureaucracy and the number of intermediaries who try to make a living out of the container clearing business had transformed it into the ideal setting for a Kafkaesque tale.44 In fact, if at a first glance nobody working at the harbor had an idea of what the container carried, Larry and Venus’s properties started attracting more interest once it became evident that the container had been privately shipped. At this point, the fact that the container clearance would have to be dealt with by informal intermediaries, and not by any of the big trading companies active in the port, attracted the interest of a large number of people, who tried to take advantage, knowing that because of their long stay abroad neither Venus nor Larry was able to mobilize the “social capital” and networks of relations needed to successfully navigate the “informal economy” that regulates the life of the Apapa port.45 As a result of the combination of these tensions, the container ended up remaining in the port for a few weeks, while the conflicts between the two families mentioned above began to unfold.

The forced immobility of the container on the Apapa’s pier strikingly contrasts with Larry and Venus’s dream of mobility (both the physical and geographical mobility of their trip back home, and the social and symbolic mobility upward within the Nigerian society that they expected on their return). Together with other immobilities that migration studies have brought into focus over the past few years, the container’s prolonged immobility in the Apapa port testifies to the complexity of social, political, and economic factors that determine the success or failure of a migration (or in this case, return migration) itinerary, as well as its time and space settings. The difficulties Venus encounters in Lagos, in fact, are not only connected to her unfamiliarity with the technicalities of container clearance procedures and to her (and Larry’s) lack of the necessary connections to navigate the vagaries of the informal economy of a privately shipped container’s clearance in the Apapa port. Rather, they are part of the larger web of sociopolitical tensions that determines the place a returnee can aspire to occupy in his/her society of origin. As Apostolus Andrikopoulos has emphasized in relation to migration itineraries between Nigeria and Europe,46 class, money, and status as well as social, political, and ethnic networks existing in the country of origin are factors that, while often left aside in the analysis of migration processes, have a pivotal role in determining what kind of social and economic position the migrant can aspire to occupy. The same is true for a migrant returning home. In this sense, the container stuck in Apapa symbolizes the discrepancy between the place in Nigerian society that Larry and Venus dreamed of occupying after their return, and the actual position that this same society is ready to allow them to occupy.

In this context, in order to pay the taxes (and the bribes) needed to clear the container, Venus found herself obliged to sell part of the goods stored in it. Larry’s family refused to believe her explanations and became convinced that Venus’s family had taken the missing goods. This would constitute further evidence of Venus’s untrustworthy behavior. Larry, on his side, frustrated by the immobility imposed on him by his visa problems, seemed to understand the situation, but could not avoid accusing Venus of being unable to deal with the container clearance appropriately. By the time the container was finally cleared, one of Larry’s family members had come to Lagos to take the Mercedes away, while some of Venus’s relatives had also come to town to prevent what was left from ending up in Larry’s family’s hands. In this situation, little or nothing was left for Larry and Venus. Most of the container’s contents were gone, either taken by with some of the family members or lost in the labyrinth of the Apapa port’s bureaucracy. But, most of all, Larry and Venus’s relationship had collapsed. Constrained by their families and upset by the fact that the container clearance aff air had revealed their inability to cope with the dynamics regulating social and economic mobility in Lagos (and in Nigeria more generally), Larry and Venus saw their dream of a life together back in Nigeria progressively disappearing. They began accusing each other, supporting their respective families’ position about the container issue, and ended up badly mistrusting each other. Eventually, their relationship collapsed, and no attempt to solve the misunderstanding provoked by the container’s clearance ever worked out. They never saw each other again.

Containers, Cargomobilities, and the Diverging Nature of Individual Drives and Aspirations

Throughout the process that brings Larry and Venus from the idea of filling a container to its actual clearing in Nigeria, and to the mess that the clearing itself provokes in Larry and Venus’s relationship, a number of diverging tensions, or better, to use Peter Sloterdijk’s expression, a number of diverging “drives” come to the fore and eventually end up conflicting with each other.47 In Sloterdijk’s term, modernity is characterized by the switch from the “drive toward salvation,” which used to define the premodern and eminently religious subject, to the “drive toward ease” that has come to define the modern subject.48 In this “post-metaphysically inspired religion of ease,”49 consumption and accumulation occupy a central role: they are, as Michael Rowlands has underlined, the key elements of the “material culture of success” that marks the acquisition of social and symbolic capital in many African contexts (as in many other regions of the world).50 In the post structural adjustment context of most sub-Saharan African countries,51 in which preexisting figures of success and economic achievement (such as that of the university graduate, the civil servant, and even the local politician) have lost much of their social relevance, new itineraries of accumulation have emerged. Among them, migration is seen by many as the key strategy at hand to achieve material success,52 that is, to pursue the individual “drive toward ease.”

The container is the object that gives this drive a physical form and inspires a post-metaphysically inspired “cargo cult.” The container transports the material objects that can make the achievement of success socially visible. In this sense, it is in itself a symbol of this success. Its mere existence, the fact that it has been filled and sent back, is supposed to make the aspiration toward a future of ease finally accessible for Larry, Venus, and their families. Before leaving Italy, then, the container maintains its etymological capacity of holding things together. It is in fact the materialization of Larry, Venus, and their families’ aspirations toward material accumulation that the container is supposed to fulfill once in Lagos. But when it arrives in Nigeria, the container becomes something else, its metaphorical capacity of holding people and their aspirations together falls apart.

As Arjun Appadurai pointed out, aspirations are socially constructed and they are “not evenly distributed in any society.”53 In fact, the capacity to aspire (and the capacity to evaluate the concrete possibilities for the realization of a given aspiration) depends on a number of social, cultural, economic, and individual factors. While from a distance the container was able to hold together aspirations that seemed to be grounded in similar, coinciding drives, once in Lagos the container becomes an object that, instead of containing and keeping together these drives, ends up unleashing diverging tensions. Individual, family-based aspirations prevail, and the experience of the container’s shipment and clearing becomes the image of an impossible, unachievable return.

Throughout this story, a set of different mobilities is at play, each of them giving us access to a different understanding of the conflicting possibilities and constraints that regulate the mobilities of Africans and things African in the world today. These mobilities diverge, at times intersect, and often collide. First of all, there is the container’s mobility from Italy to Nigeria, around which much of the story discussed in this article unfolds. The analysis of this itinerary of mobility makes it possible to unpack the “magic system” of containerized shipping theorized by Birtchnell and Urry in relation to the perception of cargomobilities in the Global North;54 it brings to light the dense social and cultural world that surrounds private container shipping in the experience of African migrants willing to return home, and helps us to retrace “the social lives that incoming technologies acquire locally.”55 Second, there is Venus’s mobility to Lagos, and around Nigeria, and her and Larry’s project of upward mobility within the Nigerian society. These mobilities collide with the Imasuen and Amadi families’ aspirations as well as, in more general terms, with a society, the Nigerian one that, after the years that Venus and Larry have spent abroad, considers them aliens unable to mobilize their connections to achieve their goals, and thus vulnerable to the predatory aspects of Lagos’s economy. Here the upward social mobility that the material motion of the container was supposed to foster is transformed into a frustrating immobility by the social constraints that cause the attempted return to become a failure. Finally, there is Larry’s immobility. His absence from the active development of the drama in Nigeria cannot be compensated by his attempts to mediate the crisis between Venus, the Imasuens, and the Amadis from a distance. And the couple is left to wonder what would have happened if Larry’s visa issue had been resolved earlier. His immobility and its impact on the story of the couple is a powerful reminder of the political framework that constrains migrants’ (dreamed and real) trajectories of mobility and proximity.56

Would the relationship between Larry and Venus have ended this badly had the container not been shipped to Nigeria? It is impossible to know. What is sure is that the couple had for a long time been sending goods and money back to Nigeria in small quantities to meet the needs of the families, and this had not had any particularly meaningful consequence for the couple’s life together. The couple’s crisis and the disagreement between the two families are thus not simply the consequences of a fight around resource allocation. The container represented a different step. It was meant to become the first act of the couple’s long-term project of moving back to Nigeria together. In this sense, the container’s mobility from Italy to Nigeria was the premise for a different kind of mobility: the couple’s return to Nigeria and their attempt to move upward socially in their society of origin. It is the relationship between the container’s mobility and the impossible achievement of the mobilities dreamed of by Larry and Venus that, in my view, makes the study of the container’s trajectory compelling: it is the social and material impact of its journey that causes Larry and Venus’s dream of mobility to become unachievable.


This article was written during a Marie Curie/Cofund postdoctoral fellowship funded by the European Union and the University of Liege and the author wishes to thank these institutions for their kind and generous support. To the Nigerian couple that inspired this article, warm thanks for their friendship and collaboration during the research, and to the organizers and participants of the international conference on Technology and Mobility in Africa: Exploring a New Analytical Field (Catholic University of Leuven, 17–18 October 2013) during which the first version of this article was presented.


See, for instance, Tim Cresswell, On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World (New York: Routledge, 2006); John Urry, Sociology beyond Societies: Mobilities for the Twenty-First Century (New York: Routledge, 2000); Nikos Papastergiadis, The Turbulence of Migration: Globalization, Deterritorialization, and Hybridity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000); in relationship to Africa, see also Aderanti Adepoju, “Migration in West Africa,” Development 46, no. 3 (2003): 37–41; Clapperton C. Mavhunga, “What Mobility for (Which) Africa: Beyond Banal Mobilities,” in Mobility in History: Reviews and Reflections, ed. Peter Norton, Gijs Mom, Liz Millward, and Mathieu Flonneau (Neuchâtel: Éditions Alphil-Presses Universitaires Suisses, 2011), 73–84.


Papastergiadis, The Turbulence of Migration, 1.


While the exponential increase in transnational migration flows over the past few years had an important role in the emergence of the “mobility turn” in social sciences, this paradigm has importantly influenced migration studies. See Joris Schapendonk, “Sub-Saharan Migrants Heading North: A Mobility Perspective,” in Long Journeys: African Migrants on the Road, ed. Alessandro Triulzi and Robert L. McKenzie (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 9–24.


Peter Sloterdijk, “Society of Centaurs: Philosophical Remarks on Automobility,” Transfers 1, no. 1 (2011): 14–24.


Ibid., 17.


Arjun Appadurai, “The Capacity to Aspire: Culture and the Terms of Recognition,” in Culture and Public Action, ed. Vijayendra Rao and Michael Walton (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 59–84.


See, among others, Andoni Alonso and Pedro Oiarzabal, ed., Diasporas in the New Media Age: Identity Politics, and Community (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2010); Karim H. Karim, ed., The Media of Diaspora (New York: Routledge, 2003).


As Joris Schapendonk points out, “to explain migration we have used ‘sedentarist’ frameworks in which roots dominated over routes,” while a mobility approach to migration would put “the beginning and ending sides of migration (departure/ arrival) into perspective. It [would complicate] departures by stating that there can be more than only one moment and place of departure [and it would challenge] the finiteness of arrivals since a destination can be transformed into nothing more than another place of departure.” Schapendonk, “Sub-Saharan Migrants Heading North,” 12.


Richard Black and Russell King, “Editorial Introduction: Migration, Return and Development in West Africa,” Population, Space and Place 10, no. 2 (2004): 75–83, here: 75.


Papastergiadis, The Turbulence of Migration, 7.


See Franck Laczko and Tara Brian, “North-South Migration: A Diff erent Look at the Migration and Development Debate,” Migration Policy Practice (June–July 2013), (accessed 10 August 2014).


While, as Jean-Pierre Cassarino underlines, return migration has been the object of much scholarly analysis at least since the early 1980s, less work has been dedicated to this typology of migration in what concerns voluntary migration flows. See Cassarino, “Theorizing Return Migration: The Conceptual Approach to Return Migrants Revisited,” International Journal on Multicultural Societies 6, no. 2 (2004), 253–279, here: 254; and Giulia Sinatti, “‘Mobile Transmigrants’ or ‘Unsettled Returnees’? Myth of Return and Permanent Resettlement among Senegalese Migrants,” Population, Space and Place 17, no. 2 (2011): 153–166, here: 154; see also Oladele Arowolo, “Return Migration and the Problem of Reintegration,” International Migration 38, no. 5 (2000): 59–82.


Max Gluckman, “Ethnographic Data in British Social Anthropology,” Sociological Review 9, no. 1 (1961): 5–17, here: 10. See also Terry Evens and Don Handelman, eds., The Manchester School: Practice and Ethnographic Praxis in Anthropology (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2006). It must be said that the topic discussed in this article is not the key focus of the research I have conducted over the past few years. This is one of the reasons that, in order to discuss the articulation between return migration and container shipment technology in the context of the conference that this essay was originally written for, I decided to focus on this extended case study (which I happened to follow at length almost by accident) rather than on a wider set of sociological and anthropological data.


See, among others, Peter Adey, “If Mobility Is Everything Then It Is Nothing: Towards a Relational Politics of (Im)Mobilities,” Mobilities 1, no. 1 (2006): 75–94 ; Jørgen Carling, “Migration in the Age of Involuntary Immobility: Theoretical Reflections and Cape Verdean Experiences,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 18, no. 1 (2002): 5–42.


Adey, “If Mobility Is Everything.”


See, for instance, Didier Gondola, “Dream and Drama: The Search for Elegance among Congolese Youth,” African Studies Review 42, no. 1 (1999): 23–48. See also Ike Oguine’s novel, A Squatter’s Tale (Oxford: Heinemann, 2000).


As requested by the protagonist of this story, all names mentioned in this article have been changed. The fictional names and surnames were chosen to indicate the specific ethnic backgrounds of the two protagonists, which play a role in the story.


See, among others, Frank Broeze, The Globalisation of the Oceans: Containerisation from the 1950s to the Present (Norfolk: International Maritime Economic History Association, 2002); Brian J. Cudahy, ed., Box Boats: How Container Ships Changed the World (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006); Marc Levinson, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010); Thomas Birtchnell and John Urry, “The Mobilities and Post-Mobilities of Cargo,” Consumption Markets and Culture 18, no. 1 (2015): 25–38.


Pablo Kaluza et al. “The Complex Network of Global Cargo Ship Movements,” Journal of the Royal Society Interface 7, no. 48 (2010): 1093–1103.


Birtchnell and Urry, “The Mobilities,” 26.


Poul O. Pedersen, “Freight Transport under Globalization and Its Impact on Africa,” Journal of Transport Geography 9, no. 2 (2001): 85–99, here:. 88; see also Azita Amjadi and Alexander J. Yeats, Have Transport Costs Contributed to the Relative Decline of African Exports? Some Preliminary Empirical Evidence (Washington, DC: World Bank Publications, 1995).


Morten Jerven, Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do about It (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013).


See Mavhunga, Cuvelier, and Pype, this issue, 47.


See, among others, Isaac Olawale Albert, “Smuggling Second-Hand Cars through the Benin-Nigeria Border,” in Real Economies in Africa, ed. Georges Kobou (Dakar: CODESRIA, 2003); Jost J. Beuving, “Cotonou’s Klondike: African Traders and Second-Hand Car Markets in Benin,” Journal of Modern African Studies 42, no. 4 (2004): 511–537.


Birtchnell and Urry, “The Mobilities,” 26.


See Jørgen Carling, Migration, Human Smuggling and Trafficking from Nigeria to Europe (Geneva: International Organization for Migration, 2006).


The idea and hope of being able to return to one’s homeland and build up a new future with the freshly acquired capital also exists among African miners and laborers who migrate within Africa. See, for instance, Dennis D. Cordell, Joel W. Gregory, and Victor Pich, Hoe and Wage: A Social History of a Circular Migration System in West Africa (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996); and Dunbar T. Moodie, Going for Gold: Men, Mines, and Migration (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994). Imageries connected to the idea (or the reality) of a journey back home have also been the subject of much African literature, from the classic poem by Aimé Césaire, Cahiers d’un retour au pays natal (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1956), to more recent examples, which include within the landscape of contemporary Nigerian literature, Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sister’s Street (London: Vintage, 2010), and Teju Cole’s Every Day Is for the Thief (London: Faber and Faber, 2014).


See Simona Taliani, “Coercion, Fetishes and Suff ering in the Daily Lives of Young Nigerian Women in Italy,” Africa: The Journal of the International African Institute 82, no. 4 (2012): 579–608. See also the novels by Chris Abani, On Black Sister’s Street and Becoming Abigail (New York: Akashic Book, 2006).


See Una O. Osili, “Remittances and Savings from International Migration: Theory and Evidence Using a Matched Sample,” Journal of Development Economics 83, no. 2 (2007): 446–465; Kankonde B. Peter, “Transnational Family Ties, Remittance Motives, and Social Death among Congolese Migrants: A Socio-Anthropological Analysis,” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 41, no. 2 (2010): 225–243.


Larry and Venus come from two different areas of Eastern Nigeria, one mainly populated by Edo people, and the other by Igbo people. While interethnic marriage is common in big cities like Lagos, it is still a delicate matter in many other smaller cities of the country, as well as in rural areas. See Daniel J. Smith, “Legacies of Biafra: Marriage, ‘Home People’ and Reproduction among the Igbo of Nigeria,” Africa 75, no. 1 (2005): 30–45. See also Rotimi T. Suberu, Federalism and Ethnic Conflict in Nigeria (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2001).


The term “Nollywood” is generally used to define the Southern Nigerian video film industry, an industry that emerged in the early 1990s and is now considered one of the most productive in the world. See Matthias Krings and Onookome Okome, ed., Global Nollywood: The Transnational Dimensions of an African Video Film Industry (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013).


An example of this informal cab service is shown in the Italian film Sotto il Sole Nero, dir. Enrico Verra (Brooklyn Films, 2004).


See Nkem Nwankwo, My Mercedes Is Bigger Than Yours (London: Heinemann, 1975).


The shipment of container cargos to Nigeria is a common practice among Nigerian migrants in Italy. For those residents in Turin, shipment takes place mainly via the port of Genoa, in the northwestern region of Liguria. Many companies provide this service for a very different range of prices, which vary according to fuel price fluctuation, the balance between off er and demand, and current weather and political conditions. In general, renting and shipping a twenty-foot container of the kind that Larry used can cost between $800 and $2,000, to which one needs to add other fees including insurance, taxes, and loading and clearing fees (which some companies include in the initial shipping price). While the actual trip of the container from Genoa to Lagos is relatively quick (between ten and twelve days, depending on weather conditions and number of scales), loading and clearing procedures can take much longer, depending on the time the container spends in the shipping company’s warehouse (before departure and after arrival) and on the time needed to attend to all the required bureaucratic procedures. See,, and


See Carling, Migration, Human Smuggling; Oluwakemi A. Adesina, “Between Culture and Poverty: The Queen Mother Phenomenon and the Edo International Sex Trade,” Humanities Review Journal 5, no. 1 (2007): 28–46.


A good example of the difficulties that young Nigerian women can face in setting up a long-term relationship with a Nigerian man during this phase of their life is shown in the Nigerian video film Ebuwa, dir. Lancelot O. Imasuen (Lancewealth image, 2008).


An ironic portrait of this practice is presented in the film Torino Boys, dir. Marco Manetti and Antonio Manetti (Filmalbatros and RAI, 1997).


In Giulia Sinatti’s words, “return can be understood both as an aspiration fuelled by the memory of and emotional attachment to the distant homeland and as the reason pushing many individual migrants to engage in transnational practices.” Sinatti, “‘Mobile Transmigrants,’” 154.


It is important to underline that by using terms such as “fetish” and “cult,” I do not intend to reproduce a scholarly tradition that tends to analyze the adoption of modern technologies in non-Western countries through the prism of exoticism and colonial ideology. To the contrary, the use of these terms is connected here to the Marxist tradition of analysis of the way capitalism operates in order to hide to the consumers’ eyes from processes of goods’ reproduction and distribution. See also Michel Adas, Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990).


Many examples of African popular culture texts and images express these fantasies. See, for instance, Jonathan Haynes, “The Nollywood Diaspora: A Nigerian Video Genre,” in Krings and Okome, Global Nollywood, 73–99; and Gondola, “Dream and Drama.”


See Arowolo, “Return Migration”; Peter, “Transnational Family Ties.”


Sinatti, “‘Mobile Transmigrants,’” 160.


See Peter, “Transnational Family Ties,” 238; Ruben Rumbaut, “Ties That Bind: Immigration and Immigrant Families,” in Immigration and the Family: Research and Policy on US Immigrants, ed. Alan Booth, Ann C. Crouter, and Nancy Landale (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1997), 3–46.


See Brenda Chalfin, Neoliberal Frontiers: An Ethnography of Sovereignty in West Africa (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010). For a historical analysis of the economic and social life of trade in Lagos see Kristin Mann, Slavery and the Birth of an African City: Lagos, 1760–1900 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007).


The debate about the connection between trade, “social capital,” and personal networks in African economies (and particularly in relation to their segments generally labeled as “informal”), is too wide to be meaningfully summarized here. Although the use of terms such as “network” and “social capital” to explain the way these economies work has been criticized, I decided to retain them here because Larry repeatedly referred to the lack of these elements as one of the reasons behind the difficulties he had in managing his attempted business initiatives in Nigeria from Italy. See Kate Meagher, Identity Economics: Social Networks and the Informal Economy in Nigeria (Oxford: James Currey, 2010) and Janet MacGaff ey and Rémy Bazenguissa-Ganga, Congo-Paris: Transnational Traders on the Margins of the Law (Oxford: James Currey, 2000).


Apastolos Andrikopoulos, “Migration, Class and Symbolic Status: Nigerians in the Netherlands and Greece,” in Long Journeys: African Migrants on the Road, ed. Alessandro Triulzi and Robert L. McKenzie (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 165–186.


Sloterdijk, “Society of Centaurs,” 17.






Michael Rowlands, “The Consumption of an African Modernity,” in African Material Culture, ed. Mary J. Arnoldi and Kris L. Hardin (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 188–213; see also Richard Banégas and Jean-Pierre Warnier, “Nouvelles figures de la réussite et du pouvoir,” Politique africaine 82 (2001): 5–23.


See, among others, Giles Mohan, ed., 2000, Structural Adjustment: Theory, Practice and Impacts (New York: Routledge, 2000).


Banégas and Warnier, “Nouvelles figures de la réussite,” 7; see also Gondola, “Dream and Drama.”


Appadurai, “The Capacity to Aspire,” 68.


Birtchnell and Urry, “The Mobilities.”


See Mavhunga, Cuvelier, and Pype, this issue, 46.


Giuseppina Pellegrino, “Introduction: Studying (Im)mobility through a Politics of Proximity,” in The Politics of Proximity: Mobility and Immobility in Practice, ed. Giuseppina Pellegrino (New York: Routledge, 2012), 1–16.

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Contributor Notes

Alessandro Jedlowski is a Belgian Research Found (F.R.S.-FNRS) postdoctoral fellow in anthropology at the University of Liege (Belgium). His main research interests include media and migration, urban and popular culture, and the economy and politics of cultural production in Africa. His current research project compares the economy and politics of film production in three Sub-Saharan African countries (Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Côte d’Ivoire). His most recent publications include: “Avenues of Participation and Strategies of Control: Video Film Production and Social Mobility in Ethiopia and Southern Nigeria” (in Production Studies II: The Sequel, Routledge, 2015); and “Migration, Prostitution, and the Representation of the Black Female Subject in Nigerian Video Films about Italy” (Journal of Italian Cinema and Media Studies 4, no. 1, 2016).