Continuity and change in the articulation of belonging in post-war Liberia

In this research project I investigate the politics of belonging and identification in a Liberian border region. More specifically I revisit the continuing prominence of social and cultural idioms through which belonging is articulated. Based on a phenomenological approach, I question whether and in how far these undergo transformations in the aftermath of the civil war that affected the country mid-1980s till 2003 and the continuing turmoil in the region. The specific idioms under investigation are landlord-stranger reciprocity and secrecy.

Fieldwork for this project is conducted in Nimba County, north-western Liberia, along the border with Ivory Coast. In this region, the Dan consider themselves as first settlers (landlords) and derive political and ritual authority from that position. They are traditionally living on subsistence agriculture and only recently invested more into cash crop production like kola, oil palm or rubber. As one of the sixteen recognized ethnic groups in Liberia, they have, historically, been marginalized but nevertheless been influenced by their inclusion into the nation-state in the early twentieth century as well as by important historical trade routes running form the coast to the interior parts of West Africa. The latter also implies the presence of Mandingo traders who settled in the area from the seventeenth century onwards but who continue to be labelled as strangers. In more recent history, the Dan have at times taken central stage of national politics with the coup that ended the Americo-Liberian regime which lasted for over a century. When Charles Taylor entered the country from Ivory Coast on Christmas Eve 1989 he was able to recruit many Dan in his quest for power. Even though the area stayed under rebel control, the intense fighting never returned to Karnplay afterwards.

By taking the end of the recent civil war as a point of departure, I question (a) the persistence and resilience of landlord-stranger reciprocity that is based on matrilateral exchange and (b) the emergence of ‘new’ secret societies in order to describe how belonging is articulated. These idioms are invoked in order to attempt to reproduce a certain normative social order. Contrary to the idea that war results in the breakdown of social relations and the reconfiguration of identities, the resilience of these idioms calls for an approach that considers continuity rather than change. Analytically, based on the organisation of experiences, this analysis goes beyond an argument based on the distinction between tradition and modernity. The latter, often referred to in terms of crisis and disruption which people have to find ways to deal with, is not sufficient to explain the persistence and transformation of the tropes I discuss in this thesis.

The data on which this thesis is based consist mainly on public discourse as it was collected during interviews and observations around events, meetings, rituals. They deal with collective questions rather than with private and individual ones. I take an analytical stance towards this data based on the notion of performativity. This approach will allow me to focus on the multiplicity of the different voices in both discourse and practice. Based on reflexivity that is inherent in rituals and other forms of communication in either explicit or implicit commentaries, it is possible to identify the complexity that characterises the post war environment. It allows for the identification of self-reflexivity among actors that can lead to the re-definition of meaning or about the constitution of social relations.

The question of belonging and alterity/otherness is analysed by revisiting the idiom of landlord-stranger reciprocity. Based on oral histories of about twenty five towns and villages the politics of memory and the legitimation of contemporary hierarchies is analysed. Besides memory and discourse, attention is paid to contemporary practice and social action. Landlord-stranger reciprocities are investigated in relation to funerary rites, land disputes and other events where social relations are performed, constituted and reproduced. The same idiom is revisited in the way it informs collective memories at the ethnic level. The constitution of ethnic categories based on divergent collective historical imaginations between Dan and Mandingo is explored. The question of alterity is also revisited by focusing on the emic distinction between kwii (civilization) and country. Two semiotic registers invoked to indicate social distance and hierarchy.

A second set of data focuses on the emergence of ‘new’ secret societies and witchcraft activities. Secrecy and secret societies have since long taken a prominent position in the analysis of religion and popular culture along the Upper Guinea Coast. Based on over twenty hours of witchcraft and secret society membership confessions as recorded by local journalists and broadcast on the community radio station an analysis is made of how social and power relations are negotiated both within and outside the ritual context. Besides the question of defacement, a chapter is devoted to the organisational structure of these societies by focusing on the process of knowledge transmission. In a third chapter, the construction and attempted social reproduction of a normative moral order is investigated. After members of new secret societies confessed, they are sent to a particular oath site where they are freed from their burdens. The invocation of a normative social order at these ceremonies is analysed.

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