Writing on Water: Peripheries, Flows, Capital, and Struggles in the Indian Ocean
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positions: east asia cultures critique 11.1 (2003) 241-257



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Writing on Water:
Peripheries, Flows, Capital, and Struggles in the Indian Ocean

Françoise Vergès


Current discussions about globalization often ignore the flows of capital that travel south to south and the routes, geographies, and imaginaries mapped by these flows and by new migratory movements. Studies have focused on increased inequalities, on the emergence of new centers and peripheries, as well as on local creativities and resistance. Postcolonial scholars have looked at practices of cross-cultural translation, of vernacular cosmopolitanism, and at diasporic formations. Their research has expanded the repertory of archives, histories, and disciplines. Yet current East Asian–African exchanges have gone largely unexplored. The Indian Ocean has long been the site of these exchanges, building formal and informal connections between the African continent and East Asia. Studying these routes of trade and cultural connections would yield, I want to argue, another map of the world in which the West is provincialized, to paraphrase Dipesh Chakravorty. [End Page 241]

This essay constitutes a proposition toward a remapping of the Asian-African world of exchanges. It is an exploratory piece in which I, building on primary research, suggest looking at the reemerging discourses and practices of south-south connections and asking: What practices of cultural translation exist between Asia and Africa? How is "Asia" constructed in "Africa" and vice versa? What kinds of informal routes of transaction and exchange have developed alongside formal ones? Who are the practitioners of informal exchanges? What has been preserved of the 1960s rhetoric of south-south cooperation? What has been added? What kinds of projects are funded? What kinds of expertise are offered? Through a series of examples of current Asian-African exchanges, I intend to justify why we might want to study these new emergences and why they should matter to postcolonial scholars.

My interest in these emerging formations stems from two connected fields of research. One is a project I coordinated with regional scholars and completed in December 2001. Entitled "Mapping A Contact-Zone," this research received funding from the Council for the Development of Research in Social Sciences in Africa (CODESRIA)–MacArthur Foundation Program on "Real Economies in Africa."1 The report explored the diasporic economies that have emerged in the "contact zone" constituted by the islands of the southwest Indian Ocean. The other field is the Indian Ocean as a cultural site, construed so that its historical world of African-Asian exchanges may expand our imagination and open up possibilities for change—rather than being locked in the territorialization imposed by imperialism and postcolonial nationalism.

For this essay, I will look more specifically at the corridor of exchanges that goes between southern Africa and South and East Asia via the southwestern islands. I wish here to propose an alternative spatialization of our political imagination in a period of intensive and rapid economic restructuration and cultural/political globalization. Every spatialization involves new closures. We draw new borders by proposing new spaces; we make a choice, but that choice forms an inevitable part of the process of elaborating alternative spaces that we can oppose to those imposed by states. More specifically, when China aspires to become the leader of the developing world and seeks to establish greater economic relations with the African continent, it seems important to study what social and cultural spaces will emerge from such policies, [End Page 242] what forms of exploitation, cooperation, and hybridity will emerge, and what corridors of power and resistance can be foreseen in this south-south connection. I wish to point to the existence of an alternative spatialization rather than to review the different studies of local spatializations in the Indian Ocean, local and regional narratives of encounters and exchanges.

The Bandung Project

In a brief in October 2000, Associated Press informed us that China had decided to write off a debt of £820 million owed to it by the poorest African states. Foreign trade minister Shi Guangsheng, who announced the decision at the Sino-African Forum in...


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