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Making Businesses in the Open

Coping with Economic and Institutional Risk and Insecurity in the Kafue Flats, Zambia
Faire du business dans le vide : faire face aux risques économique et institutionnel dans les Kafue Flats en Zambie
Tobias Haller
p. 60-79


Cet article porte sur la différence entre le risque et l’insécurité, d’un point de vue anthropologique, en utilisant une approche critique du Nouvel Institutionnalisme. Le risque se rapporte à la capacité de réduire les effets indésirables, à partir d’informations qu’ont les acteurs sur les résultats possibles ; l’insécurité en réfère, elle, à l’absence de ces informations. L’étude de cas porte sur la Zambie, État d’Afrique centrale riche en ressources naturelles où s’applique désormais une politique économique néolibérale. Les acteurs locaux – hommes et femmes – font face à des risques et à de l’insécurité dans un contexte de marché situé en zones rurales comme urbaines. C’est en utilisant des moyens techniques et des stratégies de subsistance diversifiées qu’ils affrontent ces risques. On observe que le passage d’une gestion commune des ressources à un système d’accès ouvert, passage qui multiplie l’imprévisibilité des concurrents et des partenaires dans ce marché dit « libre », a conduit les acteurs à utiliser des techniques de magie pour réduire l’insécurité et établir des stratégies d’évaluation, adaptant ainsi la tradition à l’époque moderne.

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1In anthropological literature, risk and insecurity are not used as synonyms, but are clearly separated. They relate to actors’ knowledge, strategies and actions: while risk refers to the access actors have to assess possible outcomes, hence the possibility to diversify strategies (for example by using intercropping in agriculture), insecurity or uncertainty refers to the inability to assess the range of possible outcomes (see Allen Johnson 1971, Ortiz 1980, Lipton 1982, Smith 1988, Cashdan 1990, Haller 2001). The debate on risk and uncertainty bears relevance in the analysis of actors’ economic strategies in the rural, peri-urban and urban spaces that connect rural areas in the Kafue Flats of Southern Zambia with a group of smaller cities and the capital Lusaka. The Kafue Flats are rich in common-pool resources (fisheries, wildlife and pasture) which in recent years have become commercially valuable as a result of the government’s neo-liberal agenda that promotes their market-oriented exploitation. While in the pre-colonial and early colonial past access to common-pool resources was coordinated under local common property regimes, the transformation from common to state property during colonial and post-colonial times along with the inability of the state to enforce its regulations for sustainable development due to financial crisis, has led to open-access constellations. Monetary demands and high prices for common-pool resources in the peri-urban and urban markets compared to other commodities and for example state salaries have been pushing and pulling all actors to seek monetary income from these resources and “to make businesses”, as local people label this activity (Haller and Merten 2008, Haller and Chabwela 2009). However, how this can be done is an open and therefore risky as well as insecure matter with regard to resource access as well as to sales options.

2The paper explains the coping strategies where actors think they know the range of possible outcomes, and how they deal with complete or partial “ignorance”. The way the institutional setting – local as well as governmental – is structured, and perceived with regard to engendering options or losses, is crucial in this context. I will illustrate this range by using data from fieldwork done in Ila Chiefdom Nalubamba between 2002 and 2006, and which has resulted in a number of publications dealing with similar issues (Haller 2002, 2013, Haller & Chabwela 2009, Haller & Merten 2006, 2008, 2010, Merten & Haller 2007).

  • 1  The reason for this is that witchcraft does not empirically occur in such settings in the area of (...)

3As the data suggests, men and women who traded in fish and game meat were also involved in cattle stocking for trade. This range of options is linked to discourses about risk and insecurity relative to providing explanations and legitimacy for the success or failure of commercial actions of individuals. These strategies and legitimating discourses range from clear-cut local market calculations (e.g. price fluctuations, transaction and transport costs, government control, knowledge of competition and cooperation in peri-urban and urban settings), which I relate to risk reduction strategies, (high prices, transaction and transport costs, low government control, knowledge of competition and cooperation in peri-urban and urban settings) up to discourses on the uses of “magic medicines” (musamu) to improve luck and therefore success in an insecure economic and institutional environment. Of special interest is the Ila notion of quick and slow magic for economic gains. These mixed handling strategies for coping with risk and insecurity may seem contradictory. I argue, however, that local actors and households do differentiate between pragmatic risk options and spiritual insecurity-handling notions and which refer to local discourses between risky market forces and insecure institutional settings. From the position of New Institutionalism (Ensminger 1992) this mixed strategy is not to be seen as the remnant of an “irrational cultural” behaviour, but as making sense when it supports the ability of individuals and groups’ ability to remain proactive by transforming insecurity into risk (see also Marie 2002 and Macamo for other settings in Africa). In this sense we differentiate risk as having inherently a range of options from which one does not know which one will be the definitive result, while insecurity refers to not knowing the range of possible outcomes. Uncertainty can be transformed into risk by gaining further knowledge on possible outcomes and enabling action in a difficult setting and constellation. This is partly to what Malinowski (1948) referred to in his publication Magic, Science and Religion when he spoke of the role magic plays for “primitive” peoples like the inhabitants of the Trobriand Islands or others in order to transfer an uncertain situation by gaining knowledge into a more risky situation in which outcomes can be assessed. This notion of magic – although clearly distinguished by Malinowski from what he called science – provides explanations and justifications already available and easily adaptable not only in so called “traditional” but as well in so called “modern” contexts. This view falls in line with current interpretations of magic and witchcraft as responses to modernity rather than to a fallback into perceived tradition (e.g. Geschiere 1997, Comaroff & Comaroff 1993). However, this paper does not deal with the notion of witchcraft and black magic or negative magic (only as a negative consequence of importance in one case in this paper), a topic which was explored by Evans Prichard in the past and further outlined by Geschiere (Evans-Pritchard 1937, Geschiere 1997) just to mention the anglo-US tradition as well as by French scholars (examples such as Favret-Saada 1977, Bayart 1985, Tonda 2000)1.

  • 2  Fore more details see Haller 2013.

4Research was done in the Kafue Flats, Southern Province of Zambia, mostly in the Ila Chiefdom Nalubamba (area called Mbeza) but also in neighbouring chiefdoms such as Maala, Hamusonde and Choongo. Mixed method approach was applied in the research of 12 month between 2002 and 2004 with repeated visits to the area up to year 2010. During the first 12 months participant observation (local residence of researcher, man travels to different parts of the area such as seasonal fishing camps) in combination with open and structured interviews were done in order to develop a questionnaire for a survey in 6 villages and for expert and focus group interviews and 9 biographies were made focusing on institutional change of resource governance and economic strategies. Trade and value chain analysis was made with regard to fisheries and game meat trade2.

The Kafue Flats in Zambia: ethnic groups and economic development

5The area of research is located in the Kafue Flats, a seasonally inundated floodplain in the southwestern part of Zambia, its center being about 250 km away from the capital, Lusaka. The floodplain ecosystem is surrounded by a semi-arid area of woodlands and offers attractive environmental conditions for grazing, fishing and hunting as well as for agriculture when the water recedes. The area is well known in Central Africa for its richness in pastures and other of the common-pool resources such as fisheries and wildlife. The Flats were inhabited by a group of fishermen and hunters called Batwa or Twa, who see themselves as the first inhabitants. Although some Batwa resemble the San people, it remains unclear if their ancestry can be traced back to areas of these hunter-gatherer groups. In some of the scanty literature on the Batwa, it is argued that they also might come from the region itself and were made up of people looking for rescue in the Flats from more powerful groups (see Lehmann 1973, Haller 2013). Some of the settlements are as old as 300 years. They have a special shadow fishing technique peculiar to the area. However, politically the Batwa have very low status and are looked down upon but are also feared for their magic powers especially toward crocodiles and hippos. Estimations number them at 6,000 people at the beginning of the colonial period; now one finds only about 1,000 in the area, close to the levies of the River (see Haller 2013, Haller and Merten 2010).

6The Ila and the Plateau Tonga (see Colson 1970), also called Balundwe (see Smith and Dale 1968) were the second group to come to the area. Having the reputation in the past as extremely rich cattle herders (average of 13 heads per male adult, Fielder 1973), they also heavily relied on fishing and hunting. They number about 80,000 people living in 14 chiefdoms. Wealth in cattle today is very unevenly distributed, and after a cattle disease (Theileriosis parva, also known as East Coast Fever) by the end of the 1980s and early 1990s, many households of this once very rich group were left without cattle. Still, some Ila households in extended families are very rich and have large herds of 600 head or more. The political structure of the chiefdom stems from colonial intervention. Prior to colonial times the political structure was based on a type of big men (mwami) system. These big men were in constant competition with each other, trying to attract as many followers as possible, both for prestige and defense against wild animals and other raiding groups (such as the Lozi and others). Larger household groups are polygamous and young men move to the cattle camps after the water recedes to profit from rich pastures. Their relationship with the Batwa is friendly, as it is said that first arrivals actually married Batwa women in order to settle in the area. Nevertheless, the Batwa are regarded as being of lower status than the Ila view themselves.

  • 3  There are several rain-shrine places in the territory of the Ila, where ancestral and other spirit (...)

7For both the Twa and the Ila, animistic beliefs and ritual relationship with ancestral spirits are crucial for luck and rain making as well as for herd growth and generally for food provided in an insecure environment3. However, apart from the belief in ancestral spirits, there is the belief in other spirits, higher spiritual beings and in magic activities that play a central part in how successful one is as a unit or as an individual when it comes to material luck or luck in relationships. In general terms, people are using the term musamu, often related to special herbs, herbal mixtures or other substances which will help you to be lucky in social and economic activities and to be protected against bad luck (Smith and Dale 1968, Haller 2013). Musamu is bought from local medicine men or other places and is used at all levels of life to engender luck and protection. There is also a specific luck magic called isambwe that is related to musamu and which has two forms – the quick and the slow – distinguished by speed and the consequences its user faces. While the slow isambwe will help you to improve your luck and therefore your economic activities in a moderate way, the quick isambwe will guarantee fast success such as rapid increase of your herd, high luck in catching fish and wildlife – always in comparison to other actors. The slow isambwe will only make the actor pay the costs for the medicine men, who hand out the musamu; it does not demand any offerings. By contrast, the quick isambwe will cause damage in the beneficiary’s or a relative’s household, which is costly in the perception of local people. When children in the compound or in related households die or face major health problems, it is seen as the price to pay for the quick isambwe. Therefore, the local notion that “close relatives are the payment for the quick luck” illustrates the price for this option in the emic view.

8This notion of medicine and luck medicine is not unique to the Batwa, Ila and Balundwe; it is also found among immigrant Lozi fishermen, Tonga peasants and seasonally immigrating Bemba fishermen who think along the same line. For example, among Lozi and Bemba, boat leaders are thought to be powerful men who also have magical powers enhancing their fishing success and leadership skills. Success in catches is very much part of the same reasoning (Lamunière 1969).

Institutional change affecting the Kafue Flats

9Since colonial times the area has experienced enormous political and institutional changes in the political, economical and ecological context in which economic activities and especially business is done with significant impact on economic activities. Major change affected the political structure that had been fixed by the British colonial powers, first by the British South Africa Company, later on by the British administrators governing the area of today’s Zambia (former Northern Rhodesia). They appointed some individuals to be chiefs, yet largely ignoring those families whose forebears were big men in pre-colonial times. These newly installed chiefs began to distribute access to land for agriculture. In addition, major common-pool resources, the fisheries and wildlife of a chiefdom which before colonial times had been managed as common property by regulating access for a group of members according to locally devised institutions before colonial times, became the property of the colonial and later the post-colonial state. This means that common-pool resources like fisheries and wildlife were taken out of the hands of local people and were transferred into state ownership, managed by the state, which issued laws and amendments required for licenses to be obtained from the state. These included formal state laws regulating hunting and fishing. The colonial government was interested in a profit-oriented use of these resources to support food production for the growing mining areas. Meanwhile, legal institutions continuously restricted access to local groups while opening the commons to urban and peri-urban users, who now could obtain fishing and hunting licenses. The problem with this situation was that state property led to open access situations for these resources: neither local institutions dismantled by the state nor the state institutions were operational because the post-colonial state had insufficient financial means to monitor the resource use and sanction its misuse, particularly after the economic crisis of the 1970s. In addition, it was difficult for local actors to control these resource users coming in from outside. These argued that as citizens of the state, they were entitled to use the common-pool resources now belonging to the state, although meanwhile the state was not present to enforce its laws: a situation we have labeled the paradox of the present-absent state (Haller and Merten 2008, Haller and Merten 2010).

10With regard to agriculture, the Kaunda socialist government sponsored a green-revolution maize production scheme that increasingly undermined the traditional agro-pastoralist system and through subsidies encouraged maize production for sale in the area under study. However, state income was based on copper and as the price for copper fell drastically after 1975, the state lacked its most important source of income; it became indebted and incapable of enforcing the management of the fisheries and wildlife. Subsequent budget cuts reduced staff, management, equipment and the ability to enforce the law (see Gibson 1999, Haller and Chabwela 2009). In addition, cattle disease and several periods of drought left the Ila, Balundwe and the Twa with little margin to meet their livelihoods. This resulted in a push/pull dynamic in the area. Many jobless workers in the peri-urban settings learned that resources such as fisheries, wildlife and pastures were good options to meet their livelihoods, because access had become easy for them (Haller 2013, Haller and Merten 2010).

11This development had been fueled by the political change from a socialist government to neo-liberal governance in the 1990s (Ferguson 1999). Due to low income and excessive expenditures, the state of Zambia became heavily indebted and faced control measures by the IMF and the World Bank (Anderson et al. 2000). Chiluba, the new president at that time, was pushing for a more market-oriented capitalist economy. Less state support for basic economic activities and new neo-liberal market tools were propagated throughout the country. “Making business” was and still is the government’s keyword and has been picked up in this discourse by local actors. Looking at resources and market forces, one could frame the situation as making business in the open, because actors are exposed to and have to operate within an open access situation regarding the use of common-pool resources as well as market constellations and configurations.

12This current situation is not only risky but often very chaotic, unpredictable and unforeseeable (see also Ferguson 1999). I argue that in this setting actors try to reduce risk by diversifying activities and partners as well as by gathering information about their partners’ trustworthy behavior and reputation; i.e. rational economic minimax strategies as can be observed similarly in agricultural groups who opt for production strategies which do not give the optimal but the most secure results (see Lipton 1982, Netting 1993). However, in order to cope with insecurity and enhance luck, magic options are used.

13In the following, I will introduce ethnographic examples of how actors operate in different settings to cope with risk and insecurity. These situations and individual actions will illustrate two aspects. Firstly, that actors try to diversify economic strategies to buffer the risk perceived as known variations of outcomes. For these constellations a variety of technical, pragmatic strategies are used that are adapted to the market and do not involve any magical or religious techniques. Secondly, in situations of insecurity with no clear information about possible outcomes, help from supernatural powers is sought. While this corresponds to pre-colonial ideologies and institutions that shape strategic actions of people, it is not to be seen as a traditional way of thinking, but as a response to new insecurities engendered by neo-liberal market economy at the heart of contemporary modernity (Comaroff & Comaroff 1999, Geschiere 1997).

Coping strategies in risky and uncertain neo-liberal environments

14The subsequent case studies of people acting in these neo-liberal contexts include: men and women engaged in commercial fisheries and fish trade; men and women trading game meat; men active in growing their herds and in trade; as well as two biographical sketches of individuals’ business aspirations.

Men in commercial fisheries and men/women in fish trade

15Batwa, Lozi, Bemba, and for some time various Ila men have been engaged in commercial fisheries and in fish trade. Commercial fisheries was first in the hands of Lozi immigrants, attracted by the colonial government in the 1930s and later to provide protein for the urban areas, especially for mining towns in the north of the country. Other groups such as the Bemba joined in the 1950s and subsequent decades (Mortimer 1965, LaMunière 1969). Originally, local Batwa men were fishing for subsistence, but now also increasingly fish for commercial reasons. The subsequent account of the local headman of the Village Nyimba close to Lochinvar National Park illustrates Batwa strategies of how to influence nature in their favour:

16In interviews the Batwa headman describes how he uses different nets in order to buffer risk of low catches, especially since the area has seen an increase in seasonally immigrating fishermen. While on the one hand arguing that others are using destructive nets, he admits that he also has to reduce mesh size to get his catch. On the other hand, he has knowledge of where fish are reproducing, and avoids these areas during the rainy season, turning more to the main river and other inundated areas where he can find fish. The same as other Batwa he can assess if water is flowing into the main river, leading to bad catches or where catches are much better in the adjacent Chunga Lagoon. He also admits that he deals with several fish traders so as not to rely on just one dealer who may at times fail to attend the informal fish market in the National Park that takes place twice a week. However, to be sure of the catch, good relation to ancestral spirits, including ritual activities at sacred places are of great importance. In addition, magical links via ancestral spirits to hippos and crocodiles, a major threat to commercial fishermen, help to buffer the low bargaining power Batwa generally have compared to incoming commercial fishermen. Exhibiting this link and knowledge is an important strategy for the Batwa headman.

17Furthermore, achieving better catches compared to the Bemba or Lozi fishermen is important for local Batwa men because it impacts on their gender relations. Seasonally immigrant fishermen – Bemba and Lozi with more cash – are able to attract young Batwa women with the argument that Batwa men are primitive and of low social status. Therefore, trying to secure access to magical herbs (musamu) in order to have better catches and enhance better trade relations is of great relevance, not just for economic but also for social reasons. While the former elements are dealt with by using a minimax strategy to reduce risk (i.e. trying different locations for fishing, relating to different traders), the latter points refer to uncertainty, such as attacks by wild animals and the traders’ solvency which is all but certain. Knowledge in this realm is very scanty and one does not want to leave these things in uncertain hands, therefore using magic and rituals are considered appropriate means to engender favorable outcomes.

  • 4  Formal marriages would involve the transfer of 8 head of cattle to the relatives of the bride (see (...)

18Another consequence of the neo-liberal development and current open access situation is reduced access to fish for women because open access is favoring the more powerful commercial fishermen, local men and male traders (see section on institutional change and Haller and Merten 2008). Some of them are pushed and/or attracted by the seasonal fishing camps in the Kafue Flats where they engage in fish-for-sex deals and where women have to be in competition for wealthy fishermen. The process of going to the camps in the Flats is hard and risky due to long distances. In addition, finding access to wealthy commercial fishermen is not so easy. There is competition for temporal marriages or recognized sexual relationships outside marriage with these fishermen in the seasonal camps4. During the time women are there, they exchange fish for housekeeping, cooking and sex. We have outlined elsewhere that the reference to a pre-existing legal, customary setting reduced transaction costs for these activities for the women (Merten and Haller 2006). However, such a strategy might still be insecure in times of high competition between women. Buffering risk means that it is a wise strategy for a woman to have negotiations going on with different potential friends.

19Mary, an Ila woman (name changed) describes in one interview that these deals can be very uncertain. She stated that, “... there is the problem that marriage is not kept and that another woman tries to push you out, especially these women from town, who play all the tricks to get your man.” This can mean that a woman provides the service, but that a rival, also providing service, then gets the fish. Many women also act as fish traders, as the fish they receive in exchange for their services often exceeds their consumption needs. This again entails new risks and uncertainties. The women have to anticipate how they will trade the fish and how to transport it to local small towns or even the capital to sell.

20All of these strategies involve diversification of trade relationships. Luck is needed to get good deals, to keep the lover on standby while the woman is making businesses in town, and to kick potential rival women out of business. These are uncertain situations in which luck magic and love magic are used, as illustrated in the following statement of another Ila fish-trader woman:

One does not know what happens when one is not around in the area because one needs to go away for sale. One might come back and there is another one (woman). There are many conflicts in this context. If you have love magic and good musamu that is better.

21It is important to state that there is not only competition between Ila women but as well with women from local towns or even Lusaka, who come to the camps on a regular basis and with whom local Ila women have to compete (see also Merten and Haller 2006, Haller and Merten 2008).

Hunting and trading game meat

22Game meat is in high demand in urban centers and can be hunted only with a license and only in the game management area (GMA) around Lochnivar National Park. The most important animal is the endemic lechwe antelope. The number of its population has been reduced drastically from 100,000 to 40,000 to 20,000 animals, estimated over the last 30 years. While local Batwa and Ila are blamed for poaching activities, most poaching is in fact done by commercial hunters from towns (Haller and Chabwela 2009). In contrast to local people, these outside users can afford licenses, which allow them to hunt while accompanied by a scout from the Zambian Wildlife Authority, whom they pick in the National Park. In addition, calculations show that for local people licenses are expensive and difficult to receive in far away towns and there is suspicion by local Ila and Batwa men that outsiders hunt more antelopes than are allowed by the license (Chabwela and Haller 2010).

23On the one hand, these are structural problems related to institutional change and de facto open access constellation responsible for that situation. The former state wildlife management agency has been semi-privatized by the neo-liberal government and is now called ZAWA (Zambian Wildlife Authority). However, it often fails to generate enough income to pay salaries and secure equipment, which is far from sufficient. Therefore monitoring and sanctioning is very badly done. Locals view ZAWA officials as corrupt, allowing commercial hunters to shoot more animals than their licenses permit in order to boost their low salaries. On the other hand, many local Ila and Batwa feel that wildlife is a common-pool resource that has changed ownership from common to state property. Legally the resource is now taken out of their hands and the locals feel excluded from a resource, which they had been managing with local institutions in the past. The loss of hunting institutions and consequently, the general notion of hunting animals in their areas have now changed. “So, we go poaching”, is one of the often-heard arguments by local young hunters. Both situations of institutional change are responsible for the open access constellation.

24However, with regard to risk and insecurity one needs to differentiate. Despite the lax state monitoring, this activity is insecure business because if caught, these young men can be shot or sentenced to many years in prison, even if they are found with little game meat. Musamu is then often used in order to enhance luck so as not to be seen, while special magical herbs are given to dogs for successful and quick hunting in these difficult conditions. Although these young men have a broad knowledge of where the animals could be, where the scouts move to, and how to get a good hunt – all elements of reducing risk – the whole operation has many insecurities of being successful due to high competition with other poachers or caught by scouts. Luck magic for the hunter is, therefore, a kind of insurance for successful operations.

25Trade with game meat is another activity in which hunters and seldom women are engaged. What is needed in this clandestine business is the knowledge of networks, where to sell and where not to sell. While young men dry the meat and only take with them a few dried meat sticks for sale in the villages, others are engaged in larger fresh-meat trade in the towns. In this case, it is important to get around the road-blocks and to have a network in town in order to be sure that trade is safe. This is illustrated by the example of a local woman trader who tried to sell game meat in Lusaka. Not having a trade network in town, she ended up giving away all the meat for free, when things became too risky. She came home with bare hands. Apart from reasoning that she lacked the required network, she also attributed her failure to her neglect of using luck magic to facilitate the venture.

Men active in growing their herds and in trade

  • 5  80% of the cattle on average in the household-survey we did in 2002-2004 were said to have been lo (...)

26Another interesting case is cattle herding, breeding and trade. As mentioned in the introduction, many Ila households have lost all their cattle due to disease and have now to rely only on maize production, which has become difficult due to the loss of inputs that had been provided by the government before the financial crisis. But the fact that not all the Ila lost cattle and that some are doing very well, not only increasing the herd but having good crop yields under nearly the same conditions, leads many people to analyze this difference in terms of using either the slow or the quick isambwe magic. But there is another twist to this. While many cattle had been lost during the East Coast-Fever disease, ten years later many of them had not been able to recover their herds5. One interesting local explanation provides a link to institutional change, including a government law trying to protect widows and heirs from “cattle-grabbing” through the customary law.

27In this customary law one part of the herd is given to men within the kinship group, another goes to the dead person’s successor (“eating his name”). Therefore, widows and orphans have been excluded from cattle inheritance. The new state law on hereditary matters takes a different stance and now prohibits the application of customary law. It is of importance to understand that while the customary hereditary law gives no direct individual access for orphans and widows to cattle property, but obliges the dead person’s successor to act as owner and guardian of the common cattle herd of the group, which includes of course widows and orphans. But nowadays widows and heirs are increasingly aware that after the death of their elders, they can claim individual rights in cattle, which before were considered common property of the local extended family group. This change has consequences for the sale of animals. Based on the customary law, sales needed the informed consent of many kinship members and selling an animal, before a certain social and livelihood relevant herd size had been reached, was considered too risky (see Fielder 1973, Haller 2013). According to Fielder and my own data a household having more than 40 animals was thought save enough to start selling animals and therefore this number was a level indicating a traditional mini-max strategy for cattle sales (ibid.). However, young men and women are now able to access their own animals and are more vulnerable to selling cattle to traders who come to the villages and pay with cash on the spot, without considering traditional rules of animal sales. Therefore, many households that still had cattle after the disease, sold them, particularly those following the state law. Others however were trying to keep the herds together, and most of these extended families now still have large herds.

28Some also use magical means to facilitate decision on cattle sales. Rich cattle owners are especially proud of their so-called magical oxen, a male animal in their herd, which has been given special medicine (musamu). Besides using many techniques of control when cattle are in the Kafue Flats’ pasture, during moving and herding, there is much insecurity due to crocodile attack and theft. Magical oxen then provide additional control, as they are said to detect the dangers such as attack by wild animals or by thieves that herders cannot provide fully. There is, however, another very interesting point with these oxen in reference to market sales, as the example of a very rich cattle owner, Chrispin Okango (name changed), indicates. Using participant observation, I noticed that most of the time Chrispin would take his oxen to the herd when he wanted to sell an animal. The oxen would give him secret signs to indicate if and which cow should be sold. Despite the knowledge people have on the quality of cattle, they include magical means in their assessment because selling an animal is always a difficult decision. It could also be that an animal important for reproduction or for other reasons is sold and therefore sales can imply uncertain reactions from kinsmen and from the herd itself – making sure that an important animal is not sold. Using magic oxen to perform this service seems to be providing the security needed in this matter because the decision is delegated to a supernatural agency, which is perceived as providing a more secure decision.

General Business aspirations: jobs, small stores, trade with different items. Two biographical sketches

29While the previous examples have been drawn from different resource sectors, it is also important to see these dynamics in the life span of a person or a group because it shows individual strategies during a longer time span than indicated up to now. In the following, I will provide two brief case studies, which illustrate how people assess their successes and misfortunes with regard to risk and insecurity.

A common goal: rich household with three young women

30The first case describes a rich farmer’s household in the village Shikapande, where we did fieldwork. The following part is a section from participant observation diary recording the author’s visit in 2003.

31Vincent Chungu (name changed) is seen as one of the richest persons in the Chiefdom Nalubamba; he lives close to our compound. He is not only rich because of his cattle and his agricultural productivity, his wealth in machinery is also very impressive. He and his three young wives (ranging from 19 to 26) have invited us to have a drink. We arrive at the house that looks more like a ranch than a traditional Ila house. We are greeted by the three women. Immediately, they are keen to show us their businesses, chicken, vegetables, goats and handicraft. All of them have their own activities. The women say that they are very mobile between the cities and the village, while the ones staying home care for the household and look after the children. The three women and Vincent immediately change their role in the conversation and start to ask us many questions after having shown their wealth. They would like to know how we are doing economically and what we do to increase our wealth. They really try to interview us and get as much information as possible, hoping to get some usable knowledge from us for themselves. It rather feels like talking to a company representative than leading an open interview with members of a household. Vincent talks of agricultural machinery, cars and cattle breeding and wants to know how we in Switzerland do this and how we use, what I would term synergic effects in the household. I am rather ashamed to say that I do not own a tractor and that I am not so good in business... During the talk luck magic related to success is mentioned and I realize that there are different discourses taking place: the on-stage discourse is that luck is there and the household members are good at organizing it. I mention that I guess I need a little bit of slow isambwe to boost our bad businesses and this provokes a great laughter. I thereby hint at the local off-stage discourse (gossip by local people in the village about the family) that goes: they have at least the slow isambwe. In a later talk Vincent admits that:

... well, we are well organized and there has been no death in the family so far so no evidence of quick isambwe... (He laughs). But well (he twinkles with his eyes) maybe I have the slow one. You know, business is often insecure, you can’t leave just normal luck take its way, you might need some help. But most of it is work and knowledge, and low conflict in the household! (he adds quickly).

32This example indicates that in a context of high competition, diversification and good planning in the households is seen to bring wealth. The household is thereby able to reduce risk and to succeed in its operations. However these are executed in a very insecure context of high competition both in the local area and when the actors go outside for their businesses. In order to buffer this insecurity the household head indicates that magic might be an option while clearly differentiating between the acceptable slow magic and the inacceptable slow one by which a member of the compound or related households would be killed.

“Trying so hard”: a social drama of the intelligent man

33While some people are successful, there are also cases of misfortune. Again in a more biographical sketch, this is related to the supernatural. The last example illustrates the popular argument that even with everything being well-organized, you might not be successful, if you lack magical powers. It also relates to what Turner has called social drama (Turner 1968) however transformed in a modern context. Thomas Kasuta (age 40, name changed) was giving me a biographical interview and, while recounting his life, became fully aware of all the misfortunes he had gone through, indicating the different phases of his lifespan. In a nutshell his story can be told as follows. During school he was very enthusiastic about his good marks and when ending school, the vision of going out to urban areas was logical to him. The basic notion was: “... and there I will make it away from the small world of the village!” But then he was always only nearly appointed for a bank desk management job as well as other office jobs. One time a family member in town even stole his CV, diplomas and reference letters and presented himself successfully for a blue-collar job. Frustrated, Thomas returned home to the rural area where he picked up different activities, believing that his management skills would help him. He began to grow vegetables, after that he started a small grocery shop, subsequently he engaged in poaching and selling game meat to Lusaka, then again buying second-hand cloth and selling it in the village. During this time he tried to invest in different machinery for agricultural production. He was trying to spread risk, but the insecurity of market and market prices always let him fail. For example prices for maize were fluctuating greatly and there were problems with transportation. When he engaged in cattle trade, East Coast fever hit the area and his cattle, so he had to stop. Machinery broke down or was damaged by family members out of misfortune or sabotage due to domestic or other problems. And on top of it all, the state released relief food and, as a consequence, prices for maize dropped. In such situations he was often too slow and did not sell at the right moment to profit from his business. At the end of the interview he said:

I have been trying so hard all these years and there is always a problem. Despite my good school results and my networking, I always fail. It is always good in the beginning and then something goes terribly wrong. You know out of domestic problems with my wife she was seeing someone else. So I got angry, because she was seeing someone. In addition I married again, because I need someone to rely on in the household. I then gave my grinding mill to my new wife. But it got broken, you know. My first wife put sugar in the tank of the grinder so it got broken. All these problems I have! Others who are successful do not have them. They have women who support them and they do something in order to be lucky. I guess, I have to do that too.

34This statement shows Thomas’ frustration, with many of the misfortunes based on market insecurity and other aspects, such as relationships in a context of competition. Clearly, Thomas does see that one part of the problem is his domestic drama. While I could observe during my fieldwork presence in the area that he did everything to buffer risk and to invest in businesses which are less risky (for example trading in cloth, running a small shop, engaging in activities for the local chief), he is unable to cope with the insecurity entailed in social relationships, yet which are important to perform in the market. The success of his neighbors – who actually face the same problems as he does – leads him to think that effort does not suffice, but luck is needed. However, luck does not just happen, you must do something for it – you have to use luck magic. The same with misfortune in these businesses: in order to do well one has to push for it; it is not just there for some and not for others. Using magic can make the difference. It reduces being exposed to all the bad luck out there and by using it, you reduce the psychological stress of not having done everything you can possibly do to make things work.


35These examples indicate that people in the Kafue Flats are not “traditionally” bound, but are clearly able to distinguish between a risky environment and the insecurity of developments which are beyond their control. While similar situations also occurred in earlier periods, they now reappear in the current context of neo-liberal market forces. Noting the experience that things like market forces, market trends, access to jobs and access to the market itself for different actors cannot be assessed in terms of risk-coping strategies. In addition, competition has increased. This also links to the notion of individualisation of the subject in African contexts as a reaction to the neo-liberal trend outlined by Alan Marie in several publications (1997, 2002). It becomes evident that in most cases people do not just feel insecure, but also left on their own individually, or on their own household in the best case. This is an important insight in the debate on livelihood strategies because the individualisation in fact increases insecurities as it becomes more difficult to maintain networks of reciprocity, in a similar way as Marie has written on issues of debts. Therefore, it is not illogical, but part of a strategy rooted in rational choice to seek help in techniques such as magic – known for hundreds of years.

36In the literature on magic, Evans-Prichard (1937) points out the practical notion of such belief systems, because they provide a framework of analysis, which in itself is logical. While scolars such as for example Devereux (1956) and MacIntyre (1970) claim that such action and beliefs are irrational thinking, Winch lays the foundation for a more comprehensive approach to such phenomena. For him such actions and strategies are still quite rational in the respective cultural context because of the coherent thinking that provides the basis of thought (Winch 1970). On the other hand, however, these authors fail to see that the notion of magic in the modern market context is far from being traditional, but a response to the modern insecurities caused by changes in institutional settings (see as well Chabal and Daloz 1999, Geschiere 1997). Specialists then provide access to “medicine”, which shall reduce the uncertain modern situation. If this does not work, it is because the magic was too weak or someone else had a musamu which was stronger. The combination of buying mystical powers, trying to get support from the ancestors and performing rituals in a modern context is not a contradiction, but a strategy of rational actors to accommodate themselves to insecure market forces; it is part of the adaptation to the modern business world in which many things remain open and difficult to assess. Therefore, the modern insecure context provides a nice fit for old and new magic, in order to be lucky in the neo-liberal market order that has now invaded all sectors of the community.

37While fishermen rely on magic for good catches, female traders use it to secure their lovers provisioning them with fish, “poachers” and sellers of game meat trust on the efficacy of magic to protect them against apprehension. Successful business people use and are aware of luck magic in cattle trade and related ventures, while unsuccessful actors explain misfortune with their failure to use magic. This is, as we would argue from a New Institutionalist perspective, not just a cultural means of dealing with risk and insecurity, but a way of producing information in a situation where information is extremely difficult to obtain. Referring to magic, however, reduces the effort to come up with more information. But it helps to transform perceived uncertainty into risk (into a range of possible outcomes and therefore provides information) and thus facilitates action even in an insecure environment.

38Therefore this paper tries to go further than Geschiere (1997) and Chabal and Daloz (1999) although it does not address issues of negative magic and witchcraft, which are not of relevance in this context. The paper indicates that there is rationality behind the strategies of minimizing risk by diversification, and insecurity or uncertainty by using magic. Many of these perceived insecurities stem from external factors and from changes in relative prices for goods and services. As the commons become open and extremely valuable and as social networks become unrealiable due to the notion of individualisation, local actors have to do more than just to reinforce old and new mini-max strategies in order to reduce risk (diversifications and information gathering). They take up old strategies of creating securities and adapt them to new contexts. Recourse to magical means is therefore not just a reaction to modernity but a way of coping with modernity at large (Appadurai 1996), and there is much more strategic action behind these luck-magic institutions than would be admitted by most researchers of the phenomenon. It is in one way to be understood as a reaction to modernity, here increasing insecurity of a neo-liberal market and the erosion of securing institutional setting granting access to common-pool resources and services. However this is not what Geschiere discusses in the sense why and how different forms of reference of supernatural power is used. It is therefore rather in Appadurai’s notion of modernity at large as it is enshrined in the modern neo-liberal economic world order and how this order transcends from the global via the national to the local level in an extended and therefore often uncontrolled way. Magic in the sense used among the people described in this paper is used to face the increasing insecurity and totality of modernity.

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1  The reason for this is that witchcraft does not empirically occur in such settings in the area of research. It is true that for example Evans-Prichard peaks of magic related to witchcraft in a relational way. But as witchcraft is not the issue here, but magic is in this setting, I will not discuss witchcraft further, while acknowledging that Evans-Pritchard as well as Geschiere see this phenomenon as being related.

2  Fore more details see Haller 2013.

3  There are several rain-shrine places in the territory of the Ila, where ancestral and other spirits (mizhimo) take possession of ritual masters, who than talk in the voice of that spirit and are celebrated by a local group of people in order to help to “produce” rain during and after this ritual (see 2013).

4  Formal marriages would involve the transfer of 8 head of cattle to the relatives of the bride (see Haller 2013).

5  80% of the cattle on average in the household-survey we did in 2002-2004 were said to have been lost between 1989 and 1992 (Haller 2013).

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Tobias Haller, « Making Businesses in the Open »Journal des africanistes, 84-1 | 2014, 60-79.

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Tobias Haller, « Making Businesses in the Open »Journal des africanistes [En ligne], 84-1 | 2014, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2014, consulté le 27 janvier 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Tobias Haller

Associate professor Dr., Institute of Social Anthropology, University of Berne, Switzerland

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