Book Summary: Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory, and National Cosmology among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania / Liisa H. Malkki

In her ethnographic work, Malkki researches the Hutu refugees in exile in Tanzania who had to flee their homes in Burundi due to a bloodbath of ethnic conflicts with the Tutsis, a minority group that controlled the military in the country. Malkki categorizes refugees as camp and town refugees and thus conducts multi-sited fieldwork in Mishamo and Kigoma in which these groups of people lived in respectively. Her writings are mostly based on her interviews with a large number of people, with the help of an interpreter local research assistant. The book consists of an introduction followed by six chapters and a postscript that elaborates further on the background and aftermath of the genocide.

Introduction: An Ethnography of Displacement in the National Order of Things

Malkki starts her introduction with a critique of asylum states and international agencies that “share the premise that refugees are necessarily ‘a problem'” (p.8), who are perceived as an anomaly that needs certain “specialized correctives and therapeutic interventions” (p.8). She also argues how the literature that claims refugees as its object of study “locates ‘the problem’ not first in the political oppression or violence that produces massive territorial displacements of people, but within the bodies and minds of people classified as refugees” (p.8). The “interiorization” of the figure of ‘the refugee’ is related to how it is seen as a “social-psychological type” that has been generalized and idealized as a specific type of person and an object of “specialization” (p.9). On the other hand, “the externalization” of the refugee from the national order of things is about how, beyond the state, there is a limbo world in which the refugee lives. Another tendency to “universalize” this special kind of person, “the refugee”, occurs in their abundant photographic representations that express “emissary of horror and powerlessness” (p.10), often portrayed in the form of women engaged in a nurturing activity or children that embody “the universalism of a bare humanity” (p.11). On a discursive level, the refugee is seen as being part of a distorted or lost culture, identity, place, and history. Hence, Malkki links the humanistic universalization of ‘the refugee’ with the embodiment of pure humanity and a pure victim. To challenge the “sedentarist bias in dominant modes of imagining homes and homelands, identities and nationalities” (p.16), which sees displacement as both unnatural and as tragedy, Malkki presents how displacement and exile can have lived meanings for specific people and how, instead of eroding a collective identity, such experiences may form one via the “contingent sociohistorical processes of making and unmaking categorical identities and moral communities in two specific sites” (p.17). 

Chapter 1: Historical Contexts, Social Locations: A Road Map

In the first chapter, Malkki provides a background to the genocide and then proceeds to introduce her two field sites. She also writes about the methodology and the fieldwork conditions. One of the problems she faced was how she was feared by her informants as her tall physical appearance resembled that of the Tutsis and thus being perceived as a spy by some of the informants. Malkki also mentions how the notion of participant observation was challenged by the fact that Hutu refugees in town did not form a single, distinct, community. Yet she was able to overcome this problem by culminating “snowball samples”.

Chapter 2: The Mythico-History

In chapter two, the author coins the term “mythico-history” as she spots recurring themes that appear from the historical narratives told by the refugees, which not only carried and represented a collective history deriving from colonial and postcolonial historical texts on Burundi but also involved a description of the past that contained “a subversive recasting and reinterpretation of it in fundamentally moral terms” (p.54) and “represented an interlinked set of ordering stories which converged to make (or remake) a world” (p.55) — often in an oppositional process in regards to other versions of the same past. According to her, this course went through heroizing the past of the Hutu as a categorically distinct collective people. By the term she uses, Malkki does not mean mythical “in the sense of being false or made up” (p.55), as she isn’t concerned about its truth or falsity but about how such narrations were concerned with a fundamental and cosmological order — one that has to do with “the ordering and reordering of social and political categories, with the defining of self in distinction to other, with good and evil” (p.55). In representing a myhtico-history, Malkki believes that the sense of collective voice was the most significant trait of it. Thus, she follows a representational strategy of creating “panels” that give “fragments or chapters of the standardized historical narrative” (p.56) which are sometimes a record of an individual’s words and other times a combination of several accounts of the same theme. While doing so, Malkki also acknowledges the method’s advantages and disadvantages as it has a homogenizing effect. The panels that she introduces to the reader in this chapter are mainly concerned with themes that include the myths of the foundation of Burundi, the claim of Tutsi people’s clandestine arrival and their cunningness, the colonial government as a protector of Hutu, the bodily traits and “maps” of these ethnic groups, and the dangers perceived in Hutu-Tutsi intermarriages. The accounts usually involve atrocious narrations during the genocide attempts of the Tutsi which, at the same time, categorizes the distinctness of the Hutu, as docile victims, from the Tutsi, as Machiavellian and merciless oppressors — as “acts of atrocity are not only enacted and perpetrated symbolically; they are also, after the fact, stylized or narratively constituted symbolically” (p.95). By presenting these panels, the author attempts to suggest how “the ‘worlds made’ through narrations of the past are always historically situated and culturally constructed” (p.104), while touching upon how a social, historical, and cultural collectivity is imagined and identified among the camp refugees.  

Chapter 3: The Uses of History in the Refugee Camp: Living the Present in Historical Terms

In the third chapter, by focusing on the narrations of the camp refugees, Malkki argues how “the past not only explained aspects of the present; it also contributed to structuring social action in the present” (p.105). She presents how the camp’s techniques of power, authority, organization, spatial configuration, restrictions, were perceived by the refugees to “reproduce the hierarchal structure of the Burundian society they had fled in 1972” (p.105). The author also argues how the significant events in their contemporary camp life were transformed into mythico-historical events in which such events comprised of allegorical elements that acted as moral and didactic lessons, akin to other events in the more distant past. Throughout these narrations, the categories of the Tutsi and the Tanzanian become almost identical as the camp refugees felt like they were being governed, again, by an ethnically and politically distinct “other”. Towards the end of the chapter, Malkki touches upon how the Hutu camp refugees felt a connection with the broader international audience as they were convinced that the voice of “the Hutu refugee” would be heard. Their isolation from the distinct others that surrounded them and their linkage to an international audience “became a part of the larger struggle over history and historical truth in which the Hutu were engaged with the dominating ‘other'” (p.152).

Chapter 4: Town Refugees: A Pragmatics of Identity

In chapter four, Malkki shifts her focus from the camp refugees in Mishamo to the town refugees in Kigoma and contrasts the lived experience, formed identities, communality, historical narrations, and aspirations of the two groups. Unlike the camp refugees, the town refugees did not order their lives in mythico-historical terms, which becomes the central social fact that the author decides to explore. A curious case Malkki describes is how the town refugees resisted being identified as “refugees” and instead looked for a series of different identities, which she calls “pragmatics of identity” (p.153), instead of identifying and heroizing a single collective identity that the camp refugees imagined. For town refugees, a common strategy was to have juggling identities that most benefited them in their numerous routine activities in daily life. So, Kigoma’s Hutu refugees’ “expertise in manipulating categories of identity” (p.157) and following of strategies of invisibility aided them in overcoming the difficulties that their refugee status brought. Malkki also demonstrates the processes of assimilation among the town refugees, which was mostly a matter of practical conjunctures rather than cultural essences. The “naturalization” process of the town refugees often involved intermarriages with citizens, the pursuit of citizenship and documentation of identity, and other personal socioeconomic trajectories. Lastly, in this chapter, the author raised the question of how the town refugees formulated and narrated their past and history and how they reacted to the question of ‘return to Burundi’. According to her interviews, unlike the camp refugees, the town refugees took “history” to “mean the history of Burundi as fixed, territorial state […] a narrative authorized elsewhere” (p.195). And the accepted history was treated as neutral or inert which “did not form into larger chains of political and moral significance” (p.195). Due to a lack of mythico-history and of a collective preparation for a return, Malkki interestingly argues that it would be misleading to describe the lives of town refugees as being in a state of exile as she links “exile” with “thereness” that is connected to a “‘homeland’, or an ‘origin’, or a ‘proper place'” (p.192). Instead, the town refugees straddled both places, “calling both ‘home’, or, more likely, finding ‘home’ somewhere in between” (p.196).

Chapter 5: The Danger of Assimilation and the Purity of Exile

In the fifth chapter, Malkki argues how “people in these two sites imagined each other informed the ways in which they imagined and identified themselves” (p.197) — and thus investigates the “social and imaginative relations that had been formed between camp and town” (p.197), which was a dialectical relationship that was constructed as one of opposition and antagonism. The lives and choices of town refugees were more important of an issue for the camp refugees than what town refugees felt for the existence of camps. For the town refugees, “the camp” was not seen as playing a privileged role in any locus of consciousness but, instead, “tended to be skirted as a place of incarceration and insulation” (p.201) — a place that confined and objectified individuals as “the refugees”. On the other hand, the camp refugees problematized the assimilation of the town refugees and attached significant meanings to the threat to “purity” which constituted the mythico-history. For instance, the intermarriage practices posed the threat of mixing categories that would produce generations who would neither be “pure Hutu” nor “pure refugees”, and cloud the collective condition in exile that envisaged a return to the homeland. Therefore, many camp refugees proposed the solution of bringing all the town refugees to the camp as the camp was “conceptualized as a place of purification or even rehabilitation” (p.221) which was necessary for achieving the mythico-historical condition of being a “refugee” in exile, and in imagining a future return to the “homeland”; since the exile experience was seen as a period of tests and trials, a process of purification, that would restore Hutu as “a people” that deserves and is worthy of regaining the “homeland”. Another thing to note is how the camp refugees saw their limbo condition as being able to maintain a distance from the two hierarchies of Tanzania and Burundi. Hence, the very status of ‘refugee’ “had been transformed through a curious social alchemy into a state of purity” (p.231).

Chapter 6: Consciousness and Liminality in the Cosmological Order of Nations

In the final chapter of the book, the author investigates what the linkage between historicity and nationness reveals, which are complicated, local, transnationally meaningful, and “always both cultural and political” (p.233). In one setting, the history was a source of “power, knowledge, and purity” (p.233), while on the other its meaning was irrelevant and, at times, cumbersome and threatening. In the camp, we see how collective histories flourished as they had meaningful use in the present. Thus, historical consciousness isn’t a thing already formed but is in constant processes of formation and transformation. In these processes, the “making of history inevitable implies the unmaking of somebody else’s history” (p.245). The two settings also provide different ways the liminal condition of the refugees were subjectivized. In the camp, there was a liminal collectivity that tried to “make itself fit into the overarching national order of things, to become a nation like others” (p.253); in the town, however, the refugees challenged the order of nations by approaching and appropriating it “as as strategic game, sometimes cynically, sometimes playfully” (p.253) and thus insisted on creative exploitation of another order of liminality. In the narrations of the refugees, we also witness how a genocidal massacre “is one of the most extreme ways in which humanness and subjectivity can be denied to a social collectivity” (p.258). And Malkki reads the mythico-histories presented in two directions. On the one hand, they present the expunging and nullifying the Hutu category; but on the other hand, “they end up canonizing the inhumanity of the Tutsi category” (p.258). Hence, the flip side of nationness, she argues, is the annulment of an “other”.

Although, in the postscript, the author touches upon the severity of the situation and the acts of violence that were committed, and although at some point the Malkki says how she became numb to the overwhelmingness of the stories, I am a bit bewildered to see how she can just present the interlocutors’ narrations of violence in forms of “panels” to almost dismiss the violence by focusing so much on “how” they narrate what they say and the seemingly inherent symbols that are present in their narrations which, I fear, may sound too reducing to the reader.

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