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This collection explores the productive potential of uncertainty for people living in Africa as well as for scholars of Africa. Eight ethnographic case studies from across the continent examine how uncertainty is used to negotiate insecurity, create and conduct relationships, and act as a source for imagining the future.



Ethnographies of Uncertainty in Africa: An Introduction

Ethnographies of Uncertainty in Africa: An Introduction

The starting point of this collection is to understand the positive and productive potential of uncertainty in Africa. The relevance of the focus on uncertainty in Africa is not only that contemporary life is objectively risky and unpredictable (since it is so everywhere and in every period), but that uncertainty has become a dominant trope, an ‘inevitable force’ (Johnson-Hanks 2005: 366), in the subjective experience of life in contemporary African societies. This routinized perception of uncertainty is sometimes coined as ‘the crisis’ — the conjunction of economic depression, instabilities, fluctuations, and ruptures — giving rise to experiences lived by people at all levels of society defined by physical and mental violence (Mbembe & Roitman 1995: 324). It is against this context of ‘incoherence, uncertainty, and instability’ that we may better account for the ways in which people weave their existence. Indeed, by foregrounding ‘crisis as context’ (Vigh 2006) we begin to see how uncertainty critically shapes ways of knowing and being on the continent. Hence, the analysis of radical, routinized uncertainty offers a productive conceptual apparatus to describe Africa’s complexity and to account for ‘the power of the unforeseen and of the unfolding…[and] people’s relentless determination to negotiate conditions of turbulence to introduce order and predictability into their lives’ (Mbembe & Nuttall 2004: 349).

Elizabeth Cooper, David Pratten

Social Contingencies


Contingency: Interpersonal and Historical Dependencies in HIV Care

The word ‘uncertainty’ has many relatives, each opening particular analytical possibilities. Within the extended family, we might count: insecurity, indeterminacy, risk, ambiguity, ambivalence, obscurity, opaqueness, invisibility, mystery, confusion, doubtfulness, and scepticism. Some of its cousins seem to admit of positive potential: chance, possibility, subjunctivity, hope. Uncertainty and insecurity are the most prominent members of the family. We can think of uncertainty as a state of mind, and minding, when we are unable to predict the outcome of events or to know with assurance about something that matters to us. Insecurity, the lack of protection from danger, the weakness of arrangements to support us when adversity strikes, gives rise to uncertainty. Dealing with uncertainty is often about trying to make more secure, rather than simply trying to ascertain. And making more secure usually has to do with mobilizing resources in order to exert some degree of control. Both terms are broad and often used rather vaguely, without specifying the focus of uncertainty or the source of insecurity (Whyte 2009).

Susan Reynolds Whyte, Godfrey Etyang Siu

Charity and Chance: The Manufacture of Uncertainty and Mistrust through Child Sponsorship in Kenya

Uncertainty is commonly conceptualized as psychosocial enigma. As a consequence, it is prone to being analysed as a cultural phenomenon, both in the meanings that different people attribute to it and how people respond to it. In this, different cosmologies of fortune, destiny, and chance have been carefully considered by anthropologists, as have the various avenues of people’s inquiries and petitions, including religion and science, for example (da Col 2012; Haram & Yamba 2009; Evans-Pritchard 1937). These contributions have been important for unsettling any potential ethnocentric prejudice that would claim that there is one way in which people understand (or should understand) how and why our lives can surprise us.

Elizabeth Cooper

The Quest for Trust in the Face of Uncertainty: Managing Pregnancy Outcomes in Zanzibar

‘Giving birth is like bingo’, a young woman from my neighbourhood in Zanzibar Town told me. ‘You have a fifty-fifty chance of survival’. This poignant statement reflects widely shared sentiments about the dangers and unpredictability of pregnancy and childbirth among Zanzibari women and defies claims in the field of public health that women are not aware of the risks of birth.1 While the perceived risk of maternal death does not accurately reflect the actual risk of dying in childbirth, it nevertheless signals a situation in which maternal and child death is relatively common. The facility-based Maternal Mortality Rate (MMR) in Zanzibar was estimated in 1998 at 377 per 100,000 live births (UNICEF).2 Main direct causes of death are unsafe abortions, eclampsia, haemorrhage, and obstructed labour. The 2006 Reproductive and Child Health Situation Analysis shows that surgical deliveries are only available at the hospital level, however, manual vacuum aspiration is not routinely available even in hospitals (Hussein 2006). The general lack of emergency referral is a major constraint to the availability of emergency obstetric care on the islands.3

Nadine Beckmann

Food Security, Conjugal Conflict, and Uncertainty in ‘Bangladesh’, Mombasa, Kenya

In Kenya, informal settlements or ‘slums’1 are urban residential spaces characterized by poverty, high population density, lack of infrastructure, substandard housing, tenuous land rights, and high rates of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases. Often, these areas exist as the ‘…physical and spatial manifestation of urban poverty and intra-city inequality’ (UN-HABITAT 2003: xxvi). In these environments, households are important units for food security as they are the loci where decisions about employment, income, expenditure, and resource distribution are negotiated and where food storage, preparation, and consumption take place. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), food security is defined as existing ‘.when all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life’ (FAO 1996, 2003). Although the proportion of residents in Kenyan informal settlements who are food insecure is unknown, previous research from Nairobi suggests that many (if not most) residents struggle daily with problems related to food (see APHRC 2002, 2002a; Amuyunzu-Nyamongo & Taffa 2004: 6; and Amuyunzu-Nyamongo et al. 2007).

Adam Gilbertson

Future Visions


Social Invisibility and Political Opacity: On Perceptiveness and Apprehension in Bissau

This chapter looks at the relationship between apprehension, social invisibility, and political opacity. Building on fieldwork in Bissau, Guinea-Bissau, it illuminates the way people grasp the persistent political instability and uncertainty that characterizes the small country. Politics is, in Bissau, currently described as enigmatic and mysterious. It is seen as embedded in an environment of cloaked and concealed figures and forces that work beyond the control and grasp of ordinary people. The chapter clarifies how perceptiveness, within this context of enduring unpredictability, has come to be seen as a central social and political competence. The ability to see behind and beyond the present and presented has become a necessary power needed to secure one’s safety and well-being in a climate of insecurity. The chapter thus illuminates how people struggle to gain clarity and knowledge of the ‘invisible’ yet dangerously present forces which are understood to influence political life and argues that the prolonged period of conflict and strife in the country has generated a bearing towards the political, an apprehension which is simultaneously characterized by fear, interpretation, and anticipation. In conclusion, the chapter dwells more generally on the issue of social invisibility and argues that our attentiveness towards it is a foundational characteristic of social life.

Henrik Vigh

Rhythms of Uncertainty and the Pleasures of Anticipation


Moments of Freedom

, Johannes Fabian (1998) writes,

If freedom is conceived not just as free will plus the absence of domination and constraint, but as the potential to transform thoughts, emotions, and experiences into creations that can be communicated and shared, and if ‘potential’, unless it is just another abstract condition like absence of constraint, is recognized by its realizations, then it follows that there can never be freedom as a state of grace, permanent and continuous. As a quality of the process of human self-realization, freedom cannot be anything but contestatory and discontinuous or precarious. Freedom, in dialectical parlance, comes in moments (21).

Julie Soleil Archambault

Embracing Uncertainty: Young People on the Move in Addis Ababa’s Inner City

This chapter discusses how young men’s understanding of the unpredictable as a ground for action and hope in inner-city Addis Ababa can inform anthropological examinations on the productivity of uncertainty. I start by narrating the biographies of three young men who, more than anybody else, taught me about the promises and the predicaments of living with uncertainty. As Cooper and Pratten have reminded us in their introduction, accounting for the messiness, the contingencies, and the multiplicities of life trajectories is not just a mere exercise of ethnographic writing. Studying biographies provides scholars with interpretative tools to consider how people translate the indeterminacy of existence into a sense of possibility and, ultimately, seek to connect what has been with what could be.

Marco Di Nunzio

‘We Wait for Miracles’: Ideas of Hope and Future among Clandestine Burundian Refugees in Nairobi

Turning off Ngong Road opposite the racecourse, I make my way along dirt tracks filled with mud and debris, past worn-down brick buildings that have expanded with lean-tos and shacks around the properties. These shacks are made of corrugated iron and contain a number of small ‘flats’, as can be seen from the characteristic rows of doors and small windows along one side. The tenants share common pit latrines and a separate outdoor area for cleaning. These are not the densely populated urban slums of elsewhere in Nairobi, and there is something distinctly rural and pioneering to the area. We pass a small open space of grassland with a few grazing goats. Today a charismatic church has built a temporary stage, flanked by massive loudspeakers and a pastor in a worn suit is preaching to the crowd of curious onlookers. I am on my way to visit Jean, a Burundian in his early twenties, who lives together with four other young Burundians in two rooms. None of these men have refugee papers and constantly risk being stopped by the police and asked for a bribe. Neither do they have a regular income.

Simon Turner


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