Migrants and Strangers in an African City: Exile, Dignity, Belonging

Views: 367
Ratings: (0)

In cities throughout Africa, local inhabitants live alongside large populations of "strangers." Bruce Whitehouse explores the condition of strangerhood for residents who have come from the West African Sahel to settle in Brazzaville, Congo. Whitehouse considers how these migrants live simultaneously inside and outside of Congolese society as merchants, as Muslims in a predominantly non-Muslim society, and as parents seeking to instill in their children the customs of their communities of origin. Migrants and Strangers in an African City challenges Pan-Africanist ideas of transnationalism and diaspora in today's globalized world.

List price: $9.99

Your Price: $7.99

You Save: 20%

 

10 Slices

Format Buy Remix

1. The Avenue of Sergeant Malamine

ePub

1

THE AVENUE OF SERGEANT MALAMINE

Quite little is known about the life of Malamine Camara. He was born in Senegal around the mid-nineteenth century, served as a soldier for France, and died young, probably in his thirties. His brief career in colonial service, however, made a tremendous mark on what became France's Congo colony. Like his white commanding officer who orchestrated France's claim to the region in the 1880s, Malamine Camara was present at the creation of the Congo colony and was instrumental in safeguarding it against encroachments by rival powers. And, like his commanding officer, he was esteemed by his fellow explorers, celebrated by the French press, and decorated by the French government. Unlike his commanding officer, however, within a few decades of his death he was virtually forgotten: all that bears his name in the Congolese capital today is a narrow, unpaved street running through the Poto-Poto market. During my Brazzaville fieldwork in 2005, no sign indicated its official designation known by a few of my informants: l’Avenue du Sergent Malamine. The story of this street's namesake reveals the extent to which, over more than seven decades of European colonial rule, the origins of France's Congo colony were intertwined with West African migration to the region.

 

2. Enterprising Strangers

ePub

2

ENTERPRISING STRANGERS

From the beginning of my Brazzaville research, I tried to understand why West Africans went there at such expense and often physical risk. What was the city's attraction to them? Answers were unsatisfying, and migrants’ life histories rarely seemed to indicate a compelling reason for them to have come to that particular place. My elderly friend and informant, Vieux Diallo, for example, who had left Mali upon independence in 1960, never could or would explain to me precisely what had brought him to Brazzaville in the first place. If socialism was truly the reason why he left Mali, as he claimed, why come to Congo, which, at the time Diallo arrived there, was officially known as the People's Republic of Congo, with a government espousing a stricter approach to socialism than Mali had ever known? Why not stay in Abidjan? Why not go to Gabon?

To listen to Diallo and most other West African informants narrate their life histories, their presence in Brazzaville appeared to be the outcome of a series of random encounters, not carefully planned strategies. They knew little about the place before arriving there. Some knew of friends or relatives in the city with whom they might seek employment, but many others did not. Brazzaville was somewhere they had simply ended up, and their specific destination was less important than the fact of l'aventure—a term literally meaning “adventure” but used in French-speaking Africa for the experience of going abroad to seek one's fortune. For aventuriers (young men undertaking l'aventure) the crucial thing was to leave home; the destination was secondary. A term that regularly cropped up in their parlance was yaala, which, in Bamanan, roughly means “wandering about.”1 I once asked a Malian aventurier making a living pushing a handcart on Poto-Poto's rutted streets why he had not stayed in his home country to do that kind of work. “Yaala tè?” he replied with nonchalance. “Isn't it for wandering?”

 

3. Among the Unbelievers

ePub

3

AMONG THE UNBELIEVERS

“Hold fast to prayer,” Vieux Diallo counseled me as we walked back into the market from the nearby zawiya, the modest Sufi mosque, after the midday prayer. “All the other things, family, wealth, will abandon you at the grave,” he said, “but the rewards from prayer, and fasting, and zakat [sacrifice] are the only things you can take with you after you die.”

Diallo was more than devout in his Muslim faith. Not only did he perform all five daily prayers, but he did so in mosques near his work or home. Despite being in his seventies, he had recently made the decision to begin studying Arabic, the language of the holy Qur'an. Among West African men in Brazzaville, Diallo was by no means unusual in his devotion to Islam.

Mali's population is overwhelmingly Muslim, and signs of Islamic influence are omnipresent there: most Malians bear Muslim names, and many Bamanan nouns—from the names of the days of the week to the words for book, luck, obligation, and blessing—are derived from Arabic. I recognized all this during my initial years in Mali, and yet I was influenced by those who, following the lead of French colonial administrators, characterized West African societies as superficially Islamized. Islam, according to their logic, was only a veneer covering a more substantial African identity based on local “traditional beliefs.” I held to the notion sometimes expressed by Western expatriates that “Mali is 90 percent Muslim and 100 percent animist.”

 

4. The Stranger's Code

ePub

4

THE STRANGER'S CODE

On the morning of Christmas eve, in 2005, I was conversing with a friend in his shop when three Congolese men in civilian clothes suddenly entered. One rapped loudly on the counter and bellowed, “Séjours et recensements, s'il vous plait.” They were apparently policemen who had come to conduct a contrôle, a spot-check of individuals’ official documents, in this case residence permits (permis de séjour) and recensements de police, forms showing that the bearer had registered with the local police station. There was no formal requirement in Congo to have a recensement, but many of my West African friends had had to pay modest fees to obtain the document after policemen had discovered them without one. As always, I was carrying my passport with a valid one-year Congolese visa, but I had never gotten a recensement, and though the men had taken no notice of me up to that point, given their brusque entry and aggressive demeanor I thought they might choose to make an issue of this. In any case my friend behind the counter, a Malian in his forties named Balla, quickly launched into a verbal counteroffensive at maximum volume, matching bluster with bluster. Balla's cousin, who also worked in the shop and had good relations with the local police chief, hurriedly came in from the street upon hearing the commotion. He took one of the three visitors aside and began speaking to him in a low voice. Concerned that my presence might be attracting unwanted attention for Balla and his business, I sneaked out the door and went home while Balla and one of the Congolese continued talking loudly past each other.

 

5. Transnational Kinship

ePub

5

TRANSNATIONAL KINSHIP

“Any West African who marries a Congolese is not one of us,” Vieux Diallo declared to me bluntly one day during a conversation at his tailor shop. Congolese women, he went on to say, were interested only in money and would abandon their foreign husbands and their children without warning. You could not trust them.

The supposed shortcomings of Congolese constituted a recurring theme in the old man's statements to me, and the question of intermarriage was a particularly sensitive subject. His wife Hawa was Malian and hailed from the same town as he did. One of their sons, however, had married a Congolese woman. Without knowing many details, I could clearly see that Diallo's relations with his son were troubled, and he did not care for his daughter-in-law. Diallo's children were mostly in their teens and twenties by then, and he was concerned about their future. They had never been to Mali, and the best way for them to maintain some connection to their ancestral homeland was through marriage to Malians who had some exposure to it. At least two of his daughters had married Malians, but that his son had chosen differently was a source of concern for the old man.

 

6. Children of Exile

ePub

6

CHILDREN OF EXILE

Although some of the circumstances surrounding the incident are uncertain, this much is clear: on a Sunday afternoon in mid-December 2005 Papa Doucouré was shot. He was driving a friend’s car in a northern district of Brazzaville and allegedly failed to stop at an intersection when a policeman signaled him to do so. A pickup truck full of heavily armed paramilitary police sped after him and made him pull over a few hundred meters down the road. After he had stopped, sitting behind the wheel of the motionless car, he was hit by three bullets from a policeman’s Kalashnikov rifle—once in the arm, once in the leg, and once in the stomach. The police put him into the bed of their truck and brought him to the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire, the city’s largest public hospital. That is where Papa Doucouré, lying on a hospital gurney, was pronounced dead a short time later. He was one day short of his nineteenth birthday.

This young man’s killing symbolized different things to different people in Brazzaville. To most ordinary Congolese, if they knew of the incident at all, it was yet another tragic display of heavy-handed police tactics, further proof of their government’s failure to respect basic human rights, and evidence that the forces de l’ordre (the security forces) were in fact the greatest local threat to public safety. “Recurring incidents of blunders and holdups [braquages] by elements of the security forces are becoming more and more troubling,” one online magazine commented a few weeks later, “yet it is they who ought to be assuring the safety of people and their property” (Afriqu’Echos 2005).

 

Conclusion: The Anchoring of Identities

ePub

CONCLUSION

THE ANCHORING OF IDENTITIES

Of Logs and Crocodiles

There is an expression in the Bamanan language: “Yirikurun mèn o mèn ji la, a tè kè bama ye,” which translates as “However long a log may float in the water, it will never become a crocodile.” This adage is part of everyday discourse in Mali and even inspired the title of a book about that country (Belloncle 1981). Like all popular expressions, it applies to a broad range of contexts. One could interpret it generally to mean “the leopard cannot change its spots.” More specifically, however, one can understand it as a commentary on migrants’ inability to assimilate into their host societies, an avowal that “one cannot renounce one’s origins” (Bailleul 2005:141). Natives will remain natives, and strangers will remain strangers.

This proverb, like the sentiment it articulates, turns out to be widespread in Africa. A cursory Web search reveals equivalent expressions in Wolof, Sonrai, and Pulaar. Congolese musician Casimir Zao uses a version of it to reproach his compatriots who travel to France and put on French airs after returning home. In his song “Pierre de Paris” (1982), he sings of a Congolese named Pierre who wears French clothes and only speaks French. Zao scolds him in Kikongo with the words “Ntí kà wú tìtùkáákà / Ngáándù kó mù maambbà”—“Never can a tree trunk / Be transformed into a crocodile in the water” (see Milandou 1997:120). Wherever it originated, today this expression has become something of a pan-African phenomenon.

 

Epilogue: Displaced Dreams

ePub

EPILOGUE

DISPLACED DREAMS

In the second decade of the twenty-first century Brazzaville faces uncertain prospects. The city cannot offer the economic opportunities it once did, as Kinshasa has largely supplanted it as a regional commercial hub. In an ironic reversal of its former situation, by the time of my fieldwork Brazzaville was dependent on imports from Kinshasa, even for essential commodities like gasoline and aviation fuel. Moreover, countries such as the Central African Republic and Chad, which once exported their raw materials down the Congo River through the Congolese capital, today use alternative outlets. Deforestation and climate change have made the river un-navigable throughout much of the year, and Brazzaville’s port facilities have suffered years of neglect. Even most of the timber harvested in Congo’s northern forests no longer passes through the capital city on its way to the coast but transits overland via Cameroon. As regional commercial flows have progressively bypassed Brazzaville, the city has lost its primary economic raison d’être, and Congo’s national economy has grown ever more reliant on exports of offshore oil, accounting for 90 percent of government revenues.1 Congo’s role in the twenty-first-century global economy is essentially what it was during the colonial era—a source of raw materials, with little value added and few jobs generated at home. Despite double-digit economic growth and an expanding state budget, most Congolese still lived in poverty in 2011, and rates of malnutrition remained high.2 Living conditions continued to stagnate, and even in Brazzaville electricity had become a scarce commodity: “It seems like the more years go by, the more the number of Congolese with access to electricity diminishes,” wrote one Congolese journalist (La Semaine Africaine 2010a). To underscore the country’s state of abjection, in late 2010 a polio outbreak killed two hundred Congolese (IRIN 2010b). Immigrants in Congo increasingly looked elsewhere to pursue their dreams.

 

Appendix 1. Notes on Methods

ePub

Appendix 1. Notes on Methods

If the methodological challenges facing James Ferguson (1999) in the Copperbelt seemed unusual at the close of the twentieth century, they have become more familiar today to anthropologists studying contemporary patterns of social change, cultural flux, and human mobility—commonly understood as components of globalization. Since the 1990s social scientists have sought to adapt ethnography to the study of global processes (Stoller 1997; Hannerz 1998; Burawoy et al. 2000). We have applied ethnographic approaches which, while necessarily local in their scope, illuminate macro-level social processes by examining their micro-level manifestations.

One technique for applying ethnographic methods to global processes is multi-sited fieldwork (Marcus 1998). This type of research is especially useful for studying migration flows, since, by their definition, they concern more than one geographic location. Unfortunately multi-sited fieldwork also demands more time, preparation, and money than single-sited fieldwork, and the challenges of learning about a community and gaining acceptance in it are multiplied with each additional research site. In planning my fieldwork, I chose to concentrate on Brazzaville and rely mainly on my previous experience in Mali for insights into the culture of the sending region. My fieldwork began in Bamako, Mali, where I renewed contacts from previous research and gathered information about flows of people, goods, and information between Bamako and Brazzaville. After a month in Mali, my family and I took the route most Malians use to travel to Central Africa, flying on Air Mauritania from Bamako to Brazzaville, via Abidjan and Cotonou. We returned to Bamako (again on Air Mauritania) the following year for a final stage of research lasting another month. Te two Bamako legs of the fieldwork enabled me to identify and pursue transnational connections between Mali and Congo.

 

Appendix 2. Survey Results

ePub

Appendix 2. Survey Results

1.Responses to Multiple-choice Questions

In your opinion, should Islam be among the religions officially recognized by the Congolese state?

Which nationality is most common among West Africans in Brazzaville?

For how long has the West African community been present in Congo?

How many West African friends do you have in Brazzaville or elsewhere in Congo?

In your opinion, which would be the best state policy with respect to immigration by West Africans?

In your opinion, Congo would benefit if a policy of expulsion were applied to:

II. Responses to statements

1. Congolese, in general, are not good at commerce.

2. Congolese, in general, prefer being civil servants to being entrepreneurs.

3. Congolese are benevolent toward foreigners in Congo.

4. The Congolese government respects the rights of foreigners as much or more than it respects the rights of Congolese.

5. Islam is concordant with mores in Congo.

 

Details

Print Book
E-Books
Slices

Format name
ePub (DRM)
Encrypted
true
Sku
9780253000750
Isbn
9780253000750
File size
0 Bytes
Printing
20 times / 30 days
Copying
20 times / 30 days
Read aloud
No
Format name
ePub
Encrypted
No
Printing
Allowed
Copying
Allowed
Read aloud
Allowed
Sku
In metadata
Isbn
In metadata
File size
In metadata