Wearing two hats: The role of délégués de quartier in marriage reconciliation and divorce in Senegal

Wearing two hats: The role of délégués de quartier in marriage reconciliation and divorce in Senegal

While some délégués de quartier never interfere in marital disputes in Senegal, others do so frequently. Differences might have to do with experience, reputation or the ability of these intermediaries to juggle their different roles.

In the early stages of my research in Senegal I interviewed 5 délégués de quartier - often called chefs de quartier - about their role in marriage reconciliation and divorce. Their responses differed noticeably. These differences might be related to experience, reputation or the skill with which they balance their roles of both government functionary and wise man.

Originally the role of chef de quartier was created to limit the authority of the customary chief; appointed by colonial functionaries they were to extend the reach of French administration. Today the chefs the quartier (renamed délégués de quartier in 1986) play the role of an elected intermediary between local government and community. They receive official recognition and salary from the government (in practice the payment of salaries is irregular), but draw on symbolic power from the population (Tall: 1998).

Official duties of the délégué de quartier are the supervision of the application of laws and regulations, and assistance in the collection of municipal taxes. In practice their role encompasses a much wider array of tasks. Their home is the local lost and found for objects, animals and kids; they’re the principal point of contact for telephone, water companies and police; they administer the sale of land; and they play an important role in dispute resolution. People regularly ask them to mediate and police officers frequently send conflicts their way.

Because of my interest in marital dispute I focused my interviews with the five délégués de quartier on conflict resolution. What role do the they play when it comes to the resolution of marital conflict? Do they have a role? And if so, how do they go about it?

Their answers revealed marked differences. Two individuals, in office for five and two and a half years respectively, never intervened in the resolution of marital disputes. One explained this was probably because the neighbourhood was peaceful and some inhabitants appeared to start court divorce proceedings directly. He reproached them for doing so: “they should come here so that I can try to reconcile them.” A third, three years in office, recently intervened for the first time. By contrast, the other two chefs I interviewed, in function for much longer, fifteen and ten years respectively, intervened fairly frequently in marital disputes.

I began looking at possible reasons for these differences. Renown and seniority may play an important role. Differences could also be seen in methods of juggling their roles as government functionary and wise man – as an intermediary between state and community.

“Because it’s a family problem and if I would ask them to come to my house, it’s like taking them to the police. So I left my hat of the chef de quartier and my flag here, so as to be as humble as possible, […] reminding them that I am their papa, because I grew up with their father […]I am here as their papa and not as chef de quartier.”

Délégué de quartier Doudou Sene intervenes frequently and this might have to do with his methods. I left his house with a calendar of the water company and a sharpened set of interview questions.