Sunday, June 6, 2010

Purity and Exile.

I just finished "Purity and Exile" by Liisa Malkki - associate professor of anthropology at Stanford [1]. The book is based upon anthropological fieldwork done in 1985/1986 in Tanzania’s regions of Rukwa and Kigoma. Her subjects of study are the Hutu refugees that fled Burundi in 1972 when the the Tutsi-controlled Burundi army initiated mass killings of the country's majority group the Hutu; an estimated 100,000 people were killed.

After placing the massacre in historical context - discussing the long history of oppression and inequality between Hutu and Tutsi in Burundi - Malkki gets to the core of her argument: "The social and imaginative processes of the construction of nationness and identity can come to be influenced by the local, everyday circumstances of life in exile, and how spatial and social isolation of refugees can figure in these processes."

In brief, there were two groups of Hutu refugees in Tanzania. One group was settled in a carefully planned, physically isolated refugee camp in Mishamo. The other group lived in Kigoma - a city on Lake Tanganyika - outside of any camp context and dispersed in non-refugee neighborhoods. These two groups ascribed meanings to national identity and history, to notions of home and homeland, and to exile as a collectively experienced condition in very different ways. The "camp refugees" were constantly engaged in the construction and reconstruction of their (Hutu) history as a people. The "town refugees", on the other hand, had not constructued a categorically distinct, collective identity. Rather than defining themselves as “the Hutu refugees" or "Hutu", they tended to seek ways of assimilating and inhabiting multiple shifting identities derived or borrowed from the social context of the township.

An interesting read; the 352 pages were finished quickly.

[1] Liisa Helena Malkki. 1995. Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory, and National Cosmology among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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