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The Janus situation in local-level development organization in Africa

Reflections on the intercontinental circulation of knowledge and ignorance inspired by the situation in Kaoma district, western central Zambia

Wim van Binsbergen

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Wageningen conference on ‘Decision-making in natural resources management, with a focus on adaptive management’, organised by IUCN-SUI, Tropenbos and the Department of Forestry of Wageningen Agricultural University, 21-24 September, 1999

© 1999 Wim van Binsbergen

Fig. 1. Janiform headdress mask, Ekoi, Nigeria. Wood and antelope skin, height 15.75’’. The British Museum, London (Trowell n.d.: 62).


1. Introduction and outline

In the course of the twentieth century, immense changes have taken place in the African countryside. Systems of production (agriculture, hunting, fishing, the collection of such forest products as honey, wax, wood, medicinal herbs), systems of circulation (trade, tribute, raiding, marriage), the social organisational forms in which these systems were embedded (the kinship-based homestead, the localised clan, the chief’s court, the specialist guild, the trading network), still viable by 1900 although under increasing attack from the slave trade, intercipient labour migration, and the onset of colonial rule, have now largely broken down. They have given way to contemporary alternatives controlled by the intercontinental economic system, development agencies, non-governmental organisations, local elites, capitalist agricultural enterprise, and such remnants of the postcolonial state as may be capable of being incorporated in this radically altered rural environment. Natural resources (land, surface waters, game, fish, timber, medicinal plants) which in many parts of Africa used to be abundant by the turn of the 19th century, have been rendered scarce by population growth, appropriation by capitalist enterprises and/or by local elites, and sheer devastation as a result to misuse.

Meanwhile these natural resources have come under the attention of intercontinental agencies, from a number of complementary developmental and income-generating perspectives: tourism as an extension of North Atlantic consumerism; environmental preservation as the extension of North Atlantic and increasingly global ecological concern; the identification, preservation and commercial exploitation especially of unique local forms of biodiversity (e.g. medicinal plants). In development thinking, evolving views on agency, self-determination, identity, culture, empowerment and gender have led to increased insistence on the involvement of local personnel and organisational resources in these contexts; this ideologically-motivated move has converged with the realisation that such local involvement might also be attractive in terms of efficiency and cost reduction.

         What does one need to know about the local rural society in order to implement these ideas? What systematic risks are there for misjudging the local situation, so as to produce an organisational and ideological artefact which completely misfires in terms of the stated developmental objectives? How may one reduce these risks? These are the questions at the back of my contribution to the present conference.

         I have no pretension of speaking for Africa as a whole. The points I will make are inspired by two of several strands in my research over the past thirty years: an intensive anthropological and historical study of the countryside of Kaoma district, western central Zambia; and reflection on the conditions and pitfalls of intercultural communication and knowledge production, especially in the encounter between African and European contexts. A description of relevant aspects of Kaoma district will help us focus on the more systematic and general message I seek to deliver.


2. Kaoma district, western central Zambia

Kaoma district is situated in western central Zambia, due west of the Zambezi/Kafue watershed. It has the size of a minor West European country, and its population has rapidly increased since the beginning of the twentieth century, when population density was well under 1/km2. The well-watered savannah, characteristically wooded with the Brachystechia tree, has eminent agricultural opportunities lending to Kaoma district the proud identity of ‘granary of Western Zambia’; it also produces a very rich game and fishing environment.

         Throughout the colonial period (1900-1964) modern agriculture concentrated in the western part of the district, while in the homesteads elsewhere in the district a complex historical agricultural system was combined with emphasis on fishing and especially hunting -- the latter constituting the male identity model of the region’s main ethnic group, the Nkoya. Before colonial rule and before precolonial state formation such as took place as from the late eightteenth century, ecological resources were largely administered at the level of localised clans. Hunting was in the hands of a hunters’ guild, initiation into which offered both technical and magical expertise. In the course of their ascent to power, kings and nobles increasingly appropriated the prerogatives of earlier clan leaders, by virtue of which kings could pose as having privileged rights on selected natural resources (leopard, elephant, eland, fishing ponds; as well as the distribution of land). In order to realise these rights, the kings would employ hunters, organise collective fishing parties, exact tribute in kind and labour, and issue land to their subjects.

       In the early colonial period, the proclamation of the Kafue National Park, traversed by the Kafue river, caused kings and their people to shift their capitals and villages to the east and the west, and -- in addition to game legislation applicable outside the game reserve -- reduced all hunting to poaching, ideally prevented by the state’s game wardens. However, until well into the 1970s game meat - partly from big game straying from Kafue Park- continued to be a prominent part of the village diet; villagers would have a main source of cash income from the covert sale of bundles of dried meat throughout the region; and kings (designated chiefs under colonial conditions, and deprived of much of their political, economic and judicial power) would continue to supplement their income considerably by the sale of ivory. In addition to the chiefs’ hunters, most adult male villagers would have amazing hunting skills, and although nineteenth-century Portuguese muzzleloaders were still in use, a modern rifle would be the standard proceeds from a villager’s spell as a labour migrant at the distant mines and capitalist farms of Southern Africa. These guns also constituted major heirlooms, paraphernalia of royal and chiefly office, and hence bones of contention in succession and inheritance disputes. As major local means of production they were instruments of inequality, since the junior kinsmen and the hired hunters using these guns had to surrender most of their bag to the owner of the gun.

         It was only in the course of the 1980s that big game disappeared from the region, which is attributable to a number of factors:

       the expansion of agricultural activities (especially the Nkeyema Agricultural Scheme in the eastern part of the district)

       the slowly accumulating effect of historical, ‘artisanal’ forms of hunting, and

       the increase of scale brought about by immigrant ethnic strangers (Luvale, Luchazi, Chokwe from Angola) using machine guns.

         A similar increase of scale can be seen in the use of local timber resources: although large, commercial, capital timber exploitation has existed since colonial times in the adjacent Sesheke district south of Kaoma district, and although obviously the local forest was the main source of timber, bark rope, etc. for the villagers of Kaoma district, is was mainly from the late 1970s that the district’s high-quality timber resources were exploited for regional and national markets, by local entrepreneurs using power saws.

         There is an important process of class formation to be appreciated here. Until the 1970s, Kaoma district had nothing to offer to ambitious young people with such (limited) formal education as the mission schools could provide -- the only career was far away, temporarily as a labour migrant, and more permanently in urban formal sector employment. However, by the 1970s the first generation of Nkoya urbanites was in their forties, approaching habitual retirement age, and looking for opportunities to employ their urban skills of organisation, enterprise and politics, as well as their pension money, in their home area. The Nkeyema agricultural scheme was just what they were looking for, although from the beginning it was mainly accommodating ethnic strangers, besides the Nkoya post-urbanites. The local idiom of kinship and kingship, patronage and clientship offered the returning would-be elites major opportunities for labour mobilisation and exploitation among their rural kinsmen. These politically sophisticated returning urbanites greatly insisted on the elaboration of Nkoya ethnic consciousness -- exploiting the local feelings of resentment and inferiority, both (a) vis-à-vis the central state and (b) à-vis the Lozi ethnic group which had been politically, militarily, judicially and economically dominant in Western Zambia (including the Nkoya region) since the mid-nineteenth century, and had begin to invade Kaoma district. The new, post-urban local elite started to rally the local rural population under the banner of Nkoya-ness, bringing these ethnic followers to accept, and to publicly identify with (e.g. in the context of annual cultural festivals), the postcolonial state and its ruling party (then UNIP). This strategy brought the post-urban elite considerable political resources from the centre, -- resources readily to be converted into economic privilege with regard to lucrative local natural resources: agricultural land, game, timber.

         Brokerage between the local rural periphery, and the outside world, promised to be a rewarding source of income and power for these post-urban local elites, in addition to their urban formal-sector superannuation schemes and such urban assets (house rentals especially) as they had acquired prior to their rural retirement. In this brokerage, they followed a large number of intersecting organisational channels at the same time.

       political parties (at first the all-successful UNIP, later the MMD which was to supersede UNIP, and more recently also opposition parties rival to MMD)

       bodies which were part of the local state presence: the rural council, ward and village development committees through which agricultural loans are made available to deserving local farmers

       statal or parastatal agricultural schemes such as Nkeyema

       a non-governmental organisation sprung from local initiative: the Kazanga Cultural Association, staging annual ethnic festivals at which regional and national politicians are guests of honour who are wooed for their access to [ developmental  resources

       the structure of traditional leadership: the chief -- often a close kinsmen of the post-urban elites -- with his senior court officials, royal council of nobles and council of village headmen

       national non-governmental organisations in the field of development, seeking to broker, in their turn, between the local scene and intercontinental donor agencies

       local branches of these intercontinental donor agencies acting without the intermediary of national NGOs

       national branches of internationally operating world religions, such as the Seventh Day Adventist Church and the Evangelical church

       foreign, North Atlantic, researchers (anthropologists, entomologists) who lack the financial backing of donor organisations yet can offer skills, contacts and respectability.

         For most of these organisations it is true that they were under external, especially intercontinentally articulated constraints to justify the local activities of their personnel (often highly remunerated by any standards) in terms of access to, as well as participation, development and empowerment of, the local population, and of furthering the latter’s cultural and ethnic identity. Here the post-urban elites’ closeness to the traditional rulers (often their close kinsmen) and their control over the Kazanga Cultural Association enabled the elites to claim to represent ‘the people’. This was especially emphasised in symbolic behaviour such as the organisation of the Kazanga annual festival, in the kindling of local anti-Lozi resentment (leading to violence directed at the district Lozi chief’s court, and some of its branches in the district, and in the organisation of a local movement to prevent the expansion of ethnic strangers in the surroundings of the Nkeyema scheme, on ‘Nkoya ancestral land’

         Meanwhile the promise (and sometimes the fact) of these elites’ access to outside resources (via the other, more outer-directed organisational contexts in which they sought to insert themselves) guaranteed them of the villagers’ ostentatious public support if. This occasionally entailed considerable conflict at the village scene and in the kin groups thus mobilised, away from the public gaze that was allowed to outside politicians, experts, missionaries etc. What the elite brokers were doing amounted to the active and creative structuring of the contradictory, confusing, complex and highly eroded social field -- once historically arranged around kinship and kingship -- into the semblance of a transparant, formal, and ideologically acceptable structure whose apparently clear lines of organisation, authority and identity made it eligible for outside organisations (NGOs, development agencies) as a honourable, deserving context for their activities. With their considerable urban experience of global empowering idioms, the elites understood full well that the outside agencies were in need of qualified and mediated access -- at least on paper,-- to the local population.For these outside agencies needed to deploy their activities, in a form which was intercontinentally monitored and evaluated in terms of currently fashionable development ideologies, in which ‘the people’, their culture and identity happened to play a major role. And for the villagers starving for income, access to markets, infrastructural facilities and consumptive opportunities, the elites seemed to be their only chance: they largely control the access to the outside world.

Incidentally, the elites did not prove to be the local villagers’ only chance. Different opportunities opened up in the district in the early 1990s, when the eastern Nkoya chief Mwene Kahare issued farms (a section of the people’s communal land) each of the general Zambian standard size of 2500 ha i.e. 25 km2 (!), to a dozen South African White, Afrikaans-speaking commercial farmers. After surveying, this land was registered as freehold land in the hands of these stranger entrepreneurs, who soon managed to establish apartheid-style rural labour relations in that chief’s area. The local peasants are prepared to turn themselves into underpaid farm hands, despite the obsolete and racialist labour conditions offered. Small-scale subsistence and commercial farming is therefore grinding to a halt and entire villages resettle near the farms because they constitute the only local source of cash income. These short-term economic opportunities have persuaded the average villagers to accept the alienation of their communal land; protests, and accusations to the effect that the chief has actually sold the land to the immigrant Boers, are only heard from the post-urban elitee who are themselves engaged in commercial farming. They realise, more than their kinsmen in the villages, that Nkoya/Lozi ethnic conflict in Zambia Western’s Province is increasingly going to be a conflict over arable land and cheap labor as major economic resources, so that the introduction of a third party, the stranger farmers, in the long run can only be to the detriment of the local peasants-- and these local elites themselves!


3. The Janus situation

Development sociologist have repeatedly argued (cf. Quarles van Ufford 1993; Cohen 1993) that current global development practices depend on a system of interconnected, but compartmentalised, domains for the cultivation of performative[1] non-truths. The funding, legitimation, and continuity of local development projects, and the extent to which these may further or harm their North Atlantic experts’ careers, depends on the systematic control over the production and circulation of particular forms of knowledge (or rather: of ignorance), in a stepped system of impression management extending from the local grassroots level in the South, to the boardrooms in Washington, London, The Hague and Stockholm. Brokers, like our Nkoya elites, constitute the interface between one level and the next; they collect, transform and redistribute information at the two levels at whose intersection they find themselves, seeking to create satisfaction at both levels at the same time -- which can only be done by concealing the truth of one level from the other level -- , and exacting a financial and social fee on that basis.

         Without such compartmentalised control of qualified ignorance, the various distinct levels of competence, decision making, and relative autonomy, would fold together and collapse, and the development industry as we know it would cease to exist -- unless it succeeds in finding (which would be greatly to her credit and would radically enhance our hopes for a better world) a new, more effective and less manipulated structure for the intercultural circulated of knowledge. With such control, organisation at the grass-roots inevitably acquires a Janus face looking both sides.[2]Janus is the god of thresholds, and what the brokers do is to create the threshold or boundary, and hence articulate the separateness of the two domains involved. They thrive by keeping apart, and by inserting themselves as the sole connecting force between the domains thus separated. The impression management on one level does not have its bluff called at the next level, and the system thrives on common interest between brokers and experts -- even though its goals are formulated in terms of a third party whose benefitting is now reduced to an accidental and inpredictable sidekick: the villagers.

An eloquent but slightly side-tracking illustration of this theory can be seen in Kaoma district’s presence on the Internet. Of course, this medium’s infrastructure in the district and in most other places in Africa is still so deficient as to preclude its functioning as an expression of local popular identity. Under such marginal conditions, whatever on the local scene manages to penetrate onto a global medium like Internet, can only do so thanks to non-local inputs of interests, means, and formal and stylistic conventions. Hence Kaoma’s representation on Internet is a misleading travesty of the actual local situation, not a form of valid knowledge but a form of ignorance. The Kaoma district which speaks to us via Internet is merely a reflection of the intercontinental presence in the district, including: a Dutch development project parading, on its website, an exceptionally successful local woman farmer (but one belonging to the locally hated, non-local immigrant group of the Lozi); the USA-controlled evangelical parent body of the Evangelical Church of Zambia operates a major hospital in the district, and its matron shares her unmistakably Southern United States spirituality with the visitors of her website. And finally we spot, on Internet, an NGO in the field of local fauna management, directed in conjunction with the a North American scholar who is otherwise unknown to me -- by my enterprising adoptive cousin Mr Reginald Libupe.[3]

        Predictably the element of ethnic identity and traditional culture is strongly highlighted in this NGO’s message. But we cannot read the Internet message for what it is worth, unless we have access to the kind of information that normally does not circulate on Internet and that is the fruit of intensive local participation for decades. Mr Libupe is the most conspicuous and typical Nkoya post-urban broker: retired managing director of Zambia Lake Fisheries (a major parastatal controlling, with its dried fish, much of the protein intake of Zambia’s lower-class urban population); a political adventurer in various political parties in succession; sometime member of the Kaoma Rural Council; owner of a ramshackle bar-motel at Nkeyema; owner of a thriving farm at the same agricultural scheme; once an exploiter of the lucrative hardwood reserves of the region wielding a power saw; initiator of the move mentioned above, to protect ‘Nkoya ancestral land’ from encroachment by ethnic strangers; leading member of the Kazanga executive; cousin to Chief Kahare and unsuccessful contender to the throne at the 1994 succession; and eminently lucrative entrepreneur who during several seasons in the 1990s has managed to convert the local small farmers’ hard-earned cash into nothing but the sheer promises of fertiliser to be delivered at the right moment -- but which never materialised. Internet allows us -- albeit only on context-less attendance lists -- a glimpse of Mr Libupe’s participation in international, donor-sponsored conferences, even all the way to Dakar, where his fauna management NGO, since it claims to be carried by the very people themselves, turns out be eligible for subsidy, qualifying under that other magical category of the development parlance of the 1990s: as a ‘rotating credit association’...

         The better one knows the district, the more one is surprised to learn that Mr Libupe has worked such wonders, in this region where male identity still hinges on hunting and the distribution of meat, where a high level of meat consumption is a time-honoured norm, and where the colonial and postcolonial state was always resented for defining as poaching a simple act of realising historical individual and collective rights over the natural environment. In fact Mr Libupe’s NGO is largely virtual: it mainly exists on paper and Internet, although his kinsmen and clients are prepared to go through the motions of formal meetings, and the actual performance of fauna management duties, especially when outside visitors come along to assess such performance. And such assessment tends to be positive: after all, Mr Libupe himself will be there to welcome the expert visitors, and his education, his winning executive style and his perfect command of English as acquired during several training missions to the North, inspire his foreign visitors with trust and relief -- he is so much like themselves. 

         More such virtual, apparently formal organisations may be spotted at the interface between Nkoya villagers and the outside world today. The Kazanga Cultural Association itself is a perfect example.

The Kazanga Cultural Association is a society registered under the Zambian Societies Act, and as such a non-governmental organisation of the type so much stressed in Africanist development literature of the 1990s. Its formal nature however is largely illusory. The Kazanga association has no paying members and no membership list. Its minimal financial resources derive from voluntary individual contributions, mainly from the members of the executive themselves, who in this way gain popularity and influence. On the other hand, an executive position accords one a petty source of income via expense accounts. The Societies Act requires an Annual General Meeting, which in this case is held at the evening of the second day of the Kazanga festival. In the absence of a membership list and of fee paying, this is in practice a meeting not of members but merely of several dozens of interested persons. Executive elections mean that from these several dozens of interested persons, groups of ten people are formed according to place of residence or of origin. Depending on which people happen to be present, such a group may comprise representatives from a few neighbouring villages, from an entire valley, from an official polling district as delineated by the Zambian state for the purpose of official elections, from a town at the Line of Rail (the urban areas of central Zambia), or even from the entire Line of Rail. With greater of lesser privacy these groups cast their votes for the available candidates, the votes are counted, the result announced via the festival’s intercom system, after which the departing executive leaves under scorn and shame, while the new executive is formally installed and treats the voters to a 200 litres drum of traditional beer. As basically a self-financing clique of successful urbanites and post-urbanites, the executive of the Kazanga Cultural Association has a strong class element, which I have already stressed elsewhere in my analysis of the Kazanga festival proper.


4. Discussion

Our example of misleading Internet representation reflects of wider problem in the production and circulation of valid knowledge about contemporary situations in the African continent: the existence of media (Internet, NGOs, development projects) which only render onto the outside world, in the way of knowledge, whatever that outside world has invested in that medium in the first place. Internet is just as little a receptacle for valid and representative knowledge on Kaoma district, as Mr Libupe is representative of the people of Kaoma district, their fauna management capabilities and organisational forms, and their rotating credit associations: whatever appears under these guises under his leadership or supervision, are predominantly extractive devices, raiding both the local peasants and the international development agencies for the benefit of his personal enrichment.

         The compartmentalisation of intercontinental knowledge production; the eagerness to believe claims cast in terms of cultural and ethnic identity and people’s participation; the great difficulty to establish direct links between the local population bypassing the elite brokers which, largely for personal interest, block up the free flow of valid knowledge from one organisational level to the next; the eagerness to impose on a local scene high-sounding ideals that reflect the latest fashion in developmental ‘philosophy’; and the fact that it is largely against an intercontinental development agency’s interest to develop reliable locally-based assessment procedures by which to gauge the realisation, in the South, of goals and ideals formulated in the North -- all these factors combine to empower the Misters Libupe of Africa in their attempts to conjure up structures of participation, management, and self-realisation which are largely fictitious and ineffective -- in other words virtual.

         Brokers like Mr Libupe link two levels or domains:

       the villagers on the one hand,

       the locally-operating representatives of national and intercontinental development organisations on the other.

One of the techniques employed in this connexion is to present to the latter the image of a recognisable formal organisation with which one can do legitimate and transparant business and which yet is eminently acceptable in terms of popular grounding, cultural identity, and tradition. To the villagers the same organisation turns out to be in practice far more amorphous and to run along familiar lines of local social organisation: patronage across class lines, ethnic and feudal loyalty readily exploited -- in other words, an inevitable aspect of the class situation twentieth century social change has landed them in.

         This Janus face of local-level organisations in contemporary development endeavours is perhaps the one striking structural feature which we need to keep in mind whenever mobilising ‘the people’, their ‘culture’, and their ‘traditional organisational resources’ for goals and missions which were defined, in the first place, by development policy makers in the North. As long as the Janus face remains intact, a project organised on such a double agenda is yet allowed to be filed, up in the North, as successful in terms of whatever the current development ideology happens to be. Now, in order to keep the Janus face intact -- in order to keep the local villagers from shouting that the chief’s trousers are around his ankles -- a measure of attractiveness and spin-off is actually required to reach the local population. For even if the forms of their attachment to the post-urban broker may be different from what is being specified on paper and on Internet, without minimum benefits even traditional ties of kinship and kingship would not ensure the villagers’ support at the (relatively few) critical moments when the broker has to present, to a critical outside world, proof of the actual functioning of his local-level development organisation.

         The situation in Kaoma district is no doubt unique, and I am sure that my readership can cite numerous examples of a very different, much more tangible and less manipulative installation of local organisational initiatives for the furthering of such initially North Atlantic or global development goals such as environmental conservation and protection of biodiversity through fauna management.

         A very special place may be claimed, in such initiatives, for local culture and tradition, not only with regard to the organisational forms and procedures, but also with regard to the cosmology informing people’s perception of nature, game and vegetation. The common assumption is that such a cosmology has survived or may readily be revived, and that it not only influences people’s actual dealings with nature outside the formal and subsidised context framed for development endeavours, but also within such a context. One of the main reasons for self-congratulation which development thinking had in the 1980s, was the discovery of culture as a factor explaining the failure of development policies so far, and as hope for future success in this field. The Nkoya case however suggests that we should proceed very carefully here, and be aware of the many pitfalls of manipulation, ambiguity and performativity which await us here -- of the Janus face, in short. If traditional culture, ethnic identity, local ways of going about self-organisation, are stressed in Mr Libupe’s largely virtual fauna management organisation, this is not because he and his clients cannot help themselves -- not because they happen to be slavishly programmed by a traditional culture which inevitably must seep through in whatever they do or say. It is because the play on tradition is recognised by them to have very high currency in their dealings with outside development experts under the currently fashionable development ideology. The forms they mediate in the process are not genuinely historical forms, but merely the ephemeral and shifting results of dextrous bricolage, striking a balance between: (a) local structural realities (the facts of inequality yet solidarity based on kinship and kingship) and (b) the outsiders’ expectations as perceived by the local brokers to be in terms of a combination of ostentatious, exoticising traditional content and of rational, transparent formal-organisational format.

         At this level of abstract formulation I see no reason to consider the Nkoya case unique, nay I would say that it brings out a dominant structural feature of contemporary African social contexts -- and one whose misreading may well be the greatest pitfall of otherwise well-intended development endeavours initiated from the North. Personally, I discovered the Janus format not in Zambia, despite decades of intensive participant research there, but in Botswana, where professional organisations of diviners and traditional healers, posing as fully-fledged professional formal organisations, present a similar Janus face, one side looking to the state, the other side looking to their membership who thus are facilitated to continue practices of several centuries’ standing, within a new environment which -- certainly in Botswana -- offers new ways of capital accumulation and exploitation.

         I can anticipate one likely objection to the extreme cynicism implied in my view of development in the Nkoya context, and of developmental organisational formats throughout Africa today. For surely, the reader would say, ‘traditional culture’ cannot be denied to play a role in contemporary African life? After all, the Nkoya chiefs are there in their palaces (more like four-roomed thatched houses without electricity, telephone, running water or toilet; virtual palaces, in other words) -- development experts tend to spend days and days visiting these chiefs and humiliating themselves in an attempt to emulate court etiquette. Also the royal council is there -- and the development experts, having learned to respect local culture and to be afraid of going against the will of the local elders, insist on discussing things out with the royal council before implementing any initiatives. Undeniably, some court cases are still taken to the chief’s capital for adjudication (most are not, though); land is still being issued by the chiefs even if they may be more generous in this respect to affluent ethnic strangers than to their own people; music, dance and possession ritual is still being performed in the villages -- and what is more invigorating in an expert’s life after a tiring day with the local counterparts in the fields! And the annual Kazanga festival brings out the total repertoire of Nkoya expressive culture with what looks as only minor sacrifices to orchestration and stage direction, and electrical sound amplification -- and also the experts have a good time there... 

         What to respond to such an evocation of expatriate experience as to the undeniable survival of authentic African culture in Africa?

         I would say this. Kaoma district is representative for the many areas in Africa where the inroads of global economic and political relations, and of global culture, have invaded and virtualised the local scene yet where so much is left of the traces of older historical local forms that the illusion may be entertained that these forms have braved the decades without undergoing major erosion, without major and decisive transformations. But they have. The development experts cramping their leg muscles emulating Nkoya royal etiquette (where all but the chief himself squat or intricately fold their legs under their buttocks and remain in that position for interminable hours right until sunset), and who have blistered their hand in endless hand-clapping as part of the same routine, are paying lip-service, not so much to the splendours of ancient kings (for their descendants -- at least in Kaoma district[4] -- are now powerless puppets of the state and of the Kazanga association), but to the principles on which the construction of local organisations such as Mr Libupe’s depend - not by inevitable application of any local reality such as the presumed inescapability of culture, tradition, identity as enshrined in the kingship, but merely in response to the essentialising, ethnicising, authenticity-expecting ideological sets imposed upon the local situation by the Northern development industry. And the brokers, safely in their NGOs which guarantee them semi-North Atlantic incomes and benefit, are good enough to oblige.


5. Recommendations by way of conclusion

To the development workers who, with the best of intentions and on the basis of an enormous and enviable knowledge of ecological systems, seek to find an enduring, equitable and if possible profitable basis for their local management in the South, I would propose the following advice -- if I have not already totally alienated them so far:

       realise that access to local rural populations is the major problem of your organisation

       realise that local brokers have already volunteered to construct the interface between your organisation and the local rural population, and that they do so by virtue of a dextrous Janus technique, in which a sophisticated awareness of your own ideological and organisational constraints and goals is utilised as these brokers’ main strategic resource

       to the extent to which tradition, culture, identity and authenticity are explicitly built into the blueprint of your plans, please realise that to that extent the brokers on which you rely will be tempted to produce for you…tradition, culture, identity and authenticity !

       realise that both the brokers, and the people they vicariously represent (often without being asked or empowered to do so), are not passive slaves of tradition and ethnic identity, not any more than you are yourself -- any attempt to tap or re-create authenticity is bound to produce deceptive and potentially exploitative artefacts, the opposite of the empowerment you seek to help bring about

       realise that not so much tradition and its time-honoured organisational forms, but the dazzling interplay of modern contexts of (usually defectively functioning) formal organisations in the political, educational, medical, professional, and religious field, is the standard bedding for much of contemporary life in the South; help people to create the transparency, relative autonomy and accountability that come with self-organisation along such modernist lines (however much these are now called in question in an increasingly post-modern North-Atlantic context!), but realise that that would require such an escape from recent class relations as can only be very imperfectly realised

       realise that the best way to break through the manipulations and mystifications of the Janus situation is by having your own, reliable, extensive, more or less independent direct access to local information

Such access as stipulated in the last point needs highly specialised skills of information collecting, processing and synthesising; it needs local language skills; and most of all it needs time. It suggests that fully-fledged anthropological techniques are yet indispensable for the very realisation of the ambitious and eminently praiseworthy goals which Northern development thinking is increasingly setting itself. Since the late 1980s, the Rapid Rural Appraisal and similar devices have become popular as techniques, not because they solve the problems of knowledge production and local-level organisation under Janus conditions, but because they reinforce -- by its superficial and haste exposure -- the restrictions on the flow of information; it is these restrictions which breed the ignorance on which perpetuation of the Janus situation depends. Evaluation procedures at strategic points in a development project’s time path tend to use similar techniques. Without realizing their built in, Janus-ike problematical nature, your practical efforts at the grassroots may be wasted.



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[1]   I.e. deliberately, ostentatiously and strategically produced, in consciousness of the audience’s expectations.

[2] My discussion on this point somewhat coincides with that of Von Benda Beckmann et al. 1989: 210.

[3]   A pseudonym.

[4]   Cf. Van Rouveroy and van Dijk 1999 for convincing examples of the revival of chieftainship throughout the African continent today the Nkoya situation features here as an exception.



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