Academic journal article African Studies Review

"Culture Stops Development!": Bijagó Youth and the Appropriation of Developmentalist Discourse in Guinea-Bissau

Academic journal article African Studies Review

"Culture Stops Development!": Bijagó Youth and the Appropriation of Developmentalist Discourse in Guinea-Bissau

Article excerpt

Abstract:

Since the 1960s scholars have criticized the notion of development, arguing that the rhetoric and practice of international development serve imperialistic interests, destroying local orders and colonizing consciousnesses. Through the analysis of the "will to be modern" of a group of young boys living in Bubaque in the Bijagó Islands (Guinea-Bissau), this article shows how the very notion of development can be reworked and employed in an African context, becoming a means for exerting social demands against traditional authorities, and an idiom to express aspirations, needs, and rights.

The notion of development is certainly not a novelty in the African con- text, and the impact on African tradition of European colonial civilization and modernization projects has been a theme in African studies since Isaac Schapera (1934), Godfrey Wilson (1941), and Clyde Mitchell (1951, 1954) analyzed the processes of social change and urbanization in southern Africa. Since the 1960s, and the securing of independence in most African countries, several critical voices have questioned the very notion of development and the impact of developmentalist policies on African cultures, denouncing development as a model of planned social change that favors a single Euro-American cultural and political model and functions as a continuation of the colonial civilizing mission. Representing what James Clifford (1988) called the modernist trope of spoiled authenticity, these authors argued that the rhetoric and practice of international development destroy social and cultural local orders and colonize African consciousnesses.

African youth in particular has been pictured as most attracted to, and easily conquered by, the promises and ideas of development and progress and by the glitter of Euro-American hegemonic culture. Young people throughout the continent have frequendy been considered as naive, passive victims of the allures of modernity (see Mbembe 1985, Gandoulou 1989).

In their criticism of development, most of these scholars have failed to acknowledge local resistances to and the creative consumption of discourses, ignoring the subdeties and details of social interactions and also individual points of view. In this article I will use a different approach, emphasizing the local agency of youth and focusing on the interplay between the concept of development and the actual engagement of youth in local contexts. I will give an example of how the very notion of development can be reworked and employed in an African context, becoming a rhetorical tool for young people to intervene tactically in local social dynamics against traditional leaders in the villages. The idea I would like to put forward is that we should think about development as an imported discourse that nevertheless can be employed by actors to legitimize or subvert power relations. As Sherry Ortner has pointed out,

the politics of external domination and the politics within a subordinate group may link up with, as well as repel, one another. . . . Subordinated selves may retain oppositional authenticity and agency by drawing on aspects of the dominant culture to criticize their own world as well as the situation of domination. . . . Resistance can be more than opposition. (1996:299)

In particular, I will argue, through an analysis of the "will to be modern" of a group of young boys living on the island of Bubaque in the Bijagó region in Guinea-Bissau, that the notion of development (in Criólo, desenvolvimento) - a keyword of postindependence national rhetoric - has been appropriated as a local vocabulary and become a critical locution within local dynamics that legitimizes spaces of self-reflection and autonomy and gives young people a respected voice. The logic of desenvolvímento has been turned into a means for exerting social demands against traditional authorities, and an idiom to express frustration, needs, and aspirations. In other terms, my goal is to provide an insight into how young people adopt, interpret, and express the idea of development, "shifting attention from the content of social representations to their use'm historically specific contexts" (Pigg 1996:164) and highlighting how - at the local and individual level - a web of meaning can be reformulated, adapted, and employed to one's advantage (see Mills 1999:98-99). …

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