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Magendo: Arbitrage and Ambiguity on an East African Frontier

By Kevin P. Donovan

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Cite As:
Donovan, Kevin. 2021. “Magendo: Arbitrage and Ambiguity on an East African Frontier”. Cultural Anthropology 36 (1):110–137. https://doi.org/10.14506/ca36.1.05.

Abstract

This article examines the ambiguities of arbitrage, focusing on illegal coffee trade across the Uganda-Kenya border. I show how residents of the borderlands harnessed ordinary tools (gunny sacks, tin cans, and gravity scales) and cultural repertoires (kinship, language, and ritual) to cultivate and capitalize on difference. They reworked territorial jurisdiction, measurement standards, and surface appearances in a form of arbitrage known as magendo. While magendo is an ordinary occurrence at the border, I focus on a particular period in which magendo reached spectacular new levels. The resulting binge economy was characterized by competitive gift-giving and interethnic conviviality, but its excessive margins eventually challenged prevailing notions of moral selfhood, gender relations, and the authority of elder men. Seeing arbitrage not merely as the reserve of high finance but also as a strategy of African frontiers provides a way to connect the anthropology of finance to enduring concerns around the postcolonial politics of borders, gerontocracy, and value.

Muhtasari

Nakala hii inachunguza utata wa arbitrage. Maandishi yangu yanazingatia biashara wa kahawa mpakani mwa Kenya na Uganda. Katika nakala hii, ninaonyesha jinsi wakazi wa mipakani walitumia zana za kila siku (magunia, madebe, na mizani) na pia mbinu za kitamaduni (ukoo, lugha, na mila) kuzalisha na kukuza tofauti za kisokoni na faida. Aidha wahusika hawa walipinda na kufinyanga dhana kuhusu udhibiti wa mipaka, desturi za kukadiri, na muonekano wa nje kwa kupitia kitendo cha arbitrage: almaarufu kama magendo. Ingawa uchukuzi magendo si taratibu geni kwa uchumi za mipakani, nakala hii inazingatia wakati ambapo uchuuzi wa kahawa ulifikia kilele cha kustaajabisha na kuleta uchumi wa ukwasi. Kwa upande moja msimu huo ulileta urafiki kati ya jamii tofauti na mienendo kama vile mashindano ya kutunukiana zawadi. Kwa upande mwingine, faida za kiajabu ziliibua miangalio mipya kuhusu maswala ya uadilifubinafsi, jinsia katika jamii, na mamlaka ya wazee. Kuelewa arbitrage kama zaidi ya mazoezi ya kifedha, bali pia kama mkakati wa uchumi za mapembezoni, inatupa njia ya kuunganisha anthropolojia ya fedha na masawali ya mipaka baada ya ukoloni, utawala wa wakongwe, na thamani.

Keywords

arbitrage; smuggling; East Africa; temporality; money; borders; magendo; fedha; Afrika Mashariki; mipaka; ulanguzi