Entangled in/equalities in African societies

Check out my academic commentary recently published by the Finnish journal Suomen Antropologi, as part of a forum on anthropologist Harri Englund’s insightful book Human Rights and African Airwaves: Mediating Equality on the Chichewa Radio (Indiana University Press, 2011). The article’s title is “Entangled In/Equalities in African Societies”.

Englund’s masterful ethnography focuses on a popular radio programme that collects listeners’ stories about rights and wrongs of everyday life in rural Malawi. In my response, I engage with his careful exploration of alternative conceptions of equality in Malawi.

The gist of this piece is that Western conceptions cannot be uncritically transposed to southern African contexts, especially when it comes to development interventions and human rights initiatives. Many development practitioners and policy makers tend to gloss over the local entanglements of equality and inequality in African societies.

Englund’s book is part of a wider body of scholarship in southern African anthropology that has much to contribute to the recent surge of interest in inequality following the Piketty phenomenon, and to the design and implementation of effective anti-poverty measures.

Here is an extract from my article:

“The publics Englund engages with do not condemn inequality per se, but rather the excesses of individuals in position of authority who do not fulfil their obligations towards their weaker dependents. Employers are not expected to redistribute their wealth according to some abstract measure of equality, but moral outrage is expressed when they are not able to provide for the basic needs of their employees. Schoolteachers enjoy the benefit of high social status and are widely respected, but they are expected in exchange to make sure that they provide children with an excellent education.

Englund’s highly original argument is that such moral claims and disciplining by the poor … of figures of power and authority are only possible because a relationship of equality holds between the two. Equality then is not a goal to be achieved through specific policies, but rather a pre-condition of any social relation worthy of the name. This existential condition of equality is constantly fostered and nurtured in multiple ways, from sharing food, drinks and familial affects in conviviality to bodily and symbolic communion and exchange in ritual and religion.”


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