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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Reflections on the recent polemic on land affairs

A Reflection on the Recent Polemic on the "Land Affairs" Blog

By Elisa Greco

I think the main issue here is the relation about blogging and intellectual standards.

While on the internet it all looks like "if you are not visible you don't exist" - and the attached predicament "if you can't speak / read / write in English - you don't exist", reality is much larger than what comes out of the internet! I can't read Russian, nor Arabic fluently, nor Chinese: just imagine how much I am missing out everyday. I rejoice I can at least read Michuzi.

While ordinary bloggers can ignore this basic fact, and use and quote only internet sources and academic sources visible on the internet, academic bloggers should refrain from taking this shortcut. This leads me to the second point. When you live part of your life away from your object of study - as many non - African Africanist researchers are, when not doing fieldwork - you strive for staying updated and getting books, photocopies and digitalised pics of archival documents from friends and connections who can help you to get additional docs. Most importantly, once you have the docs, you share them with colleagues and friends.

When it comes to bibliographies, one of the first dilemma faced by a first year PhD student is "how much should I read?". On a deeper level, this equals to asking "How far can I go - How deep can I dig? How large a vision can I attain? ". Part of the intellectual process is also about setting these limits. Part of personal growth is about pushing these limits further and further, as time goes by, as the limits pertains more to the sectorialisation of sciences than to the real world.

It is perhaps too trivial to remind that the world we live in is one, and it is complex, and we must make sense of it in order to make it plainer to the ordinary man on the street, who has no time to waste in reading books. This is what happens with blogs: workers, mostly middle class worldwide, read blogs to get an informed view on specific domains, a view which can possibly differ from that of mainstream media.

What I regret most in my generation of researchers - and this is the reason why I enjoy so much all the debates on wanazuoni - is that fears of loosely defined "failure" in the academic world always prevail over the courage to dare reading more, dare risking to get lost in huge amounts of reading "outside one's field" and still make sense of the detail inside a wider structure of thought.

The older generation of Africanists had inherited the intellectual clarity, rigour and strength required to be a non - African researcher on Africa at the time of African independences, without being associated to colonial intentions. In addition, the dominant pan- Africanist vision obliged Africanist scholars to always put their country-specific knowledge in the broader African vision of the covered topic. In PhD roundtables, it is always exciting to see how members of this generation of scholars can give breath to narrow discussions by simply enlarging the vision and put small ethnographies and country-specific studies in their pan-African perspective.

One can argue that in the past the negative side was that, given the high standard of research, most PhD students did not dare sharing their doubts and ignorance in public, as showing in public their deficiencies, their lack of coverage on one specific topic would have put shame on them, or expose them to the risk of being attacked. But undoubtedly, the positive side of it was in that same standard pushed most students to run to the library and read everything they could to keep up to the required standard.

As all the other academic domains, Africanist research has suffered of excessive specialisation which leads in turn to narrow-minded visions. More seriously than in other domains, the donor dependency of most research projects related to Africa force research into pre-defined themes and paradigms.

If you have the chance of attending PhD roundtables of Africanists today, it is common to find very good students, knowleadgeable and committed, who can tell you everything about chieftancy in Ghana and do not precisely know who Nyerere was. The same is true outside Africanist research - for example, historians specialised on German Nazism getting embarrassed if questioned on Italian Fascism (pardon me the parallel , I am taking these from personal souvenirs.) This is a consequence of the sectorialisation of the sciences - and social sciences are not an exception here - and also of the overcharge of information we all suffer in the mass media era.

Blogging is partly the consequence of this information surcharge. I confess I am not a big blogger reader ,but, from the few blogs I got to follow, I saw there are at least two ways authors can use their blogs. The first is blogging to share one's work in progress. Many informed debates start because of authors making public their thesis, in a more immediate way than what offered by academic publications. The second way is blogging to share one's daily reflections and random thoughts, without previously having digested them, thus using the blog as a personal diary exposed to the public.

And here I come to the main bias against entering into the merit of this discussion. In the past, I've looked at the blog we're talking about here, and never really took it seriously, because it appeared to me that it belonged to the second category, more than to the first one. I do not mean to judge it or offend it in any way, this is just the way I took it - as more a collection of random thoughts - say, a personal diary exposed to the public. Only a superficial view could produce the thoughts that "you're not supposed to criticise Nyerere". In fact, this dialectic with Nyerere - his theories and his political practice - has been at the very core of Tanzanian academic debates for three decades. Pardon me, but there is nothing so exceptional in that. We should instead reflect on the fact that history is not made by leaders but by the masses. But this is another point.

More, historical debates are always politicised, it would be naive not to expect them be so. I would hardly open discussion with a blogger who is appreciating an unscientific, discredited and propagandist would-be historian as Francis Fukuyama without expecting fire and flames! It would equal to start arguing with somebody who denies the historical existence of genocide camps. Again, pardon me the Italian-biased parallels. I am not surprised that the same pen can blog on Fukuyama and give mild appraisals on land administration in Tanzania on a most respected academic journal. Instead of commenting on that, I would invite everybody to read the excellent, unfortunately yet unpublished, work of Geir Sundet on the land reform process in Tanzania just to have a healthy comparison.

These are the main reasons for I cannot enter in the merit of discussion about Nyerere or villagisation by taking the cue from this polemic on a blog. But here I may be wrong, as I know there are many people who follow blogs and rely on them for their personal information. For what concerns Tanzania-related blogs, for example, I am aware of the fact that most NGOs expatriates heavily rely on English speaking blogs - Udadisi and Swahili Street to mention just two. Other non Swahili speaking expatriats regret not being able to read Michuzi, just to give an example, and turn to Swahili speaking expat for translation. And because I may be wrong, I appreciate that Chambi has bothered to take time and criticise this blog entry on villagisation - at least for the sake of readers, it would be nice to see the most blatantly wrong information - that on the dearth of literature on villagisation - rectified on the blog.

To conclude, on my side, should I have written a blog entry on villagisation - which I never shall, I'm afraid, as I am a pc dummy - I would have encouraged people to follow up closely on what has been going on in the last years in Ethiopia. Ethiopian villagisation in the 1970s had drawn on the Tanzanian one. The difference today is that while in Tanzania forced relocations are still undergoing - see Mbarali evictions of mainly Sukuma pastoralists, for a recent, painful example - but never resuscitated the idea and paradigm of villagisation, in Ethiopia the government has done that.

Earlier in the name of food security plans and then in function of land grabs, the forced relocation of thousands of Ethiopian people in Gambella and Oromia regions has been underway. To be more precise, the Ethiopian government is calling "villagisation" an operation which painfully replicates the worst part of past villagisation - that is , forced resettlement and eviction, with the consequent social disruption, loss of property and identity, and ecological disruption - that is, it is replicating the painful side of it, leaving out the possible developmental aspects as the construction of infrastructures (roads, hospitals, water points and schools) which are to date perhaps remembered as the main positive aspect of past villagisation programmes in Tanzania.

The current debate on Ethiopian resettlement programme is indeed revolving about these two aspects - the effectiveness of service provision and infrastructure development, and the genuinity of the government's claims that all resettlements are voluntary and no one is being forced to move against his/her own will. There is a strong similarity between the current debate undergoing about the Ethiopian second round of villagisation and its first round. Similarly, outsiders' account of its failures and violences are being used politically to attack the government (see HRW January report on that) .

Many more historical parallels can be drawn here, if we only bother to go back to the past with an unbiased mind and to cope with long toiling hours on hard-to-find history books, which are not always listed on internet databases.

Elisa Greco, PhD African Studies
L'Orientale, Naples, Italy
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Photo Courtesy of:


Bibliography on Villagisation:


Jamii Forum Debate:

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