Life during wartime: aspirational kinship and the management of insecurity


  • The research on which this article is based was conducted in Guinea between September 1997 and March 2001. I gratefully acknowledge funding from the Social Science Research Council, the MacArthur Foundation, a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship, and the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. I also thank Bernard Bate, Siba Grovogui, Corinne Kratz, Paul Richards, Douglas Rogers, Ramon Sarro, and three anonymous reviewers for their constructive criticism and advice.
  • This article was originally dedicated to Ivan Karp, my graduate mentor, on the occasion of his retirement. Sadly I now have to dedicate it to his memory. Were it not for him, I would never have asked the questions that led to this article, and I'm glad he had the chance to read it, prompting a characteristically productive exchange, about two months before his untimely death.

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This article explores the ways that the institution of the avunculate has been used as an idiom for negotiating forced displacement, dispossession, and insecurity in the forested region where modern-day Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Côte d'Ivoire converge. The essay analyses the ways that the rights and responsibilities that inhere in the MB-ZS relationship are both invoked ‘aspirationally’ by those with no prior link of kinship and parried by those who should in principle be bound by them. This degree of play suggests that the avunculate in this region is best understood as one of several idioms used to legitimate claims made on others, often in times of uncertainty and instability. Rather than treat this relationship as an always-already existing social institution, the article suggests that it is also the product of a historical experience of persistent warfare, displacement, and flight.