Wylie on Grant and Pringle, 'Anxiety in and about Africa: Multidisciplinary Perspectives and Approaches'

Andrea Mariko Grant, Yolana Pringle, eds.
Diana Wylie

Andrea Mariko Grant, Yolana Pringle, eds. Anxiety in and about Africa: Multidisciplinary Perspectives and Approaches. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2021. vii + 248 pp. $44.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8214-2436-0.

Reviewed by Diana Wylie (Boston University) Published on H-Africa (April, 2021) Commissioned by David D. Hurlbut (Independent Scholar)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56405

Historical Perspectives on Anxiety, Mainly about Eastern Africa

Extending the history of emotions—a field already burgeoning in American and European history—to the continent of Africa may open up “new ways of understanding otherwise dominant narratives” (p. 12). So argue editors Andrea Mariko Grant and Yolana Pringle and other contributors to this book, an edited collection with essays derived from the 2016 conference “Anxiety in and about Africa” held at the University of Cambridge. Especially when viewed during a global pandemic, the shared title of the book and conference promises timely as well as fresh insights, as does the cover photograph of a line of blue-uniformed Burundian policemen chasing down demonstrators in 2015. And yet it is clear from the introductory essay that this book is intended to be a vanguard text, one asking far more questions than it can answer. The first paragraph alone poses eight of them.

A more accurate title for this volume would be “Historical Perspectives on Anxiety, Mainly about Eastern Africa.” Six of the eight essays are about eastern Africa (Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi) with only two about other African locations (South Africa, Senegal). “Multidisciplinary,” too, seems a misnomer. One archaeologist and one anthropologist do appear among the authors, but most (five of the eight) retrieve the African past through analyzing documents rather than exploring the present or even the postcolonial period through fieldwork. Pressing contemporary anxieties—about Ebola or COVID-19 viruses, for example—are mentioned only in passing. The last three essays do broach the anxieties currently being aroused in people living under violent political regimes. They are the only chapters based on interviews conducted in Africa. The other five rely on documentary evidence about the past, which leads to the perennial problem of how to recapture a robust local perspective from colonial archives. Those archives usually excel at reflecting what bothered colonists about Africa. The feelings of Africans tend to fall by the wayside, as they frequently do here.

Anxiety as a subject poses a slew of problems because it is hard to define. The editors acknowledge that, for many of their contributors, anxiety is “a multi-faceted and multi-focal concept” that takes myriad forms (p. 16). They also appreciate that anxiety’s effects are not obvious or straightforward and that the meaning of anxiety is “far from self-evident” (p. 17). And so, they try to bind the essays together with an essay and three subheadings that invoke social theory. The book’s three parts are labeled “Anxious Spaces,” “Unsettling Narratives,” and “Alternative Temporalities.”

This recourse to theory clashes somewhat with the cover photograph. Actual problems—like how to live under a violent political regime that deploys deadly force against its own citizens—can seem marginalized or even ignored when theories about “space,” “time,” and “stories” take center stage. It was unsettling for me to read a book deploying the word “anxiety” on nearly every page, while on the very same day reading alarming news articles about events actually happening in Yoweri Museveni’s Uganda and Paul Kagame’s Rwanda.[1] One wonders if the academy can help advance public understanding of those events without employing theoretical abstractions, like “embodied experience” or “temporality,” that have salience only within the academy itself.

The last three essays deploy the word “anxiety” the least. Perhaps not coincidentally they are the ones based on conversations with local people. These essays broach the question of how “anxiety” is expressed in African languages. They also open up and expose the relevance of local beliefs by referring to spirit possession and ritual as a means of dealing with anxiety. Simon Turner’s conversations with Rwandan refugees in Burundi, for example, reveal that anxiety is only one of the emotions coursing, sometimes simultaneously, through people as they struggle to stave off despair, some finding the church their only source of hope. Jonathan Earle, basing his essay on sixteen years of interviews in Uganda, shows how Baganda politicians cannily use the local language of power—a ruler’s promise of “calm”—to deal with the perennially vexing problem of a peaceful transfer of power. Earle is thus extending the tactical pertinence of “anxiety” by showing how it is used, and responded to, as a tool within the all-important context of state power. Grant’s extensive fieldwork in Rwanda allows her to paint a vivid portrait of one Pastor Charles who demonstrates that one of the state’s most powerful strategies is to make people like him feel anxious. And yet his story also reveals “anxiety” within the state itself, apparent in its treatment of certain Pentecostal churches. What joins these three essays and makes each one an important contribution in its own right is their authors’ dedication to inserting “anxiety” within local cultural and political contexts.

The other five essays focus on the less innovative but still significant subject of colonial anxieties. Rachel King looks at how ideas about deviance and outlaw cultures were generated by thieving bands on the nineteenth-century South African frontier; these ideas went on to have undeniably “devastating consequences,” including in the form of fences, magistracies, and jails, all signs that emotions do indeed leave traces (p. 57). The Kenya settlers come under Cécile Feza Bushidi’s sensitive scrutiny as they responded quite differently to displays of African dance—finding them both “worrisome and wonderful”—depending on their particular spatial and situational contexts (p. 69). Will Jackson and Harry Firth-Jones present the Kenya settlers in a similarly discriminating way as the colony was being dismantled in 1963-4; the letters written by farmers to the British government show their deep emotional attachment to the land and their animals, as they dealt with their diffuse fears of being surrounded and attacked. The fluidly written and informative essay by Kalala Ngalamulume points to the fears of French physicians battling yellow fever epidemics in late nineteenth-century Saint-Louis, Senegal; they exerted a great deal of influence on trade, even calling into question the city’s and the colony’s future. Nyakanyike Musisi unveils the tensions within and around the Baganda court of Kabaka Mwanga as his sexual behavior failed to conform with missionary notions of “patriarchal heteronormative definitions of masculinity and femininity” (p. 237); she takes care to include likely explanations of Mwanga’s own anxieties.

It is impossible to quarrel with the editors’ contention that anxiety must be contextualized socially, historically, and politically, and it is easy to agree that anxiety’s contours are continually shifting in time and space. One might wish, however, that there had been greater clarity in this volume on exactly which dominant narratives are being challenged, and by which new ones. Perhaps sharper articulation of what is at stake is still to come, given that the history of emotions has only recently begun to enjoy vanguard status within the field of African history.


[1]. See, for example, Helen Epstein, “The Truth about Museveni’s Crimes,” New York Review of Books, March 11, 2021, 24-26; and Joshua Hammer, “He Was the Hero of ‘Hotel Rwanda’: Now He’s Accussed of Terrorism,” New York Times, March 2, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/02/magazine/he-was-the-hero-of-hotel-rwanda-now-hes-accuse....

Citation: Diana Wylie. Review of Grant, Andrea Mariko; Pringle, Yolana, eds., Anxiety in and about Africa: Multidisciplinary Perspectives and Approaches. H-Africa, H-Net Reviews. April, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56405

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.