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Remains: to be Seen. Third Encounter between State and "Customary" in Northern Mozambique


This essay presents a history of articulations between the state apparatus and the realm of the “customary” in northern Mozambique, throughout periods of colonial rule, Socialism, civil war, and postcolonial democratic regimes. The analysis pivots around the ethnographic study of magico-religious rituals combined with postsocialist political rallies. In Mozambique, current recognition of chieftaincy and the “customary” by the state, supported by international donors, reverses decades of postcolonial ban on indigenous authority and practice. This peculiar case presents a paradigmatic perspective on the complex trajectory of indigeneity in postcolonial Africa, where local autochthonous structures and identities are entangled within a history of colonial violence, political oppression, and recent harsh conflict.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of essays on neoliberalism in Africa. See, for example, Julie Livingston's "Suicide, Risk, and Investment in the Heart of the African Miracle" (2009); Jesse Weaver Shipley's "Comedians, Pastors, and the Miraculous Agency of Charisma in Ghana" (2009); Donna Perry's "Fathers, Sons, and the State: Discipline and Punishment in a Wolof Hinterland" (2009); and Blair Rutherford's "Desired Publics, Domestic Government, and Entangled Fears: On the Anthropology of Civil Society, Farm Workers, and White Farmers in Zimbabwe" (2004).

Cultural Anthropology has also published a wide range of essays that examine how indigeneity is configured and accorded status in different locales. See, for example, June Nash's "Consuming Interests: Water, Rum, and Coca-Cola from Ritual Propitiation to Corporate Expropriation in Highland Chiapas" (2007); Kimberly Christen's "Tracking Properness: Repacking Culture in a Remote Australian Town" (2006); Penny Tauylor and Jane Nadel-Klein's "Picturing Aborigines: Photographic Essays on Aboriginal and Islander Australia Today" (1991); and Jean-Paul Dumont's "The Tasaday, Which and Whose?" (1988).

About the Author

Research Interests: The political, law and temporality, theology in relation to state and the economy, memory and subjectivity, magic, violence, value, experimental writing. Southern/West Africa, Latin America.

Current research: My forthcoming book, The Spirit of the Laws in Mozambique, constitutes a legal ethnography of the postcolonial state, understood as an entanglement of temporalities, collective memories and versions of national history. Its object is one of the current key political processes in Africa: the status of "customary law" and "traditional chieftaincy" in a context of post-civil war and post-Socialist transition to neo-liberal "rule of law". Moving from ritual and kinship to state reform, and from chiefs and people's courts to multilateral donors, the study engages with an elusive, metaphysical kernel of the law's legitimacy and its ambiguous relation with violence, revealing the aporias in the "democratic" project of a politics of recognition. The book analyzes the state not simply as a unitary institution of sovereign power governing a territory or a population, but rather in its original sense as status or condition: a mobile assemblage of authorities, rythms, imaginaries, subjectivities, norms and desires. The study is based on two years of field research funded by the MacArthur Foundation and the Social Science Research Council.

I am currently working on two other projects. The first one, "In the Interest of Time", encompasses various historical settings and ethnographic spaces in which sacredness is linked to political economy. My perspective focuses on interest and surplus in relation to temporality. Various chapters analyze the question of economic excedent in terms of Christian and Islamic theology, medieval usury, colonial concessionary companies, modern finance and credit as belief, structural adjustment as gift and Being, and spirit ritual in peasant economies. I aim at researching the politics behind the genealogy of two curious concepts: that money begets money, and that time alone can bear an interest.

The second, broad set of interests is gathered under the rubric of "The Gift of Justice". Combining anthropological theories of the gift and philosophical conceptions of justice, it forms the basis of my recent writing and teaching. The emphasis on circulation and reciprocity frames a central concern with the issue of political community. Based on these concepts I have been drafting essays on Latin America and Africa on classical topics such as state, labor, contract and development.

A key influence in my work on these issues is the writing of Georges Bataille. I mention it as token of my permanent interest in areas of thought where anthropology meets continental philosophy and literary avant-gardes.

Additional Work by the Author

Obarrio, Juan. 2010. The Gift of Justice. Anthropological Theory, Forthcoming.


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Related Readings

Jacques Derrida on Glas

Michel Foucault on Security, Territory, and Population

Mahmood Mamdani on Citizen and Subject

Achille Mbembe on the Postcolony

Michael Taussig on Mimesis and Alterity

Veena Das and Deborah Poole on Anthropology at the Margins of the State

Peter Geschiere on The Perils of Belonging

Gayatri Spivak on Critique of Postcolonial Reason

Joseph Tonda on le Souverain Moderne

Walter Benjamin on Theses on the Philosophy of History

Editorial Overview

In "Remains: to be Seen. Third Encounter between State and "Customary" in Northern Mozambique" in the May 2010 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Juan Obarrio explores the intersections between the state and the "customary" in Northern Mozambique throughout its history, from colonial rule through socialism, civil war, and postcolonial attempts at democracy. Grounded in a historical analysis of violence and oppression of "customary" powers such as chiefs in previous political regimes, Obarrio develops an ethnographic analysis of how magico-religious rituals combine with post-Socialist political rallies. The contemporary recognition of chieftaincy in Mozambique and the "customary" by the state in Mozambique, supported by international donors, reverses decades of postcolonial ban on indigenous authority and practice. Obarrio's essay illuminates the complex trajectory of indigeneity in postcolonial Africa, where local autochthonous structures and identities are entangled within a history of colonial violence, political oppression and recent harsh conflict.

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