The Wherewithal of Life: Ethics, Migration, and the Question of Well-Being

The Wherewithal of Life: Ethics, Migration, and the Question of Well-Being

by Michael Jackson

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The Wherewithal of Life engages with current developments in the anthropology of ethics and migration studies to explore in empirical depth and detail the life experiences of three young men – a Ugandan migrant in Copenhagen, a Burkina Faso migrant in Amsterdam, and a Mexican migrant in Boston – in ways that significantly broaden our understanding of the existential situations and ethical dilemmas of those migrating from the global south. Michael Jackson offers the first biographically based phenomenological account of migration and mobility, providing new insights into the various motives, tactics, dilemmas, dreams, and disappointments that characterize contemporary migration. It is argued that the quandaries of African or Mexican migrants are not unique to people moving between ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ worlds. While more intensely felt by the young, seeking to find a way out of a world of limited opportunity and circumscribed values, the experiences of transition are familiar to us all, whatever our age, gender, ethnicity or social status – namely, the impossibility of calculating what one may lose in leaving a settled life or home place; what one may gain by risking oneself in an alien environment; the difficulty of striking a balance between personal fulfillment and the moral claims of kinship; and the struggle to know the difference between ‘concrete’ and ‘abstract’ utopias (the first reasonable and worth pursuing; the second hopelessly unattainable).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520276727
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/10/2013
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Michael Jackson is an anthropologist and Distinguished Professor of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. His many anthropological books include Existential Anthropology, The Palm at the End of the Mind, and The Other Shore. He is the author and editor of over thirty books.

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The Wherewithal of Life

Ethics, Migration, and the Question of Well-Being

By Michael Jackson


Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95681-0



I LIVED AND WORKED IN COPENHAGEN, Denmark, for six years. After moving to the United States in 2005, I returned to Denmark every year to give talks, see old friends, and attend the PhD defenses of my former students.

When Susanne Bregnbaek successfully defended her doctoral thesis in the fall of 2010, I was invited to her apartment in Christianshavn to celebrate the rite of passage with family and friends. Curiously enough, Susanne's thesis, though based on fieldwork in Beijing, resonated with a conversation I would have later that evening with Emmanuel Mulamila, a Ugandan who was married to one of Susanne's closest friends. Susanne had written at length of an ethical dilemma experienced by many tertiary students in Beijing, who were torn between a desire for self-realization and family pressures to take care of elderly parents or government pressures to contribute to the well-being of the nation. This conflict between self-sacrifice and self-actualization weighed so heavily on the minds of many young Chinese students that some chose suicide as the only way of freeing themselves from the double bind.

Susanne's friend Nanna had also been a student of mine at Copenhagen University, and had met Emmanuel in 2002 while doing fieldwork in Uganda. After introducing me to Emmanuel, Nanna explained that he had been reluctant to accompany her to Susanne's graduation party. His situation was depressing, and he did not go out much. Emmanuel was thirty-nine. After marrying and securing a work permit in 2003, he completed an eighteen-month course in Danish language and culture, followed by a second degree, in applied economics and finance, at the Copenhagen Business School. But the only work he had been able to find was as a tour guide in the summer of 2004 and, more recently, a night job sorting mail in the central post office. It wasn't only the hypercritical rejection letters from potential employers that had worn him down; it was the dispiriting effect of having to negotiate ever-changing state decrees and regulations governing aliens and the unemployed. As Emmanuel described to me the Kafkaesque rigmarole that circumscribed his life, I found it easy to understand his bitterness. "I have given up on ever getting a job that matches my qualifications. I have lost my self-worth. I am at the end of the rope, and there seems to be more pressure now than ever from the government in regard to immigrants getting and staying in jobs. I have become completely demoralized."

I was drawn to Emmanuel and deeply moved by his story. I said I wished I could help in some way. I wanted to suggest that I apply for research funds, offer him a stipend, and publish his story, but I did not wish to seem opportunistic or voyeuristic. I said I would like to keep in touch and left it at that.

Over the next six months, I drafted and submitted an application for a grant to cover the costs of fieldwork among African migrants in three European cities—Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and London. When my application was rejected on the grounds that it was "thinly conceptualized," lacked any "specific research questions," and failed "to engage sufficiently with the extensive existing anthropological literature of migration from Africa," I was thrown, for despite repeated efforts I had not succeeded in getting an anthropological research grant for thirty years. However, I consoled myself that my experiences of negotiating the world of professional anthropology brought me closer to Emmanuel's experiences of trying to find a way through the labyrinth of a society in which he felt himself to be a persona non grata.

In late August 2011, I traveled to Denmark for yet another PhD defense, this time at Aarhus. My modest honorarium allowed me to spend a weekend in Copenhagen, where I was determined to spend as much time as possible with Emmanuel and Nanna.

When I visited their apartment on Smallegade, I found Emmanuel in an upbeat mood. "We hardly recognize him," Nanna said, laughing. "We're only now getting used to the old Emmanuel again." Emmanuel explained that he had recently found work. It was unpaid and probationary, but there was a very real probability that if he did well the position would be made permanent.

I spent that Saturday with Emmanuel, Nanna, and Alice Maria, their three-year-old daughter, enjoying their company and getting acquainted. Emmanuel cooked Ugandan food—rice with vegetables and peanut sauce. Nanna made cinnamon rolls, which we ate with cups of herbal tea. I talked about my experiences in Sierra Leone and with Kuranko friends in London. And that evening, as I prepared to return to my lodgings, I felt comfortable asking Emmanuel if he had thought more about my suggestion that we record his story and explore ways of publishing it. Emmanuel agreed without hesitation, and when I turned up at his apartment the following morning with a borrowed digital recorder, we began work immediately, sitting at the kitchen table while Nanna and Alice Maria read books, watched TV, or did jigsaw puzzles in the adjacent room.


Every biography entails some history. Events that occurred before one was born or in a faraway country may shape one's destiny as much as more immediate events that one had a hand in shaping. This was immediately evident as Emmanuel began recounting his story.

He was born on 23 September 1971, in Mbale, his mother's hometown in eastern Uganda. Had custom determined events, Emmanuel's mother would have been living in her husband's place, and her son would have been born and raised among his father's kin. But Emmanuel's father was living in Tanzania, where he had a job in the Department of Agriculture of the East African Community (EAC), an intergovernmental organization comprising the five East African countries of Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda. After returning to Uganda for the birth of his second-born, Emmanuel's father decided that the family should return with him to Tanzania. When the EAC collapsed in 1977, Emmanuel's father moved his family to Kumi in eastern Uganda, where he thought he might find work with a former employer. When I asked Emmanuel if his father hailed from Kumi and had family there, Emmanuel said his father was originally from the Ruhenjeri Prefecture in Rwanda, a region that bordered Uganda, though he had only learned this recently.

Hutu-Tutsi conflict in Rwanda and Burundi has a long history, though most ethnohistorians agree that it had its origins in the loss of Hutu autonomy as Tutsi pastoralists entered the country from as early as the fourteenth century, imposing, by the mid-sixteenth century, a quasi-feudal state on the autochthonous Hutu majority. Nonetheless, at the time of colonization in the late nineteenth century, there was little to distinguish—culturally, linguistically, or ethically—the people whose "differences" would be played up, played upon, and racialized under successive colonial administrations and postindependence governments.

As countless oral histories testify, almost everyone in Africa was once a migrant, belonging to an ethnic minority that displaced people already settled in the lands they would come to consider their own. Some arrived as pastoralists (like the Tutsi) in search of greener pastures; others came as conquerors, and still others as refugees from religious persecution or hunters looking for forests replete with game.

In the late 1950s, as the Belgian administration tried to engineer a more equitable balance of power between Hutu and Tutsi, ethnic tensions increased. Following municipal elections in 1960, the Tutsi monarchy was abolished, and many Tutsi fled the country. On 1 July 1962, Belgium, with United Nations oversight, granted full independence to Rwanda and Burundi. As the Hutu revolution gathered momentum, so did Tutsi guerrilla raids from bases in Kivu (Congo) and Uganda. Tens of thousands (mainly Tutsi) were killed in these clashes, and as many as 150,000 were driven into exile, including Emmanuel's father. The Hutu-dominated government of Grégoire Kayibanda now established quotas to increase the number of Hutu in schools and the civil service. This effectively penalized Tutsi, who were allowed only 9 percent of secondary school and university seats, consonant with their proportion of the population. These quotas were also extended to the civil service. The Kayibanda government continued the Belgian colonial government's policy of requiring ethnic identity cards and discouraging "mixed" marriages. Following more violence in 1964, the government suppressed political opposition and executed Tutsi rebels, who were called inyenzi (cockroaches), an ominous foretaste of the large-scale genocides that would devastate this region in the 1990s.

The natural symbols are striking: the other as an insect, oneself as autochthonous—born of and belonging to the soil. I was also struck by the tragic ironies in Emmanuel's father's story, for not only does autochthony underpin Hutu claims for ur-belonging; it denies full citizenship to Tutsi, who are alleged to be second-class citizens at best because they were migrants. Driven from his homeland, Emmanuel's father became a cosmopolitan, rootless individual whose tenuous identification with Uganda would shape the destiny of his son, who also wound up in a foreign land where autochthony was invoked to justify the marginalization of foreigners in national life. As a child, Emmanuel was aware of his anomalous situation, raised in his mother's village but with no real relationship with his father's kin—practically an internal exile.

Emmanuel said his father and mother first met in 1969, probably in Kenya. His father returned to Rwanda with his wife and four children in 1974–75, but the mountainous region in the north, with its dire poverty, vertiginous slopes, and difficult living conditions brought them back to Uganda.

"The story is a bit cloudy," Emmanuel explained, "because talking about how you met your husband and the intimacy and so on is something that people don't share, especially the old generation. Maybe they met in a bar. Maybe it was in a restaurant ..."

"So you are in Kumi ..."

"We stayed there until 1979. April 11, I think. The Amin regime was breaking up. That same day, we learned that our father had disappeared."

Idi Amin Dada (1925–2003) had come to power in a military coup in January 1971. Amin's regime was characterized by gross human rights abuses, political repression, ethnic persecution, extrajudicial killings, nepotism, corruption, and economic mismanagement. By 1978, Amin's support was eroding, and he faced growing dissent from ordinary Ugandans dismayed at the crumbling infrastructure and ruined economy. Following the murders of Bishop Luwum and ministers Oryema and Oboth Ofumbi in 1977, several of Amin's ministers defected or fled into exile. In November 1978, Amin's vice president, General Mustafa Adrisi, was injured in a car accident, and troops loyal to him mutinied. Amin sent troops to confront the mutineers, some of whom had fled across the Tanzanian border. Amin accused Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere of waging war against Uganda and ordered an invasion to annex a section of Tanzania's Kagera region. In January 1979, Nyerere mobilized the Tanzania People's Defense Force and counterattacked, supported by Ugandan exiles calling themselves the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA). Amin's army retreated, and despite military backing from Libya's Muammar al-Gaddafi, Kampala fell and Amin went into exile on 11 April 1979. After a year in Libya, he settled in Saudi Arabia, where the Saudi royal family allowed him sanctuary and provided him with a generous subsidy on the understanding that he would stay out of politics.

Emmanuel's mother was adamant that her husband had not been politically active during the Amin years. But eastern Uganda opposed Amin, and Emmanuel's father was associated with the opposition simply because he lived in that part of the country. He was detained only days before Amin's government collapsed. "After he was picked up, we never saw him again," Emmanuel said. "Apart from a bloody pair of shorts and a shirt they brought us, indicating that he had been killed, we have never been completely sure what happened to him."

"Who brought the bloody clothes?"

"Strangely enough, it was his friend. They had been traveling together. His friend brought back the clothes and said he'd been given the clothes by the security people. So he brought them to my mum. It was a message that he had been killed. But we never saw the body; we never got any results or any information on where the body was or what happened to the body, so we took it that he had been killed. But in that situation, where we hadn't seen a body and we had no proof that he was actually killed or by whom, we kept hoping that he was in prison and would come out one day, or he was playing a game, leaving the clothes to confuse the security people. But he never came back. Up to now, that hasn't happened."

"Do you have memories of your father?"

"To tell you the truth, no. I don't think I have anything I can remember about what he looked like physically, apart from the stories I was told about him when I was young. He was a massive man, very big, tall. I have never met his relatives, but when I sent them my picture, they told me that I'm a replica of my father. And this brings me back to the issue of why my mum never let me go, never let me visit my father's relatives. Maybe that was the reason, because I looked exactly like him. But no, I don't have a memory of him. Sadly, even pictures, the two or three pictures we had have worn out with time, and now when you look at them you can't actually see many details. There's one picture my brother sent me, but it's not that clear either. So I don't have any visual memory of him, and I can't even remember whether we played together or he carried me, though those who knew him said he had a soft spot for his children. Which was very strange because with most fathers back then, their work was to look for food, to be away working, that kind of thing."

"Did your mother ever talk to you about him, describe what kind of person he was?"

"It was ... it was, eh ... what can I say? It was a topic that one wouldn't want to go into, even asking her. Because we tried one time, as children, asking my mum, 'What was our father like?' and 'How were you people?' and she just said, 'Well, I can't say much, he's not there.' It was as if something in her ... as if we were cutting her heart into two. She seemed to be in pain. Talking about our father by then was horrible for her. My mum is a very hard person. I can tell you, I have seen my mum cry twice in my life, twice. And that was not the time when my father passed away, no, because I didn't know whether she was crying or not at that time, but the time my grandmother died and the time she had the toothache." Emmanuel gave an embarrassed laugh, then quickly went on. "So when we asked about our father and my mum went inside and came back and her eyes were red, I knew there was something horribly wrong. So we didn't bother asking my mum about our father again. But even though she never sat down and told us intimate things about our father ... about how he carried us, how he was at home, whether he mistreated us or was sweet to us, or brought us presents or not ... she did tell us where he came from and who his relatives were. She gave us information about him. That was the only thing that we got from her. Anyway, when my father passed away, or rather, disappeared, it was left to my mum alone to make sure that we safely left that village, because we were not from there. Our presence alone would raise eyebrows, because westerners—especially those from Rwanda, the migrants—were called cowboys."

Emmanuel had touched on one of Africa's oldest problems—the troubled coexistence of pastoralists and sedentary cultivators. It echoes the story of Cain and Abel, post-Neolithic conflicts between townspeople and itinerants, and age-old Asian struggles between valley kingdoms and hill peoples. As settled populations struggled to protect themselves against mobile and marauding outsiders, nomadism became a synonym for barbarism. Seen to belong nowhere and everywhere, the nomad was stigmatized as the antithesis of civilization. As I write (November 2011), a spate of rapes and assaults in northwest Cameroon is being blamed on Akuh cattle herders, with whom Aghem cultivators have long been in dispute over rights to land. In Rwanda, Hutu farmers claimed that their ancestors had generously given land to Tutsi seeking pasture for their herds. But the Tutsi allegedly tricked the Hutu into servitude, and the very word "Hutu" became a synonym for slave. Elsewhere in Africa, pastoralists also tended to be in the minority, supplying cattle (for bridewealth and sacrifices) to farmers in exchange for access to grazing land. But as populations grew and herders migrated from drought-stricken lands, ancient cultural or religious differences were invoked to justify radical separation. In the Kumi district of eastern Uganda, many Tutsi refugees reestablished themselves as cattle herders, though most, including Emmanuel's father, were obliged to work for chiefs or wealthy men on stock contracts. Among the Iteso, cattle were sources of bridewealth, prestige, and political power. It was often said of a heavy-set man that he had grown fat on the milk he had in his home. But owners feared and resented the outsiders to whom they entrusted their herds. They said, "We can't allow these people to continue keeping our cattle; we have to keep our cattle ourselves." Moreover, Emmanuel explained, "those who had sided with Amin assumed that the cattle keepers were aligned with the rebels." And so, as his mother told him much later, "we had to leave that area because my father's tribe was not accepted there."


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Appendix: Existential Mobility




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