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Conclusion: The Anchoring of Identities

Bruce Whitehouse Indiana University Press 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.

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Appendix 1. Notes on Methods

Bruce Whitehouse Indiana University Press 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.

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2. Enterprising Strangers

Bruce Whitehouse Indiana University Press ePub

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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?”

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3. Among the Unbelievers

Bruce Whitehouse Indiana University Press ePub

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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.”

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5. Transnational Kinship

Bruce Whitehouse Indiana University Press ePub

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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.

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