Sex and Salvation: Imagining the Future in Madagascar

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Sex and Salvation chronicles the coming of age of a generation of women in Tamatave in the years that followed Madagascar’s economic liberalization. Eager to forge a viable future amid poverty and rising consumerism, many young women have entered the sexual economy in hope of finding a European husband. Just as many Westerners believe that young people break with the past as they enter adulthood, Malagasy citizens fear that these women have severed the connection to their history and culture.

Jennifer Cole’s elegant analysis shows how this notion of generational change is both wrong and consequential. It obscures the ways young people draw on long-standing ideas of gender and sexuality, it ignores how urbanites relate to their rural counterparts, and it neglects the relationship between these husband-seeking women and their elders who join Pentecostal churches. And yet, as talk about the women circulates through the city’s neighborhoods, bars, Internet cafes, and churches, it teaches others new ways of being.

Cole’s sophisticated depiction of how a generation’s coming of age contributes to social change eschews a narrow focus on crisis. Instead, she reveals how fantasies of rupture and conceptions of the changing life course shape the everyday ways that people create the future.

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Editorial Reviews

James Ferguson
Sex and Salvation is an exceptionally insightful and vivid ethnographic chronicle of young women’s encounters with the brave new world of commoditization and consumption that is neoliberal Madagascar. In an unusually thoughtful and sensitive account, Cole reveals how controversial new habits ranging from transactional sex to Pentecostal worship can be understood only by challenging taken-for-granted tropes of rupture, decay, crisis, and destruction to grasp instead the way that such practices seek both to imagine and to create futures, in the process providing the means through which viable new forms of value and sociality emerge.”
Jennifer Johnson-Hanks
“This is a brightly original book that builds on Cole’s earlier work in a wonderful way while breaking new empirical ground. Using a rich combination of archival and ethnographic materials, Cole addresses an important set of issues in contemporary African society—including the changing life course, globalization, sexuality, religious change, and economic hardship—and reveals the dense interrelations among them.”--Jennifer Johnson-Hanks, University of California, Berkeley
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226113302
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 12/1/2010
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 248
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Jennifer Cole is professor of anthropology in the Department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago and the author of Forget Colonialism? Sacrifice and the Art of Memory in Madagascar.

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Read an Excerpt

Sex and Salvation

Imagining the Future in Madagascar

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-11331-9

Chapter One

Imagining the Future: Theorizing Generational and Historical Change

On an early morning in December 2003, I joined a ragtag parade that marched through the city of Tamatave for International AIDS Awareness Day. It was a time when Madagascar's abandonment of state socialism was still fresh in adult memory and the excitement and fear associated with economic liberalization were still new. The participants represented the prostitutes' association, a group that distributed condoms to women working the streets, employees of Top Reseau, a USAID-funded NGO (nongovernmental organization) working to raise awareness about sexually transmitted diseases, and a group of Adventists in favor of abstinence, representing the growing presence of evangelical churches in Ta ma tave. I had been invited to the parade by the president of the prostitutes' association, so I marched with them. The group wound its way through the city and ended up in the dilapidated building of the Ministry of Sports and Youth. On the first floor, various posters exhorted young people to better protect themselves against AIDS by waiting until marriage to have sex and remaining faithful to their partners. We made our way past the poster display to a room with rough wooden benches facing a blackboard. After we sat down, a man, who turned out to be a member of the Adventist church and who represented a Christian perspective more generally, began a lecture titled "Dare to Be Different with AIDS: Choose Abstinence and Fidelity."

Drawing on a speaking style that church leaders in Madagascar use to deliver moral homilies to their flocks-pacing the floor and regularly interspersing his lecture with asides in which he cleverly ventriloquized the perspective he was mocking—the Adventist speaker began to deliver the following speech:

The reason we should change our behavior is that we need to find a solution to the problem of AIDS. The Bible is our solution. Even if I am tired, I cannot rest but must teach you. Because AIDS is going to ruin Malagasy culture! People start talking about how to prevent AIDS in the streets [implying that it has led people to talk about sex publicly]. We are the "instantaneous generation." We need everything quickly! We need to finish things quickly! And when we go out with someone we need to sleep with them right away. And we use condoms so we can sleep with them right away. This is a sex-worshiping world [monde sexolatre]! We sell matches with sex, people are always half naked in the advertisements, we show people wearing their bathing suits on TV, and we have X-rated films now, when we never even used to watch people kiss on TV! We've become postmodern. We see something and we want it. We have the mentality of consumers. We buy girls, and we consume them. We use condoms for our pleasures. "Who should I sleep with now? [Scans the room eagerly, exaggerating the look of a sex-starved young man, eyes popping as he searches the crowd.] Bring on the next one." In the Song of Solomon it says how wonderful girls are! Even God says that it is good to sleep with women. But God said, "If you sleep with a woman you are of one flesh, not two." Because your mind becomes one with the person you have sex with. So that means you should marry the person you sleep with. But the devil speaks, "Do it now [sleep with others] or you will be late" [behind the times or backward].

The speaker's lecture about the evils of unbridled consumption and the delights of sex within church-sanctioned marriage was hardly the only time the topics of sex and religion came up during my fieldwork. At dusk, in an area near the regional truck stop a few blocks from the Ministry of Sports and Youth, young women often milled about, waiting to be picked up by men. Along the strip of road that ran just parallel to the shore, where most of the large hotels and restaurants are, it was impossible to miss the young, scantily clad Malagasy women coupled with much older European men, sipping beer or whiskey in the early evening. All the Internet kiosks in town were filled with young women looking online for foreign men to establish relationships with. Sex, as a way of building social connections and gaining resources, seemed omnipresent.

Yet such activities blatantly contradicted the position the speaker had been preaching, with his allusions to the Bible and his demands for abstinence. His rhetoric bespoke an explosion of new religious enterprises that appeared to use very different, religiously motivated, strategies for earning a livelihood and building a life. Although a Catholic cathedral and several Protestant edifices had been part of the Tamatavian landscape for decades, several huge Pentecostal churches had sprung up over the 1990s, two of them the size of airplane hangars. On Wednesday evenings and throughout the day on Sunday, I frequently encountered groups of soberly clad men and women making their way to and from these churches. When the pastor of one of the Pentecostal churches died, the road through a middle-class neighborhood was so clogged by his funeral procession that traffic came to a standstill. For many Tamatavians, Pentecostal churches offer an attractive life option.

I doubt the homily delivered at the Ministry of Sports and Youth persuaded many in the audience to abstain from sex until marriage or to remain faithful to their partners, though everyone seemed entertained. Yet if the man's speech failed to convince his listeners that day, his viewpoint nevertheless resonated with many urbanites' sense of what was wrong with life in urban Madagascar in general, and Tamatave in particular. Whether in the newspapers or in day-to-day discussions heard around town, people who came from very different social positions expressed their concern about the issues he touched on. All these different actors also criticized the way the inhabitants of Tamatave had responded to the opening of Madagascar to an aggressive form of consumerist capitalism after almost twenty years of state socialism and comparative isolation.

Repeatedly, laments centered on the "problem" of "youth." One newspaper article, headlined "Malagasy Youth, Don't Throw Away Your Culture," warned: "There are many things coming here from around the world, bringing progress—like computers, new ways of dressing, etc. Youth are most touched by those changes because they really appreciate new things! And starting then we have begun to lose our Malagasy culture. The majority of youth, they are immediately seduced by the new culture coming from outside and they forget the culture of their elders" (Tribune de Madagascar, March 15, 1995, 9).

Yet another newspaper article spoke directly about the scandalous behavior taking place in Tamatave. The author described walking into an unnamed nightclub where he was distressed to find "things the day shouldn't see! The worst was this: girls of 13, 14, 15 years old—some just growing breasts. Men were giving them more liquor to drink than one can imagine. The Malagasy youth of Tamatave are ruined. Something must be done" (Tribune de Madagascar, March 22, 1995, 6).

Moralists writing to newspapers were not alone in this view. It was widespread among young people themselves. One young man, the son of a postal worker, voiced his frustration about the loss of older forms of masculinity, which he attributed to the new economic policies. He captured this sense of loss by referring to the changing value of cattle, traditionally a crucial means for rural inhabitants, particularly men, to accrue wealth and prestige, but now displaced by more modern commodities: "Before, Malagasy things had weight, and if you had cattle, girls would fight over you; but nowadays if you have cattle they would run away from you because you stink of cow shit. But if you have a television and brought that home, then girls would be following behind you. So what makes us Malagasy is diminishing, because of the currents brought by liberalization."

His friend broadened these complaints to remark on the association between economic liberalization and the loss of cultural authenticity more generally:

[Economic] liberalization is a way of scattering things from overseas. For example, books, television, everything that you see in terms of lifestyle, none of it is bad in the American way of life [in its original context]. They use it as publicity [to show how great they are], but we have nothing that gives value to what is Malagasy because our morality was ruined by colonization. And then liberalization comes here too with all its ads to say that their foreign things are good. And we are hurt and say, "Our ways don't work anymore, let's look for our future over there. Let us go toward what is made by Europeans." You realize that there are bad consequences from liberalization.

The women who participated in the World AIDS Awareness Day march, the many more young women who did not participate but whom the marchers explicitly referred to, the Adventist speaker who lectured them, the moralists writing to the local newspapers, and the young men who regret the loss of a Malagasy world—all these parties might easily have blamed one another for contributing to the circumstances they lamented. Despite their concerns, however, they actively adopt the very pursuits that create the situation they decry, even as they share a general perception of what is taking place. Collectively they tell a story of cultural corruption and loss caused by Madagascar's abandonment of state-sponsored socialism and the switch to economic liberalization in the 1990s. Though it might seem odd to associate cattle's loss of value with the end of the socialist period, given that cattle as a cultural icon predates the arrival of state socialism by centuries, such an association makes sense in the context of recent Malagasy history. The socialist regime of the 1970s and 1980s claimed to have rescued an indigenous Malagasy culture from the jaws of the neocolonial regime. Consequently, many likened the economic policies that replaced socialism to a new kind of colonization, in part because these policies quickly brought an influx of foreign goods, practices, and technologies.

Ultimately these Malagasy commentators believe that young urbanites' attempts to attain adulthood through imported ideologies and consumerism drive this story of rupture, conjuring up an alarming future in which old values no longer matter and money rules. Nor are local commentators alone. Scholars from all over the world have long viewed youth as a source of rupture and as central to the creation of new and different futures. Among the reasons for this are their presumed propensity either to adopt foreign practices and throw off older ones or to reject present practices and recuperate older, newly revivified, traditions.

Both for scholars and for many Tamatavians, particular conceptions are at work that associate youth with rupture and assume that the practices of a subset of young people represent those of an entire generation. This way of interpreting generational change and its effects offers a symbolic shorthand for understanding more complex historical dynamics. But the changes selected for attention and highlighted as characteristic of an entire generation also mask important historical continuity, heterogeneity among young people, and the relation between young people's choices and the futures they create. The actual processes at work are far more subtle than such theories allow.

I suggest that the most effective way to understand a generation and the process of generational change is to focus not only on what young people do in the present, but on how they imagine—and seek to attain—a desired future. By examining how a generation slowly takes shape in relation to an imagined future, we can see that this process does not create a clean break with the past. Rather, cultural practices and ways of imagining what it means to be a proper person powerfully constrain how young people think and act. By expanding the depth of our analysis, we can also understand more deeply why young people seize on certain opportunities in the present, and we can afford to look more broadly at the variety of choices they may make, because we can appreciate the shared vision that informs them.

Generations are not simply social groupings that emerge as people enter adulthood or experience a particular historical event. They also create representations of what the life course is like and what it should be. Young people's own understandings and representations of the life course, of what youth are, and of the futures they envision play a central role. The way we imagine the future shapes the mundane strivings of our daily lives, though what we imagine does not always conform to what we create. As a means of understanding and acting, representations of youth and the life course are intrinsic to young people's actions, providing an experience-near view of how, through shared representations of change, we propel ourselves into the future.

"Youth" in Africa: Beyond Rupture and Crisis

A language of crisis has long characterized modern, and particularly European, analyses of generations and their role in history—one thinks of the "lost generation" of 1914, the "rebellious generation" of 1968, the post-Soviet generation after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, or the emergence of Generation X in the 1980s. Albeit in different ways, these examples foreground the role of cataclysmic events or sharp changes in economic circumstances affecting people's lives, dividing off those who come of age in such moments from those who come of age before or after—creating what we commonly think of as a generation. This way of imagining the emergence of a new generation, however, is a product of particular culturally shaped choreographies of past and future, including conceptions of historical progress that emerged in Europe in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Fussell 2000 [1975]; Wohl 1979).

In recent years a language of rupture and crisis has reappeared in discussions of youth and globalization. Whether analyzing youth as child soldiers, as consumers in a newly globalized economy, as unemployed would-be workers, or as bearers and producers of youth culture, a large body of current work suggests that as young people seek to attain adulthood, they make a fundamental break with the past, as a precondition for a new and different future. Nowhere is this emphasis on rupture more visible than in recent studies of youth in Africa. For example, one edited volume foregrounds "how young Africans today experience the ruptures and breaches in their lives brought about by historical processes of colonization and decolonization, the state of civil war, and the mechanisms of global capitalism" (Honwana and De Boeck 2005a, 2). The authors further argue that "to many young people in contemporary Africa, ... the order through which the postcolonial world has existed seems to have become entirely devoid of meaning. What is more, it has become incomprehensible, even unknown and totally irrelevant to young people's own understanding of the lives they lead.... These youth move in worlds governed by rules, norms, ethics and moralities that seem to have broken quite radically with all kinds of pasts" (2005a, 11). The image produced by such accounts is one in which contemporary youth seem to be cut off from an ongoing exchange between different generations, creating what some have called a crisis of social reproduction (Comaroff and Comaroff 2004).

This way of framing the lives of young people in Africa is useful in many respects. Scholars have been rightly concerned about how ongoing military conflict and economic collapse affect young people across Africa (Abbink and Van Kessel 2005; Christiansen, Utas, and Vigh 2006; Cruise-O'Brien 1996; Honwana and De Boeck 2005b; Mains 2007; Marguerat 2005; Richards 1996; Weiss 2002). They have documented how economic and social instability make it increasingly difficult for young people to attain valued forms of adulthood, drawing attention to the very real problem of "producing African futures" (Weiss 2004). In so doing, they take seriously young people's ways of thinking about their dilemmas, thereby illuminating how large numbers of youth, who make up a significant proportion of the population of the African continent, feel that proper social adulthood is beyond their grasp (Hansen 2005; Masquelier 2005).

It is tempting to rely on this kind of argument to build a theory of generations and generational change. After all, much of this work carefully depicts both the social forces that shape young people's lives and how young people interpret their experiences. In so doing, it implies that youth are crucial actors who link the pasts and futures of their societies. Yet precisely because this research focuses primarily on youth's experience of crisis in the present, it tends to leave unexplored the actual relationships between their actions and temporality more broadly—young people's ongoing and varied relationships to the past, present, and future.

In the absence of an explicit attempt to theorize generational change, youth's experience of change can all too easily be taken as an analytic model of how change happens. And when interpreted as a model for how youth produce social change, a language of crisis and rupture comes eerily close to reproducing certain aspects of what Sewell (2005) refers to as stage theory. Used by a variety of authors from diverse disciplines, this way of thinking implies that change happens through a unilinear progression of stages, each marked by a radical break from the one that came before. Addressing social-historical change, stage theories include the social evolutionism of Spencer and Tylor, the modernization theory of Rostow, the historical materialism of Marx, and more recently, some variants of globalization theory (for recent discussions of the parallels between modernization theory and globalization theory see, for example, Cooper 2001 and Walley 2004). Addressing how individuals change over the life course, stage theories include the developmental approaches of Freud or Piaget. Whether they operate at the level of individual growth or structural and cultural change, stage theories tend to homogenize variation within stages while downplaying continuities that exist between them (Sewell 2005, 101).


Excerpted from Sex and Salvation by JENNIFER COLE Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


ONE / Imagining the Future: Theorizing Generational and Historical Change

TWO / Making Modern Life in Tamatave: Shifting Paths to Social Mobility

THREE / Disembedding and the Humiliation of Poverty

FOUR / The Changing Social Economy of the Female Life Course

FIVE / Jeunes: The Future in the Present

SIX / Finding Vazaha? Navigating the Sexual Economy

SEVEN / Other Futures: Women, Suffering, and Pentecostalism

EIGHT / How the Future Comes into the Present


Works Cited


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