Introduction Strategies of Belonging in Indian Ocean Island Societies

In: Across the Waves
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Iain Walker
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Marie-Aude Fouéré
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Belonging is oft invoked in the literature on migrations, diasporas and identities; but despite some attention in recent years, and various levels of theorisation, the term is still frequently employed without much consideration for its meaning, presumably because belonging, in its vernacular sense, is perceived as largely unproblematic, somehow instinctive: we all know what it means to belong because we feel and experience it – or do we? In the sense in which it is often used, belonging is an attribute, a characteristic, or perhaps a perception or sentiment, of a person (or people) admitting or claiming membership of a collectivity – be it social, cultural, political. It requires consciousness of a whole of which a person claims to be, feels to be, or feels entitled to be a part: “to be appropriate, suitable, or fitting”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary “to be a follower or adherent of a person, a subject of a ruler, a member of a family, a native or inhabitant of a place.” Whether or not it is possible to belong nowhere is moot: most people do appear to belong somewhere, whether they like it or not. Even those who do not belong in a civic sense, such as non-citizens or stateless individuals, may well belong in a social or affective sense, and they may aspire to and strive towards a more secure civic belonging.

Interest in the concept of belonging started growing in the first decade of the century. The cognate concept of identity was increasingly being criticised for being too essentialist and too inflexible; belonging, in contrast, promised fluidity, contingency and variability (Bell 1999). Yet, as so often with terms that seize the scholarly imagination, much subsequent use of the concept has tended to invoke it somewhat formulaically. Thus in a small handful of recent articles1 we have references to “migrant belonging”, “transnational belonging”, “diasporic belonging” (Wilcock 2019: 183, 184), “territorial belonging”, “transborder belonging”, “ethnic belonging”, “indigenous belonging” (Barenboim 2018: 124, 127), “national belonging” (Damaledo 2018: 27), “multi-sited belonging” and “homeland-oriented belonging” (Wilcock 2019: 192), a “sense of belonging” (Damaledo 2018: 25), “notions of belonging” and “moments of belonging” (Drazin 2018: 535), “expectations of belonging” (Drazin 2018: 547), “expressions of belonging” (Wilcock 2019: 190) and a “sentimental idea of belonging” (Eckersley 2017: 8). The variety of qualifiers, and particularly those such as senses, notions, expectations and ideas, would appear to be confirmation that the concept of belonging remains somewhat nebulous, experiential, subjective, or simply ill-defined; and while a degree of flexibility in the meaning of a concept is not necessarily undesirable, a definition is a necessary pre-requisite to any such flexibility.

In light of these observations, and as a contribution to theorisations of the concept of belonging, in 2018 one of us organised a conference entitled “History and Politics of Belonging in African Indian Ocean Island Societies”.2 The participants at this conference addressed the theme of belonging in the islands lying off the eastern coast of Africa – the Comoros, Réunion, Mauritius, Zanzibar and Madagascar – and the title of this collection, which emerged from the conference, Across the Waves, reflects the place of migrations and mobilities either in the constitution of the populations of the islands themselves, thus shaping the general social context, or, more specifically, in the analyses that follow. These island societies, characterised by dynamics of inclusion and exclusion, rootedness and mobility, are unique contexts for an understanding of belonging and this conference seemed likely to be a productive theoretical and empirical conjuncture. The historical trajectories of these islands have produced complex societies founded on different waves of migrations, be they forced (slavery), semi-forced (indentured labourers) or free (including migrations prompted by social, economic or political pressures in the homeland). Migrants have come to these islands from the African mainland, South and East Asia, the Arab world and Europe, and they have either constituted new societies or inserted themselves into older ones – themselves also constituted by migrants. Histories – of the people and of the islands – in official practice, in public texts and in collective narratives, thoroughly shape social relations and cultural practices of belonging in places where everyone is an immigrant.

The chapters in this volume provide insight into belonging both as an analytical concept and as a real-life array of practices and representations that people use to foster inclusion, ensure security, benefit from specific rights, and seek protection from others – those who do not belong. The authors consider questions such as who belongs and who does not, and how such decisions are made or such feelings shaped and performed; who came first, and whether those who came first should be entitled to more rights than latecomers. How do positions of subalternity – informed by the legacy as well as by current forms of socioeconomic stratification, racial hierarchy and gendered asymmetry – shape not only the parameters of belonging, but capacities to claim or reject belonging? Does belonging rest in the gift of the state, or is it based on criteria that lie beyond the purview of the state, such as ancestry, kinship and religion? These are not just scholarly questions: the peoples of these islands regularly debate these issues, in words and practices, in formalised settings or in street-corner discussions, between themselves and in relation to the state; through various kinds of struggles, they constantly reaffirm or redraw the boundaries between those who belong and those who do not, at various levels – family, lineage, ethnic, racial, community, national.

Belonging, therefore, as explored at the conference, was conceptualised as referring to something that, while often experienced as personal and intimate, is nevertheless a social process that reflects a relationship, implying claims, negotiations and performances through which the boundaries between those who belong and those who do not are constantly drawn and redrawn. The drawing of these boundaries is of course a process of negotiation, contestation consensus and, often, rejection. The dynamics of inclusion and exclusion, rootedness and mobility, in these islands, are unique contexts for an understanding of belonging.

1 Belonging and Identity in a Mobile World

Problematisations of the concept of belonging emerged in tandem with, although perhaps slightly marginal to, interests in transnationalism and globalisation that have marked various disciplines since the latter years of the last century. Mobility almost inevitably prompts questions about belonging as individuals and groups arrive in places where they have few connections and find themselves faced with the problems of integration in societies that, initially at least, may be quite alien to them. Belonging thus becomes a useful concept in considerations of how people confront these others and are confronted by them, and of the sorts of processes, perspectives, sentiments and expectations that shape the ways in which they seek and are granted (or refused) both formal acceptance and personal quietude.

These sorts of questions almost inevitably raise further questions, particularly about identity, and of the relationship between identity and belonging, for clearly there is one. Although belonging was long conflated with identity3 it is clear that there is an analytical distinction between the two, even if an individual’s identity is crucial to establishing belonging: sharing an identity with those around you seems like a prerequisite to belonging – necessary, even if not sufficient. And so, inevitably, come questions, of the differences between belonging and identity, and of what sorts of belonging there might be. Most immediately, there are differences in kind between identity and belonging, for although both words are nouns, identity is a noun in the classic sense – we may talk about an identity, her identity, identities, and so on – whereas belonging is a gerund, a verbal form that functions as a noun: we cannot speak of “my belongings” (except in the sense of belongings qua possessions, more of which below). In other words, and as Floya Anthias has observed, identity is category, belonging is process (Anthias 2012, cf Anthias 2002).

Identities are not easily manipulated, in the sense that there are socially negotiated conventions as to what sorts of criteria allow an individual to assume a particular identity. To be a father for example, requires that the individual claiming father-ness be (usually) a man and have (in some way) a child. Granted, social and cultural criteria provide for a certain flexibility in what exactly this requires (that he be genitor of a child, that he merely be the partner of a woman who has given birth to a child, that he has adopted a child, and so on), but it would be difficult for an individual who had no particular relationship with any individual child to claim to be a father, or to attempt to change the meaning of the identity “father” to encompass men (or indeed women) who do not have a child. Identities are categories, descriptive vessels, perhaps, that contain sets of attributes that provide parameters for individuals, groups, to claim them: they are defined, perhaps polythetically, and socially agreed; they are subject to change, certainly, their boundaries are fluid and permeable, but change, if not always slow, requires negotiation and consensus. And once claimed, these identities then provide parameters for behaviour that recursively reinforce definitions of those same identities. Note of course that an individual may have claims to dozens of identities, each of which provides him or her with a persona with which to act in particular contexts – “father”, “farmer”, “Malagasy”, and so on.

Belonging is quite different. Although belonging is contingent upon identity, it is not a form of identity; nor does it necessarily contribute to the construction of identities, at least not directly. It is process, but it is a particular sort of process. One can claim to belong (again, a verb) if one meets the criteria that grant access to an identity. I can feel a sense of belonging to the group “fathers” if I am a man and I have a child. However, belonging also requires consensus and acceptance, and if being a father is a relatively straightforward identity to claim, others – and particularly the sorts of identities we are concerned with in this volume – are less so. Not only does an individual need to meet the criteria for belonging, but the group of which belonging is claimed needs to accept the claim; and there is the possibility of individual refusal of belonging – even if objectively meeting the expected criteria –, a refusal that may then in turn be met with enforced belonging, that is, belonging imposed by the group and by inter-groups dynamics, as, for example, in Desplat’s analysis of Malagasy youth (this volume). Any consideration of belonging therefore requires a multi-scalar perspective that does not simply look at the individual but considers various levels of groupings, each grouping having its own ways of and reasons – both structural and contingent – for drawing lines between those who belong and those do not: Mauritian, Indo-Mauritian, Hindu, Tamil (Ramtohul, this volume).

2 Political, Affective and Social Belonging

The preceding paragraphs raise far more questions about belonging, the nature of belonging, how it is claimed (or declined) and accorded (or refused), than they answer. However, as we shall see, the concept of belonging allows for much flexibility, too, both in terms of whether or not belonging is agreed and in terms of what groups belonging concerns. One may belong to all sorts of different groups and in different ways – a decisive aspect of belonging in the Indian Ocean islands under scrutiny in this volume.

We may distinguish two sorts of belonging (e.g. Antonsich 2010, Yuval-Davis 2006), the ‘political’ and the ‘affective’. As is often the case, the distinction sometimes appears to be more analytical than real, and following Anthias (2013), some may wonder about the utility of separating the two. An individual who claims affective belonging will have difficulty sustaining the claim if rejected politically, whether in a literal sense – how to belong in Mayotte if you are deported to Ndzuani (Walker, this volume)? – or a more practical one: how to belong if you are denied basic political and economic rights there, such as a residence permit or access to public housing? Certainly, there are differences between the political and the affective, but both affect us in similar contexts and are deeply intertwined. Take, for example, (political) citizenship and (affective) “ethnic” identity, both fields in which choices may need to be made: do you apply for an identity card, register to vote, sing the national anthem, pray in the village mosque, eat at someone else’s wedding, dig your neighbour’s grave? In other words, if identity provides the categorical parameters, belonging provides the negotiated contextual fluidity. This does not mean that there is no socially constructed essentialised “norm” to which people aspire; rather that achieving this norm is an illusory goal precisely because it is an essentialised ideal.

As a result of this tendency to essentialise there is a methodological nationalism inherent in much scholarship on belonging, which often remains constrained by the concept of the nation(-)state and associated formal political concepts. This may be partly due to disciplinary perspectives: much work on belonging is sociological and political rather than anthropological in character; but regardless of the disciplinary framework, much analysis tends to be concerned with contemporary western states where the state itself is well-established and where there is a strong sense of national cohesion: a community, whether imagined or real, or both, to which to (aspire to) belong (Anderson 1991, Billig 1995). Consequently, there is an inherent resistance towards a rethinking, or perhaps more accurately, a deconstruction of the categories invoked underpinned by a recognition of the contingent, contextual, even unstable character of belonging (and, simultaneously, of identity).

The idea of the nation is of course a Eurocentric one and belonging in Europe has long been defined by ethno-national criteria (e.g., Anderson 1991, Billig 1995, Eriksen 2010, Gellner 1983, Renan 1882, Hobsbawm 1990). However, in other parts of the world belonging may be defined instead by reference to kin, land or religion as well as through practices both ritual and quotidian. Certainly there are struggles over limited resources, but these struggles are not always played out in a formal, institutional and bureaucratic sense but rather draw on more affective, situated and contingent forms of belonging. The idea of the nation (state) in places such as Zanzibar, or even Madagascar, has little analytical traction if discussed only in itself, since both imagined nation and functioning state are often absent from local worldviews (and practices), at least in the European conceptualisation of the terms. This is not to deny that national imaginaries and state bureaucracies have become efficient resources for framing belonging, both in the colonial period and even more so in the post-colonial independent state, hybridising (perhaps) with older concepts of, criteria for and tools of belonging.

A particular example of the impact of formal policies on a sense of belonging to the nation is addressed in Ramtohul’s analysis of citizenship and belonging in postcolonial Mauritius (Chapter 6). The author suggests that multicultural policies put in place at the moment of accession to independence, intended to prevent the exclusion of minority groups and the hegemony of the majority, paradoxically resulted in reinforced ethnic divisions and prevented the consolidation of national belonging, and thus of civic citizenship. Developing a similar theme, Olsson (Chapter 4) tackles the legacy of the 1964 revolution in Zanzibar from the perspective of Christian immigrants from the mainland, for whom belonging to Tanzania, created in 1964, is more important than belonging to Zanzibar, an archipelago which has cultural and religious specificities – notably Swahili and Islam – derived from a secular history. For these Pentecostal Christians, endorsing a distinct Zanzibari identity is a threat to Tanzania’s national identity. As shown by the author, such affiliations are not always strictly state-orientated despite scholarly interest in framing them as such.

If political belonging requires affective belonging, the opposite is not true, for although some sort of acceptance is necessary, affective belonging is less constrained, less contingent upon formal criteria, it is “a sense of ease with oneself and one’s surroundings” (May 2011: 368). Certainly there is an element of negotiation and performance in strategies of affective belonging but an individual excluded politically from a community may nevertheless be able to claim – and be granted – belonging in another community based on affective ties or circumstances. The most obvious example is a community of undocumented migrants, who enjoy few political or civic rights but who may enjoy a strong sense of social cohesion, indeed, a cohesion that is much the stronger by virtue of the liminal status of the community. The smaller the community, the more likely this sort of belonging edges into be-longing, a longing to be, becoming more performative than ascriptive, as the search for belonging becomes a feature of belonging itself.4 This sort of belonging clearly requires constant renegotiation, part of the process of maintaining community membership of the kind so ably examined by Keshodkar (Chapter 2). His rich analysis of this longing for belonging, and the marriage strategies through which belonging is realised in the South Asian communities of Zanzibar, shows how such strategies have shifted through time, in response both to historical events like the 1964 revolution, and with it the departure of the higher social classes, and the recent liberalisation that once again provides scope for social and geographical mobility. He pays particular attention to the role of women’s agency, or lack of it, in these strategies.

The analytic opposition between political and affective forms of belonging, and the recognition that political belonging may be of less importance in weak states, prompts us to suggest that there be a third form of belonging, social belonging (cf Fortier 1999, May 2011, 2013). Social belonging is neither as contingent or aleatory as the affective nor as formalised and rigid as the political; rather, it is based on inclusion within social units that offer more than a feeling of contentment, or being “at home”, granting social rights that are based on blood ties, kin links, ethnic identification, and spatial or territorial criteria that, while more substantial, are not part of formal political belonging either. Studying terminologies of social belonging (and non-belonging) and the various settings within which such terminologies are used can help build a nuanced representation of local struggles for defining groups and claiming participation in the group. Take, for instance, the Swahili concept of mgeni, which points to non-belonging and which is, according to the situation, used to designate a guest, a neighbour, a newcomer, a foreigner or a tourist. Racial and ethnic identity categories, like Arabs, Africans, Asians and Swahili, commonly used but deeply sensitive terms in these Indian Ocean islands, can be invoked contingently by individuals either to claim belonging or to refuse it. In Chapter 1 Fouéré explores the tensions in Zanzibar between belonging, as both a sentiment and a claim rooted in ancestry and residence, and citizenship, defined by the party-state, essentially based upon racial parameters. She shows to what extent the state’s supposed efforts at fixing Zanzibariness on identification papers are ambiguous, incomplete and often discriminatory, because the ruling elite is less concerned with history and rights, and more with its own survival in power.

3 Claiming Belonging

In its most functional sense, belonging provides for social cohesion, regardless of whether it is analysed affectively, politically or socially, since they are often indissociable. It both contributes to the production and reproduction of the social unit, whatever size it may be, and allows for those who belong, that is, those who constitute the social unit, to subsequently make claims upon that unit – for land, food, shelter, security (emotional, economic, political). In Chapter 3, Fay’s analysis of processes of socialisation of children in Zanzibar perfectly illustrates how belonging is produced socially and becomes naturalised. She considers the way children become social beings – what it means to belong, to be a “proper” Zanzibari – through the acquisition of socially accepted norms and morally correct attitudes as education practices in Zanzibar are being challenged in the light of the adoption of children’s rights legislation (cf. Skrbiš & al. 2007).

In its most consolidated form, belonging allows individuals to claim to be at home, even if belonging and being at home are not the same thing: it is of course possible to belong without being at home. Tine Gammeltoft (2018) has highlighted the intersubjective character of belonging, for while belonging in a political sense is characterised by a somewhat depersonalised and idealised understanding of belonging (to a nation, state: an imagined community, cf. Anderson 1991), more affective senses of belonging reveal the mutual commitments that individuals who belong together make to one another. Those who belong share a sense of commonality, points of reference, as well as more tangible things such as language, religion, clothing and food, and there is an understanding that those who belong are somehow alike. If there are differences, then these differences must be perceived as complementary and not threatening. Thus, in Chapter 5, Desplat considers identity in Madagascar through a lens on the tensions between difference and sameness. Dealing with the effects and practices of envy, he shows how not being different, even when difference is clearly present, is essential to social acceptance: this is the coercive aspect of belonging. Trust and mistrust maintain family members in a state of tension, within which individual initiative is often seen as a contestation of relationships.

Pace Montserrat Guibernau (2013), belonging is not a choice even if it is an aspiration: people may aspire to belong, but their hopes may not be realised. Claims to belonging need to be negotiated and assessed, and met with acceptance, otherwise they fail, both in the affective sense of providing emotional and social security and in the civic sense of adhering to a community. As suggested above, there is a very real sense in which belonging is performed (cf. Yuval-Davis 2006), particularly in the interstices between belonging and not-belonging: where there is ambiguity there is contestation, negotiation and accommodation, and the performance of belonging is a particular strategy for affirmation of belonging. This is well illustrated by Walker (Chapter 8), who looks at the identity strategies engaged in determining who belongs on the island of Mayotte, where more than half the population was born elsewhere. He asks how those who do consider themselves as belonging negotiate the contradictions inherent in the recognition that those who do not belong are just like them, drawing on the concept of mimetic desire to explain the conflicts that oppose the islanders and immigrants from the neighbouring island of Ndzuani.

By the same token, belonging of course allows for exclusion. Indeed, assertions of belonging by definition exclude others – those who do not belong – by controlling access to scarce resources of whatever kind. Belonging is particularly salient precisely in moments of conflict, periods of crisis when competition for resources, be they economic, political, social or cultural, comes to the fore (cf. Crowley 1999). This tends to presuppose mobilities of some sort, confrontations between belongers and newcomers in which the former defend their rights and the latter attempt to assert theirs. Such confrontations are evident in claims to autochthony in a number of African states (eg. Geschiere 2009, Prestholdt 2014, Walker 2017), and as Geschiere points out, it is precisely the conflict for scarce resources that prompts claims to autochthony and denials of belonging.5 Not everyone can belong, and Pyndiah, in Chapter 7, tackles the colonial hegemonies established by the settler society in Mauritius and their reproduction in contemporary memory practice to understand how and why this is so. With particular reference to the arrival of the first indentured labourers from South Asia and the abolition of slavery, she shows that commemorations reinforce the dominant narratives of slaves having no social identity prior to abolition (and thus not perturbing the colonial narrative of Europeans as settlers) and of Indians not necessarily being subordinated to the colonial order but being complicit with it. Contemporary identities and claims for belonging in Mauritius bear the weight of this colonial legacy.

4 Belonging as Possession

There is another, quite familiar but often overlooked definition of belonging, that we referred to briefly above: “to be the property or possession of; to be owned by”, the sort of belonging invoked in the term “my belongings”, tangible things that I own, that belong to me. Inherent in any definition of belonging, but not always made explicit, is the contractual character of belonging (cf. Cohen 1974). This definition of belonging is banal in vernacular uses of the word (“this book belongs to me”) but is less frequently invoked in sociological analyses. Once an individual belongs, a renunciation of belonging is not necessarily a straightforward process. This aspect of belonging, often neglected in both the affective “I feel at home here” type of belonging and the political rights-orientated form of belonging, is an essential part both of the definition of belonging and of belonging as process: someone who belongs is somehow possessed by the group to which s/he belongs. According to Desplat, “belonging is about possessing and being possessed by others” as “belonging attends to ways in which people come into being through mutual relations of possession, attachment and dependence” [page reference, this volume].

The implication of this is that belonging is a two-way street. The individual is not only accepted into the group, but that through being so accepted a social contract is created (the contract so familiar to anthropologists of a century ago but often neglected in the alleged fluidity of the postmodern world): the fuzzy, sentimental, being at home feeling is not free (cf. Antonsich 2010), rights come with obligations and if you want one, you are constrained to accept the other. It is all very well to feel warm and fuzzy in a particular place, but if doing so renders you liable for military service (for example) and thereby risking your life, the comfortable aspects of belonging may not seem like quite such a bargain after all. Possession and memberships are two interrelated aspects of belonging, bound by a social contract that imposes rules for these claims of belonging: rights and obligations, freedom and constraints.

Implicit in this is that even if someone seeks to belong, belonging may not be granted, which returns us to the question of what it means to belong and whether one can belong if the claim is denied by the larger group of which belonging is claimed. This seems difficult, although not impossible: people who claim and assert belonging may have these claims rejected by the wider community to which they claim to belong but not by others making similar claims – Wandzuani in Mayotte would appear to be an example. So the question arises not only of what it means for a social collective to accept claims to belong and to grant belonging, which processes, practices and people make this acceptance possible, but who this social collective is. And, of course, we also find the opposite: some people presumably do not want to belong. Can such people refuse to belong even though they meet required criteria for belonging, as defined by the group?

5 Partial, Multiple and Not-Belonging

There is therefore never only one belonging, but several: everyone belongs, to varying degrees, to a nested series of categorised groupings: the family (itself of varied scope), the wider kin group, the village, the larger community (ethnic or not), the nation, the island. They are all different patria, to use Lonsdale’s term (Lonsdale, 2004); and if belonging to one group does not preclude belonging to another, does belonging in one place precludes belonging elsewhere? In a political sense this may well be so (cf. Jones 2009), although increasingly attempts to compel individuals to choose where they belong (most notably by banning dual citizenship) are being abandoned. This is particularly true in countries with a large diaspora and whose diasporas have adopted the citizenship of their (new) homeland. In an attempt to encourage engagement with the (former) homeland (and thus investment, social and economic, if not political) the possibility of citizenship is held out. In a contemporary world people appear to be more concerned about their rights than about their obligations, a tendency that both is the product of and allows for multiple belonging. There is a trade-off here, in that while belonging holds out the possibility of stability, it also holds out the possibility of submission to a group. If, in migratory flows, belonging is sought in a society that is initially not one’s own, then there will be conflict between the desire for political rights and the requirement to meet social obligations (Anthias 2008). In a sense belonging is (possibly paradoxically) somewhat easier in a multicultural context: it is undoubtedly easier to be a non-German speaking Muslim woman in Berlin than in a small village in Thuringia.

Such observations have led more than one observer to “[expose] the impossibility, in a postcolonial world, of ‘ever really and truly belonging’ (Probyn 1996, cited in Antonsich 2010: 652). What does belonging really mean in a multicultural (“cosmopolitan”?) context? To whom or what does one belong? Does a Turkish immigrant arriving in Berlin seek to belong to the community of Turkish migrants in Kreuzberg, the community of Germans of Turkish origin, or to German society generally, with all the differences in personal skills and desires that the different possibilities imply? Or is the dilemma illusory: can the immigrant belong to all these groups, if perhaps not all at once? This of course depends on a variety of considerations, not least of which the possibility of being accepted into all these groups by those already in place. These questions are as valid in the Indian Ocean as they are in Europe: Does a South Asian immigrant arriving in Zanzibar seek to belong to the community of South Asian origin that settled there more than a century ago or to a different category, of recent South Asian immigrants? Differential linguistic competences, cultural practices, social skills, interpersonal networks, never mind personal desires and intentions, all inform how belonging is sought for and granted, and all these criteria shift with time and space. Finally, of course, individuals may belong to despatialised communities (Appadurai 2003), and if an obvious example is academia, networks of scholars scattered across the world, many other people belong to plurilocal global communities in addition to locally emplaced ones (cf. Slama & Walker forthcoming).

Finally, of course, as necessary corollaries of belonging there is not-belonging and unbelonging, both of which refer to a loss of belonging rather than a failure to achieve it in the first place (Healy 2020, Mas Giralt 2020). Not-belonging is a loss of a sense of belonging, a loss that occurs with the approbation, or even at the initiative of the individual, as he or she disengages from a community (of whatever sort) as (for whatever reason) belonging becomes untenable. Refusal to belong is often difficult, both formally – US citizens seeking to renounce their citizenship are required to undergo psychological counselling and observe a “cooling off” period6 – and informally – “leaving” a kin group or an ethnic group is a particularly difficult process, usually requiring a complete social and, usually, physical distancing from the group one wishes to leave. Nevertheless, disengagement is certainly possible, even if it often requires a degree of concealment since acquiring belonging in the first place requires both effort and commitment; given the contractual character of belonging, renouncing it is, in many ways, a breach of this contract and you are unlikely to be allowed to go home again. Although not a direct concern, several chapters acknowledge issues of not-belonging, particularly in the Zanzibari context, where belonging to the Union is often disavowed (Olsson, Fay, Fouéré; see also Desplat for Madagascar).

In contrast to not-belonging, unbelonging occurs where “belonging has been revoked, removed or challenged in some way, usually by the state and without the consent of the subject” (Healy 2020: 126). The most obvious recent example of this was when, as a consequence of the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, more than 60 million British citizens lost their status as European citizens and, overnight, ceased to belong in mainland Europe, while simultaneously several million EU citizens suddenly found themselves living outside the European Union (Mas Giralt 2020). Although many individuals in both groups were eligible to maintain certain rights in the states in which they were living, they no longer belonged politically and, with the loss of political belonging, many also suffered a loss of affective belonging. Likewise in the Indian Ocean, most obviously in Mayotte where, upon independence, those Comorians who were unable to claim French citizenship found that they no longer belonged politically on the island (Walker, this volume); and although such abrupt political changes are the most obvious examples, unbelonging may occur in social (and possibly even affective) contexts, as membership of a community may be withdrawn as someone is socially (and usually physically) ostracised, even expelled: Arabs and Asians in post-revolutionary Zanzibar come to mind (Bissell and Fouéré 2018).

6 Maintaining Belonging

Not-belonging and unbelonging are a posteriori to belonging, unlike the failure to achieve belonging in the first place, which is prior, and this draws our attention to the temporality of belonging. Belonging is very clearly rooted in historical processes since a past is required for a collective to be constituted to which belonging may be claimed, as clearly demonstrated by most of the contributors to this volume.7 Similarly, however, it also takes time for belonging to be acquired by those who eventually come to belong: belonging, as we have already noted, is a process: it takes time to be able to say “we” (Miller 2003, cf Healy 2020). Thus, those who arrive in new place are required to achieve (should they so desire) belonging by engaging a range of strategies, often adjusting their behaviour to conform to the expectations of the host society or community. But belonging also exists in the present, in a dynamic equilibrium: in the normal course of events both people and the units/categories to which they belong change. Those who don’t move, those who are embedded – those who do belong – more easily change in tandem with their social, cultural and political environment; but those who leave find that when they return they no longer belong – either because they have changed (perhaps by asserting belonging elsewhere) or because the social environment in which they formerly belonged has changed, or, as is likely, both. They feel displaced, misfits, no longer enjoying a familiarity with what were before naturalised norms of thinking and doing, and therefore losing the benefits of a sense of security and inclusion which belonging provides.

Belonging is therefore orientated towards the future, deeply embedded in a desire for a security and comfort, political social and affective, and this in turn, and despite invocations of transnational or global belonging, belonging, particularly in both its affective and its social guises, is deeply spatial, even if these spaces are representations of spaces (Lefebvre 1991, Walker 2016). Maintaining belonging, except it its extreme political qua documentary sense of possessing nationality, requires investment in both space and time: people who belong have to be “there”, and, if presence is not permanent, then they have to return regularly. In the normal course of events – given that a significant part of the world’s population never moves very far from home – no particular effort is required on the part of those who belong spatially to continue to belong – think of the rural villager who has never moved and whose village has rarely seen newcomers, continuing to sit by the roadside every afternoon chatting with lifelong friends and family: the cliché of timeless belonging. However, there are cases in which belonging needs to be actively maintained, either because the host society changes – we might think of political changes that require people to actively confirm their belonging, for example, by joining a political party, or by adopting racially charged discourses in revolutionary Zanzibar – or because the individual changes – usually by moving away – or both. In the latter case, changes in both are incremental and often imperceptible in the short term, and contextually speaking, but obvious when the individual returns to find that she no longer belongs.

The chapters that follow bring to light how, through the waves of migration that populated the Indian Ocean islands, belonging has never been – and is unlikely ever to be – taken for granted: it is a constant site of social struggle. Belonging is at stake in everyday practices, organised action and state policy. Primitivist and racialist discourses are particularly invoked both in claims and in denials of belonging, thus calling forth ideas of origins – who came first, who came second, who was born here and who was born elsewhere – as well as socially constructed hierarchies to lay claim to more rights for some, and less for others. These phenomena are not unique to the Indian Ocean, but they are particularly salient because both slavery (in its various forms) and colonialism established rigid socioracial and economic hierarchies that continue to loom large in the present of these island societies. Several of the chapters further consider contemporary states’ politics, showing how they fail to address issues of inequality and discrimination in ways that could defuse tensions of belonging.

It is not surprising that Zanzibar would provide a particularly acute case study of belonging in the region – half of the contributions concern this archipelago situated just off the East African coast – and that a significant number of them would almost inevitably refer to the revolution of 1964, the epitome of contestations of belonging in a cosmopolitan yet historically divided society where memories and legacies of the past intertwine to shape everyday sociability as well as politics. We have therefore divided the volume into two sections. The first is dedicated to the chapters on Zanzibar while the second is devoted to the remaining islands – the Comoros, Madagascar and Mauritius, thus providing for an ethnographic coherence between the individual chapters.

Through its exploration of case studies from the Indian Ocean islands, Across the Waves therefore offers a contribution both to the ethnography of the African Indian Ocean islands and to the literature on belonging, bringing together as it does the past and the present, events and memory, strategies and sentiments, society and the state, and discourses and practices to understand the ways in which inclusion and exclusion, and rootedness and mobility constantly intertwine when defining and experiencing belonging.

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1

Selected, if not at random, then at least without prejudice.

2

This conference, convened by Iain Walker at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Area Studies (ZIRS), Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in June 2018, was both part of a series of conferences organised by the AEGIS Africa in the Indian Ocean Collaborative Research Group and a product of Walker’s Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) funded project (no. WA 3871/1-1) on identity and belonging in Mayotte. The conference was made possible by the generous support of the DFG, AEGIS and ZIRS.

3

For example, Bell’s 1999 article which seems to conflate identity and belonging or Probyn (1996), who suggests that the concept of belonging can replace identity. Debates over the utility of the term identity itself (see, for example, Brubaker & Cooper 2000) are of a different order.

4

See Waters (2019) on fictional approaches to belonging.

5

Geschiere’s suggestion that this represents a shift from historical strategies that saw societies welcoming prestigious outsiders (immigrants), as allegedly happened when Shirazis arrived in East Africa, is contentious. Such perspectives are much more likely to be retrospective valorisations by the ruling classes of their acquisition of power.

6

Likewise, British citizenship is extremely difficult to renounce, largely because it is based on pre-modern concepts of belonging: a British citizen is a subject of the monarch, and British subjects can no more renounce this status than they can renounce their status as children of their parents. It therefore holds a place between the political and the social.

7

See also, for example, Miller 2003, Trigger 2020, for the importance of history to claims to belonging. Not unexpectedly, the historical context is of some importance in settler societies such as Australia.

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