The Domestication of Modernity: Different Trajectories

By Geschiere, Peter; Rowlands, Michael | Africa, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

The Domestication of Modernity: Different Trajectories


Geschiere, Peter, Rowlands, Michael, Africa


The following two articles were originally presented at a four-day seminar on the 'domestication' of modernity in Leiden and The Hague in June 1995.(1) The aim of the seminar was to compare the different trajectories in which African societies try to appropriate modernity: how they deal with the images and dreams of a modem way of life which flood the continent - the spectacular successes of the few and the deep feelings of disappointment of the many. 'Modernity's enchantment' - a phrase coined by Jean and John Comaroff (1992) - applies very well to Africa. Jean-Pierre Warnier's remark, in his study of entrepreneurs in west Cameroon (1993), that 'le gout des Camerounais pour tout ce qui est importe plutot que produit localement est legendaire' is true of many if not all African countries. Achille Mbembe (1992) forcefully demonstrates that the popular masses are as intent as the elites on participating in the consumerist rituals of new forms of wealth and power. But it is clear also that this obsession with modernity follows very varied trajectories. Jean-Francois Bayart (1989) emphasises that the marked consumerism of African elites is not to be seen as just an atavistic outcome of la politique du ventre; rather, it is related to specific imaginaires of the link between wealth and power and to varying pressures 'from below' towards redistribution.

Africa's problems with modernity are related to the powerful and enduring impact of Western discourse on 'development'. Despite all critiques, it still seems difficult to go beyond this unilineal vision, in which the 'modem' as something external is self-evidently opposed to a local 'tradition'. Of course, there have been many counter-voices: the political rhetoric of leaders like Nkrumah, Nyerere, Mobutu, trying to construe - in very different ways - a continuity between African 'tradition' and a modem way of life; and more subtle attempts by philosophers like Houtoundji or Appiah to overcome the deadening opposition between modernity and tradition.(2) But it is clear that the unilineal vision, so powerfully summarised in the notion of development, is able to reinstate itself time and again. The Brazzaville and Kinshasa dandies of La Sape, vividly depicted by Gandoulou (1989), celebrate the same basic vision with their exaggerated affectation of European styles and their obsession with the metropolis.

However, there are signs of a reversal in this respect. Evoking 'tradition' or 'authenticity' as a solution no longer seems to be the monopoly of politicians. In some parts of Africa the popular disappointment with the dreams of modernity has become so strong, and the discrepancies between the daily realities and the dream-world evoked by publicity and television have become so glaring, that there are signs of a general turning away from modernity and a search for other role models. In his oral presentation of the article below, Rene Devisch formulated it very cogently: 'mimesis led to exhaustion'. The importance of his contribution is in showing that, despite the harsh living conditions in the quartiers of present-day Kinshasa, there is not just disintegration and increasing violence but also an effort towards reconstruction. But this reconstruction implies a determined turning away from the Western consumerist dreams; instead, people try to re-create the village in the city ('villagisation') and resort to the healing powers of spiritual movements. Similarly, in a recent radio programme from Brazzaville, young men insist that La Sape (the dandies mentioned above) is 'passee' - 'We will never get the chance to go to Europe, so we have to fall back on traditional culture'. …

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