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Publication: Anthropological Quarterly
Author: Dorsch, Hauke
Date published: January 1, 2012
Language: English
PMID: 26320
ISSN: 00035491
Journal code: GAQT

Peter Geschiere, The Perils of Belonging: Autochthony, Citizenship, and Exclusion in Africa and Europe. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2009. 304 pp.

African villagers who invent a tradition of funerals in an ancestral village and European urbanites who deny Muslims the right to belong seem to share an increasingly globalized concept: "autochthony," the idea that people are linked to soil. Anthropologists will not be surprised to learn that globalization reinforces the local, and that people claim identities that are regarded as having deeper roots than the nation. However, in The Perils of Belonging Peter Geschiere gives this relation a fascinating new perspective by comparing the uses and misuses of "autochthony" in Africa and Europe. He understands autochthony as a means to claim and maintain a virtually irrefutable and primordial right to membership. Being born on a certain soil is seen by different actors in Europe and Africa alike as the ultimate reason for belonging. At the same time, it serves to exclude supposed outsiders and foreigners-regardless of their nationality.

The first chapter constructs a genealogy of the concept of autochthony that links Athenian ideas of citizenship to Martin Heidegger's (1989) idea of Bodenständigkeit, and French colonial constructions of the autochtonie to today's globalized world. Geschiere shows that the connection with soil, which the term's etymology implies, serves to support certain groups' claims to privileged access to resources in different political contexts. Examples from Cameroon, being informed by the author's long fieldwork experiences, constitute the most fascinating part of this book. Cameroonian politics are the author's starting point for analyzing his African examples of the social and political importance of autochthony. Geschiere describes how, in the decades after independence Cameroon's President Ahmadou Ahidjo followed a rigid policy of nation-building, in which referring to ethnic origin was considered politically incorrect, and the unity of the Cameroonian people was stressed instead. His successor Paul Biya, however, reacted to the introduction of multi-party elections in the early 1990s with an ethnicization of policy. However, when the winds of democratic change began to blow after the end of the Cold War, Biya accepted the establishment of a multiparty system. At the same time, he encouraged regional associations to take part in political debate-under the pretext of protecting local minorities from "immigrants" native to other regions of Cameroon. This change of policies remains pertinent to this day because it responds to the question of who "really" belongs to a particular region and can thus claim certain rights. As a striking example regarding the influence of discourses of regional belonging on global institutions like the Catholic Church, Geschiere presents the story of the nomination of a Western Cameroonian for Archbishop in the South of the country. As a result, "indigenous" clerics participated in massive protests. The Vatican reacted by appointing a cleric from the South as Bishop in Western Cameroon. Geschiere describes other factors that support the growing success of autochthony, including the new emphasis on "decentralization" by donor countries and development organizations- whose support of civil society groups and distrust of the state leads to an enforcement of local groups-and a stress of localized forms of belonging. Geschiere discusses a number of other factors contributing towards the trend of autochthony, including constitutions, forest law, associations, funerals, etc.

Other African examples for the success of autochthony as a model of belonging, include the Ivory Coast, where, especially under the regime of Laurent Gbagbo, the concept of autochthony was put into practice by launching the "National Operation of Identification" in 2001, during which people had to identify their villages of origin. Those, who could not claim a village of origin, were considered to be immigrants and lost their citizenship, including the right to purchase land and to vote. The so-called "young patriots," a violent youth gang supporting Gbagbo, turned into the armed force of this campaign of ivoirité and acted against "foreigners," which included not only immigrants from neighboring countries but also citizens from the northern Ivory Coast. Northerners reacted accordingly, attacking Gbagbo's supporters. The violence ultimately led to Ouattara's election victory and the ousting of Gbagbo-events that happened only after the publication of Geschiere's book, but impressively illustrate the dangers that he identifies with the very idea of autochthony. A very short part of this chapter, fittingly entitled "Elsewhere in Africa," browses the conflicts in the Eastern Congo-Burundi-Rwanda region and xenophobia in South Africa- areas that deserve a more substantial analysis than the one offered here. An intriguing example closes this fourth chapter, it is devoted to the Baka of Cameroon, a so-called Pygmy group, who, as true first-comers would seem to perfectly qualify for claiming an autochthon status. Geschiere shows in detail why this is not the case and what this tells us about power- relations between different local groups and the state.

In Europe, the "global economy of belonging" manifests itself differently than in Africa. The Netherlands, for one, were once seen as being amongst Europe's most advanced countries in regards to multiculturalism. Yet in his fifth chapter, Geschiere reminds his readers of some dramatic recent events which illustrate the shift in Dutch political and public discourse from multiculturalism to integration-the murders of populist politician Pim Fortuyn and of filmmaker Theo van Gogh, as well as the death of 11 "illegal" immigrants who were burnt alive in a makeshift jail at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport. His discussion of the career of the term allochtoon is especially interesting. As a seemingly "neutral" or "technical" term introduced by a geographer into Dutch sociological theory in the 1970s, it took root in public discourse only in the 1990s as an alternative to terms such as ethnic minority, immigrant, or foreigner (which by then had taken on some derogatory connotations). But soon, the seemingly neutral term betrayed its etymological connection to the soil, and Dutch people increasingly saw themselves as autochtoon, thereby out-grouping the allochtoonen. The author shows how quickly autochtoon and allochtoon as concepts of place, as well as the term "integration," replaced notions of a multicultural society. Accordingly, "foreign-born" persons may be citizens when they integrate culturally. The soil may still not be as important as in the African examples, however, concepts like integration and autochtoon increasingly complicate the availability of Dutchness to those who are categorized as allochtoonen.

In the sixth chapter, Geschiere returns his focus to Cameroon, and contrasts funerals and other rites of autochthony to the rituals of nation-building. According to him, the latter are disappearing because they fail to succeed in offering an "aesthetic concentration resulting in a shared experience" (207), what he understands as a characteristic of a successful ritual. The final chapter offers a discussion of the perils of belonging that the concept of autochthony entails.

This broad overview was aimed at giving an impression of the strength of Geschiere's arguments, his convincing ethnographic examples, and the pressing political issues that deserve a thorough debate (not only) in the field of anthropology. Despite the overall strength of The Perils of Belonging, there are some weaknesses that need to be addressed. Some are just minor errors, for example, Sarkozy is turned into a "son of Polish immigrants" (165-although the author correctly refers to the Hungarian background of his parents later in the text on page 245). Furthermore, Geschiere claims that due to the fact that German citizenship law was based on ius sanguinis until the end of the 1990s "for Turkish persons who had lived in Germany for generations (naturalization) remained almost impossible" (132). This is a somewhat dramatic interpretation, given that naturalizations of people of Turkish origin were well in the thousands every year in the 1980s, in the tens of thousands in the 1990s, and had reached their peak before the citizenship law reforms that would transform German citizenship law into ius solis actually took place. Earlier I referred to another shortcoming of the book in mentioning the superficial references to examples from South Africa and the Hutu-Tutsi-Twa conflict in East Africa, which for a broader comparison deserved more attention. A number of countries in Central and Eastern Europe, to which Geschiere does not refer to, could have offered intriguing examples of increasing references to autochthony and the policies of belonging, which threaten to exclude not only immigrants, but also Roma, and again, it seems, Jews. This is not to say, that the Cameroonian, Ivorian, and Dutch examples did not suffice to make Geschiere's point, it is just that readers may be disappointed by the fact that in this book "Africa" translates as "Cameroon" and "Ivory Coast," and "Europe" as "the Netherlands" (though this may be, of course, the publishers' rather than the author's choice).

Other aspects of the book may provoke objections. Geschiere himself states that he regrets not having studied the rituals of nation-building in more detail. I think his claim that rituals of nation-building have vanished (and by implication, that identification with the nation state is decreasing) is premature. Ongoing research (e.g., by Lentz and kornes 2011 and others on independence celebrations) suggests that the issue of identification with the nationstate is more complicated than Geschiere seems to assume.

These objections notwithstanding, Geschiere's book impressively demonstrates a paradox of this new "primordial yet global economy of belonging": autochthony promises security, but in practice leads to the contrary. The denial of the right to belong to "late comers," in the long run, leads to ongoing questioning of who really belongs, the circle of the "truly autochthonous" is drawn closer and closer once the logic of the exclusive rights of the "original inhabitants" are established. This aim towards an "Otherless universe" (here, Geschiere cites Mbembe) nourishes nagging concerns about "fake locals," which, as Geschiere shows through many examples, often lead to violence. Geschiere warns his readers not to fall into the trap of believing in autochthony's rhetoric of the supposed naturalness of localized belonging. I would like to think that few anthropologists would fall into this trap, and raise another question instead, which is: what does it mean that anthropologists continue to discuss anti-essentialist concepts of identity, identification, or belonging, while the people they are working with often express the desire to root themselves in the stable identities that these naturalizing models of belonging seem to offer? is Geschiere's contribution to precisely this question (and other issues too, of course). The Perils of Belonging is an important book for this moment in time and I recommend it to all readers interested in the interplay of migration, citizenship, identity, locality, and globalization in Europe and Africa.


Heidegger, Martin. 1989 (1934-1935). Hölderlins Hymnen "Germanien" und "Der Rhein." Susanne Ziegler, ed. Frankfurt: klosterman.

Lentz, Carola and Godwin kornes. 2011. Staatsinszenierung, Erinnerungsmarathon und Volksfest - Afrika feiert 50 jahre Unabhängigkeit. Frankfurt/Main: Brandes & Apsel.

Author affiliation:

Hauke Dorsch

Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Germany

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