Tag Archives: Africa

Is This What Democracy Looks Like?

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Angelique Haugerud.

“America is a shining example of how to hold a free and fair election, right?” asks Bassem Youssef, a comedian and former heart surgeon who is often referred to as “the Egyptian Jon Stewart.” Astute answers to that question about the condition of U.S. democracy often come from foreigners such as satirists, as well as my East African research interlocutors.

Like Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah (The Daily Show), Stephen Colbert (The Colbert Report), and Jon Oliver (Last Week Tonight), Bassem Youssef uses irony and satire to hold a mirror up to society, and to unsettle conventional political and media narratives. State political pressure forced termination of the popular satirical news show Youssef created in Egypt during the Arab Spring. He then moved to the United States, became a fellow at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics in 2015, and in 2016 started a new show in the United States called “Democracy Handbook” on Fusion TV. As foreigners, Youssef, Jon Oliver (British), and Trevor Noah (South African) wittily play off stereotypes of their own home regions as they comment on events in the United States—such as Trevor Noah’s Daily Show segment comparing the 2016 Republican presidential nominee to African dictators.

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Vale Elizabeth Colson

When Elizabeth Colson passed last month at the age of 99, anthropology lost one of its preeminent figures. Colson was a unique figure in many ways: She straddled the English and American anthropological traditions, rose to prominent positions of authority at a time when anthropology was still largely a men’s club, and exhibited a devotion to her research that few can match: According the Facebook post I was able to find confirming her death (thanks Hylton), Colson died and was buried in Africa.

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Gratz to Julie Livingston on her MacArthur fellowship

It’s that time of year again: the MacArthur foundation has unveiled its 2013 Fellows. Amongst them is the anthropologist Julie Livingston. Congratulations Julie!

Technically, Livingston’s Ph.D. is in history, but worked with Ivan Karp on a Ph.D. on Botswana and it and her previous work demonstrates a keen sense of the importance of culture and history as they affect and are affect power relations. Its this concern with contextualization, particularity, and the relevance of empirical and qualitative work that makes her approach ‘anthropological’, not the fact that she studied in “Exotic Africa”. I’m hesitant to say more about her work because I’m not very familiar with it. But in an age where people believe anthropology must be Quantitative True Science, Livingston’s award helps remind us that interdisciplinary social science is, literally, genius.

In fact, anthropologists regularly figure as MacArthur fellows, and one of the pleasures of writing this blog is making annual announcements that another one of our own has made it big. So congratulations Julie and, if you don’t mind us stealing some of your thunder, congratulations to anthropology as well.

Financialising Development


Cash is Fashionable

Ryan’s recent post on money and its flows and blocks  prompts me to post this, something I wrote a few weeks ago in response to a request from colleagues in Leiden for their  ICA magazine, which is published by study association Itiwana of the department of cultural anthropology and development. After my post on brands and the UK riots they thought I could write something about brands.   Being in Tanzania which is buzzing with money talk,  prompted in part by its new status as  a destination for mining and gas companies in the current  natural resource rush, I wrote instead about how development is being re-branded. 

The 2015 deadline for the Millennium Development Goals is fast approaching. Few  countries in Africa  are expected to meet the targets.  Income poverty, food insecurity, rising inequality and poor health remain problems for the most of the continent.  Despite shifts towards democratic politics in many countries, civil conflict and political instability  are  entrenched  in others as legacies of colonial state  building and post independence power struggles.  Such conflicts, as in Mali and  the Sudans,  are fueled by the rising value of  resources  associated with particular regions within a global market that is revaluing Africa as a potential source of minerals, gas and oil  and as a  high growth location with an expanding  middle class. 

Annual growth rates  for African economies have averaged six or seven percent for much of the decade.  The extent to which growth is a consequence of political stability and sound macroeconomic management is open to question. A more pressing explanation for the recent transformation in Africa’s economic fortune is the global increase in demand for its natural resources enabled by regimes of economic management  which are increasingly open to foreign investment and partnerships.

This   continental push to promote the commercialization of  what can be claimed as `natural’ resources within a context of on-going economic liberalization is legitimating an emerging discourse about the wealth of African nations and the urgent need for investment  as the magic bullet which can liberate this capital and create national prosperity. The regionalization agenda which fosters economic integration is aggressively promoted by governments and donors, along with initiatives aimed at strengthening property rights, enabling foreign direct investment and transforming communications infrastructure. 

China’s  new position as the potential economic savior of a continent   signals  fundamental  shifts in the political ordering of international development. The poverty discourse  central to the MDGs and,  arguably, to the constitution of countries in sub Saharan Africa as  fitting subjects of development  intervention is  increasingly contested, not only  by politicians and media commentators across the continent,  but by  an authoritative cadre of technical experts promoting market led development. Development is being re-imagined not as a consequence of social sector spending but as an effect of marketization.

States across the  continent are  seeking to present themselves as  entrepreneurial and investment friendly. Tanzania is no exception.  Like Uganda, it has practically shifted the orientation of its poverty reduction strategy towards economic growth. The government of President Jakaya Kikwete, now in its second term, is pursuing  a policy of Kilimo Kwanza,  farming first, seeking to marketize agriculture and to promote `a green revolution’ with the support of  major donors including the World Bank.  While  the country continues to rely on donor support for around thirty percent  of its national budget, rationales for intervention are  now situated within  a discursive package that is market led.  Donor funded workshops  buzz with talk of  value chains and market information.

The more conventional investments in the social infrastructure of schools and health facilities financed by the Tanzania Social Action Fund  have been superseded by  what are designed to be income generating investments for farmer groups to enhance their own livelihoods.  Phase Three of this program, shortly to be implemented, is structured around an assumed transformation from indigence to entrepreneurship, enabling self reliance through savings and micro finance as the poorest get, in a phrase equally at home in US discourses of welfare reform, `a hand up not a hand out’.

The aspirations of private sector advocates, within and outside government, increasingly  converge with  the policy positions of development partners as development is re-branded  globally to occupy a new market position.  In Tanzania, as elsewhere, financialization, as means and end,  plays a central role in this convergence.   International accounting firms fight for market share of development implementation within extended contracting chains that  conflate financial  and political accountability. Civil society organizations are brought into being to play specific roles in monitoring public expenditure, along with new organizational forms and participatory practices.   Public expenditure tracking,  known as PETS, has a  set of methods  into which civil society volunteers must be  enrolled through seminars and allowances. Techniques equally at home in the world of market research  comprising score cards  and surveys  come to have political clout as modalities through which dissatisfaction with government can be articulated.

Outside these transient relations held tenuously  in place through development funding streams, a range of private institutions  are seeking to establish the architecture through which the financialization of Tanzanian  social life is possible.  The limited reach of existing banking infrastructure and the Savings and Credit Co-operative Societies creates potential opportunities for  new kinds of  financial  institutions. These include  private financial institutions providing loans  to  formal sector workers,  specialist microfinance lenders such as Pride,  and the money transfer services provided by mobile telephone companies, of which the market leader is Vodacom’s Mpesa.  The proliferation of  formal and informal financial services, and those which straddle  this divide,  is staggering.

Savings and loan groups are rapidly proliferating in both urban and rural areas, notably those organized on the  Village Savings and Loan model  promoted by the NGO Care International. These groups consisting of around  thirty members are a fascinating  organizational form,  using strategies of ritualization and formalization to ensure regularity of savings and financial transparency in a group structure where all transactions  take place at weekly meetings and hence in public. Group members  buy weekly shares up to a limit  of five  intended to  ensure that large profits cannot be made and to  restrict  the exploitative potential of  the better off making money from lending to their poorer neighbors. Savers lend to members of the group at a rate of interest  designed to  increase the value of the savings share.

Groups operate on an annual cycle  after which accumulated interest is divided among members according the  value of their purchased shares.These  `care groups’ as they have come to be  known in some districts are  wildly popular because they allow people to borrow money at limited rates of interest,  particularly useful in helping meet big expenses such as  school fees, funeral contributions and hospital  costs.  They also provide a predictable return on savings, depending on the extent of borrowing  within the group.  An additional  weekly contribution functions as a kind of social insurance for group members who are paid a  sum of money should they fall sick or  lose a close family member.

These kinds of groups are heralded by promoters as  a locally available form of micro financial institution serving the previously excluded, a social institution for the promotion of fiscal responsibility and the discipline of saving not so much as an end in itself but as the precursor to enterprise.  Savings  groups thus conceived may indeed be foundational to a new culture of economic change. They  also enable  a range of distinct practices which support  radically different cultures of economic practice, cultures which  simultaneously promote and obstruct the aspirations of  Tanzania’s economic transformation.

In Ulanga district, Southern Tanzania,  where I have been doing some fieldwork, a  large number of `care groups’ have been established over the past two years,  with the majority now entering their second  savings and loans cycle. Despite the core organizational  template which specifies  numbers of members and the management structure, the  practice of groups varies widely, even within the same geographical area. In addition to variations in the value of shares purchased and the timing and duration of loans,  some groups insist on   compulsory  borrowing as well as saving as a  condition of membership as a means of increasing the value of savings for all the members of the group. Many groups also insist that members purchase  necessities like laundry soap  from the group at a price which is the same as or higher than market prices  in order to increase group profit and hence the value of the shares which are divided at the end of the cycle.

Borrowing is socially construed as an emergency response to hardship   but valued as the means of increasing savings.  In this enactment of savings and loans  the group itself is the enterprise and saving  framed as entrepreneurial activity which generates a return for individual members.  The income generating strategies of group members focus on  gathering  sufficient cash to  make savings, in actuality purchasing  regular shares,  because  this is likely to  accumulate more value than  alternative forms of enterprise, including agricultural investment. Participating in `care groups’, for  people with cash to make regular  contributions,  is fast  becoming a recognized means  of making money   make money. Consequently,  traders and  middle income people  in the villages close to the district capital   are joining multiple groups, allowing them to them to escape the  limitation on share purchase within a single group and to access the kinds of loan amounts which can  yield profitable returns.

That money generates money though such practices does not equate to  the kind of financialization envisaged by the architects of Tanzania’s new development order,  a world premised on depersonalized economic action within a market frame.   `Care groups’ in  performing the social relations through which money begets money, via shares invested by group members and the interest they pay on loans , permit individual profit so long as costs are shared to some extent by members of the group.  Organized around distrust rather than trust groups rely on  the visibility of transactions made in public  and  the simple technology of the specially constructed cash with three separate locks for which  separate keys are distributed among ordinary members.  Such practices  make explicit the social labor required to make money do savings work and the essential embedding of money within  social relations.  It is this embedding which accounts for the success of  mobile money services in much of Africa rather than mobile banking- what people are interested in  is the capacity to transfer money between situated persons not the potential of investing money in abstract institutions. 

Political emphasis on accountability dovetails with cultural preoccupations around relations and money , articulated as concerns with the illicit appropriation and consumption of public resources which are  highly personalized.   The organizational structure of `care groups’ taps into fundamental cultural concerns about groups and individuals, collective responsibility, equity and enrichment in ways that permit adaptation to support  core ideals.  As anthropology consistently demonstrates, values rather than value are foundational to understanding economic practice in any context.  This is not a matter of resistance to global capitalism or neo-liberal economics so much as an assertion of  what   values count.



Digital Money, Mobile Media, and the Consequences of Granularity

Nicholas Negroponte famously insisted that the dotcom boomers, “Move bits, not atoms.” Ignorant of the atom heavy human bodies, neuron dense brains, and physical hardware needed to make and move those little bits, Negroponte’s ideal did become real in the industrial sectors dependent upon communication and economic transaction. In the communication sector, atomic newspapers have been replaced by bitly news stories. In the transactional sector, coins are a nuisance, few carry dollars, and I just paid for a haircut with a credit card adaptor on the scissor-wielder’s Droid phone.

The human consequences of the bitification of atoms go far beyond my bourgeois consumption. This shift, or what is could simply be called digitalization, when paired with their very material transportation systems or networked communication technologies, combines to form a powerful force that impacts local and global democracies and economies.

What are the local and political economics of granularity in the space shared between the fiduciary and the communicative? To understand the emergent political economy of the practices and discourses unifying around mobile media and digital money we need a shared language around the issue of granularity. Continue reading

The Anthropology of Freedom, Part 3

“The time is now ripe for anthropologists to consider the concept of freedom and the empirical manifestations of freedom in culture. What more significant and urgent task is there for the anthropologist than that of launching a concerted inquiry into the nature of freedom and its place and basis in nature and the cultural process? Such an inquiry would provide in time a charter for belief in those values and principles indispensable to the process of advancing culture and to the ideal of a democratic world order dedicated to the development of human potentialities to their maximum perfection.” (preface to The Concept of Freedom in Anthropology ed. David Bidney, 1963 p. 6)

Freedom Hof-style
You and me both, pal.

Thus did David Bidney valiantly launch the investigation into freedom by anthropologists only to immediately then admit: “I realize that hard-headed, realistic anthropologists, including some of the participants in this symposium, would not find themselves in agreement with this anthropologic dream. There is danger, they will protest, that you are reifying Freedom into an absolute entity, just as culture once was. Freedom they will object is a non-scientific, political slogan which betrays its ethnocentric, Western and American origin…”

Freedom, as concept, still evokes this suspicion. That it is “nothing more” than a political slogan; or that it masks the reality of domination, oppression, slavery and power. As well it should given how promiscuously it is exploited.Or, as Edmund Leach so characteristically puts it in his contribution to the same volume: “To prate of Freedom as if it were a separable virtue is the luxurious pursuit of aristocrats and of the more comfortable members of modern affluent society. It has been so since the beginning.” (77)

What Leach expresses here, in part, is the descriptivist bias of anthropology of the time, and specifically of political anthropology: that the goal is comparative analysis without a priori reference to any normative political ideals. This, I think probably resonates with most anthropologists, who would be much less likely to be interested in Freedom as a concept that delimits a certain relationship between action and governance, more more likely to see it as a slogan that has been used as a warrant in colonial, imperial and global economic endeavors; as a tool used to transform existing arrangements in its own name (and secretly in the interests of a global elite). At a first cut this is undeniably so if one simply listens to the way the word is used in the news, and by politicians especially.

Indeed, it is my probably hasty opinion that the whole of “political anthropology” (at least in it’s 1930s-1970s form) shares this bias, despite the fact that it would seem to be this domain to which one would immediately turn for help in understanding the variations in the nature of Freedom. Instead, freedom is excluded from investigation insofar as it contaminates, confuses or otherwise confounds the exploration of objective political structures. Continue reading

“Homophobia in Africa is not a single story”

Not a topic I know much about, but Keguro Macharia’s criticism of Madeleine Bunting’s Guardian post about Malawi’s conviction of a gay couple to 14 years’ hard labour, jibes with the gut-anthropological-reaction I had when I read her piece. (He also links to what look like some interesting books on the subject.)

Without a locally based understanding, rooted in a history of Malawi and a grasp of its cultural politics, we cannot comprehend what is at stake in the case. Discussions that frame the case as Malawians opposing westernisation tell only a very partial story.

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(via Ennis)

Anthropology in Nigeria – Extended Version

One could almost use the state of anthropology in Nigeria as a field of study to illustrate the state of the discipline in West Africa, but of course, in Nigeria, it would have a distinctive Nigerian flavour. First of all, parents are mostly the ones who are responsible for their children’s university education, and not many parents are willing to pay for their children to study anthropology. The first considerations are always about whether their child would be able to get a job after completion of the course. The way to sell a degree programme to potential students – and their parents – is by highlighting the job opportunities the programme would open graduates to. Only a few students end up enrolling in programmes that offer degrees in ‘non-professional’ courses, and most of the students are offered those programmes as ‘second options’ after they are refused admission into more attractive degree programmes. Sociology has been able to make itself remain relevant by operating professional masters programmes like Master of Industrial and Personnel Relations and Masters in Project Development and Implementation, and Masters in Industrial and Labour Relations.

One does not need to think of Bohanan’s work among the Tiv of northern Nigeria, or Abner Cohen’s research among Hausa migrants in the southern Nigerian city of Ibadan before one experiences a feeling of nostalgia. There were for instance Nigerians like Angulu Onwujeogwu, Ikenna Nzimora and Victor Uchendu. In Africa at large, efforts were not just expended on doing ‘good’ anthropology and sociology; there were in fact efforts to overcome the Western epistemic assumptions that underpinned much anthropological exercise of the time. I probably don’t need to mention that anthropology was often a tool for colonialists. See, for instance, Bernard Magubane’s criticism of colonial anthropology in this Current Anthropology article. It would also be useful to see Archie Mafeje’s article that is partly a response to Magubane’s article. The point is that there was a lively discussion in anthropology on the continent.

A cursory look at the credentials of many African anthropologists of the 60s and 70s would show that they were largely Western educated, partly because African states, at that point, had a developmental agenda, and that agenda involved awarding scholarships to students to study in Western universities. And when this was not the case, many African got scholarships from Western countries. One could say that even then, with newly independent African states, anthropology was not particularly popular. I think this is linked to the involvement of anthropology in the colonial project. It is arguable that sociology enjoyed a better image than anthropology, especially with its somewhat better image as a discipline that studies ‘more civilised’ societies. That is also probably why there are very few stand-alone anthropology departments in Nigerian universities.

Things became much worse in the 80s when Nigeria’s oil wealth started turning into a curse. Serious balance of payment problems, coupled with a succession of repressive military dictatorships finally encouraged many Nigerian scholars to leave the country, and those who stayed found it increasingly difficult to work. The already unattractive anthropology even became less attractive, and joint anthropology and sociology department started doing much less of anthropology and more of sociology. The fact that many development agencies want statistical data has meant that data provision and generation concentrated in the hands of economists and sociologists. This in turn meant that fewer people got interested in doing graduate degrees in anthropology. I recently visited a Nigerian sociology and anthropology department where there was neither a single lecturer who does anthropological research, nor any graduate student who wanted to do anthropological research.

It is also in this state of the Nigerian economy state that many parents would not be willing to pay for their children to study anthropology in universities. One could also add that a desire to be modern, and therefore to study something modern, is linked to the lack of interest in anthropology, especially as people still seem to associate anthropology with the study of the primitive – in post-colonial studies terms, the Other. There is bound to be a problem for a discipline that studies the Other, when the classical definition of the Other in this context would actually be the self. I know that the experiences of people in African countries are far from uniform, and that there is of course a multiplicity of Others, but those are the fine details that almost always get lost in the quest for modernity. Yes, I throw in that word, because no matter how much we discuss the faults and failings of modernisation as a theory and as a concept, the everyday lives of young Nigerians is modeled after the dream of becoming modern. Of course, I am an anthropologist, and I understood the importance of the kind of knowledge that anthropological methods and methodologies produce, even before I decided to do a Ph.D in anthropology. And of course, there are also other really intelligent anthropologists still in Nigeria. But when one starts framing a discussion in those terms one should realise that one is talking of the exceptions and not the rule.

Some questions of course beg answers. Does Nigeria, and by extension other African countries, have need of the anthropologist’s contribution in its present predicament? Can the problems thrown up in the country be framed in anthropological ways? Are these problems not always being framed in such ways whether or not people realize or admit it, whether or not people study their society, its mental, material and behavioural artefacts, and engage one another, self and other, with the benefit of ethnographic and theoretical training received in university departments of anthropology? At the risk of sounding chauvinistic, I think that it is always anthropology, good or bad—from Huntington to Soyinka.

Any insights from other areas?

Move over Obama

Hot on the heels of some discussion of racial attitudes in Asia, “China has called up its first black athlete”:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/5157717/China-calls-up-its-first-black-athlete.html. Ding Hui, whose mother in Chinese and whose father is from South Africa, has “joined the national volleyball team”:http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/sports/2009-04/16/content_7685380.htm. Just as Americans think they have ‘ended race’ by reinforcing racial classification so strongly that a kid with parents from Kenya and Kansas raised in Manoa and Indonesia gets labelled as ‘black’ (and elected as president), so too the head coach of the National Youth Volleyball team, Zhou Jian’an, says “We pick players for their ability and to meet the needs of the team as a whole… He’s no different from the other players. They are all Chinese.” The head coach of his league volleyball team also notes: “He’s also a great singer and dancer.” The Telegraph reports that “On Chinese internet forums, he has been lauded for the ‘whiteness’ of his teeth and the ‘athleticism of his genes’.”

All of which is to say that inverting the moral valuation of different forms of racial classification is not the same thing as dismantling the system of classification itself.

Memory, Virtual Archives and Johannes Fabian

This is a long, drafty, and somewhat less review-y version of a review I am writing about Johannes Fabian’s latest projects.

Johannes Fabian, Ethnography as Commentary: Writing from the Virtual Archive, Durham, N.C. Duke University Press, 2008. 140p.

Johannes Fabian, Memory Against Culture: Arguments and Reminders, Durham, N.C. Duke University Press, 2007. 192p.

Johannes Fabian’s contributions to anthropology are distinctive. Depending on where you start, he is an Africanist, a linguistic anthropologist, a partisan and critic of the “Writing Culture” moment in American anthropology, a folklorist and student of popular culture, a historian of drug use by colonial anthropologists, a theorist of time, memory and alterity, and now something of a hacker as well. Two books have been published recently which capture some of his heterogeneously distinctive work. The first, Memory against Culture, collects several recent talks and articles, including one called “Ethnography from the Virtual Archive” which is the germ of the second book Ethnography as Commentary, which is both a meditation on creating a “virtual archive” of ethnographic sources and a “late ethnography” of a popular ritual which Fabian experienced in 1974 in Zaire with a healer named Kahenga.


Ethnography as Commentary is a fabulous (and short!) book. It is an excellent introduction to the detailed practice of ethnographic interpretation; it is also a very thought-provoking meditation on the changing possibilities of the ethnographic monograph after the Internet, and of the possibility of ethnography as commentary. Lastly it is an experiment in “late ethnography” in which an explanation of a cultural event (Kahenga’ ritual exclusion and protection of Fabian’s house in the Katanga district) is conducted through memory, notes and sources, contrasted with the practice of writing history and used to shed light on the authority of ethnographies based in contemporary sources.

The core of the experiment proposed by Fabian is the creation of an online resource of materials: The Language and Popular Culture in Africa Archives (LPCA). The PCA includes an online open access journal started in 2001; a collection of heterogeneous transcripts and documents collected, transcribed, translated and annotated, all of which bear some rough thematic connection to popular culture in Central Africa. It includes, for instance, a Boloki perception of a visit to Europe written in 1895-1897; translated and annotated poems from a French collection of Central African songs and poems published around 1930. Several conversations that Fabian has recorded over the years (including the one which is at the center of Ethnography as Commentary). An interview with a Burundi potter discussing the history and local techniques; the “archives of popular culture” which contain letters, a local history of Zaire, a play “Power is Eaten Whole” by the “Troupe Théâtrale Mufwankolo” of Lubumbashi; a vocabulary and other texts; an extensive bibliography of related sources.
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Penis-snatching epidemic hits the press?

Below is an occasional piece by my friend and colleague Timo Kallinen. Timo has conducted years of research in Ghana and is presently completing a monograph that explores how traditional Akan ideas about power and authority affect the ways in which Ghanaians see contemporary political leaders.

“Penis-snatching epidemic hits the press?” by Timo Kallinen, Helsinki University

It has become more or less a commonplace notion that in Africa magic, witchcraft, sorcery, occult practices (or whatever term one wants to use) do not only belong to the traditional societies of rural villages, but that they are also found in urban settings and in modern sectors of society. During the 1990s, this observation brought witchcraft topics in anthropology from the field of classical ethnography to more current and broader discussions about the very idea of modernity itself. However, along with this discussion has come a strand of news journalism that produces coverage of African witchcraft that seems to mix traditional (exotic) with modern (familiar). According to press reports of this kind, the occult has now made its way to settings such as soccer clubs, university campuses, overseas immigrant communities, and high-tech surveillance, just to mention a few examples. The fascination of these stories seems to lay in the ways in which things that “we know do not exist” are viewed against a background where they seem to be particularly “out of place.” Hence the beliefs and practices of Africans appear even more “unbelievable” through surprising juxtapositions. Furthermore, these stories rarely pay attention to local categories and witchcraft is discussed as a phenomenon that the audience already knows from movies, fantasy novels, computer games, and other similar sources. The implication is that there are Africans who take such things seriously, who still believe in their concrete existence, while others have moved on. The disregard for local knowledge also blurs the differences between regions, countries, ethnic and linguistic groups and so on. As Terence Ranger has recently pointed out, the idea of Africa as a single “occult culture” is becoming dominant in the Western media. When considering the premises and aims of this kind of journalism, one question comes to mind: To what extent do we know that the phenomena in the media reports really exist?

Recurrent stories about “penis-snatching” in Africa are a case in point. A recent news report by Reuters, titled Penis theft panic hits city, describes how popular panic and attempted lynchings were triggered in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, by accusations of penis-theft. According to the report, rumors about sorcerers stealing or shrinking men’s genitalia with “black magic” had circulated in the city for at least a week and led to mob attacks on the suspected sorcerers. Finally, the police had detained the accused sorcerers and their alleged victims in order to avoid the escalation of violence. The same story mentions that the Congolese police did not want to see the sort of bloodshed that had occurred in Ghana roughly a decade ago, when several suspected penis-snatchers had been beaten to death by angry crowds. True enough, during my own fieldwork in Ghana in the late 1990s and 2000s I had heard numerous stories about chopped-off penises, mysterious cases of impotence and infertility, and the like. I had also seen the accounts in the local press about the mob violence. In fact, I can even remember reading similar stories about Ghana in Finnish newspapers sometime in the late 1980s. So, if we are to trust the media, we have an Africa-wide penis snatching problem on our hands that shows no signs of stopping. Continue reading

Talking about “Tribe”

Via Ethan Zuckerman, a nice little piece on the problems associated with using the word “tribe” to talk about Africa.

What is a tribe? The Zulu in South Africa, whose name and common identity was forged by the creation of a powerful state less than two centuries ago, and who are a bigger group than French Canadians, are called a tribe. So are the !Kung hunter-gatherers of Botswana and Namibia, who number in the hundreds. The term is applied to Kenya’s Maasai herders and Kikuyu farmers, and to members of these groups in cities and towns when they go there to live and work. Tribe is used for millions of Yoruba in Nigeria and Benin, who share a language but have an eight-hundred year history of multiple and sometimes warring city-states, and of religious diversity even within the same extended families. Tribe is used for Hutu and Tutsi in the central African countries of Rwanda and Burundi. Yet the two societies (and regions within them) have different histories. And in each one, Hutu and Tutsi lived interspersed in the same territory. They spoke the same language, married each other, and shared virtually all aspects of culture. At no point in history could the distinction be defined by distinct territories, one of the key assumptions built into “tribe.”

Tribe is used for groups who trace their heritage to great kingdoms. It is applied to Nigeria’s Igbo and other peoples who organized orderly societies composed of hundreds of local communities and highly developed trade networks without recourse to elaborate states. Tribe is also used for all sorts of smaller units of such larger nations, peoples or ethnic groups. The followers of a particular local leader may be called a tribe. Members of an extended kin-group may be called a tribe. People who live in a particular area may be called a tribe. We find tribes within tribes, and cutting across other tribes. Offering no useful distinctions, tribe obscures many. As a description of a group, tribe means almost anything, so it really means nothing.

Somewhat related is this post by Josh Ruxin about why Kenya Isn’t Rwanda:
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Why follow the shoots when you can have the root?

Via Far Outliers, this lengthy and fascinating interview with Jeffrey Summit, “a rabbi and professor of ethnomusicology and Judaic studies at Tufts University,” about the Abayudaya, or the “Jewish people of Uganda”:

The once vibrant Sephardic and Mizrahi of Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt, were established in North Africa approximately two millennia ago, but since 1948, the vast majority of North African Jews emigrated, settling in France, Israel, and the United States.

Now, in contrast to these communities, the Abayudaya, which means “Jewish people of Uganda,” proudly reference their conversion to Judaism in the 1920s, stating that they were drawn to Jewish practice by the truth of the Torah, the five books of Moses. Their founder, Semei Kakungulu, was a powerful Ganda leader, and he considered Christianity and Islam, and then according to community elders, said, “Why should I follow the shoots when I could have the root.”

Read the whole thing.

News from Zimbabwe: A New $200,000 Note

Via BBC News:

Zimbabwe is to start circulating a new 200,000 Zimbabwe dollar note, in a bid to tackle the country’s inflation, the highest in the world. The new note, issued by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe from Wednesday, can buy 1kg (2.2lb) of sugar. Food and fuel shortages have become common as the government relies more heavily on imports, pushing prices to new heights. The official annual rate of inflation in Zimbabwe is nearing 5,000%. In practice, this means the price of a loaf of bread costs 50 times more in cash than it did a year ago.