Coca Cola Aid in Africa
Coca Cola Aid in Africa

Neo-liberal Logics in My Anthropology Education

During my undergraduate education, I took a class with a premier Western anthropologist who specializes in the African continent; the course was “The Cultures of Africa.” (Already a broad claim- all the cultures of Africa in 10 weeks?) Below I have included an excerpt from my class papers and some new comments after having read Mbembe’s “On the Post Colony.”

In that class, we took apart five classic binaries that exist in the discourse about Africa and which persist today: primitive/ domesticated, traditional/ cosmopolitan, tribal/ modern, isolated/ connected, and without history/ historical. We were taught to see this framing for what it was, an outsider’0s lens which refuses to accept different cultures or societies on their own terms. But, there was one glaring omission to this education… where was the money? I don’t recall even once reading, writing, or being taught about Marx or a materialist approach to culture or its explanatory power for societies, organized around labor and scarcity. On the same note, we treated the cultures as an amalgamation of individual decisions *despite* the government controls happening all around them, with no consideration for how the governance or society interact, reinforcing, or changing each other in dynamic ways. The government was just a nuisance to be avoided wherever possible.

As Mbembe said,On the pretext of avoiding single-factor explanations of domination, these disciplines have reduced the complex phenomena of the state and power to “discourses” and “representations,” forgetting that discourses and representations have materiality” (5).

World Bank Poster
World Bank Poster

Excerpt: Remittance Flows November 12, 2011

The soap opera Amigos para Siempre can be found on TV sets in many Spanish speaking countries, but this particular city corner is not located in one of them. Despite being intuitively at odds with the setting, this show is a favorite among Tanzanians. How did such an unusual situation occur? Although it would be difficult to trace the exact etymology of the show's placement on a single channel, such cultural transmission is now common in an era where the globe's social sphere is no longer divided by geopolitical or language barriers. In places all across Africa, cultural memes, a category which broadly includes symbols, ideas, and practices, are observed by native populations, then either rejected or adopted into their lives. In the African context, the meaning of such memes are always based on the user's needs, and their mobilization for identity construction often has little to do with the original “western” conditions.

How did such an unusual situation occur? Here I insinuate that it is an obvious outcome of opening barriers due to globalization and that Tanzanians happily chose to watch the show, giving it their own meanings. But Mbembe would probably laugh at my reading of the situation. I gloss over any material considerations – where did the TV come from? What structures of exchange led to its arrival in this store? I also unintentionally ignore the constraints on choice from governance and postcolonial tensions. What might it mean under that framing for the Tanzanians to watch and decode “Amigos para Siempre” in their own ways? How does that fit into the larger structure of feeling which these individuals navigate to place themselves in the world?

As Mbembe put it, there are two scales at work- the individual choices, yes, but also the systems and structures which imbue individual choices and actions with meanings: “Thus, the African subject is like any other human being: he or she engages in meaningful acts. (It is self-evident that these meaningful human expressions do not necessarily make sense for everyone in the same way.) The second observation is that the African subject does not exist apart from the acts that produce social reality, or apart from the process by which those practices are, so to speak, imbued with meaning.”

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Before discussing cultural memes and their newly minted purpose in situated practice, it is important to understand how these ideas are transferred, since the process impacts meaning. There are numerous avenues for sharing ideas, yet one of the most important in the African context is familial remittances. Most would recognize remittance as an accounting term that denotes the exchange of money; or, for those experienced in international development, the term may be recognized more broadly as the transfer of wealth from migrants to family still living in their country of origin. Although both are aspects of remittance processes, the activity goes beyond pure monetary concerns or a prototypical setting. Remittance flows include the transfer of money, yet they also encompass social wealth and are important for the well-being of entire societies. The geographer and development specialists Claire Mercer, Ben Page, and Martin Evans recognized this fundamental transmission in their piece Development and the African Diaspora. By studying the relationship African civil societies have with home association networks in Diasporan communities abroad, specifically for those individuals who left Cameroon and Tanzania, these academics discovered that remittances represent a larger portion of development aid received by African countries than the financing dispersed through official channels. This portion is so significant that it leads to the increased social value of remittances, which impacts the migratory decisions of African natives. Individual's often choose to move to America for its opportunities; they recognize it, “is to Africa's benefit because of the money, ideas and values that return to Africa in the form of remittances (including social remittances)” (Mercer et al., 2008, xi). Remittances represent such an integral part of the social field that a sudden loss of these expected gifts can lead to devastating results.

Here we have an understanding of remittances as only attached to need, which fails to recognize that “remittances” are closely linked to the systems of exchange and familial/ local ties binding relations prior to the diaspora. Why are remittance flows such a large part of African diasporas and not other global south diaspora communities?

Mbembe cautions against this methodological logic, “There thus arises the purely methodological question of knowing whether it is possible to offer an intelligible reading of the forms of social and political imagination in contemporary Africa solely through conceptual structures and fictional representations used precisely to deny African societies any historical depth and to define them as radically other, as all that the West is not.”

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Anthropologist Stephen Lubkemann addresses the repercussions of a sudden depletion in remittances for Mozambicans in his text Culture in Chaos. During that country’s civil war, many people were prevented from accessing remittances. According to Dr. Lubkemman, this “consequently deprived [them] of their most important and time-proven strategies for coping with the [Machaz] area's chronic droughts, droughts that ultimately drove more residents from the district than any military actions” (2008, 36). Other social conditions changed in the war stricken community, including an increase in acute violence, but it wasn't until this unique revenue source was lost that many individuals were forced to leave their homes. Diana Shandy also addresses problems associated with decreased remittances, but approaches the situation from the Diasporan perspective. In her ethnography Nuer American Passages, Shandy addresses the transnational sandwich generation, or those migrants who “[care] for and supports one's family of origin on one continent and one's family of procreation on another” (2010, 661). Such a link exists for Nuer men who rely upon older generations for assistance with paying bridewealth, finding suitable marriage partners, and naming their children. Without paying remittances, the Nuer living in America cannot expect to receive help from their family in Ethiopia. This link is so important that one newly married couple saved their wages for eighteen months to fund an African celebration of their American wedding (ibid, 662). Even though money was needed to fund the new couple's life in the United States, they chose to honor obligations with the community in their country of origin first. This dedication is the only way that couples can expect cultural support later in their marriage. Clearly, remittances, both monetary and social, are valued highly and represent an integral part of many African groups today.

This section, while glossing (again) over the issue of violence and war, does point to an interesting facet which Mbembe’s text doesn’t neatly address. Once these Nuer men settle elsewhere, it is no longer a material weight obligating them to share with their relatives, or at least not fully. I would be interested to see how remittances are treated once a generation has passed and the second generation Nuer-American family has to make those decisions.

But back to the issue of conflict. In this class, we treated violence as a persistent thing which people adapt to. I remember one of the class slides reading, in bold: War zones do not negate culture or the people living within them. It seems striking now that, while this mechanism for educating wasn’t wrong, by pointing towards the day to day lives of Africans on their terms, it never interrogated how the situation became that way. It is almost liberal in that sense- an unspoken prefacing of individual choice as the nexus for change and culture.

The cultural memes that are transferred through the process of remittances take many forms that affect entire communities as well as single individuals. Brad Weiss, in his piece Street Dreams and Hip Hop Barbershops, studied the adoption of hip hop symbols and other material culture in urban Tanzania as young men struggled to deal with economic difficulties. By adopting attributes these young men witnessed in successful American rappers or influential politicians, they surrounded themselves with a sense of hope for their future goals. One young barber Ahmed was highly influential in the adoption of trends, seen among his peers as a minor celebrity. This was partly due to his connection as, “a member of a family with global ties across the Swahili Diaspora” (2009, 68); through this connection, Ahmed was able to gain cultural knowledge that facilitated his hierarchical position in Arusha. The connection was also useful for his mother, who relied upon a sister in Dubai to send electronics for later sale. Such situations clearly demonstrate how monetary or material goods can translate into social knowledge which transforms entire fields of production. Yet, such connections are not always positive for a society. Anthropologist Daniel Smith performed research addressing Nigerian practices of fraud and scams for economic gain in his piece A Culture of Corruption. Nigerians perform a large number of email scams every year which generate a huge profit abroad, second only to oil revenue. Due to this economic benefit, Nigerians glorify corruption despite the problems it poses for their domestic institutions. Smith describes this as a critical collective self-consciousness; “people frequently condemn corruption and its consequences as immoral and socially ruinous, yet they also participate in seemingly contradictory behaviors that enable, encourage, and even glorify corruption” (2010, 618). Because of the money gained through preying upon international consumers, Nigerian’s have adopted a nonchalant and even cavalier attitude about these activities. This cultural terrain protects the identity and practice of “419” men.

This is looking at their economic practices through a lens of globalization and development, in a “‘tsk tsk’ you’ll never enter the world market if you keep scamming Americans!” Never consider why the Nigerians are in debt if they have such high oil revenues. Where is all the money going?

Beyond the empirically based analysis which demonstrates how ideas are shared and which forms they take, it is also important to understand how they are utilized anew in communities. In her piece Transforming Displaced Women, Rogaia Abusharraf gives a fascinating portrayal of how material culture is adopted to fuel identity construction and social cohesion. In her discussion of southern Sudanese women who take refugee outside of Northern cities, she proves that the adoption of cultural practice is not a mindless act, but is instead done to fulfill specific needs. These women, “negotiate peaceful accommodations with their new neighbors and selectively adopt or reject rituals they had not observed in their former homes; they perform their identity in specific social and political terms” (Abusharraf, 2009, 80). The key feature of Abusharraf’s understanding is the pragmatic concerns which lead to the implementation of practice. The Sudanese women change their physical ornamentation to be accepted by the Islamic society they are surrounded by. This reasoning supports David Weiss' analysis of barbershops in the Tanzanian setting; the community used musical artists and important political figures to represent themselves as involved in the global community. Aspects of socialization involve some aesthetic and personal preferences, but a larger portion of meme adoption is due to the desire to be cosmopolitan; fulfilling that gregarious role is socially empowering. Ethnographic analysis reveals that when individuals across Africa are acculturated, or adopt practices outside of their native group, they do so to achieve important goals and not simply for superficial reasons.

The empowerment of adopting the culture, or the coercion of it?

Remittances and cultural transmission are components of African social space that serve a universal function, but they are anything but homogenous when found in the real world. Through diverse landscapes and divergent needs, people adopt and modify memes for their own ends. The soap opera airing on a city street corner may be a point of humor to one family in America, but represent a means of escape and needed entertainment among another community. Only through ethnographic study which approaches phenomena holistically in contextually bound scenarios is that truly understood.

Material conditions and power. They just were not part of my education back at The George Washington University, where I visited the IMF and World Bank as a research assistant. Yay capitalism! Globalization! And development! We can’t gloss over the historical relevancies which are still implicated in African governance today. The commandement:


This obsession is found in African awareness in the nineteenth century. The slave trade had ramifications that remain unknown to us; to a large extent, the trade was the event through which Africa was born to modernity. Colonialism also, in both its forms and its substance, posited the issue of contingent human violence. Indeed, the slave trade and colonialism echoed one another with the lingering doubt of the very possibility of self-government, and with the risk, which has never disappeared, of the continent and Africans being again consigned for a long time to a degrading condition.

Phallic Domination…

In an attempt to force Africa to face up to itself in the world, I have tried to state, in the most productive possible way, some general questions suggested by concepts drawn from social theory—notably those notions used generally for thinking about time, the bonds of subjection, the ways domination is validated, the collapse of historic “possibles” or their extensions, the symbolic constitution of the world, constraint and terror as limits of what is human, and relations to transcendence and finitude.

Commandement --- state sovereignty

Governance violence