Reversed Gaze, Chapter 4: Remembering Home, Contrasting Experiences

Ntarangwi, Mwenda. (2010). “Remembering Home, Contrasting Experiences.” In Mwenda Ntarangwi, Reversed Gaze: An African Ethnography of American Anthropology (p.78-100). Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.

Mwenda Ntarangwi’s fourth chapter in Reversed Gaze, reflected on the use of anthropology to study one’s self and one’s culture. Even despite Western anthropology’s predominantly studied Other, Ntarangwi was convinced of the value of reflecting “upon one’s own culture” (p.78). In this chapter he demonstrated how the combination of his various geographical locations and his anthropological training, allowed him a unique vantage point from which he could ‘gaze’ and his own Kenyan culture.

After two years of graduate studies in America, Kenyan born Mwenda Ntarangwi, returned home for a visit. Revisiting Kenya presented Ntarangwi with his first real opportunity to conduct anthropological analysis. He hoped that his two-year absence, combined with his degree in anthropology, was “good ethnographic training that would make [him] more aware of the cultural realities and practices in [his] own country” (P.85). Throughout his visit, and through various conversations with family members, Ntarangwi became increasingly aware of the disparities between the African imagination of America, and the reality of Africans living in America. Ntarangwi noticed that in his absence the cost of living had increased, while many Kenyans were receiving below minimum wage. This enlarged the already existing gap between the rich and the poor. Ntarangwi felt that these problems “added to the lure of leaving Kenya for greener pastures abroad” (P.86). Prior to his move to America, Ntarangwi admitted that he believed Western tourists to be very wealthy. It was only once he visited America and interacted with Americans, he learned that the majority of Western tourists save for several years in order to amass enough money to make these two-week Kenyan excursions possible. However, it was noted during our weekly seminar, that although Ntarangwi stresses that money in America doesn’t grow on the “proverbial trees” (P.81), Americans are still rightfully perceived as wealthier. Despite the time it might take Westerners to save enough money, they spend their saved money on a vacation. America might not be correctly perceived as “the land of milk and honey” (P.81), but it is worth considering that it is a land with ‘more milk and more honey’ than often Africa has to offer.

The idea of America as the ‘greenest’ of pastures was echoed by Ntarangwi’s conversation with his family. He was advised to remain in America in order to presumably make money. During his family’s dinner conversation, rumored American salaries were discussed. Ntarangwi’s relatives fantasized about a job at an American gas station, which one family member claimed paid up to $16 an hour (P.86). Ntarangwi admitted skepticism towards the validity of this salary. He also noted an absence of the costs of medical insurance, taxes, car insurance, rent or mortgage, etcetera, in his family’s ‘fantasy’ calculations. The cost of living in America was wrongly compared to that in Kenya. Ntarangwi noted that the shared imagination of America as a land with abundant opportunities, contributed to the culture shock experienced by many new African students studying in America. “Many [Africans] who were used to help in their homes in Africa are amazed to realize that daycare is very expensive [in America]” (P.79). More so, due to visa statuses and economic needs, many African students find themselves working jobs they likely wouldn’t have considered in Africa. However, the salaries of laborious jobs are often not sufficient. Many Kenyan students quickly realized that they required the “financial support of their parents or relatives in Kenya, [in order] to make it through their first few years of college” (P.87). Regardless of reality, the image of America as a plentiful land is perpetuated. Upon their return, these struggling students don’t reveal that their time in America was spent working the “dirtiest and most demanding jobs” (P.87). Instead, they theatrically play the role as an individual who has greatly benefited from the wealth of America.

Ntarangwi doubted his ability to reveal the truth about ‘American wealth.’ After all, “who would believe [him] when [he] told his friends and family members that it is hard living in America” (P.87)? He ultimately decided that the best strategy would be for people to find out for themselves. During our seminar one student hypothesized that Ntarangwi may have refrained from revealing the ‘truth’ about America due to a family’s, and often a community’s resources that are pooled in order to send someone to America. Ntarangwi stressed the Kenyan spirit of helping one another in contrast to the rugged individualism that he experienced in America (P.92). Perhaps a more nuanced image of America is avoided because it would greatly disappoint existing contributors, and maybe repel potential contributors. Thus hindering “Harambee,” the Kenyan national slogan for pulling together (P.92).

A large portion of Ntarangwi’s chapter four was dedicated to the illustration of the imagery of America as a wealthy nation in Africa. However, Ntarangwi never implied that he himself travelled to the West due to a monetary hunger. Rather, throughout the text, Ntarangwi implied that his reason for travelling to the West was due to his pursuit of enriching his existing field of study. Prior to his graduate school training, Ntarangwi described his feelings of suppression while focusing on popular music. In his existing study of poetry and popular music, Ntarangwi desired an incorporation of a more holistic approach. He felt that an anthropological training would grant him the liberty to do just that. However, anthropology was, and “continues to be a very marginal discipline in Africa generally and in Kenya in particular” (P.94). Thus his educational advancement needed to advance in a more Western direction. During our seminar it was questioned why Ntarangwi specifically chose to study anthropology in America. We considered that an anthropological training in the United Kingdom would have been just as beneficial, as well as closer to home. It was agreed that it would have been enriching for Ntarangwi to elaborate on his choice to study in America. Without his explanations, the reader is left wondering if he was influenced by the African image of America, perhaps more than he was willing to admit.

Despite the “near absence of anthropology departments in African insulations,” Ntarangwi noted that the discipline is essential in understanding Africa’s innumerable social, economic, and political challenges (P.94). By explaining certain underlying practices or beliefs that aren’t always apparent, Ntarangwi stressed the importance of anthropology, as well as the need for African anthropologists. However, in order to transform anthropology into a discipline with more significance, Ntarangwi remained convinced that “a more defined collaboration between anthropologists in the North and those in the South” (P.97), is required. Through Ntarangwi’s American publishing, distribution, and general ethnography about Africa, rather than from Africa, our class determined that he was mainly writing for a Western audience. Perhaps Ntarangwi’s perceived collaboration solution was his leading motivation. Perhaps he imagined that the West needed to be made aware of their potential role in leveling the anthropological playing field.

Ntarangwi communicated his belief that his anthropological training equipped him with a unique awareness and a heightened sense of observation. However, in order to gain anthropological training Ntarangwi was required to travel Western universities, were anthropology was offered as a distinct discipline. This meant he was geographically distanced from his site of study. Ntarangwi explained that this critical distance combined with his anthropological training, “enabled him to step outside of his own culture and observe it from some outside position” (P.93). Ntarangwi’s unintentional combination for obtaining a new set of sociocultural lenses, begs the question if a training and distancing from one’s sight of study are necessary. Did Ntarangwi obtain access to an objective gaze that is unattainable to Western trained anthropologists who continue to study their own culture in the West? Ntarangwi brings up a good question, one worth exploring for Western anthropologists studying Western cultures.

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One thought on “Reversed Gaze, Chapter 4: Remembering Home, Contrasting Experiences

  1. Excellent closing question–these are some of the taken-for-granted truths of our discipline that need to scrutinized. The “great” thing about alienation, for example, is that it “allows” you to achieve criticism precisely while being “up close” and in direct contact with the object of critique. The physical distance itself is virtually irrelevant in this case.

    Now, much more boring: while I found no real stylistic faults with the writing, please go back and reformat this so that it is fully justified with the margins.

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