the burger wives

words & images colleen fugate

“Do you know any women who have husbands who have migrated to other countries for work?” I fumbled the words awkwardly to my friend Rafik, who lives in Tamale, the capital of Ghana’s Northern region.

“You mean Burger wives?” he asked, pronouncing “burger” more like “booger.”

“What?” I thought. I had never heard of a Burger wife or a Booger wife, for that matter.

Apparently in Ghana, burgers aren’t always wrinkled patties nestled between a bun, dressed with some condiments. Burgers are migrants. The nickname was coined when thousands of Ghanaians began to immigrate to Hamburg, Germany for work. When many returned to Ghana with money in their pockets, they became known as “Burgers.”

And their wives? "Burger wives"—assumed to live happily and comfortably thanks to the remittances from their hard-working Burger husbands. For a time, the name only referred to Ghanaians who had been working in Hamburg, but over time it has come to refer to all Ghanaians who work abroad. There are American Burgers, Italian Burgers, Swiss Burgers, and so on.

The term “Burger wife” made my life in Ghana much easier. Rather than stumbling over “wife...with husband … migrating abroad,” I could just tell people that I wanted to meet" Burger wives" and pretty much everyone knew what I was talking about. But most people were still puzzled. Why did I want to talk to the women? If I was interested in immigration, shouldn’t I be talking to the Burgers themselves?

In the village of Larabanga, about 140 kilometers west of Tamale, I found the answer to these questions, though I wouldn’t have known it when the rickety Metro Mass bus pulled into town, dropping me off in cloud of smoke and dust along the only semi-paved road. The village lies about four kilometers from the entrance of Mole National Park, where many tourists flock, whizzing around on the roofs of safari jeeps looking for elephants, antelope, or giant snakes.

Many of the approximately 3,800 residents of Larabanga previously lived inside the park, that is, before it was declared a protected site a few decades ago and they were forced to relocate. The few tourists who visit the town usually stop by briefly to see the Sahelian mosque, the oldest in the country.

For the most part, though, Larabanga has been overlooked by both tourists and international aid groups. Though Ghana is bursting with NGOs and foreign-run non-profits, most are centered in the cities of Accra, Kumasi, and Tamale. As one woman in Larabanga put it, “No one really wants to come out here and live and work in the villages to start projects. But this is where we need it most.”

The residents of Larabanga are almost entirely reliant on agriculture to survive, with many people living on less than a dollar a day. And, it’s the main reason that there are so many Burger wives in the village—most of the men have left to work in Libya and some in Togo. While many of the women who I spoke to say they were initially happy when their husbands decided to work abroad—it meant he was going to fight for a better future—after a few months, they realized that things weren’t going to get easier.

In fact, all of the Burger wives say that their lives have gotten much harder since their husbands migrated. None have received remittances, with the exception of one woman I spoke to who received one hundred dollars once in the four years that her husband had been gone. And, most of the Burger wives never talk on the phone to their spouse and are unsure of where he’s living, when he’s returning, or if he’s even alive in Libya.

Amina* is in her mid-forties, has five children, and says she knows the reason her husband never calls. “Of course he doesn’t,” she said. “He doesn’t call because he hasn’t sent any money and he knows I’m here suffering.” She works in the fields and is paid in the yams that she harvests. She also sells groundnuts by the side of the road, earning about three cedi a day (around 75 cents).

“At first I didn’t want my husband to go to Libya and leave me here alone,” she explained. "But he told me that he needed to make money to come back and build a house in Larabanga. I made him promise that he would come back and I made him promise that he would send money while he was away. He’s been gone four years and we haven’t talked and he has sent no money.”

Similar stories were repeated by all the women I met: No husband, no remittances, no communication, and uncertainty about when, or if, their spouses would ever return. There was a sad sense of certainty marking the daily challenges of living as a Burger wife in Larabanga.

I asked Sadia, whose husband has been in Libya for two years, what the biggest difficulties were for mothers in Larabanga. She laughed, unsure how to even begin. “Too many to say,” she explained, before slowly detailing her days. “In the morning I fetch water, far away. All day I work the fields and leave my children here, except Fridays. I come back at the end of the day tired and I need to feed them. I sometimes have to go get more food. I cook and then wash them and then clean…I am like a single mother.”

For the women in Larabanga, the lines between Burger wife and single mother have been blurred. The emotional hardship of missing a spouse quickly takes a toll. I wondered if they would ever consider remarrying if their husbands didn’t return. How long would they wait? When I asked Amina, she gestured to the wrinkles on her eyes and said she already has five children. A new husband also meant a new baby. Many of the other women said they would also wait, no matter how long it took. As one Burger wife put it, “I would never marry another man from Larabanga because it would just be the same thing over and over again. Suffering.”

In many ways, the women of Larabanga represent not only the other side of the migration story, but also the other side of the story about Ghana’s Burger wives. In 2011 alone, Ghanaian migrants sent home an estimated $119 million in remittances; when that money was tracked, however, the vast majority of it went to urban areas, leaving the rural poor behind. Today, a majority of Ghana’s migrants are men, begging the question, what about the women who stay behind?

For those in rural areas like Larabanga, life as a Burger wife is often not what was expected or hoped for; yet many of the women support each other, discussing their lives and their absent husbands. More than anything, they plan for the future. “I want to start a business. Maybe selling gari, or shea butter, or honey,” explained Amina. She doesn’t have the money to begin now, but someday in the future she hopes that it will happen. Many women talked about having enough money to send their children to school, or perhaps to even leave Larabanga.

Those words stuck with me on my final day when I climbed back into the sweaty Metro Mass bus to head to Tamale. How easy it was for me to visit and to leave, to move from one place to the next. For many, the act of staying, I realize, is perhaps the true challenge.

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