Category Archives: ordinary lives

Inspirational Life History (part II)

This is John’s** life history eloquently told to me over a cup of tea, while I assiduously recorded the details.

I was born in Zambezi District hospital to a single mother. I was the fifth born. My mother died when I was five years old in a bad bus accident. What I remember most about my mother was that she had beautiful, long hair and she was gentle yet a harsh disciplinarian. My father left a long time ago so I never knew him. So I was orphaned at age five.

When my mother died, everyone came and picked who they were willing to collect and adopt into their household. I was the only one left and nobody had volunteered to take care of me. Even after my mother was buried, I was alone. My mother had taken care of this man when he was sick at the hospital and because he was so grateful to my mother, he came to her funeral and chose to take care of me. That is how I was separated from my siblings.

This man came and took me to live in a village called Mumbezi. He was an elderly man with a wife and no children. They were very kind to me. He used to carry me on his back. Just when I fell in love with him, he died. He left instructions to his eldest son to ensure I would be taken care of. The village was very superstitious, so they thought I had death following me. This man’s eldest son was afraid and for three days after his father died, I had no home. I was only six years old and left alone. After those three days, the man called and explained why he had been so hesitant to come collect me. He said the villagers said if I take you in, I’m also going to die, but I don’t care, so you’re coming to my house.

They changed my name to Mumba, the name of a village headman who had died many years before. I stayed with this man and his wife and three children and they treated me as their firstborn. I used to sell sweet potatoes and mukoyo (a drink made from fermented maize) by the roadside. The man I stayed with worked for the roads department so he moved from place to place. He did not make enough and drank alcohol, so his wife would make sweet potatoes and other foods to sell by the roadside and I would help her. Those years, there was a rebel man, a bad guy who lived there and he used to kidnap children. I was terrified of him. But villagers killed him and danced all night in jubilation. These are some of the memories I had as a child.

Then, one day, when I was in grade four, my life changed. I was left with one of my younger siblings because the man had gone on duty and his wife went to deliver a baby, so she went to be with her mother. We continued to sell sweet potatoes and food so we could have some income while the man and his wife were gone. One day I was selling and there was a bus that came by. A beautiful lady asked to buy stuff and I just liked her. She kept gazing at me. After she got on the bus, she remembered me. I was her kid brother. I kept calling her, but the bus continued to move. There was no communication then so she had no idea where I was. She left and told my firstborn sister, I know where our youngest brother is. There was little they could do. They were still in school. My firstborn sister graduated college the next year. As soon as she started working, she went looking for me. So one afternoon, I was designing my toys – I enjoyed making art even as a child – when somebody sent for me. The family didn’t know her, except that she looked like she was from town. Later on, I recognized her. It was a touching moment because I had not seen her for years. I was 11 years old at the time and my firstborn was 23. So my sister collected me and asked permission from the man who had been taking care of me if I could go. He and his wife said I would be better off if I left the village.

So I went with my sister to a town beyond Solwezi. There I continued grade five in school. Now, suddenly, I had electricity and running water. From there, I went to secondary school and moved to Zambezi where there was a boarding school. My uncle was a teacher. I finished school and moved to Lusaka to live with my second sister, who married and lived there. I went to college, finished, and met a nice man also from Zambezi who let me stay with him. I worked at Munali boys high school and afterward, got a contract teaching in Botswana. I taught at a junior secondary school about 78 km from the diamond mines in Mpipi for three years. Then I got a contract with one of the international schools in Zambia and came back. I have been working here now for four years.

I did not see the family that took care of me until last year. I kept dreaming about them. I was worried that the woman had died and I never got to express my gratitude to them for taking care of me. They had a child after I left and they named him Mumba, after the name they had given me. They told him stories about me and said I would one day come back. One day, the child heard me singing on the radio. There was a brief interview with me and that is how the child knew where I was. They traced me and he came to find me. I went to visit them last year. It was a joyous moment and the man said, I knew one day you would come back. This boy comes to visit me once in a while. I am still in touch with the family.

I dream a lot about my mother. I had a dream that I was in college and went to live with my uncle on holiday. He told me this man in town is doing miraculous things. They can dig out remains and resurrect people. So in the dream we go dig the remains of my mother, all her body parts, and try to revive her. After putting her body in a bag and harboring so much hope to see her alive once again, we are told we’re too late. Then I am once again disappointed. It’s so real – all that hope. I miss her.

**John is a pseudonym.

Where we stand — anthropologists, the economy, and agency

I welcome Fredrik Barth’s call for anthropologists to “document the inequities that are produced and assert our influence in opposition to the destruction of welfare and lives” and “develop the models of culture and economy” that will allow us to ensure no one is excluded from the promising vision of progress (Barth 1996:242).

Barth situates this argument in critiques of economists. He alludes to a “global trend” of marginalization due to policies that tout the free market as a panacea for social problems. Though Barth neglects to provide examples grounded in history, he does point to specific patterns of displacement in South Korea and India, where the populations have been removed and replaced by the establishment of high-rise buildings and the pressures by the World Bank to compel the Egyptian economy in the 1990s to eradicate food subsidies. Urging anthropologists to challenge this general ideology of free-trade and laissez-faire which Barth says is encapsulated in the highly recommended book called Government by the market by Peter Self, he aligns himself with the likes of Yan Hairong, Emanuela Guano, Judy Whitehead and Aradhana Sharma, Philippe Bourgois, and Paul Farmer, among other anthropologists, who have examined the negative effects of market-driven policies.

Such injustice is exemplified in an intriguing yet tragic example presented by Barth, taken from Erik Jansen’s research on the effects of policies and institutions on the fishing industry around Lake Victoria. In the 1960s and 1970s, fishing was a booming industry, marketed to consumers in the lake area. It was also part and parcel of a collaborative effort involving 50,000 fishermen who used 12,000 boats to make money from fishing and women living in surrounding villages engaged in processing and trading. In the 1980s, external businesses and multinational corporations based in Europe entered the local market and set up processing factories near the lake and exported fish to Europe, the Middle East, Japan and the US. New players enter the arena, including absentee boat owners, factory managers, government finance ministries, elite investors, international banks and traders, and “insatiable” foreign consumers. Local poverty has increased and although the fishermen work in smaller numbers, they work longer hours and are far removed from “exercising ‘their role as participants in shaping public policy through market processes'” (Barth 236). Furthermore, the “global” market has displaced the “regional” market, rendering many ex-fishermen and locals suffering from poverty to pick the morsels off of Nile perch skeletons for food.

The detrimental effects of policies relying primarily on market processes animates Barth’s call to anthropologists to analyze the collusion of complex institutions, policies, inequalities and notions of change. He maintains that using “agency” and “resistance” glosses over the “gross emerging inequities of global economies,” leaving them “uncommented and analyzed,” the outcome of “[painting] ourselves into a theoretical corner where all we can do is celebrate rather pathetic cases of symbolic protests” (Barth 239). His emphasis is on making models that counter economic ones — models that show how co-operation and competition among groups and individuals unravel, and trace the changing impact of the fishing industry on the domestic household and family relationships. Barth uses the example of the caught- fish turned money-wage to illustrate the importance of human lives often overlooked by economists. Whereas the caught-fish forced the husband-fisherman to share his earnings with his family, the money-wage allows him to spend his earnings on beer. The ramifications of economic policies on people’s lives are apparent. Ultimately, Barth emphasizes, anthropologists can make a difference by challenging old models by analyzing their outcomes, making new models and theory and recommend policies that take into account the interdependence of lives, social relations and macro-processes of politics and economy.