In rural Zambia, an elder named Gogo Breeze investigates his listeners’ grievances and renders public service at a small privately-owned radio station.
“A local radio personality may enjoy much more respect than activists, and the challenge is to understand why that may be so.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Harri Englund. Englund is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge.His book is Gogo Breeze: Zambia’s Radio Elder and the Voices of Free Speech.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Harri Englund:If so-called fake news and post-truth define “the current political and social climate,” Gogo Breeze shows how truth matters in media houses that are far too small and far too remote from Euro-America to be ever noticed by those who worry about this climate. Using the Chinyanja language, Gogo Breeze as the grandfather-on-air receives andinvestigates his listeners’ grievances in provincial Zambia and renders public service at a small privately-owned radio station. Corruption, exploitation and various kinds of abuse haunt his listeners, but Gogo Breeze uses his moral authority to pursue justice in these difficult circumstances. It is important to realize that his moral authority is not simply a consequence of his elderhood. Gogo Breeze himself has to achieve his moral authority over and again as he attends to his listeners’ grievances. In other words, we also have here an example of how truth is linked to moral authority that is not God-given but the result of hard work through public service.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
That they are not the only game in town. Progressive causes and their champions can assume surprising forms if we just look carefully enough. At least in countries like Zambia and Malawi (and I suspect in many other countries around the world), activism has often become a kind of vanguardism in which the activists know better than “the grassroots” what the issues are. While leadership and mobilization can be important, it is dangerous to assume that anyone, however progressive, has the monopoly over truth. A local radio personality may enjoy much more respect than activists, and the challenge is to understand why that may be so. The point is not to understand in order to appropriate what has been achieved by those who are not activists. There is no reason why activists should be poking their noses into an initiative like Breeze FM that combines business with public service. It works, and activists might just humbly consider why it works, and what they might learn from it for their own work.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
I hope that they will un-learn the entrenched habit of seeing free speech as a matter of giving individuals opportunities to get their voices heard. Who will listen if everyone talks? Having an elder figure mediating grievances and claims is not just a practical issue of amplifying what might go unheard if poor or under-privileged people were left alone in trying to make themselves heard. It is also a matter of recognizing that our voices take shape in dialogue with others and are the property of individual subjects only in ideologies in which human beings are seen as self-contained entities. At the same time, if many critical thinkers tend to see “liberalism” as the ideology they love to hate, what do they have to un-learn to see Gogo Breeze’s multivocal approach to free speech as a kind of liberalism? I hope that they will un-learn the habit of seeing liberal thought and practice as exclusively “Western” and will learn to allow African cases to disrupt their habitual denunciations of liberalism.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
Heroism has no place in intellectual life. Anthropology is to me the kind of disruptive practice that others can find in other disciplines or art forms. In my experience, anthropology is exceptional for the way its practitioners have long argued over fundamental questions to do with human differences and similarities. At their best, those arguments and disagreements have referred to issues beyond academia, such as when Max Gluckman criticized cultural particularism with reference to apartheid, or when Francis Nyamnjoh at present explores ways of being beyond fixed identities in an identity-obsessed South Africa. Karin Barber shows the immense commitment it takes to embrace a distant language, in her case Yorùbá, and to achieve recognition as the Iyamoye of Okuku. As her example shows, the anthropologist’s most important intellectual partners are often those they work with in the field or in the archives. They are intellectuals in their own right, whose dilemmas and arguments deserve to be considered along with those of university professors.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
It is a new world to those (of whatever complexion) whose own world begins and ends with the English language and whose aspirations are determined by Euro-American concerns. The beauty of it is that it is not a world separate from their world, or some utopia in the distant future. It is here and now, a part of the same world, available to enrich and engage those who are unfamiliar with it if they put in some effort into studying it, or the book that describes it.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He’s currently writing a book with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong called American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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