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Ethnography as Commentary: Writing from the Virtual Archive

Ethnography as Commentary: Writing from the Virtual Archive

by Johannes Fabian

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The Internet allows ethnographers to deposit the textual materials on which they base their writing in virtual archives. Electronically archived fieldwork documents can be accessed at any time by the writer, his or her readers, and the people studied. Johannes Fabian, a leading theorist of anthropological practice, argues that virtual archives have the potential to


The Internet allows ethnographers to deposit the textual materials on which they base their writing in virtual archives. Electronically archived fieldwork documents can be accessed at any time by the writer, his or her readers, and the people studied. Johannes Fabian, a leading theorist of anthropological practice, argues that virtual archives have the potential to shift the emphasis in ethnographic writing from the monograph to commentary. In this insightful study, he returns to the recording of a conversation he had with a ritual healer in the Congolese town of Lubumbashi more than three decades ago. Fabian’s transcript and translation of the exchange have been deposited on a website (Language and Popular Culture in Africa), and in Ethnography as Commentary he provides a model of writing in the presence of a virtual archive.

In his commentary, Fabian reconstructs his meeting with the healer Kahenga Mukonkwa Michel, in which the two discussed the ritual that Kahenga performed to protect Fabian’s home from burglary. Fabian reflects on the expectations and terminology that shape his description of Kahenga’s ritual and meditates on how ethnographic texts are made, considering the settings, the participants, the technologies, and the linguistic medium that influence the transcription and translation of a recording and thus fashion ethnographic knowledge. Turning more directly to Kahenga—as a practitioner, a person, and an ethnographic subject—and to the questions posed to him, Fabian reconsiders questions of ethnic identity, politics, and religion. While Fabian hopes that emerging anthropologists will share their fieldwork through virtual archives, he does not suggest that traditional ethnography will disappear. It will become part of a broader project facilitated by new media.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Ethnography as Commentary is a timely contribution to contemporary problems of anthropological knowledge-making. It is an argument about what ethnography has come to and an experiment about what it might still become more than two decades after the intense period of critiquing anthropology’s emblematic research practices.”—George E. Marcus, co-author of Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary

“Johannes Fabian is one of the most prominent and original thinkers in anthropology. With Ethnography as Commentary, he makes a significant contribution to debates about modes of writing in anthropology and adjacent disciplines and to anthropological knowledge of postcolonial Central African culture and society. Younger scholars especially will find it a very instructive close-up portrayal of intensive ethnographic work.”—Ulf Hannerz, author of Foreign News: Exploring the World of Foreign Correspondents

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Duke University Press Books
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Writing from the Virtual Archive
By Johannes Fabian

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4283-0

Chapter One

An Event: Closing the House

Remembering What Happened (1): The Event in the Ethnographer's Mind

What we said when Kahenga and I met to talk about the protective ritual he had performed was recorded and is now present as a text. Of the event itself I have vivid but fragmentary memories. When I now set out to tell what happened, my account will be a reconstruction rather than a simple retelling of an experience made or a description of a performance observed. I will assemble my story from three sources: recollections that are present in my mind; some notes, including a rough sketch of the scene, taken down immediately or soon after the ritual; and a review of the procedure that was part of our conversation.

To begin with, I cannot give an exact date for the closing of the house. It took place a few days before September 30, 1974 (a Monday), the date noted on the cassettes used to tape the conversation about the ritual. We had come to Lubumbashi two years earlier and had moved around from one temporary lodging to another for most of the first year. Eventually, when my research grant ran out and I found work at the National University, we settled down in a comfortable house in a residential neighborhood not far from the campus. Life was not bad in the late summer and fall of 1974. The oil crisis was yet to hit the country with its full force. Mobutu's regime was in its golden years. The mines of Shaba/Katanga did well and there was work in the region. Though wages were low by international standards (the equivalent of forty dollars a month was considered a good income), many Lubumbashi urbanites somehow managed to lead a life that was not limited to bare necessities. People furnished their houses and decorated the walls of their living rooms with paintings that reminded them of their colonial past and of urban life in the present. Beer was affordable, at least for a few days every month, bars and dancing places were full, popular music bloomed. Far away in America a president had resigned in disgrace but in Zaire another event caused more excitement. Everybody was looking forward to the "rumble in the jungle," the fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman that was to take place in Kinshasa on October 30.

In late September, the dry season comes to an end. The days turn hot and overcast, fields and gardens are dried out, and food is scarcest in the weeks before the rain arrives. A mood of nervous anticipation spreads even among those who do well enough not to depend on the growing season. It is also a time when residents of comfortable homes get anxious as the young and enterprising among the poor and hungry take to theft and burglary for survival. A season for thieves is also a season for those who can offer protection.

I reported in the introduction how we first came in contact with Kahenga as a healer. It was the anxiousness that was in the air, rather than a specific incident-we had no break-ins-that made me call on his services as a specialist in matters of security. On the appointed day he arrived at the gate on Avenue Mpolo just after sundown (always at 6 pm, give or take half an hour, since Lubumbashi is at some distance from the equator). Baba Marcel, our cook, must have opened the gate for Kahenga and I went to meet him halfway. To my surprise, he was accompanied by a young man (a relative and apprentice, as it turned out later). Either he or his assistant carried something wrapped in cloth, one or two bundles, which they put down as we exchanged greetings.

Then came an awkward moment. Here he was; what was going to happen next? Kahenga took matters in hand by asking Marcel to return to his quarters in the back of the house. He and his family were to stay inside. When the cook had gone, my wife and I stood there facing Kahenga, still not knowing what to do. He quickly bent down, touched the ground, and then used his thumb to rub some dirt on our foreheads. I am almost sure that he gave an explanation for that gesture right away but it could also have come later. At any rate, it was the sign that he had begun with his work. He could not know that what he had just done to me triggered deep memories of Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, when we went to church to receive the sign of the cross in ash on our foreheads from a priest muttering memento quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris (remember that you are dust and that you shall return to dust). Though the two rites had little or nothing in common as far as content, or intent, was concerned-Kahenga's gesture, as it turned out later, was one of protection or purification; the ashen cross is a reminder of mortality and perhaps a call for penance-for me they merged as bodily experiences. Kahenga had pulled me back into a realm I had left behind long ago.

I was awed, and stayed awed throughout. Still, professional curiosity made me ask Kahenga whether I could watch him doing whatever he was going to do. He agreed and, without stopping to give explanations from then on, he began undressing under a tree in the right corner of the lot. He stripped down to a loincloth (not the kind of undergarment a young, modern African would wear), started unpacking his bundles near the gate, and told my wife to go into the house, turn the lights off, and stay inside. Outside, it was almost completely dark by now. Observing what happened then was difficult, also because the ritual was all movement, not a tableau holding still.

Trying to sort out my memories I come up with three sets of action. First Kahenga dug, or scraped out, moving counterclockwise, eight shallow holes, four in the corners of our (roughly) square lot and four in the middle of each side between the corners. Then he went around and placed substances he had brought along in each hole. Finally he made a third round, now crouching over each hole and covering it with dirt which he seemed to move with his buttocks. While doing this, or right after closing a hole, he chanted in kiHemba, his native language. I could not understand these incantations except that I thought I recognized litanies of proper names.

When I now make Kahenga's actions, gestures, and calls fit some sort of classification by naming them, I realize how far removed this is from what I experienced following and watching the almost naked man as he moved through the night. "Closing the house" was a ritual that obviously followed a script and rules but there was nothing rigid about it. In fact, the performance had at one point a slight flaw that enhanced its force and made it clear that I had crossed the line between observer and participant. I had watched Kahenga digging eight holes and it did not take much to figure out the logic of their spatial arrangement which made the sequence of some actions predictable. Thus, when Kahenga, after covering the seventh hole (not one of the cardinal points), gave signs that the procedure was complete, I intervened. How about the eighth hole? He took this in stride and went on to finish the course. Had he not done this, he told me, it would not have mattered a bit as far as the efficacy of the closing was concerned. Aside from this brief exchange, the only other time we talked briefly was when we came to the sixth hole (in the lower-right corner of the lot). He asked me whether this was a dangerous point. That is what a short note on the sketch I drew right after the ritual says but I don't remember what prompted the question nor what my answer was.

As I write this I discover another gap in my memory-where were our dog and cat during the ritual? They must have stayed out of sight, either inside the house or somewhere in the yard. Would Kahenga have wanted them out of the way? The reason it occurs to me to note this now may be interference from another layer of recollections from the recent past, those of transcribing and translating our conversation, during which we talked of beliefs about cats in relation to sorcery.

Was there someone watching what went on in our lot? I never gave this a thought at the time. Today I would say whether or not Kahenga had spectators (other than me) was of no importance but this is an issue that will have to be addressed later.

Remembering What Happened (2): The Event Remembered by the Ethnographer and His Interlocutor

Reflecting the centrality of the ritual, the portion of our exchange during which we discussed the closing of the house occupies the middle of the text (see the outline provided in the introduction, paragraphs 39-41 and 44-50).

We had talked for almost an hour and had covered much ground when a moment came to decide on a new subject. I was about to begin questioning Kahenga about samples of medicinal plants but changed my mind. From some notes I had before me I pulled out the sketch I had drawn after the ritual and suggested we first discuss the "closing of the lot." I pointed out the enclosure and the location of the house. Then, as is the habit of ethnographers, I first asked whether there was a name for what he had done (39). The response was not what I expected as a description of the ritual: dawa ya kufunga nyumba, literally: medicine to close a house, not a single term but a phrase in which a noun, dawa, a substance not an action, is foregrounded. The expression he chose put the focus on what he considered essential in all of his work, namely, the use of substances that have the power to influence states or the course of events. In other words, the domain he named in his first response was not ritual but "medicine."

When I probed further by asking Kahenga for a term in Hemba he again responded with a phrase, kuzika nzibo, which I translated as closing a house. Actually, it first came out as nakuzika nzibo. If, as I suspect, there was interference from Swahili in the verb form, then the literal translation could be "I close the house for you." In my translation I took the word I heard as nzibo (or zibo) to mean house in Hemba. I now think that Kahenga mixed Hemba and Swahili. In Swahili, (m)zibo means a stopper or plug as well as the action of placing a stopper, closing a hole or passage. So the expression Kahenga offered would be a verb phrase with a (semantically) cognate object (like "to sing a song"). In my Luba dictionary, the verb -zika means "barrer" but also "protéger contre qqn. en empêchant le passage" (protect against someone by impeding passage; Van Avermaet and Mbuya 1954: 818). In the same entry I also found "[zika] bafu: empêcher les morts de nuire aux vivants. Quand un nganga soigne un malade il place des objets (magiques) sur tous les sentiers qui mènent à la hutte du malade pour empêcher les morts d'approcher" (keep the dead from doing harm to the living. When a nganga treats a sick person he deposits (magic) object on all the paths that lead to the patient's hut to keep the dead from getting close).

With that oblique remark about a healer (nganga) the dictionary gives us a first hint of an issue that will have to be addressed eventually: The context in which Kahenga performed the protective ritual was larger than I had suspected. In the thinking that seemed to guide him, connections might exist between burglars and the spirits of the dead; both could be a threat, not only to security but also to health and well-being.

Then I brought up the eight holes (40). The significance of their placement must have been on my mind at the time; it certainly is now. Was Kahenga drawing on some spatial, perhaps cosmological, symbolism in order to mark the terrain for the ritual operation that was to follow? The intuition that both the number of holes and their location had a special meaning must have made me ask him whether this was "always" done. He confirmed that it was but the explanation he gave was offhand, very short, and difficult to understand on the recording. As best as I can tell, it amounted to saying that the procedure he followed was just a practical, geometrical "method" of placing the holes in the ground where he would deposit the things (objects or substances?) he had brought along. They were not bizimba, magic charms, he assured me, just herbs that would stop potential troublemakers. He then told me how he had prepared the herbs and that he had done this before he came to the house to save time-another prosaic remark that left questions I may have had about the secret nature of such preparations unanswered.

When I brought up his stripping down to a loincloth this was met with a similarly laconic response. No explanation was offered for this gesture nor for the necklace I had seen him put on before he started to say, or chant, something that sounded to me like prayers (41). Kahenga agreed when I asked him whether this chanting was what I thought it was. I went on posing questions that were, again, aimed at ascertaining the ritual character of his incantations, another expectation I had brought along with my anthropological baggage. With a casual finesse I had come to know from many among my interlocutors, he put things right: When we pray to (the spirits) of our ancestors we don't use fixed formulae ("like songs?" I had asked), we just speak to the occasion, "just talking," as he put it. It appears that I was undaunted and asked him whether he could recite such a prayer for me in his native language. Kahenga obliged and composed a kind of generic prayer on the spot, beginning with a sentence that announced why he addressed the spirits: "I close the house for this white man." He now used kuzibia instead of the expected kufunga. As explained above, the image is one of patching up holes or leaks rather than of closing or locking something. This weakens the literal sense of "closing" and leaves open the possibility that the ritual may be aimed more at protecting integrity than excluding, locking out, threats. Such an interpretation would also fit the prayer asking to give "strength" to the inhabitants rather than to the house or its enclosure.

To my request for an example of the prayer in Hemba (the language he had used during the ritual) Kahenga responded in Swahili; multilinguals often "forget" which language they are speaking at a given moment. When I brought this to his attention he obliged with a prayer in his language. Listening to it must have reminded me of an observation I had made when I watched the ritual. I had recognized proper names in his incantations that made them sound at times like litanies. Kahenga confirmed my observation and named four addressees of his prayers: Mukenge Mbuyi, his father; Nyange, whom he called "mother"; Kayembe, a chief; and Yagamino, a "great spirit."

There is something odd about this list. The persons named were spirits except, it seems, Nyange who gave him his medicine, as he said, and whom he called his grandmother and teacher. But by all indications his grandmother was alive when we talked; why pray to her? The solution may have been alluded to elsewhere in our conversation when Kahenga gave her full name as Nyange ya Kahenga. This made me ask whether she got her name (Nyange) from a grandparent. She did and this could mean that the Nyange mentioned in the prayer was (the spirit of) his grandmother's ancestor.


Excerpted from ETHNOGRAPHY AS COMMENTARY by Johannes Fabian Copyright © 2008 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Johannes Fabian is Professor Emeritus of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam and a member of the Amsterdam School of Social Research. He is the author of many books, including Memory against Culture: Arguments and Reminders, also published by Duke University Press; Out of Our Minds: Reason and Madness in the Exploration of Central Africa; Remembering the Present: Painting and Popular History in Zaire; Language and Colonial Power: The Appropriation of Swahili in the Former Belgian Congo, 1880–1938; and Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object.

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