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

Author(s) Bruce Whitehouse
Publisher Indiana University Press
Year 2012

Bruce Whitehouse’s Migrants and Strangers in an African City contributes to a fairly fundamental reframing of debates over migrant integration and African urban life while reminding us that while globalization and mobility are transforming life everywhere, the specific consequences are shaped by a combination of historical conditioning, contemporary imperatives and chance. Review by Loren B. Landau.

Inquiries into changing urban sociality are replete with studies of migrant integration and incorporation. The works of the Chicago School, Max Weber, and Georg Simmel are foundational urban studies works and frame Migrants and Strangers in an African City’s fundamental questions: how do people find their way to and in new cities and remake people and places in the process? With its focus on West African migrants in Brazzaville (Republic of Congo), this extensively researched ethnographic account imports these evergreen concerns to unfamiliar but fertile ground. Beyond its rich empirical contribution, this text contributes to a fairly fundamental reframing of debates over migrant integration and African urban life. It reminds us that while globalization and mobility are transforming life everywhere, the specific consequences are shaped by a combination of historical conditioning, contemporary imperatives and chance.

The book begins with the premise that as much as migration may raise the hackles of planners and politicians, it remains intrinsic to the continent’s cultural landscape. As one respondent notes, “a man who has not gone abroad is not complete”. Similar rites of passage have been documented for decades, but the point bears repeating and elaborating as these are not the migrations of yesteryear. Rather, there is an increasingly diverse set of people on the move with ever more varied trajectories: men and women both well-educated and poor; those moving once, and those who will not stay still. Among these are those finding rapid success, others making incremental progress—however defined—while others perennially struggle. We also witness how technology has allowed more rapid movements and durable connections between places, facilitating the emergence of diasporas which incorporate multiple generations, cities and continents.

The ability and necessity to straddle multiple worlds transforms migration from a once-off move to an on-going state of being: a semi-permanent condition that gives rise to new ways of belonging and becoming. Quoting James Ferguson, Whitehouse suggests that, “The question now becomes not who is the insider and who is an outsider, who is local and who is not, but rather which of the bits floating in the swirl of events does any given social actor ‘get’, and which leave him more or less confused and mystified.”[1] It is the actions and position of the permanent migrant—Simmel’s stranger—that occupies Whitehouse. Amidst the turbulence, such characters are at outsiders but intimately and intrinsically connected to the local. Towards the end of the text, Whitehouse captures this condition in proverbial form, “No matter how long a log lays in the river, it does not become a crocodile”. More concretely, you may live in Brazzaville for much of your life, but you can never become Congolese.

Through a multi-faced discussion of economic, social and even legal encounters, Whitehouse demonstrates that the persistence of the stranger is something other than a failure to integrate or assimilate. Rather, it is an actively generated condition that is generated jointly by a suspicious and somewhat unwelcoming host population and ‘West Africans’ (mainly Muslim migrants from Mali and Senegal) who develop varied strategies of self-alienation. Religion, economic activity, marriage, and a host of other activities and ontological premises help to enforce and legitimize such subjectivities. None determine the dynamics of difference. Instead, they are starting points from which people negotiate and tactics which they wittingly and unwitting employ. Underlying these are the three tenets of the ‘strangers’ code’: Do not get involved in host country politics; do not flaunt your wealth; and do not protest violations of your rights. If these rules are followed, migrants become visible and invisible, part of Brazzaville and yet there at some remove. Rather than seeing people in arboreal terms, moving and then transplanting, Whitehouse ends with an evocative nautical metaphor: people anchor, staying put under the right conditions but ready or able to move if pushed off their anchorage by inclement conditions, wanderlust or other desires.

Unlike many accounts of migrants in Africa, this is a decidedly scholarly text that eschews questions of policy, evaluations of migrants’ successes or developmental impacts, or normative judgement as to how migrants live or how host populations, police or policy makers address mobility. Although there are hints at the author’s ethical leanings, his observations are carefully related to primary academic questions: not only referring to Simmel’s stranger, but to on-going discussions of social capital, transnationalism, resurgent religion, among other themes. If nothing else, the book encourages us to see migration as something other than a social rupture or failure of local development. While it may be true that not everyone everywhere wishes to move or sees it as normal, from the perspective of many people represented in this book, it is a banal and possible, even desirable, component of everyday life. If we are to understand contemporary African realities, we must also consider migration. As primary points of destination and transit, cities are where these trends surface most evidently, but as Whitehouse implicitly reminds us, to understand urban spaces we must recognise the diverse social and economic connections their residents have with spaces far beyond the urban edge.

The paragraphs above outline the book’s importance. However, the kind of inductive journey on which we accompany the author paradoxically provides extraordinary levels of insight and limited understanding or guidance. For students of migration in Africa and, particularly, in African cities, this text is at once both remarkable and completely expected. Throughout, the text is written in the personal tone of a contemporary ethnographer structured around Whitehouse’s own journey, from his doctoral work in Mali to the time spent with his Malian wife and offspring in Brazzaville. Throughout, it is the questions that puzzle him that frame the chapters: why do people go to a place where they are not formally welcomed? Why do they not return? What drives them into specific professions (and what keeps the locals out? Even as we can almost smell and hear the marketplace or calls to prayer, there is a sense that the book is not fundamentally about more than making sense of the West African experience in Brazzaville. Indeed, there is little effort to situate the experience of West Africans in Congo with people elsewhere on the continent let alone the African migrant experience more generally. As an anthropologist, perhaps Whitehouse should not be asked to do so. Yet while the book hints that we must rethink our understanding of African cities and African migrants, it leaves readers with little concrete guidance on how this should be done.

[1] James Ferguson, 1999, Expectations of Modernity: Myths and Meanings of Urban Life on the Zambian Copperbelt, University of California Press, p. 208.

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