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Michaela Pelican et Jan Patrick Heiss
p. 7-19

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We thank three anonymous reviewers and the comité de rédaction of Journal des africanistes for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

The Theme

1To begin with a truism, people all around the world have a past, live in a present and head into a future. In contrast to their relationship with the past, however, they have to confront their future and take action in order to shape it. To capture this process, we may say that “making a future” is a task everybody has to face.

2We speak of making a future, because a future is not only conceived of, it is not only a product of imagination, but it is also confronted and constructed through action, in a back-and forth process between actors and their environment. The processes that “making a future” consists of and the ways they differ between actors and societies, will be illustrated by the case studies in this special issue and will be become clearer in the course of this text. Yet some preliminary reflections on the different ways in which people can confront their future may help to elucidate our understanding of the notion of “making a future”. While some people indulge in the moment, others organize the present with respect to a future aim. Among the latter, some subordinate their present in all its aspects to a limited set of aims in the future; others devote part of their time to one aim and another part to another aim. Some want to carry on with life as it is, whereas others want to improve on it. Some might be afraid of the future and shy away from the challenges their future holds for them; others look forward to their future and are willing to take risks. Some might think of their future as coming to an end with their death. Others think of their lives as preliminary to something else, and they will take into account what presumably will occur after their death when they decide what they will do next. Hence, there is a wide variety of possibilities how people can go about making their future.

3Making a future thus results in a string of actions, each of which is a process in itself and comprises a number of steps and components. This is well known from the theory of action (e.g. Schutz/Luckmann 1991). Yet, there is much scope for variation in these processes of making a future – the preliminary reflections above should have made that plausible. Consequently, one might expect people in different societies to go about it in different ways. To find out who goes about it in which way, then, is an empirical question.

4It is our aim in this special issue to draw attention to the subject of “making a future”, as it is of central relevance to everybody’s life and, at the same time, has been understudied. While we do not claim to present a conclusive way of dealing with the topic, we think we can contribute to tidying up the field and to adding new dimensions to its discussion. The contributions in this collection advance the field in three respects. Firstly, they illustrate that, while the task of making a future is universal, the way people think and go about it is specific – specific to an environment, a society, a culture, a historical moment. They exemplify this with respect to different African societies. Secondly, they help us to develop an analytical grid that serves to describe these ways of making a future. Thirdly, they show how deeply the diverse ways of making a future in Africa are shaped by a volatile environment, the widespread scarcity of means, and uncertain circumstances of action. Thus, for many people in Africa, instability is a pervasive factor that influences their ways of making a life and a future.

How best to approach the topic

5Indeed, the topic does not seem to have received much direct attention. Yet, it has ramifications in many sub-fields of anthropology. It links up, for instance, with the anthropology of risk or the anthropology of religion. The most efficient way to deal with the topic, so it seems to us, is to concentrate on the authors who have dealt with it straight forward and to draw on inputs from other fields as need arises in the course of our discussion. The authors who addressed the topic straightforwardly are Pierre Bourdieu (1977) and Jennifer Johnson-Hanks (2005). Their contributions will serve as a starting point.

6In his study of the Algerian society of the 1960s, Pierre Bourdieu (1977) analyses the effects of capitalism on social practice. He differentiates between two ways of relating to the future. On the one hand, he identifies a well-organised and calculative approach. That is, people consciously subordinate all aspects of their life to a specific aim; they figure out how best to achieve their goals and act correspondingly. Bourdieu suggests, however, that this mode of planning hinges on two pre-conditions: regular employment and a secure income. Conversely, poverty and uncertainty undermine this style of thinking and acting. The large majority that he identifies as sub-proletarians, is caught in daily struggles; their ways of relating to the future is rather incoherent. Unlike the privileged social group, they lack the possibilities to develop a practice of planning and reflection. While keeping in mind the historical moment of Algeria’s industrial transition on which Bourdieu’s analysis is based, we may read him as arguing for distinct social classes with distinct predispositions to making a future. Yet this is not the only way to reflect about the issue.

7In her study of family planning among young, educated Beti women in Cameroon, Jennifer Johnson-Hanks (2005) adopts another perspective. When comparing her interlocutors’ approach to marriage and procreation with the way she envisages her own future, Johnson-Hanks notices significant differences. She comes to understand that her interlocutors, rather than executing a well-planned future, adopt a strategy of seizing promising chances, which she terms “judicious opportunism”. That is, you wait for a propitious moment which offers a chance and then you seize it. As she argues, this strategy is prevalent in the absence of social structures that enable rational choice; such as in contemporary Cameroon where the volatility of economic and social life, framed in the idiom of la crise, prevails. Different from Bourdieu, Johnson-Hanks relates her actors’ strategy not so much to poverty, but more generally to structural conditions of uncertainty that undermine the possibilities of planning and affect Cameroonian society in general.

8Even if the accounts of Bourdieu and Johnson-Hank entail fruitful concepts and approaches, they do not provide us with a comprehensive scheme of interpreting the phenomena related to “making a future”. Surely, they show the relevance of the planning process for making a future and, based on their specific cases, they identify different ways of planning. While Bourdieu outlines a rational versus an incoherent way of planning, Johnson-Hanks highlights “judicious opportunism” as a strategy of decision making and planning. However, neither of the two authors describes the processes of planning in a detailed manner, nor is it clear how rational or incoherent ways of planning relate to judicious opportunism. At the same time, the authors attribute these different ways of planning to similar causes. Thus, the question emerges: Why do in the Algerian context uncertain and volatile living-conditions translate into incoherent ways of planning, whereas in Cameroon they engender a strategy of judicious opportunism? Further clarification seems to be needed.

9Yet, the best strategy to tackle the question of how to understand ways of making a future seems to lie in following an analytical approach that leans towards Strauss (1988) or Hildenbrand (1994) and also implicitly underlies Bourdieu’s and Johnson-Hank’s contributions. They approach their theme by finding general categories (or codes) that are needed to comprehend practices of making a future. Bourdieu and Johnson-Hanks highlight, for instance, two categories: planning processes and societal structures. Secondly, we should investigate the properties (or dimensions) of these categories so defined. What is meant here is that planning processes are not the same everywhere, the notion of planning process rather covers a wider variety of planning processes the differences between which have to be spelled out. In this respect Bourdieu and Johnson-Hanks offer us the possibilities of coherent, incoherent, and judicious ways of planning as dimensions of the category “planning process”. Thirdly, one needs to correlate the different categories and their dimensions. Bourdieu attributes, for instance, incoherent ways of planning (as a dimension of the category of planning process) to poverty and uncertainty (as further categories). However, to come up with a comprehensive scheme that integrates all possible outcomes is an ambitious agenda that we are unable to fulfil. Yet, the articles in this collection try to contribute to this and to move the endeavour a step ahead. In so doing they also reveal the pervasive significance of volatile circumstances of action and scarcity of means in shaping many African actors’ attempts at making a future.

Empirical case studies - The contributions to this volume

10We shortly summarize the contributions in this volume, before we discuss where they provide insights and tools to move beyond the state of affairs as presented so far.

11In her paper “Social differentiation of risk: perceptions of the future in drought-prone Central Niger”, Clare Oxby illustrates how environmental risk, in particular drought, is dealt with differently by different parts of society depending on their economic and socio-political status. She distinguishes, on the one hand, the ruling Tuareg families who mediate access to crucial resources and who, thanks to their wealth in animals and people, have been able to cope with economic shock. On the other side is the impoverished majority of herders and herder-farmers whose responses to drought include economic diversification and increased mobility, and who crucially rely on patron-client relations with the better-off, namely the ruling families. At the same time, Oxby points out that the agro-pastoral communities she is working with tend to interpret drought-related crises in climatic rather than demographic or land use terms, while they acknowledge political factors, such as the government’s failure to support its citizens.

12The paper of Tobias Haller “Making Businesses in the Open: Coping with Economic and Institutional Risk and Insecurity in the Kafue Flats, Zambia”, applies an institutional economics approach to examine actors’ risk-reduction strategies in a volatile economic environment. Tracing political and economic transformations over the past one hundred years, he argues that both customary and state political institutions governing access to crucial resources, such as fisheries and wildlife, have lost their efficacy and have resulted in an uncontrolled open-access situation. Furthermore, the current government’s neo-liberal agenda with a strong focus on business – yet without providing functional institutions or market information – has exacerbated competition between local and immigrant groups over access to these resources. In studying the strategies of local actors, Haller pays special attention to magical means, such as the application of various medicines and luck magic in economic operations, which he sees as an attempt to transform insecurity into calculable risk and thus provide space for meaningful action in the future.

13Claudia Roth writes about urban youths in Burkina Faso who live in poverty and uncertainty and are torn “entre rêves de grandeur et pragmatisme”. She finds that despite the country’s economic growth, many jobless young people live in an inverted generational contract. That is, they depend on their parents for food and shelter, whereas society would expect them to take care of themselves and their parents. Roth then specifies the different ways in which these youths perceive of their situation and describes the methods they devise to deal with it. As she outlines, some take a rather pragmatic stance and step by step forge a way out of their impasse. Others withdraw and indulge in exaggerated visions of their future that rather immobilize them than provide a perspective for action. She identifies a minimum of social relations and economic means as crucial preconditions to overcome the situation. Thus Roth makes a strong argument for the significance of social and economic capital so as to be able to enact one’s future.

14In her contribution “Sending money or purchasing provisions?” Melissa Blanchard discusses novel strategies of Senegalese migrants based in the U.S. to remit money back home via an internet platform that offers delivering provisions rather than cash to the recipients. While remittances play a crucial role in maintaining family relations, migrants often experience the expectations of their relatives as overtaxing and even endangering their own future perspectives. The new option of investing their money in provisions to be delivered to or picked up by their relatives back home, gives the migrants the opportunity to exert greater control over the use the money is put to and over the demand for more remittances. Conversely, relatives at the receiving end are opposed to this new system and complain about the migrants’ interferences in their individual or communal decision making. Nonetheless, the new internet-based services are in high demand among migrants as they give them more leeway to mediate social relations and to reconcile their relatives’ expectations with their personal aspirations for the presence and the future.

15The paper of Kathrin Heitz “Risks and opportunities – Securing futures in Côte d’Ivoire’s violent crisis and beyond” follows two individuals on their paths of making a future at the eve of the civil war in Côte d’Ivoire. It explores the trajectories taken by each of the two men so as to secure their survival and future. While one of them opted to join the rebellion, the other decided against taking up arms and seized alternative opportunities by linking up with powerful actors. Heitz outlines that none of her actors employed a strategy of risk-avoidance, as popularly discussed in the literature on risk societies. Instead, they understood risk as a juncture or even a necessity to be embraced in order to open up new opportunities in life. Heitz thus argues for a complementary perspective that, in addition or as an alternative to risk avoidance, includes opportunity seeking as a relevant strategy for making a future in a highly insecure and instable environment.

Advancing the topic

16Which ideas can we derive from these varied papers that help us to understand the varied ways – both in their commonalities and particularities – of making a future in Africa? We will explore them in more detail in the following. The categories of social and environmental conditions, economic and social capital, cultural means of confronting risk, cognitive processes and the social dimensions of acting as part of a community provide the guideline for this.

Social and environmental conditions

17Quite in accordance with the ideas of Bourdieu and Johnson-Hanks, the authors refer to the category of societal and environmental conditions to comprehend ways of making a living and a future. Moreover, they differentiate between the dimensions of stable versus volatile contexts within this category. The articles thus refer to volatile contexts that are due to environmental hazard in Niger (Oxby), dissolving normative systems in Zambia (Haller), situations of political rebellion in Côte d’Ivoire (Heitz) or processes of pauperization among the urban population in Ouagadougou (Roth). Further information about causes for unstable conditions are provided, for instance, by the anthropology of hazard, risk and natural catastrophes which has been thriving over the past two decades. It has exposed many factors that produce or reinforce uncertainty in Africa. For example, Michael Bollig (2006) who studied hazards, risk perception and risk minimising strategies in two pastoral societies in Kenya and Namibia, identified the lack of institutional control as a key factor in producing insecurity.

18As noted above, we would also like to reveal the pervasive significance of volatile circumstances of action and scarcity of means in shaping many African actors’ attempts at making a future. Although five empirical examples do not allow us to reach far-reaching conclusions, we nevertheless gain the impression and cautiously propose that for many – though not all – Africans making a future is a task set in highly unstable or even deteriorating social and natural environments.

Economic and social capital

19Also quite in accordance with anthropological knowledge, the authors show that these stable or instable environmental conditions provide the contexts of action. Yet, actors also need economic and social means to confront their future. Depending on their position in the social structure, actors often dispose of different means. Economic and social capital is thus the second category employed by the authors. However, the authors differentiate between two dimensions here. Those without access to the necessary economic or social capital lack the ability to confront their future. This applies, for instance, to the unemployed youths presented by Roth as well as to the lower strata of agro-pastoral society in Niger. On the other side, Oxby shows that the upper strata’s wealth and power enable them to devise successful strategies so as to cope with environmental instability.

20Thus, as it appears from the data in the articles, for many Africans (even though not for all), making a future is not only set in a volatile environment, but they also lack the means to effectively muster these conditions. This argument has been corroborated by much ethnographic research (see e.g. Verne 2007).

Cultural practices of confronting risk

21A third point refers to the category of cultural practices of confronting risk. Several of the contributions in this volume engage with the concept of risk and its culturally specific interpretations. Haller shows how the Batwa, Twa and Ila of Zambia employ magical means in order to reduce the risk of failure in economic undertakings. In line with this thinking are the numerous works that point at the importance of divination in many African societies (Pecquet 2007). Divinatory procedures help the actors to anticipate the results of their actions and to decide if, how and when to act. They thus channel the actor’s behaviour by pointing at promising courses of action. Heitz points at yet another way of dealing with risk. She shows that in some societies and circumstances risk-taking may be seen as a virtue and a necessary condition for successful action. Risks are thus not diminished but sought, insecurity not avoided but confronted. As these examples illustrate, there is a diversity of cultural practices and models that can facilitate action under circumstances of risk and uncertainty. Magic, the use of divination, and risk-related virtues thus represent dimensions within this third category.

22Before, we have already pointed out that many Africans live under volatile social and environmental conditions and that they find it difficult to confront their future as they lack the means to do that. In a way, there seem to be connections, however, between the categories of volatile socio-environmental conditions and scarcity of means on the one side and the category of these cultural practices on the other side as these cultural practices seem to reflect the ubiquity of volatile environmental conditions as well as the scarcity of social and economic capital in many Africans’ lives.

23A side-remark might be in order here. Recently, Beck (1986) and others have come to characterise contemporary industrial societies as “risk societies”; by which they mean societies whose members tend to perceive technological and scientific advance as producing “manufactured risks” (e.g. nuclear accidents, environmental degradation, man-made epidemics and most recently, the global financial crisis) that are inconveniently unpredictable and overshadow humanity’s future. Risk societies are preoccupied with finding ways of controlling such situations and with insuring themselves against future risks. Since Beck wrote on risk society, risk appeared to be largely a problem for modern, technologically advanced societies. However, it needs to be stressed that people in other parts of the world are equally exposed to these and other insecurities, often beyond their responsibility or control. A few authors have addressed the question if African or technologically less developed societies may as well be conceptualised as risk societies. Mary Douglas (1992, Douglas & Wildavsky 1982), for example, argues that Western notions of risk are equivalent to “tribal” notions of danger, and makes a strong case for using the same analytical approach for both types of societies. The applicability of the risk concept to social phenomena in Africa has also been confirmed by Elisio Macamo (forthcoming) in his study on risk and social action in Southern Mozambique. In his view, technological risks are particular instances of a more general human tendency to translate hazards – meaning threats posed by nature – into risks. Taking into consideration the high degree of ecological, economic and political insecurity, Macamo argues that African actors are constantly exposed to various threats which they try to translate into risks and action so as to “tame their fate” or to make a future.

Cognitive processes

24There is yet another cultural component to one’s way of “making a future” that we have not dealt with so far; namely, the cognitive dimension which is the fourth category. People reflect on circumstances and devise strategies, there is no doubt about that, but they might differ in the way they do it. Bourdieu and Johnson-Hanks provide us with a preliminary interpretation. As we have seen earlier, Bourdieu differentiates between more and less coherent forms of planning, while Johnson-Hanks argues that the women she worked with forgo conscious planning for judicious opportunism.

25As a first step, it seems possible to reconcile both authors and then to further differentiate their topic. It appears that Bourdieu and Johnson-Hanks have different temporal stages of a planning process in mind. The Cameroonian women do not plan their future but remain alert to upcoming opportunities. While they are clear about their visions and desires, their situation does not allow them to realize them. They thus remain receptive to their environment, waiting for an opportunity to seize, a chance to act. Meanwhile, Bourdieu’s actors have already gone further and are now in a process of figuring out their future; some more, others less successfully. This comparison shows, however, that a comprehensive analysis of the process of planning remains a desideratum.

26Here, the contributions of other authors may show a way forward to grasp the cognitive aspect of what it means to make a future. Planning can have different properties or dimensions. It can, for instance, refer to different temporal horizons. In a recent article, Jane Guyer (2007) posits that in the United States a shift has taken place in temporal framing, away from the near future toward both very short and very long sightedness. In view of her experiences of the 1950s and 1960s in Britain, she now has come to notice a strange absence of the near future and a growing focus on the distant future, as reflected in macroeconomic and evangelical public discourse. Thirty years earlier, Dale Eickelman (1977) already made a similar point. Writing about the notion of time among the Bni Battu of Morocco, he showed that they differentiated between two types of futures, one that is nearer and a more distant one. The criterion according to which they distinguished the temporal spheres was that of previsibility mediated by social relations. That is, the close future can reliably be anticipated, as the social relations one is embedded in determine what will happen in the near future. The future that is, so to speak, beyond the reach of one’s social relations cannot be fully predicted. Consequently, short-term planning, so we might assume, should be more prevalent under these conditions than long-term planning.

27Moreover, as Piot has shown in his recent book “Nostalgia for the Future” (2010), different time-horizons will be filled with different content. He draws attention to the end of the Cold War as a historical moment that tremendously altered temporal orientations and imaginations of the future in West Africa. Basing his analysis on long-term familiarity with Kabre-society in Northern Togo, he notes a vibrant search for a “better future”, envisioned in Pentecostalism, transatlantic migration or connections with international NGOs. Piot’s descriptions resonate with some of the findings in this volume. For example, some of the Burkinabe youths in Roth’s paper aspire a future radically different from their parents’. Similarly, as Blanchard shows, Senegalese migrants and their relatives at home have developed diverging views about how the future should look like.

28We can thus see that the study of planning processes remains an open field for the study of making a future in Africa. Yet, we can also see that it should pay attention to the fact that these processes do not refer to the future as such but might tend to focus on certain temporal horizons to develop ideas about what the future within these temporal horizons might or should bring. At the same time, it seems to us as if the traces of a largely volatile environment and the scarcity of means to confront the future can also be seen here. The actors in Oxby’s, Haller’s, Roth’s and Heitz’s articles actually seem to focus on projects that relate to their nearer future. The distant future seems to be too difficult to predict. Moreover, the data seem to corroborate Bourdieu’s insight that effective long-term planning is more prevalent in a stable environment and under the condition of sufficient means; a finding confirmed by Roth with regard to the youths in Ouagadougou.

Social dimensions of acting as part of a community

29So far, we may have created the impression that making a future is largely a process in the hands of individuals. “The Other” only appeared under the category of social capital. This was, of course, a bracketing for analytic purposes. Actors are always nodes in a network of social relations. African actors, the same as anyone else, do not live in a social void but are embedded in social relations with kin, friends, neighbours, associates etc.

30The discussion about how to think the relation between individuals and social groups in Africa is of long standing. Under the heading of “totalitarisme lignager” (Augé 1977), we are introduced to ideal African actors who, of course, physically are individuals but socially they are not. They act as part of a community, they play social roles, share the same values and beliefs, pursue collective interests and execute communal decisions. Under such circumstances, making a future is always making a future for the community. However, reality is different, as Alain Marie (1997) has pointed out. He argues, for instance, that at least since colonialism, Africans have undergone a process of individualisation which as of yet seems incomplete; he talks of “une individualisation tronquée” (1997: 416). He notes that while many Africans have taken a distance from collectively held ideas, norms, interests and have started their own lives, they cannot escape the community’s grasp, reflected in what he calls the logic of the debt (1997: 420). Eventually, it is those who are able to integrate individual ideals and collective responsibilities who will achieve the highest degree of personal freedom.

31For those who make their future, social relations thus seem to function in opposite ways. On the one hand, the category of social relations can have the dimension of being restrictive. That is, actors are confronted with social expectations and may face sanctions if they do not fulfil them. The Senegalese migrants that Blanchard writes about conform to this model. They have left home and have developed new ideas of what they owe to others, while at the same time keeping in touch with kin and friends back home. This gives rise to conflict, as their relatives may try to impose their demands on them. On the other hand, the category of social relations can have the dimension of constituting a vital asset, providing assistance or engendering opportunities. This clearly transpires in Roth’s contribution. It is often through social relations that young Burkinabe are able to improve their lot. For instance, loans are given primarily by relatives or friends.

32The role social relations play in making a future thus often give rise to contradictory strategies. On the one side, actors try to engender social relations that also further their economic aims; a strategy observed in many of the articles. The poor herder-farmers in Oxby’s paper establish patron-client-ties with wealthy Tuareg herdsmen. One of the actors in Heitz’ article supports a political candidate to improve his own lot. Zambian women bind themselves to wealthier fishermen and offer housekeeping, cooking and sex in exchange for fish. Furthermore, many studies have shown that the control of risk has contributed significantly to cohesion in African societies (for an ethnographic example, see Spittler 1972). On the other side, one has to contain the expectations others have towards oneself, as illustrated in Blanchard’s paper. As a corollary of that, many Africans find themselves in a situation of continuous bargaining. They keep an eye on their personal progress, sustain and build up their solidarity networks, respect moral obligations towards others, satisfy the needs of some, choose to disappoint others and try to defend their decisions over and against themselves and others. While intense and continuous negotiation processes are part and parcel of social relations, the contributions in this volume suggest that they are even more pronounced in contexts of volatility and scarcity.


33To sum up, we took our departure from Bourdieu’s and Johnson-Hanks’ fruitful studies and hope to have fruitfully taken up their ideas and to have developed them a bit further. Firstly, we have presented an analytical grid that serves to describe modes of making a future in Africa. It takes into account actors’ environments, the availability of economic and social capital, cultural practices to deal with risks, cognitive processes, temporal horizons of planning, and actors’ positioning in a network of social relations as well as the different dimensions that fall into the scope of each category.

34Secondly, we believe to have identified commonalities that seem generally relevant for making a future in Africa. While, of course, it would be unthinkable that actors adopt the same attitudes or strategies throughout the continent, we cannot disregard the fact that there are similarities between the five cases presented here. The way the urban youths in Burkina Faso try to make a future, for instance, resembles strikingly the situation of the Senegalese migrants as both are involved in complex and difficult processes of social navigation and negotiation. A systematic comparison of more case studies may likely show patterns that are valid for a wider set of cases. On the basis of the five case studies in this special issue, we cautiously propose to consider the following findings: The environment often seems to be volatile, the means scarce and the course of the intended action uncertain. Risks are thus high and cultural practices (e.g. magic, divination, risk as virtue) may be used to tackle them. Planning for the future often refers to the immediate future, and a minimum of economic and social means is necessary for taking action. Social relations are marked by the interpenetration of the social and the economic and by permanent negotiation.

35Thirdly, we have come to understand that in all five case studies and in this moment in history, instability and scarcity are prevailing factors that shape actors’ strategies of making a future in Africa.

36We believe that by shedding light on the processes of making a future in Africa, this collection testifies to the validity of this subject. We therefore wish to extend the debate and to invite researchers to systematically engage with the many dimensions of making a future in Africa.

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Michaela Pelican

Junior professor Dr., department of cultural and social anthropology, university of Cologne, Germany

Jan Patrick Heiss

Dr., department of cultural and social

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