Suicide, Risk, and Investment in the Heart of the African Miracle

Peer Reviewed


"Microfin." via Julie Livingston.
"Parking." via Julie Livingston.
"Fast Cash." via Julie Livingston.

In the November 2009 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Julie Livingston analyzes tensions between risk and hope, investment and disappointment, self-determination and social connectedness, and how they shape understandings of a good life and a good death in contemporary southern Botswana.  Drawing on fieldwork spanning the mid 1990s and the late 2000s, Livingston moves from stories about suicide, secret debt and broken relationships to the pawn shops and loan schemes that make up the capitol’s booming credit market.  She traces the fault-lines along which sociality in Botswana cracks in moments when "social, technology and fiscal capital meet in episodes of unbearable disappointment, rage, and loneliness" (656).

Against a landscape characterized by an AIDS epidemic and new forms of wealth, Livingston shows that the risks (of suicide, of debt, of disappointment) Batswana face as they attempt to balance self-determination with efforts to forge social relationships reveal "the extent to which relationship building is a gamble" in Botswana.  Turning to the country’s only oncology ward, however, Livingston juxtaposes the risk, pain and loss of suicide with an examination of how families struggle to maintain relationships of care with their terminally ill loved ones, often pleading with the doctor for treatments.  This refusal to "give up" and a willingness to "bet the house" in order to extend a loved one’s life defines and constitutes the ethos of hope that characterizes loving care in Botswana.  It also involves a very different kind of secret-keeping from that which surrounds experiences of debt and disappointment.  In this cancer ward, families keep prognoses and the risks of treatment from patients in an effort to shelter their loved ones from isolation and depression, and in hope of sustaining sociality even in the face of mortality.

Cultural Anthropology has published many essays that explore various subject formations within neoliberalism. Some examples of these are Donna Perry’s "Fathers, Sons, and the State: Discipline and Punishment in a Wolof Hinterland" (2009), Daromir Rudnyckyj’s "Spiritual Economies: Islam and Neoliberalism in Contemporary Indonesia" (2009), and Peter Cahn’s "Consuming Class: Multilevel Marketers in Neoliberal Mexico" (2008).

Cultural Anthropology has also published other essays on contemporary Africa, including Nancy Hunt’s "An Acoustic Register, Tenacious Images, and Congolese Scenes of Rape and Repetition" (2008), and Danny Hoffman’s "The City as Barracks: Freetown, Monrovia, and the Organization of Violence in Postcolonial African Cities" (2007).

"Pawn Shop." via Julie Livingston.

About the Author

Julie Livingston is an associate professor of History at Rutgers University.

Additional Work by the Author

(2008) "Disgust, Bodily Aesthetics and the Ethic of Being Human in Botswana." Africa: The Journal of the International African Institute 78(2):288-306

(2006) "Maintaining Local Dependencies: Elderly Women and Global Rehabilitation Agendas in Botswana." In Generations and Globalization: Family, Youth, and Age in the New World Economy. Jennifer Cole and Deborah Durham, eds. Pp.164–189. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

(2005) Debility and the Moral Imagination in Botswana. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

(2004) "AIDS as Chronic Illness: Epidemiological Transition and Health Care in Southeastern Botswana." African Journal of AIDS Research 3(1):15-22.

Related Readings

Briggs, Charles L. (2007) "Mediating Infanticide: Theorizing Relations between Narrative and Violence." Cultural Anthropology 22(3):315-356.

Farquhar, Judith and Qicheng Zhang. (2005) "Biopolitical Beijing: Pleasure, Sovereignty, and Self-Cultivation in China's Capital." Cultural Anthropology 20(3):303-327.

Ferguson, James G. (2002) "Of Mimicry and Membership: Africans and the 'New World Society'."Cultural Anthropology 17(4):551-569.

Ferguson, James G. (1992) "The Country and the City on the Copperbelt." Cultural Anthropology 7(1):80-92.

Gable, Eric. (2006) "The Funeral and Modernity in Manjaco." Cultural Anthropology 21(3):385-415.

Green, Linda. (1994) "Fear as a Way of Life." Cultural Anthropology 9(2):227-256.

Jain, S. Lochlann. (2007) "Cancer Butch." Cultural Anthropology 22(4):501-538.

Miyazaki, Hirokazu. (2006) "Economy of Dreams: Hope in Global Capitalism and Its Critiques.Cultural Anthropology 21(2):147-172.

Zaloom, Caitlin. (2004) "The Productive Life of Risk." Cultural Anthropology 19(3):365-391.


The first of these videos gives a straight-forward if brief overview of Botswana's financial sector.  The second and third videos give a taste of contemporary urban Botswana with its images of wealth, consumerism, and romance.

"Doing Business in Africa - Botswana - Financial Services Sector"

Music video for "Matshediso" by "Kgotla"

Music video for "Mamacita" by "Vee"

Related Readings

Cole, Jennifer. (2004) "Fresh Contact in Tamatave: Sex, Money, and Intergenerational Transformation." American Ethnologist 31(4):573–588.

Comaroff, Jean & John L. Comaroff. "Millenial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming." Public Culture 12(2):291–343.

Hunter, Marc. (2002) "The Materiality of Everyday Sex: Thinking beyond Prostitution." African Studies 61(1):99–120.

Klaits, Frederick. (forthcoming) Death in a Church of Life: Moral Passion during Botswana's Time of AIDS. Berkeley & Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Morris, Rosalind. (2008) "Rush/Panic/Rush: Speculations on the Value of Life and Death in South Africa’s Age of AIDS." Public Culture 20(2):199–231.

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