- From Modern Myths to Global Encounters: Belonging and the Dynamics of Change in Postcolonial Africa
This collection of sixteen articles is an appreciation of the work and mentoring of Peter Geschiere, who taught cultural anthropology and the sociology of sub-Saharan Africa at Leiden University from 1989 to 2002. Former graduate students and colleagues from a number of disciplines have contributed.
The volume is divided into four sections. The first includes Geschiere’s introduction to major themes of his work. Principal among them is his rejection of Western dichotomies as they often are applied to sub-Saharan Africa—we versus they; developed versus undeveloped (or developing). In this essay he argues that contemporary struggles over citizenship and belonging in African countries are consistent with an international phenomenon, in which opposition to immigration “battles” against increasing global mobility. For him the perception that the African experience of modernity is not unique presents an opportunity for comparative work. Rather than viewing Africa as “the other,” “African studies can provide a mirror that can highlight unexpected tensions and inconsistencies in the dreams of ‘modernity’ everywhere in the world” (24). His introduction is followed by testimony from Jean-Francois Bayart and Karin Willemse on the simultaneously provocative and nurturing character of Geschiere’s collaboration and mentoring.
The second section consists of four articles grouped under the heading of “Politics and the Nation-State.” Michiel Baud presents a broad overview of Latin American politics and constructs an intriguing comparison with African politics. He demonstrates the value of asking “African” questions in the Latin American context to reveal political behavior that may otherwise be invisible through an “over-institutionalized” perspective of political studies of the state. Similarly, Gerhard Seibert (writing on persisting cultural patterns in São Tomé e Principe politics), Fissaha and Yesheanu Gheneti (writing on the failure of state policies and the persistence of local [End Page 163] institutions among Ghanaian agriculturalist and pastoralists of the Horn), and Antoine Socpa (writing on indigenes versus nonindigenes in Cameroonian politics) all describe cases in which a simple dichotomy between “traditional” and “modern” or “indigenous” and “state-sponsored” fails to capture an accurate picture of how people adapt and use existing social institutions to achieve various ends—a strong Geschierian theme.
Geschiere’s approach to African studies is perhaps best known to some through his research on witchcraft—for him an idiom through which new political realities and relationships are influenced or resisted. That work inspires three contributions to the third section, “Witchcraft and Modernity.” Marja Spierenburg presents several cases from northern Zimbabwe to illustrate the role of witchcraft in accusations over land claims. Erik Bähre provides a short account describing the methods he used to elicit information about the otherwise hidden topic of witchcraft in his fieldwork among the Xhosa in Cape Town. Barbara Oomen documents how the South African government has integrated witchcraft into its laws. In a fascinating study she describes the choice faced by the South African government—to oppose witchcraft in the name of human rights or to recognize witchcraft in particular cultural settings, thus “exempting culture” from “human rights discourse” (109).
The final section, “Fixing Identities,” provides six studies that address the shaping of identities in a global context. Ferdinand de Jong shows how a local Senegalese museum appropriates “a global genre of display” not only to attract tourist money, but also to present local identity and bolster local cultural values; Sabine Luning, Jan Jansen, Berend Timmer, and Ed van Hoven bring together their respective ethnographic research projects in the Mande-Volta area to explore the relationship of indigenes to strangers; the historian Jan-Bart Gewald offers a study of the postindependence adaptation of Bakgalagadi (Namibia) ethnic identity as locals struggle for an identity separate from the Tswana. The three final chapters focus on gender in relation to changing national and transnational forces. Margaret Niger-Thomas’s study of a Cameroonian female smuggler shows how smuggling...