Article 1. Prize-winning short story published in: Anthropology and Humanism. June, 1999, Volume 24:1:63-64.
Blood on the Tractor (Fiction)
Kajia-Bein and the elders trekked
to the White Man’s relic, the old rusted tractor, almost lost in the tall parched elephant grass at the edge of the
village. It was an annual trek.
In the harmattan winds, Africa’s hot, arid scourge of the dry season, blew viscously against their faces, making their
minds confused and tired. Every year, during the season the missionaries call Christmas, the wind started in the torrid Sahara,
rushing southward across desolate shifting dunes, where it picked up fine sand, funneled it skyward, forming slate-colored
clouds, at times blocking out the sun. Moving across the Sahel, the wind maliciously deposited its cargo of dust on the lives
of all below. A thousand miles to the south, after losing much of its gritty burden, the wind still had the power to sandblast
the mud huts of the Sisala of Northern Ghana.
Kajia-Bein wondered if the ancestors were listening. Each year they
made the pilgrimage to the shrine. Each year, the White Man did not come. Kajia-Bein wondered why. The White Man had saved
them once, from Babatu and the slave-raiders. Then he had promised progress, a new life — tractors, fertilizer, new
Kajia-Bein had thought life would change, become easier.
But then the first tractor broke. No one knew why. One day it just stopped. The fitter from town said it needed petrol. They
tried that. The tractor was broke. The fitter came to the village and looked at the tractor, its plow still sitting in the
uncompleted furrow. He tinkered. He fidgeted with the wires and levers. Finally, he shrugged his shoulders. The tractor was
broke, he said. He didn’t know why.
Perhaps the White Man
knew why, but the White Man had gone away. Far away. No one knew where.
Kajia-Bein and the elders squatted near the old rusty tractor. Some
of the younger men began to clear the grass, in preparation for the sacrifice. Someone else produced a kola nut. When it came
to Kajia-Bein, he took a portion, placed it in his mouth, and began to chew. He chewed and thought of the White Man and his
promises. He thought of his forefathers and wondered if they were still alive in death, as the Sisala believed.
Why hadn’t the White Man brought the promised goods? Why didn’t the
ancestors go tell him of the misery in the village? Why didn’t the sacrifices work, year after year? Kajia-Bein was
running out of hope.
"Maybe the rains will be strong this year," someone said.
Kajia-Bein pulled his cover cloth around his frail body, tighter against the wind.
"Only god knows," someone else replied.
Kajia-Bein spat a stream of red kola juice on the dusty earth. Neither god nor the White Man seem to care, he thought.
"Last year’s rains were very weak," said the first elder,
stating what everyone knew as a fact.
Kajia-Bein saw the White Man’s relic was now exposed, ready
for the sacrifice. He removed his cover cloth from his bony shoulders, tying it around his waist. Then he took the calabash
of millet water in his left hand, the chicken in his right, and squatted before the tractor, which loomed above him, as it
did every year, a reminder of the fading promises of the past.
Perhaps with less relish than he had invested before, Kajia-Bein said the prayer, asking for the White Man’s tractors
to return, supplicating the ancestors’ aid in bringing back the magic of the White Man, his power, his promises, the
assurance of a future implied in his words. Kajia-Bein asked for help from the sky god, his messengers, the spirits, the farms,
the sacred crocodile pond, the shrines, the cosmic powers of yapring, the deep bush.
As he spoke he dripped a portion of the white milky liquid on the faded green fender, the tropical sun having worked on the
lush industrial color which had seemed so bright and promising when Kajia-Bein first saw the tractor coming into the village
— so many years ago.
When the millet water was finished, Kajia-Bein took up his knife.
The chicken, perhaps sensing its end, struggled in his grip, but with an experience movement Kajia-Bein drew the blade across
its throat, holding it above the fender of the White Man’s tractor, its life draining on the metal in hopes of renewal.
When there was enough blood on the tractor, Kajia-Bein threw the chicken into the dust. It flopped and twisted about, till
it, like the tractor which had sucked away its life, was dead.
Kajia-Bein spat out a stream of red juice, not meaning to hit anything, but the spittle hit a passing dung beetle, who, in
his surprise, flipped onto his back. Kajia-Bein squatted down to examine the beetle. As the others drifted away listlessly,
Kajia-Bein wondered if the beetle would ever right itself, or would it die there in the hot, dry dust of the Savanna. A slow,
bewildering death. In the shadow of hopes.
Article 2. What does anthropology have to offer in the solution
of the world's problems – Are we kidding ourselves?
This article outlines three scenarios for the future of global capitalism
and points out four strengths of anthropology that may be used to direct the future of our species; that is, if we refocus
our ethnographic and ethnological studies taking into account the political economy of change and the impacts capitalism on
The glass half empty?
As the title indicates, we may be kidding ourselves if we think
anthropology has anything to do with how the world goes, with the solution of the big problems on the globe.
What kinds of problems am I talking about?
The Global Futures Bulletin
put out by the Institute for Global Futures Research (March 2000: 104:15) identifies 6 priority items for their Millennium
• Peace, security &
• Poverty eradication
• Human rights
Sustainable development and the environment
• Facing the challenge of globalization: Achieving
equity, justice and diversity
• Democratizing and strengthening the UN and global institutions.
Others may switch these around a bit, having different priorities,
but these are most likely the "biggies" for our species in the 21st century. Behind them all lurks the specter of Thomas Malthus.
Often I am pessimistic about our chances as a species. Why am I
pessimistic? Perhaps because I am a pessimist. In the new and fashionable tradition of postmodernism let me say that I tend
to see the glass as being half empty when it comes to futurology. But I think there is more to it than that. I think that,
as academics, we overthink and overstate our impact on the course of history.
me give you a recent example.
A wonderful and revealing article, written by David Corn, appeared recently in The Nation outlining the history and political
economy of the substance lead (TCL) in gasoline (April 17, 2000). In 1931, a General Motors' scientist discovered that by
adding lead to petrol he could raise the octane and reduce engine ping, which had to have been one of the world's pressing
problems at the time.
Academics and other scientists warned against this additive, saying that it would damage the quality of air and create massive
health problems. However, billions of dollars in profits were at stake, so General Motors (after all, what good for General
Motors is good for the USA, right?), in cahoots with the gas companies (the precursor to that friendliest of corporate giants,
Exxon) developed and patented the additive process and the rest is history.
No one listened to the academics and the scientists who warned against the use of TCL, and who pointed out that a perfectly
good, sustainable, environmentally friendly alternative additive existed - ethanol (now where are the agribusiness lobbyists
when you need them?).
The result of this corporate greed and profitable myopia is that millions of people around the globe were exposed to high
levels of toxic lead in their environment. We can't begin to imagine the health problems this action created, and continues
to create in areas of the third world where environmental standards are not extant or enforced. One wonders about the balance
sheet that would detail the ratio of corporate profit dollars/deaths from lead poisoning.
Well, after billions in profits and lots of health problems worldwide, the industry was forced by governmental regulators
to produce unleaded gasoline (God knows what they put in this batch). However, the result is that the measurable lead content
in people worldwide has dropped by about 80% since the discontinuation of leaded gasoline in the industrialize nations.
So the half-empty glass people say, "Ahah! See — nobody listened to the scientists. But the half-full glass people reply,
"Ahah yourself! Who do you think informed those government regulators? Who do you think is behind the Earth Day movement?
Who do you think helped implement the Rio accords?
Well, take your pick. We can have an impact/We cannot have an impact.
I think that this is the wrong set of oppositions. The key issue is this: Can we have an impact in time?
Most of you reading this piece are highly educated people. Many of you can see the writing on the global wall regarding the
six categories of problems listed by the Institute for Global Futures Research. Some of you may even try to do something about
them in a "think globally, act locally" fashion. Others of you may contribute your ideas to important forums around the world,
as experts on development, depletion of key mineral and petroleum reserves, health care, environmental degradation, ethnocide,
population growth, poverty and the like. And most of you realize that many of these problems are going to get very much worse
before they get any better.
What do our anthropological forebearers tell us?
Our anthropological forebears tell us to try not to give up. The last line in Sir Edward Burnett Tylor's Primitive Culture
Thus, active at once in aiding progress and in removing hindrance, the science of culture is essentially a reformer's science.
That word progress might be a little tarnished, but the message is clear.
Tylor's admonition, generations of anthropologists worked in applied fields and gave their advice to world leaders and the
public at large. Margaret Mead got herself on scads of talk shows and wrote popular books and articles about the issues of
In 1945 Ralph Linton published: The science of man in the
world crisis. More recently Sir Edmund Leach wrote A runaway world?. Even more recently, Thayer Schudder urged us to try
in his president address to the Society for Applied Anthropology, the SFAA.
And the offices of NGOs and government agencies and world bodies like the World Bank, the IMF and the UN are filled with bushy-tailed
anthropologists eager to change the world. Some of us have flown around the world for years, trying to fix this or that. Today,
much of the social science funding goes to applied science e.g. Aids research, health care issues and the like.
Our anthropological ancestors said "just do it" and we seem to be doing it.
But can we stop globalism, or do we want to?
You may have noticed a "phenom" called global capitalism. It sometimes operates under the pseudonym of industrialization,
or even as the P word, progress. It is spreading around the globe, and as Eric Wolf (1982) informed us, it has been radiating
for a long time, and it has been penetrating and affecting tribal peoples for centuries, even the foraging bands of the Kalahari
(Wilmsen 1989). It probably is not going to go away soon. Corporate giants have too much to loose, like General Motors and
Exxon in our toxic lead story.
So we had better understand it. Even 500-pound gorillas can be trained not to sit on you and squash out your innards. Global
capitalism is the 500 pound gorilla in the room.
it and deal with it.
Moreover, I see the spread of global capitalism (O’Conner 1994) and rising population as the twin engines of our "runaway
world" to quote Sir Edmund Leach. Certainly it can be intelligently argued that world poverty, global warming, the expanding
environmental crisis, and other such global ills are not unrelated to the avariciousness of profit-seekers. I
n this short space I cannot do justice to all these ills in their complexity, so
let me just single out my favorite target, global capitalism.
We might be in for more Levies and Coca-Cola in Ghana, Bangladesh and Tonga, but globalization is not creating a bigger melting
pot. Even the USA has not melted down ethnically, and if anywhere should have fused and condensed culturally, our mass society
People everywhere seem to want their cultural grounding. I think that the assertion and marking off of cultural difference
is one response to the hegemonic threat of global capitalism. Like the irate newsman of the popular Paddy Chayefsky film,
Network, people are "mad as hell" and they are not going to take it anymore.
But they want the industrial goodies. And the capitalists and their buddies the advertising whiz kids want to sell it to them.
So global capitalism is likely to move ahead at accelerating speed until something derails it, like a lack of cheap fossil
fuels to ship all that stuff all over the planet.
The dichotomous dilemma facing indigenous peoples everywhere is evident in the plight of the Nazarena widow, a story I am
about to relate.
In the 1970s I did fieldwork in the Portuguese
fishing village of Nazaré, just north of Lisbon. The traditions of these villagers were strongly influenced by the Moorish
traditions, a fact that was reflected in their dress patterns. And their beliefs belied the Mediterranean pattern of female
submission, a fact evidenced in the custom of wearing a black hooded robe which covered the body from head to foot. If a male
stranger came by, the widow coyly pulled the hood in front of her face, leaving the stranger with only suspicious eyes to
view. Such a widow, ideally, would remain unmarried and abstemious till death.
These were traditional women, with traditional ideas, but some had washing machines in which to do up their black hooded robes.
They were traditional, but they were not dumb. When given a choice between scrubbing their clothes on rocks in the river,
which some still did in the 1970s, and popping them into that Kenmore, they knew their own minds.
They wanted "progress" and tradition. This is what anthropologists are good at, studying black-robed Nazarena widows pushing
the permanent press button on the newly purchased washing machine.
I don't know that we can stop the spread of capitalism, and we might just piss off these old ladies if we did, and remember,
they are also reputed to be bruxas, witches.
Keep up your guard,
ethnographer. You know what happened to Reo Fortune in Dobu, don't you? (He once told me that the facial tic from which he
suffered had come from a spell put on him by a Dobuan shaman. See, Fortune 1932).
Three visions of the future
It appears that we anthropologists are going to be busy in the future, no matter what happens. And I don't know that we know
what will happen, but something will.
It seems to me that there
are three competing paradigms out there, three possible somethings, three versions of the "truth" of humanity's destiny.
The first vision, an optimistic one, is by Julian Simon who is —
guess what? — an economist. He wrote the influential book, The ultimate resource, in which he cheerfully says that the
earth's carrying capacity is infinitely flexible, that there is no end in sight to the stuff we can manufacture and distribute
around the globe. In his vision, technology will always keep production ahead of population increases. As partial evidence
for his Pollyannaism he says that the 20th century saw falling real prices of food, minerals & other commodities.
To my mind, this only shows us that you can become a well-known
published author, an authority to whom others may attach the label of "guru", even if you ignore the itsy bitsy details like
accelerating use of limited petroleum reserves, global warming, increasing poverty, and no practical breakthrough in fusion
nuclear power in the foreseeable future. It seems that the devil might be in the details.
The antithesis of "Simon says" is the bleak view of Jay Hansen on
his web page at www.dieoff.com which presents a variety of articles and sources that predict a coming dark age. For example
the most influential contributor to the current literature on the looming petroleum-driven economic "depression" (and perhaps
that is too light a word, in Hansen's view) is Colin Campbell (1997) who has access to the Petroconsultants figures, said
to be the most extensive data base available. He forecasts that the potentially recoverable figure is around 1800 billion
barrels. This calculation includes deposits judged to have a 50% or better chance of delivering the quantity stated for them.
Campbell and others conclude that:
◦ World supply of oil will probably peak in the period 2005-2010.
◦ The world rate of use is now about 4 times the rate of discovery.
◦ These curves have been smooth since the 1960s peak in the discovery rate.
◦ Sudden reversals in the near future are unlikely.
◦ By 2025 supply will be down to half what it will be at the peak between 2005-2010 (notice that that is only
about a 10-20 year span).
◦ Oil prices will rise steeply and stay up after the peak. (In 1999 a 6% fall in supply was accompanied by a
300% rise in price.)
◦ World supply will remain in the hands of a few OPEC (mainly Middle Eastern) states.
◦ Even if we take the highest estimates of potentially recoverable resources, this adds only about 10 years to
the peak in supplies.
◦ We can’t expect any difference in estimated resources from accelerated discovery effort.
Exploration investment is falling markedly because the supplies
are not there to be found and the capitalists know this.
According to Campbell we have now used just under half of the potentially recoverable quantity of petroleum. Known quantities
of reserves total about 850 billion barrels, with about 150 billion barrels remaining to be discovered. This will be gone
by the end of this century.
Other contributions to this "half empty" glass school of thought are to be found in Martin O'Connor's edited volume, Is capitalism
Some of my colleagues and I joked that O'Connor et
al wasted a lot of paper in publishing this fat book, that the authors could have signed their names at the bottom of a single
page book with the word NO! above.
What the authors collectively demonstrated in the fat version of
Is capitalism sustainable? was that the earth's resources, being limited, will not support an accelerating expansion of overproduction
and overconsumption on the scale practiced by people in the United States and other industrialized gluttons.
These authors, like the many sources on www.dieoff.com, see a coming dark age due to the contradiction between finite resources
and the need by capitalists to expand production. As a half-emptier, I have to agree. It seems that the fundamental flaw of
capitalism is the false assumption a la Simon that it will be possible to eternally create or find new markets for a glut
of needed, not-so-needed and totally useless goods. To make all these goods, to package them in plastic, to ship them all
over the globe, from Ithaca to Istanbul, uses precious energy and resources.
Capitalists might be having wet dreams about a Ford in every Chinese
garage, but it is unlikely that spaceship earth will maintain its course with that level of consumption, emissions, and radiated
Can we really rely on Gaia to deal with capitalistic aggrandizement,
with capitalists seeming disregard for the environment and future generations? (on Gaia, see Lovelock 1988).
The "half empty" glass perspective comes in a drastic package and
a dismal package. In the latter view, sometime in the middle to the end of this century, the world will experience an encompassing
economic depression. This dismal state will continue until and unless people learn to scale down their consumption and use
appropriate fuels and technology.
The drastic view, expressed in much of the literature featured in
www.dieoff.com, says that the economic collapse will be far more severe, leading to a breakdown in political systems and a
return to tribalism and feudalism in many parts of the globe. Some futurologists think that between fifty and eighty percent
of the world's population would be killed off.
groups would have to find adaptive ways to survive, perhaps individually moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle. One could
also envision as Hobbsian state of anarchy and insecurity that would likely, if history is any guide, lead to the rise of
feudal lords and aggrandizing Mafia-like protectors.
The third vision of the future, which lies somewhere between the two above, is nicely outlined in the book Natural Capitalism
(Hawken, Lovins, and Lovins 1999). This is a view that sees not the demise of capitalism, but the disintegration of capitalism
as we have known it. Essentially these authors say there is room for improvement and that we already have the model of a future
sustainable state. Nature is our model. Nature recycles, but contemporary capitalism wastes and destroys the very natural
capital it needs to sustain itself.
Speaking of the economy of the USA, the authors say: "Overall, the ratio of waste to the durable products that constitute
material wealth may be closer to one hundred to one. The whole economy is less than 10 percent — probably only a few
percent — as energy-efficient as the laws of physics permit (Hawken, Lovins & Lovins 1999:14-15).
Again, "In the United States, the materials used by the metabolism of industry
amount to more than twenty times every citizen's weight per day — more than one million pounds per American per year"
(Hawken, Lovins & Lovins 1999:8).
These authors want to use the circular systems of Mother Earth as a model to redesign industrial capitalism. They say:
If a company knew that nothing that came into its factory could be thrown away, and that everything it produced would eventually
return, how would it design its components and products? The question is more than a theoretical construct, because the earth
works under precisely these strictures (Hawken, Lovins & Lovins 1999:18).
In Natural Capitalism, Hawken, Lovins & Lovins (1999:9-10) give us a new vision to capitalism, one that takes living systems
into account. Their version includes the following fundamental assumptions:
• The environment is not a minor factor of production but rather is "an envelope containing, provisioning, and
sustaining the entire economy."
• The limiting factor to future economic development is the availability and functionality of natural capital,
in particular, life-supporting services that have no substitutes and currently have no market value.
• Misconceived or badly designed business systems, population growth,
and wasteful patterns of consumption are the primary causes of the loss of natural capital, and all three must be addressed
to achieve a sustainable economy.
• Future economic
progress can best take place in democratic, market-based systems of production and distribution in which all forms of capital
are fully valued, including human, manufactured, financial, and natural capital.
One of the keys to the most beneficial employment of people, money, and the environment is radical increases in resource productivity.
• Human welfare is best served by improving the quality
and flow of desired services delivered, rather than by merely increasing the total dollar flow.
Economic and environmental sustainability depends on redressing global inequities of income and material well being.
• The best long-term environment for commerce is provided
by true democratic systems of governance that are based on the needs of people rather than business.
I have to say that, for me, the jury is still out on whether we
will make a nice smooth transition to sustainable capitalism. I foresee some bumps in the road, and that’s where the
expertise of anthropologists and other scientists will be needed.
Some strengths of Anthropology
What are we to do with our time while Rome is burning? I do not rule out marching in the streets, writing your representatives,
becoming involved in your local "concerned citizens groups" and the like. You can do those things as a citizen of spaceship
earth, and as a member of a local community. That's better than watching Baywatch or some other mind-numbing escapism.
But as an anthropologist, what are you to do? What skills do we
anthropologists have that make us suited to cope with these kinds of global ills?
It seems to me that we can sum up our strengths in four concepts: ethnography, ecology, adaptation and political economy.
I know that some anthropologists will not agree with the last one, but I am here
making the case for it. In fact, I think without understanding the political economy of world capitalism that the other three
approaches are diminished, if not made totally useless.
To illustrate the value of ethnography, or more specifically, ethnographic
fieldwork I am going to tell you a personal story. For many years I have had an interest in, and involvement with, international
development, though I do not take the blame for its massive failure in the 20th century. That is another, long story. This
is a short story, which partially tells the long story.
In 1977 I was commissioned by an NGO to conduct a project evaluation in Kenya among the Maasai, one set of cattle herders
in East Africa. The NGO folks had the idea that they wanted to make permanent villages for these wanderers. Parenthetically,
the land-hungry Kenyan government was backing this project all the way. Anyway, the well-meaning if naïve NGO folks had gone
full speed ahead and built the model village without ever (1) learning the local language (2) living in the area a full year
(3) consulting the Maasai themselves, and (4) consulting an anthropologist.
Needless to say, they made some mistakes. No, they made lots of mistakes. My report looked like the New York phone book on
their mistakes. I can only give you a couple of short examples here.
Now most of this distinguished readership is knowledgeable about
whom the Maasai are, and about what requirements they would have, culturally, to live in a village. Most of you, as anthropologists,
having never been to Africa, could do a better job designing a model Maasai village for these cattle herders than these NGO
folks did. Most of you know that whether they are Nuer, Dinka or Maasai, pastoralists tend to like their cows. No, pastoralists
love their cows. A Maasai man might think that if he looses wives and children that they can be replaced with little impact
on his herd; but if he looses his herd, he looses his wives and children.
This doesn't seem a hard concept to grasp: a model Maasai village should, at the minimum, make room for the cattle, and perhaps,
make them the centerpiece of the village. But maybe the nice NGO folks from California didn't like the flies, or the smell,
or the mooing or something about the cows, so they left them out. Completely out. No cows in our model Maasai village.
Now, as an anthropologist you might have taken a real Maasai encampment as your model for your model. That's sort of what
our training leads us to do, look at reality to create something new, but functional.
Boas drove away from his office at Columbia to do that first field trip, he started something.
And, as anthropologists, you would have found that a Maasai encampment looks a lot like a Nuer encampment or a Dinka encampment
or one from almost any group of pastoralists on spaceship earth. The cows are in the middle. That's right, that fly-ridden,
smelly, noisy investment of life savings is placed smack dab in the center of an encampment. In fact, the pastoralists usually
sleep around their herd, kind of protecting their life savings. They might be savages, but they are pretty savvy savages.
And we anthropologists know that if we want to be savvy consultants, we might want to dig around a bit and find out how the
Maasai would build this new, modern, fancy model village.
exactly what the "in-a-hurry" NGO folks didn't do. After all, what do savages know? So they never asked them.
The headman in charge of the NGO project was an engineer, college-trained, and as he pointed out frequently, an American.
That seemed to be a positive point with him, and he didn't notice how I winced every time he too loudly made the pronouncement.
At least I tried to hide it, being a well-mannered, "civilized" person, the kind of guy this ex-Corps of Civil Engineers chap
liked to hang out with in the Nairobi bars with. He certainly didn't waste his time talking with the Maasai much.
The result of this ethnographic myopia hit me like a freight train the first time I got out of the Land Rover in front of
the gleaming Quonset huts that had been constructed as the Maasai living quarters in the center of the model village. Now
the Maasai were to be in the center, and the cows were …… where? I looked around and I didn't see any cows. In
fact, I didn't see any Maasai either.
No Maasai ever came to live in the model Maasai village. Why? Well my readers are thinking of all the reasons already, so
let me cut to the chase and make a quick list of the idiocies of this project, and we can move on to my point number two.
Idiotic idea #1. No cows. You got that one already, right? But they
did have a centerpiece in the village, right next to the really sweltering-inside Quonset huts. It was — are you ready
for this? — a playground for the Maasai kids who never came to play on the swing sets and monkey bars. I guess they
were busy, herding cows or something.
Idiotic idea #2. The Maasai Snack Bar. No this isn't science fiction,
not even the ethnographic fiction the postmodernists tell me I have been writing all these years, but it does have a quality
of unreality about it, doesn't it?
Well, idiotic idea #2 is a long
story, but the short version is that the nice lady in the gingham dress married to the American engineer had not seen any
Maasai women cooking for any Maasai men. Conclusion? Those poor men aren't getting three squares a day. Solution? Build them
a snack bar, replete with a sign above the three stools at the counter which read, you guessed it, "Maasai Snack Bar" (I have
the photos to prove it!).
How many Maasai men ever came to eat at the Maasai Snack Bar? Zero! Every day the Kikuyu cook flipped the burgers, mixed the
chili and, occasionally would peer out over the counter, longingly, with a wistful look on his face. But he knew. He was an
African. He knew that he would be able to sell all the burgers and stew that night in Nairobi, if he could just get past the
nice lady in the Gingham dress.
Idiotic idea #3. The dam. Engineers like to build things. Our American
engineer, especially like to build dams. He reasoned that if the Maasai were going to settle down and cede the rest of their
territory to the land-hungry vultures waiting in the wings, then they had to have water. That's a pretty fair assumption,
since that's what they are doing roaming around that "way too big" territory of theirs, looking for water and watered green
But the dam had some problems. Or the damn builder did. In the first place, Mr. and Mrs. American Engineer had never stayed
a full year in Africa. When the first rains started, they skedaddled. Too wet, and all of that. But every dry season, they
would return to work on the playground, or the snack bar, or the dam.
There were two dams, really. The first damned dam washed away in
those pesky rains that caused the skedaddling behavior on the part of our intrepid developers. But the Maasai couldn't skedaddle,
so they knew about the ferocity of the rains in Africa. They knew that the earthen dam would not hold back the trickling stream
once it became a raging flood at the peak of the rains.
So the first dam was damned. It was toast in the first rush of muddy
water than surged down the gully.
Not to worry. Our intrepid American Engineer never gives up. He also never asks advice, especially of "primitive" people,
the ones he so desperately wants to help. In fact, several of the old Maasai elders, wrapped in their office-announcing blankets
would, from time to time wander over to the damned dam site and watch the Engineer on his CAT at work. They didn't have television,
and couldn't watch Baywatch (though I'm sure it’s on its way).
And from time to time they would tell the Engineer, "it won't work." But the Engineer had a hearing problem, at least when
natives were trying to tell him something. So he built a second, "bigger and better" damned dam, or soon to be damned, anyway.
The Maasai elders had to wait till next rainy season for the pleasure of watching that catastrophe.
The NGO closed down the Model Maasai Village Project or MMVP as
it was affectionately referred to in all the bureaucratic files about the project in Nairobi and Los Angeles.
But anyway, lots of people got their salaries while trying to do good.
There were other idiotic ideas, most of which were being repeated
all over the globe about that time in the development saga, but I have to move on now to point number two, ecology. Another
advantage we anthropologists have is that we tend to study our people in the field, living and doing work in real environments,
we study people in action in relation to obdurate realities — like that wall of muddy water headed for the damned dam.
Now I also have an advanced degree in sociology, so that's how I
am going to justify this next statement, which is: this is an advantage anthropologists have over sociologists, and other
social scientists who tend to stay in the ivory tower writing about how things must be out there.
I know that lots of our social science cousins are getting out to the field. Good. You learn things out there. You learn that
culture is adapted to obdurate forces of nature, and that to be sustainable and functional and workable and all those other
good things, it must fit with such forces of nature.
We don't have to tell the natives that. They already know that. But we can learn from them, or can we? Like Paul Harvey, you
know the rest of the story, so I will move on to point number three, adaptation in an evolutionary perspective.
This is a lot like the Julian Stewardian stuff of point number two,
but with a Leslie Whitean twist. Adaptation takes place in history, and sometimes history throws a wicked curve ball. History
sometimes throws spitters. History might be a cheater, but you can't throw history out the game. It is the game.
We anthropologists know, or should know by now, that sociocultural systems, in their ideational constructs and the material
manifestations of those constructs, face changing forces in a changing world.
also have a lot of archaeological and ethnographic data about how people in the distant past, and those of the near past,
have coped or not coped with such forces.
This knowledge can be put to work on the forces at work around the globe today, those producing the modern ills of our species.
And finally (whew!) point number four — political economy.
As anthropologists this perspective has been lurking around, sort of in the closet, at least till Marvin Harris had his coming
out party. Marvin, and Leslie and perhaps lots of others were thinking of the ideas of the M guy (Marx), but it was difficult
to face up to the M guy in the Cold War Era.
Now Francis Fukuyama (1992) tells us (wrongly, I believe) that, not to worry, history is over. The Soviets lost. We won. Marx
can be brought out of the closet now, because he is no longer a threat.
I am going to close now, before I get carried away, as if I haven't been already.
closing, I want to say that taking a political economy perspective is vital to the intellectual health of the anthropology
of the future. I define a political economy as a set of relations between those in power and those with wealth. Such political
economies impact our environment, or ability to sustain an adaptable way of life on spaceship earth.
The problems we face as a species have been created and are maintained by political economies. The solutions to those problems
will have to be of a sort that uses our knowledge of what kinds of mistakes and successes political economies of the past
If you don't know what I am talking about, you will.
If Julian Simon
gets his rosy future, we will face problems created by a political economy. If our dieoff nuts, as we are hoping they are,
get their way (the gods forbid) we will still have smaller political economies, tribes and feudal fiefdoms to deal with. If
natural capitalism evolves, we will still have people in power and those with wealth communicating (scheming?) about how to
enhance their politoeconmic positions in life.
As more and more anthropologists are coming to understand that the
key to finding solutions to the globe's problems lie with a keener understanding of how aggrandizers build up political economies
to gain more power and wealth, and how such politicos and their capitalist backers ignore the consequences for all life on
We must begin to study up, and to study how capitalism is
penetrating the villages we have staked out as our anthropological territory. Global capitalism is changing the face of life
on earth and we need to refocus our ethnography and ethnology. We are kidding ourselves if we think otherwise.
Will we do it? A sign on the side of a mud hut in Northern Ghana said it as well as I can. "More time. Time will tell."
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1999 Natural capitalism : creating the next industrial revolution. Boston : Little, Brown and Co.
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1988 The ages of Gaia : a biography of our living earth. New York: Norton.
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1972 The limits to growth: a report for the Club of Rome's project on the predicament of mankind. New York : New American
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Article 3. The African Songbird (Fiction)
My driver pulled the Land Rover up to the South African/Moçambique
border crossing and I got out amidst Africans going west meeting Africans going east, some coming from months at labor in
the mines – others returning from extended vacations at home in the former Portugal colony.
stood in the shade of a tree listening to the birds singing, while my driver arranged the formalities of my visit.
On the road again inside the war ravaged landscape that looked like a bombed out
Beirut without the buildings, my driver pulled off the road, or what had once been a road, and drove through the bush beside
it. We kept about a hundred yards to the south of the east/west road as we headed for Maputo, the jewel-like capital of Moçambique
that once had been called Lourenço Marques in colonial times, indeed since the Portugal invaded the place in the 16th century.
My driver kept an eye on the bombed out tanks and armored personnel
carriers that stuck out like craggy dead dinosaurs along the roads, some of them left among the bomb craters in the roads,
others strewn by the wildness of battle here and there to the roadside. They were our beacons keeping up going in the direction
of the capital city – ghostly reminders of the mayhem that wracked this country in a 15-year ideological bloodbath over
two foreign ideologies: Communism vs. Neoliberalism.
As the five hours of our bumpy journey dragged by, I had time to
contemplate the effects of war and compare it to my many journeys through Africa elsewhere, some through old Biafra with its
bombshelled buildings and bullet-ridden mud walls, others through streets with this-ethnic or that-ethnic blood still visible
on the streets; but many more expeditions through more tranquil countryside, where nature had made the holes in the road and
where tall red, jagged anthills were my guides.
I had time to wonder
if the thousands killed along this road had really understood the history of imperialism that led to their deaths, to destruction
so devastating that the birds left Moçambique. I wondered because, as we drove for hours through the bush, we never saw a
single village, a single native, a single animal, nor did we hear the birds sing.
were driving through Africa and on such a drive almost anywhere else, one dodges mothers with babies on their backs and loads
on their heads, donkeys with their burdens, pilgrims going hither and thither in search of salvation, traders hawking their
wares or simple children playing in the road. In Africa, the driver usually has to dodge life, not reminders of death. In
the Moçambique of the 1980s, it was the reverse.
We drove through an eerie landscape of madness and only saw one
signpost of sanity, one inkling that Humankind might still have a chance at a coupling of civilization and modernity. That
was a soldier guarding a communications tower, which stuck up high above the silent birdless forest, humming its modern song.
Below the blue-helmeted UN peacekeeper just gazed at our Land Rover as we bounced by. We waved. He waved.
I continued to wonder – what has happened to Africa? Why is there so much more of this kind of Africa now? Would there
be more in the future? Was this some sinister portent of Humankind's fate?
has time for such ruminations on a trip through the ashes of hell.
We finally reached the bombed out buildings of Maputo and put up
in the gleaming golden tan hotel by the sea, which was under renovation due to the war. Perched above the warm waters below,
it was still a stalwart reminder of glorious days of the imperial past in Lourenço Marques – glorious that is if you
weren't African and didn’t know of a future without the bird's song.
As we had first approached the palatial edifice amidst the palms,
I noticed the signs of war on the faces of gaggles of young men who stood aimlessly on the street corners, smoking nervously,
looking furtively here and there, as if in search of a future beyond the gun. The silence of the forest was in these street
too, an echo of war, the last tinkling sound of violence.
As my driver and the hotel valet were dealing with my bags, I stood
under the swaying palms, in the shade. It was silent. Too silent for Africa. Yet I could hear the wind rustle through the
fronds above. I could hear the ocean lapping on the rocks below. As a costeleto perdido of Portugal, I wondered if my ancestors
standing in this place had heard the song of the bird. Mendes. Silvas. Costas. Vazs. Albufeiras. Mendonças. Had they heard
the birds sing as they set history in motion in this land? Would they have forged ahead if they knew of a scorched land ahead,
one with no songbirds.
"Ja está," said the porter. The room was ready.
As I began to move from the shade, a street vender approached and
blocked my path, as if to tell me something. I looked at the urchin. He was smiling the smile I had seen elsewhere in Africa
and I looked at his only ware – a caged songbird.
Article 4. The Corruption Dance in Africa (Fiction)
Written at the Centre for African Studies
Cambridge University 2002
Recently, the economist Bradford DeLong made the point that business
and government must work together in a partnership to make any progress. He entitled his article, "It takes two to Tango."
I want to make the analogy between corrupting practices and the dance called the
As someone who has lived for 9 years in Africa, living in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and South Africa and traveling through many
other African countries, I have had many first hand experiences witnessing corruption. Perhaps the most startling came quite
unexpectedly in the White subculture in Johannesburg.
I was working as a consultant in the Republic of South Africa (RSA). This was near the end of the apartheid era. My South
African client put me up at a posh club in the center of Johannesburg, replete with a male only bar. Blacks worked there,
but neither belonged nor drank at the bar.
This was a White Bubble
World within Black Africa and a very affluent one at that. It was there that I came into contact with a wealthy White South
African who, over drinks, told me of the nature of his business. He was a buyer of ore and most of his suppliers were African
governments. Therefore, he had to deal with the key ministers in the various African countries where he did business.
My acquaintance very candidly told me how he conducted business. He would load his Lear Jet with a number of suitcases full
of European currency and fly from one African capital to the next. Upon landing at the airport, either the minister would
meet him there, or my South African acquaintance would go to the minister's office. In either case, a suitcase of cash would
exchange hands, the contract would be signed and the South African would re-board his luxury plane and fly on to the next
deal, eventually returning to South Africa to resell the ore on the global market.
He made (and makes) a lavish living corrupting African ministers.
Both he and his wife drove the most expensive Mercedes motor cars. He had a yacht, an island of the coast of Moçambique, a
mansion in South Africa and the aforementioned Lear Jet. He had long been a lead dancer.
As with the Tango, it takes two to do this venal dance. Certainly, this was a case of a "partnership" between private enterprise
and government as described by DeLong, but one that was "off the books", so to speak.
In this era of hope, where talk is in the air about an African Renaissance,
and where President Thabo Mbeki is positioning his country to be the "economic savior" of Sub-Saharan Africa, we may wish
to ask ourselves who is dancing with whom? And what is the dance? And who is leading?
For many years, under an international political economy that has
created in Africa poleconomic conditions that I have elsewhere described as a state of dependency and neocolonialism, G-7
corporations have been bribing African politicians and bureaucrats.
does not excuse the criminality of the Africans, but corruption involves social relationships. Africans are dancing to the
tune of an international orchestra and someone else is doing the leading. There must be a corrupter and a corruptee —
a giver and a receiver of bribes. Many corporations around the world bribe as a standard operating procedure of the international
capitalist system. It is a dance of extraction and exploitation of the people, while benefiting élites in the G-7 and those
among the African "Mercedes Class."
It would appear that this will
continue to be the case with the capitalistic system in the RSA, if my South African businessman is any indicator of things
If the economic impact of South Africa in the development of Sub-Saharan Africa is to be anything more than extractive capitalism
in the general mode, such corrupting practices must be stamped out. Having a moral founding ancestor in Nelson Mandela is
If other Sub-Saharan African countries switch dance
partners hoping to find something better in South Africa, they have the right to expect something new and refreshing, implied
in the term Renaissance.