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Back to the Village, Off to The City: Ethnographies of African Cosmopolitans
American Anthropological Association Meetings
November 2000, San Francisco, CA

By Eric Gable (Mary Washington Collge)

2001 Copyright © American Anthropology Association

The aim of the panel was to re-think the relationship between the city and the country in Africanist ethnography and to do so by commenting on the emerging literature on cosmopolitanism.  The discussants were Richard Werbner, who has longstanding interest in the intersection between the urban and the rural in Africa, and James Ferguson, who has recently published a provocative book on African experiences of modernity and cosmopolitanism.  Our collective argument was that the city and the country have routinely been misconceived as separate spaces occupying separate moments in history's forced march to modernity. Indeed, because there is nothing so modern as the city, nothing could seem to be more foreign to Africa.  By contrast, we argued for a revision of Africanist ethnographies premised on the fact that the city now precedes the village in the lived experiences of many Africans.  Our collective challenge was to understand African cosmopolitanism, not as a foreign import, but as a local way of imagining, and organizing translocality--a cosmopolitanism which already combines at every location along what Aronson called the "rural-urban continuum," the village and the city.

Among the issues the papers addressed were how urban cosmopolitans, no less than their rural counterparts, recreate their commitments to significant others in village places when confronted (in some regions) by state collapse and radical decline in the economy, or (in other regions) by increasing prosperity and an emerging nationalist politics anchored in rural authenticity.  Parker Shipton used the event of an untimely death to outline the ways Luo of Kenya who move from country to city, or emigrate overseas, transfer their hopes and fears about sacred order to new experiences without losing their basic understanding of hierarchy and value that it structures.  Eric Gable focused on the elaboration of "traditions" of death among displaced Manjaco living in Lisbon, Portugal in order to explore the mutually constituting relationship between diasporic communities and home villages in an increasingly globalized world.  Even though Manjaco are born and buried "across the river" (as they put it) in urban centers, elaborate funerals are held for them in native villages in Guinea-Bissau and carved images of them are installed in native house ancestral shrines.  Death is consistently imagined as a return to rurality. In this way, migrant urban Manjaco believe that they remain committed to the homeland while allowing themselves the luxury of establishing distinct and permanent communities abroad.

Looking at a similar kind of imaginary allegiance to a long left behind homeland, Charles Piot linked what might be likened to a local diaspora--the forced colonial era relocation of tens of thousands of Kabre in Togo to a fertile uninhabited area in the southern region to engage in cash-cropping with an ongoing habitus of migration and repatriation.  To this day Southern Kabre who are twice as numerous as northern Kabre continue to return to the north by the tens of thousands each year--to visit family and initiate children, to build houses and cover them with tin, and, to there be buried and join the cult of the ancestors.  Piot argued that it is in the mobile to-and-fro space between homeland and frontier, village and city, and, increasingly, village and metropole, and in and around the opposing--though complementary--pulls of money and ritual, that a quintesssentially Kabre and diasporic culture is enacted, producing a vernacular cosmopolitanism, that is at once rooted and mobile.

Exploring another dimension of the ways Africans manage diaspora, Hylton Whyte mapped out how Zulu courtship and wedding songs, created and performed today, invoke the experience of movements between the countryside and the city, yet in a strikingly anachronistic fashion. Such songs evoke images of forms of transport, destinations, routes, dilemmas, and motives of movement that were endemic to the "classic" modes of migrancy under apartheid, but which have all but disappeared in recent decades.  Whyte asked why these gaps have emerged between the facts and images of rural-urban travel in the post-apartheid age, and argued for the emergence of a sort of indigenous nostalgia that allows Zulu to continue to express allegiance to domestic reproduction even as material conditions make it ever harder to accomplish this feat.

Many of the panelists addressed the question of how variously situated experiences or appropriations from elsewhere transform those places called home.  Susan and Michael Whyte (Copenhagen) looked at the stories Ugandans currently inhabiting a rural village told about their past lives in the city. In listening to a number of the "cosmopolitans in the countryside," the Whytes were able to tease out a range of ways that erstwhile urbanites talked of their past experiences and present condition. Emerging from disparate and publicly shared memories was a nuanced sense of modernity's costs and benefits encompassed, perhaps, by the achievement of return.

Focusing on a typical case of appropriation Shanti Parikh examined love letters collected from youth living in rural Eastern Uganda, in order to illustrate how global, national, and local cultural flows are reworked in the emerging romantic and sexual contours of Uganda's future generation.  Parikh argued that through writing and reading love letters, youth in Uganda imagine a romantic utopia that exists beyond the confines of locales. Whether from dark corners of crowded bedrooms in villages, or boarding school dormitories in town, or slum housing projects in the capital, the invented language of romance takes youth to a place in which their multiple realities harmoniously coexist, if only for a moment. Combining a local proverb awkwardly translated into English, a catchy AIDS slogan, an invented phrase, and the chorus of a Kassey Kassem top 40s song, youth rework seemingly disparate cultural flows into local epistolary genre--a romantic utopia which privileges tokens of worldliness.

Other panelists focused on urban African locations, while paying attention to similar themes. Brad Weiss examined the local consumption of the cultural materials of what might appear to be more worldly elsewheres to suggest an urban Swahili alternative to standard definitions of cosmopolitanism which emphasize a deterritorialized sensibility.  As Weiss noted, it often assumed  that cosmopolitans find themselves at home in the world, capable of inhabiting all places (at any given time), because they are unmoored from particular social landscape. Their claim to worldliness is bought at the cost of rootlessness.  By reviewing stories residents of Arusha Tanzania told each other about the wildly popular American soap opera "Sunset Beach" and linking them to autobiographical accounts of urban life and its imaginative possibilities, Weiss showed that, Swahili of Arusha can imagine themselves, as on the one hand, capable of worldliness, while on the other hand assert an abiding commitment to locality.

Situating his paper in postcolonial Congolese cities, Filip de Boeck outlined the surreal transformations that have occurred as such urban and once self-consciously urbane places are increasingly imagined by their inhabitants as reverting to a malignant rurality.  Noting that urban spaces have not only undergone a marked ruralisation in terms of their architectural, urbanisational and socio-economic (dis)arrangement, the city has also become, in the collective social instituting imaginary, the space of the forest, thereby mapping the hunter's landscape, which is one of the potentially dangerous, frontier-like margin, onto the urban, and thus "central" landscape accompanied by changing forms of witchcraft. De Boeck analyzed how and why children are increasingly accused of witchcraft in Kinshasa. He suggested that underlying the rise of witchcraft accusations involving thousands of children, is the drastic restructuring of kin-based "village" relationships of solidarity and reciprocity, and the transformation of a gift logic in the face of an ever more a pervasive "wild" capitalism.

Peter Geschiere explored a parallel case of the modernity or urbanity of witchcraft in Cameroon, asking why witchcraft notions seem to offer an obvious discourse to deal with translocality and the ambivalent feelings--both fear and fascination--evoked by the opening up of the local community to the outside world. Geschiere noted a clear and enduring continuity in which "witchcraft" is imagined as the reverse of kinship, and is evoked as a consciousness of an opening--a fatal drain, but also a window on new opportunities--in the closure of the kinship community. Geschiere argued that recent changes, notably the accelerated mobility of people between city (or even metropolis) and village, further stretched these translocal and cosmopolitan implications of "witchcraft" discourse.

Harri Englund addressed one of Africa's most conspicuous "post-urban" phenomena--the ever increasing pervasiveness and popularity of Pentacostal Christianity--which he argues plays havoc with any kind of dichotomizing discourse about the rural and the urban.  Neoliberal reforms in Malawi's economy have both been detrimental to smallholders' rural livelihoods and raised the urban cost of living.  A conspicuous number of migrants "squatting" in Chinsapo township in Lilongwe, Malawi's capital, belong to Pentacostal churches. Some of these churches have expanded from villages to town through migrants themselves, while the movement of others is from town to village.  This mixture of movements is also revealed in the way Lilongwe Pentacostal Christians talk about the origins of evil. Rather than attribute evil to one or the other end of the urban-rural continuum as is often imagined to be the case for such religions,"Satan is everywhere" is the phrase of the moment in the township's Pentecostal churches, subverting attempts to associate unchristian practices with a particular locality or style.  The upshot, for Englund, is that this is a manifestation of Pentecostal cosmopolitanism which entails deterritorialized sociality which transcends the boundaries of the rural and the urban, and even the boundaries between nation-states as pentacostalism becomes increasingly an transnational phenomenon.

In general the various questions the papers addressed  recalled for us earlier debates in the literature on African urbanization about how Africans managed the uncertainties, ambiguities, and risks in rural-urban relations.  Our intent was to revisit these debates but with a greater sensitivity to Africans' own understandings, under changing postcolonial conditions, of the place of the city in the village and the village in the city.

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