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  • The Perils of Belonging: Autochthony, Citizenship, and Exclusion in Africa & Europe
  • Ericka A. Albaugh
The Perils of Belonging: Autochthony, Citizenship, and Exclusion in Africa & Europe. By Peter Geschiere (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2009) 283 pp. $60.00 cloth $22.00 paper

Geschiere's prescient work has two broad objectives: first, to describe how the language of autochthony—a primal form of belonging based on a special tie to the soil (223)—acquires similarly self-evident persuasiveness in widely divergent circumstances and, second, to differentiate the intensity of the emotional appeal that the concept possesses in these varied settings. The first goal is achieved with clarity and artfulness. The second, because of the nuance that it encompasses, raises more questions than it resolves, perhaps as the author intended.

Building on earlier work that analyzed autochthony discourse as part of a "global conjuncture of belonging," this research engages in an impressive sweep of comparison—from ancient Athens to historical and current France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Ivory Coast, Congo, Senegal, South Africa, and particularly Cameroon. Geschiere notes that the recent upsurge in autochthony movements relates to globalization in its concern for the protection of indigenous cultures and the controversies surrounding increased immigration to Europe. More specifically, he focuses on the combined effects of democratization and decentralization, both converging recently in the African context. Elections serve to create the anxiety that locals will be outvoted by immigrants, while a decentralization strategy advocated by the new development discourse must determine the boundaries of the local communities that stand to profit from the disbursement of resources.

Methodologically, Geschiere draws from a wide range of theoretical and empirical studies of Africa and Europe, combining them skillfully with thirty years of his own familiarity with Cameroon. One of the most valuable aspects of the book is its temporal perspective; Geschiere compares field notes taken from the 1970s with recent interviews in Cameroon, supplementing them with evidence from local archives and newspaper accounts. Careful citations, contextual detail in footnotes, and generous attribution of other scholars' ideas give the book a remarkable comprehensiveness and depth. Although only one of the five central chapters analyzes events in Europe, focusing on the Netherlands, it serves well to underline similar discourses throughout a range of settings.

Among its multitude of insights, the book reveals autochthony's paradoxes—its apparent rootedness but actual malleability; its quest for cohesiveness, crumbling to inevitable segmentation; and its promise of security but manifestation in fear. After successfully discrediting the "self-evidence" of autochthony, Geschiere probes further to explore why it maintains power over people's emotions. On this score, he distinguishes between the European and African settings, arguing that in Africa, the notion acquires a more concentrated force because of its ability [End Page 117] to tap into people's physical linkages with the soil. Most directly, this connection is manifested in funeral rituals, crucial events that publicly condense the emotional appeal of autochthony in "a visceral involvement of body and soil" (33). He contends that in the context of democratization and decentralization, the elaboration of such rituals has acquired political significance in Africa. Cameroon's ruling party, for example, encourages elites to form regional associations, to build homes in rural areas and to return home for funerals, thereby establishing ties to their home villages that will serve to marshal votes in the new environment of electoral competition.

This intense emotional appeal of autochthony in Africa contrasts with a more diffuse—though still emotional—identification with the idea in European settings. Because of its difficulty linking to the soil as it does in Africa, Geschiere suggests that the discourse leads more to confusion than to a singular focus. An alternative explanation for the uncertainty may be the necessary compromise induced by vigorous public debates within European democratic institutions, as contrasted with the situation in many African contexts, where authorities can more easily manipulate the content of the term.

More critically, Geschiere's careful elaboration of varying trajectories leaves some unanswered questions. Though he cautions that the Ivory Coast is not exceptional—that its violence is a logical outgrowth of the obsession with belonging—the fact that Cameroon has not imploded into equally widespread violence...


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pp. 117-118
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