Academic journal article African Studies Review

The Perils of Belonging: Autochthony, Citizenship, and Exclusion in Africa and Europe

Academic journal article African Studies Review

The Perils of Belonging: Autochthony, Citizenship, and Exclusion in Africa and Europe

Article excerpt

ANTHROPOLOGY AND SOCIOLOGY Peter Geschiere. The Perils of Belonging: Autochthony, Citizenship, and Exclusion in Africa and Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. xii + 283 pp. Table. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $60.00. Cloth. $22.00. Paper.

How can it happen that a person can go to sleep a full-fledged member of a community and wake up a stranger? This is the question Peter Geschiere answers in his tour de force, The Perils of Belonging: Autochthony, Citizenship and Exclusion in Africa and Europe. The book provides a summation of Geschiere 's analysis of the politics of autochthony in Africa, a field that he virtually created in the 1990s and 2000s in collaboration with a handful of African and European colleagues.

Geschiere 's book is partly ethnography, partly history, and partly comparison of a variety of cases from Africa and beyond. The ethnographic portions draw from his forty years of research in Cameroon; three of the chapters focus on this research. Another chapter treats other instances of autochthony politics from other parts of Africa, including Côte d'Ivoire, and another chapter turns the ethnographic lens on his native Netherlands.

Geschiere elegantly lays out his thesis that while people see themselves (in Africa as elsewhere) as part of an increasingly global world, they simultaneously become more invested in rhetorics and practices of asserting local belonging. These languages of nativeness, indigeneity, or autochthony all benefit from the seeming self-evidence and naturalness of autochthony talk. Geschiere turns to some of the scholarship on citizenship in ancient Athens to show how the structures of autochthony then were strikingly similar to those in play today. What is different now, he argues, is the ways that the twin policies of multiparty democratization and decentralization have shifted the political economy of authochthony in such away that politicians have clear incentives to instrumentalize the discourse as a means of excluding portions of the population.

In the struggle to monopolize political power, Cameroonian politicians have found the language of autochthony highly useful. Geschiere shows how autochthony talk links to talk about citizenship and the distribution of voting rights. In Cameroon as in ancient Athens, the performance of autochthony often culminates in funerals. There, the living confiscate the identity of the deceased for their own purposes, and the attendant funeral orations and ceremonies (invariably taking place in the "ancestral" village) enact a set of claims to political and social rights. Parallel to the political imperatives of being autochthonous (and the attendant incentives to deprive others of those same rights) are economic imperatives that also play out in rural areas of Cameroon. There, in the context of logging concessions and development projects, the state, the NGOs, and the private corporations all insist on a duly constituted "community" to which they will dole out a few paltry payments or services. …

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