Tag Archives: West Africa

From #EbolaBeGone to #BlackLivesMatter: Anthropology, misrecognition, and the racial politics of crisis

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by Thurka Sangaramoorthy and Adia Benton. Thurka Sangaramoorthy is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland. She is the author of Treating AIDS: Politics of Difference, Paradox of Prevention (Rutgers University, 2014). Her work on race, health, and inequality in the US has appeared in Medical Anthropology and Human Organization. Adia Benton is an assistant professor of anthropology at Brown University. She is the author of HIV Exceptionalism: Development through Disease in Sierra Leone (University of Minnesota, 2015). Her writing on the West African Ebola outbreak has appeared in Dissent, The New Inquiry and Cultural Anthropology’s Hot Spots series.]

Almost five months into the epidemic, on August 8, 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Ebola outbreak in West Africa a “public health emergency of international concern.” Military and police responses — both international and national — played a crucial role in responses to the epidemic. A few weeks later, on August 20th, the Liberian military quarantined residents of West Point in the capital city of Monrovia without advance warning, essentially cutting them off from food and supplies and causing thousands of residents to clash with troops and riot police. Images surfaced of troops firing live rounds and tear gas and viciously beating back residents who challenged the lockdown. Military-enforced quarantines around entire districts of Sierra Leone and the shift of power from the ministry of health to the ministry of defense were key features of its Ebola response.

Across the Atlantic, on August 9, 2014, 18-year old unarmed Michael Brown was shot to death by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Peaceful protests and civil disorder ensued in the following weeks, prompting the governor to declare a “state of emergency” and call on local police and the National Guard to control protests and maintain curfews. Greater public attention was placed on the increasing militarization of local police forces as the grand jury, which was convened to hear evidence of the circumstances surrounding the death of Michael Brown, reached a decision not to indict Officer Wilson. Continue reading

Female Genital Cutting, Sexuality, and Anti-FGC Advocacy

I don’t normally cross-post here from my research blog, but I thought my recent post on female genital cutting (FGC) might interest some of Savage Minds’ readers. Drawing on anthropological research and first-hand testimony reported across the literature, I’ve tried to counter a lot of the ethnocentrism, racism, and sexism that characterizes anti-FGC arguments, especially in the mainstream. This is not an argument for FGC, by any means, but rather, in the spirit of Geertz, “anti-anti-FGC”.

Anthro Classics Online: Shakespeare in the Bush

When I asked for suggestions for how this blog should move forward, one issue that was raised was the lack of discussion targeted at anthropological novices. For this reason I am starting a new series linking to classical works in anthropology which are available online. The idea is to both encourage newbies to read some classical anthropological texts as well as allow those with Ph.D.s in the discipline to debate the contemporary value of these works.

Today’s entry is Laura Bohannon’s essay “Shakespeare in the Bush.” First published in 1971, reading this essay in high school really turned me on to anthropology. It explores how difficult it is to translate Shakespeare’s Hamlet into the cultural idiom of the Tiv in West Africa (the Tiv are mostly located in Nigeria). While the article takes on a straw-man argument (the idea that there is something universal about Shakespeare’s plays overlooks just how hard it is for even American school kids to learn to appreciate Hamlet), it is a well written article which I believe holds up to the test of time. With Bohannon playing the fool, we follow along as she struggles to explain European notions of kinship, ghosts, and justice to her Tiv audience. It works so well because it is Bohannon who is the butt of the joke, not the Tiv (although the self-assurance of the Tiv elders that they know better than Shakespeare how this story should be told is part of the story’s charm). Despite its whimsical tone, I think we actually learn quite a bit about Tiv culture and society in this short article.

Reading this article again just now I was struck by the fact that her audience consists of respected elders. My guess is that she would have found the audience much more receptive to Shakespeare’s narrative if they had been lower status members of society, such as children. In other words, I don’t think it is simply a case of the Tiv failing to understand Hamlet. Rather, I suspect that these elders perceive Bohannon’s narrative as a threat and are eager to “correct” her in order to neutralize that threat, whereas children or other members of the society less threatened by narratives suggesting alternative social structures would have had considerably less trouble understanding Bohannon’s retelling of Hamlet. This suspicion comes out of my own understanding of ideology as what Zizek calls the “active refusal to know.” According to such an interpretation of Bohannon’s article, there is nothing specific about Tiv society which prevents them from understanding Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but her storytelling is frustrated by the “will to ignorance” of the elders. Sure, even Tiv children would have been confused by many aspects of the story, just as American children are, but I’m simply suggesting that they might not have rejected the very premise of the story in the way that the elders did. Of course, we would probably have learned much less from such an exchange.

Sidney Mintz it aint, but…

The New Yorker has a brief “talk of the town” piece about an academic studying Starbucks. It caught my eye because as a grad student, doing fieldwork at hospitals in Boston, I spent a lot of down time in Starbucks thinking about just such a project, every time I witnessed two starbucks employees debate the best way to bilk the Mass. welfare system, or discuss how “fair trade” was not revolutionary, etc. Unfortunatley, most of what this particular history professor seems to be doing is simply going to Starbucks, and occasionally counting the number of patrons, or observing the demographic mix–hardly fieldwork.

I like the idea of a Mintz-esque study of the political economic transformation that Starbucks has wrought–to say nothing of their successful introduction of real coffee to the furthest reaches of America–but I guess I’ll have to wait, or do it myself. But even when I was contemplating such a project, I ultimately decided that if one were serious about a corporate anthropology, or an anthropology of corporations, one would proceed directly to Wal-Mart, without passing go, without collecting $200. Where else could one satisfy one’s pleasure in discovering the exotic in 1300 locales in 10 countries?

What’s wrong with Yali’s Question

I finally watched episode one of the Guns, Germs, and Steel TV show last night. Its all on TiVo, but I’m finding it hard to sit and watch – it is a rather painfully made show. So many shots of Jared Diamond looking scholarly: peering out windows, looking at maps, walking back and forth, etc. Ugh! And do they really need to work the title of his book into every other sentence? I mean, in the first episode they don’t even get up to the invention of guns…

The show is framed by the motif of “Yali’s Question.” Yali is portrayed as some local guy (he looks like a worker) whom JD bumps into on the beach one day and asks him:

Why you white man have so much cargo and we New Guineans have so little?

But Yali isn’t just some guy on the beach. He’s a politician. This isn’t JD’s fault. Here is what he says in the book:

I had already heard about a remarkable local politician named Yali, who was touring the district then.

But I can’t completely absolve JD for this portrayal. I believe there is something fundamentally wrong about the very question he is asking.

The modern U.S. is the richest, most powerful state on earth. It’s crammed with more cargo than most New Guineans could ever imagine. But why? That’s what Yali wanted to know. How did our worlds ever come so different?

By framing the question in this way, the show is forced to portray New Guniea as a land of poor people, and the US as a land of wealth. Although we are told that there are intelligent people from New Guniea, they are portrayed as hunter gatherers, or poor farmers. While the show does show the hubub of urban New Guinea at the end, one would hardly know that there is internet access in the country.

This gets to the fundamental problem I have with JD’s question. While it is interesting and important to ask why technologies developed in some countries as opposed to others, I think it overlooks a fundamental issue: the inequality within countries as well as between them. I assure you that logging industry executives in New Guinea live better than you or I do! Both New Guinea and the United States are far more unequal (by some measures) than is India. Moreover, inequality throughout the world is increasing more rapidly now than every before.

Although it is a contentious argument, economist Amartya Sen argues that inequality within countries can be more important than inequality between countries. I’ve collected a bunch of writings about this question on my wiki, and there was some lively discussion about it in response to this earlier Savage Minds post. But the main point Sen makes is that people in societies that are objectively poorer, but less unequal live longer than people who are objectively wealthier, but at the bottom rungs of a more unequal society. It doesn’t help to have more cargo if you can’t afford the dental work necessary to meet new standards of beauty. (Read this post about a US woman who couldn’t get promoted because of her teeth.)

Yes, it is interesting to know the environmental constraints societies have struggled against over the course of history, but it is a mistake to see this as an explanation of contemporary inequality.

To take a recent example, Nigeria (environmentally blessed with some of the largest oil reserves outside of the Middle East) used to be one of the richest countries in the world. Corruption, aided by Western banks who provided the means of funneling the majority of the nation’s GDP into private bank accounts, and deep cultural divisions between North and South, destroyed that wealth. Yet there are still many, many, millionaires and billionaires in Nigeria, and their collective wealth would be enough to give them plenty of “cargo” …

So, no offense to Yali, but his question should be:

Why is cargo distributed so unequally both within and between our societies?

Once you frame the question that way, environmental factors seem rather incidental.

UPDATE: Brad DeLong, points out that I overstated my case with the Nigeria example. However, I still think my overall argument still stands. The comparative wealth of Nigeria is less important for my point than the inequitable distribution of that wealth within Nigeria.

I would also add that the poor farming conditions DeLong speaks of are partially a result of the oil economy:

During the oil boom, Nigeria’s small family farms became marginalized. Women and children largely ran the farms as men sought work in the cities’ industrial-development schemes, which were heavily subsidized by petroleum wealth.

UPDATE: My discussion with Professor DeLong continues in the comments section of this post – which also has links to discussion on other sites.