Scherz, China. 2014. Having People, Having Heart: Charity, Sustainable Development, and Problems of Dependence in Central Uganda

Scherz, China. 2014. Having People, Having Heart: Charity, Sustainable Development, and Problems of Dependence in Central Uganda. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Reviewed by Andrea Grant (University of Cambridge)

During my fieldwork in Rwanda, I was asked to write a “needs assessment” report for a centre for disabled youth outside of Kigali run by Catholic nuns. I was asked by a friend, a prosperous Rwandan woman in her 40s, who was a member of the centre’s volunteer board, made up of other Rwandan women who wanted to help the centre “morally and materially”. The centre was woefully underfunded and understaffed, and my friend felt that the report might help secure funding in the future. Although my research was focused on the new post-genocide Pentecostal churches, I agreed, thinking the centre might provide an interesting point of comparison. Over the course of several months, I made a number of trips to the centre, interviewing some of the sisters who ran it and some of the disabled youth. Even in my brief engagement with the centre, I was impressed by the sisters’ devotion to the residents, and their ability to provide so much care – and, indeed, what seemed to me to even be love – with such limited means. I couldn’t help but contrast this everyday engagement with the “drop in” visits Pentecostals made to orphanages or widows’ groups as part of their “outreach activities”. (Although these visits, it should be pointed out, were often accompanied by gifts and the sharing of food.) Entirely different understandings of community – of who was and was not included within it; of the kinds of persons and the kinds of relations that made it up – seemed to be at work.

It was with great interest, then, that I read China Scherz’s Having People, Having Heart: Charity, Sustainable Development, and Problems of Dependence in Central Uganda. Scherz in many ways tackles these issues head-on, although her focus is more pointedly on development. She compares “secular” discourses of sustainable development with Catholic understandings of charity, and explores how they converge with and diverge from local Kiganda notions of personhood and exchange. The book, she writes, is about “understanding the ways these different ethicomoral assemblages – or the heterogeneous ways people understand and orient themselves toward something we might imperfectly call ‘the good’ or ‘the right’ – come together in collision, collaboration, coexistence and compromise” (7).

Ethnographically, she explores this through Hope Child, a successful indigenous NGO that supports orphans and their caregivers, and Mercy House, a charity house run by Catholic nuns. The first half of the book is dedicated to the “norms, techniques, practices, and modes of reasoning” associated with each assemblage, while the second half explores the specific “forms of subjectivation” (14) through which individuals come to understand themselves as particular kinds of ethical subjects. We can see her work as contributing to both the emerging anthropology of ethics (Fassin and Lézé 2014; Laidlaw 2013; Mattingly 2013; Zigon 2009; 2008) and recent calls, especially within Africanist scholarship, to rethink notions of dependence and hierarchy (Englund 2011; Ferguson 2013; Haynes 2013).

After a first chapter outlining the genealogies of her three assemblages (charity, sustainable development, and Kiganda ethics), Scherz turns her attention to Hope Child. She demonstrates how the NGO’s embrace of international sustainable development – which dictates that communities must become self-reliant and independent – led to frustration and disappointment within local Buganda communities. Although Hope Child began by distributing material goods to individual households (mattresses, clothing, iron sheets for roofing), they stopped this practice in favour of providing immaterial support (training, support groups). Scherz argues that this shift, implemented under the guise of increasing “community ownership”, ignored the actual needs of community members and in some cases excluded those most impoverished and marginalized. While this focus on immaterial support and training increased the number of individuals reached – an important “proof” of impact for international donors – community members saw Hope Child’s refusal to redistribute its resources as a failure to engage in the ethics of the patron-client relationship. Scherz relates this to what she terms a Kiganda “ethics of interdependence”, in which people with resources are morally obligated to take on clients, and those without resources “must actively try to attach themselves to others as dependents” (2). The fact that Hope Child seemed to position itself as a wealthy patron by demanding labour and contributions only made its refusal to distribute material gifts more frustrating.

In contrast to this, Scherz considers Mercy House. Unlike Hope Child, Mercy House was not guided by an assemblage of sustainable development, but rather by one combining Kiganda ethics, particularly that of mutima (heart) and patronage, with notions of Catholic charity. The sisters did not focus on training sessions or holding workshops – which many saw as a waste of money – but instead were concerned with the “direct provision of goods, services, and employment” (78). Despite their limited resources, the nuns accepted anyone in need into their care, and the charity they enacted was not considered a means but rather “an end in itself” (72). Scherz argues that both mutima and charity are defined by their “lack of reciprocal exchange” (86). Contrary to Douglas and Bourdieu who see charitable gifts as inflicting violence, Scherz argues that they must be understood instead as exchanges with God (93-95), and that they do not necessarily reproduce structures of inequality.

In the second part of her analysis, Scherz considers the particular kinds of ethical subjects that sustainable development and charity produce. Sustainable development, she argues, functions under an “ethics of audit”, wherein individuals acquire the skills needed to produce documents and monitor themselves in the hopes of finding employment in the philanthropic field. In this way, NGO employees “work to fashion themselves into modern, educated, employable subjects” (101). In contrast, Scherz argues that the sisters at Mercy House sought to shape themselves through an “ethics of mimetic virtue”. By modeling their actions on those of saints and other holy figures before them, particularly the order’s foundress, they sought to “transform themselves into virtuous subjects” (112). This gives rise to different understanding of agency, time, and hope. Whereas sustainable development, with its reports and impact assessments, focuses on the mid-range future, the sisters at Mercy House were oriented towards providing care in the present, with an eye to the eternal (131). Their trust in divine Providence led not to paralysis, but rather hope that God would ultimately provide, and perfect their actions in the world. Unlike the demand for “visible proofs” under a regime of audit, the sisters trust in “their invisible accountability to God” (115).

In the conclusion, Scherz takes up a question that goes largely unaddressed in the book: that of politics. She argues that Hope Child’s embrace of sustainable development can be read as an “antipolitics” (Ferguson 1994), as it assumes poverty can be reduced at the village level (140). On the other hand, Mercy House’s refusal to engage with the Ugandan state suggests a mistrust of its ability to better the lives of its citizens, and can be read as a “quiet form of political protest” (138). The sisters’ charity forces a move from the abstract to the personal, shifting the question from “How can we bring about the end of poverty?” to “What ethical possibilities are open to me in any particular position?” (140). This shift, she suggests, might help international donors to better serve local actors – instead of dismissing out of hand local understandings of dependence and hierarchy, they might enter into “socially and materially thick relationships” (141) with the communities they seek to “develop”.

Overall, the book is an impressive critique of “commonsense” notions of international development and a call to take seriously indigenous ethical modes and formations. The book is at its best when Scherz considers the work of Mercy House’s sisters, carefully demonstrating their complex modes of agency, directed simultaneously towards the here and now and the divine. Yet we might be wary of the sometimes strict divisions that Scherz seems to draw between her three main “assemblages”. Although she acknowledges in the Introduction that the book is a “thought experiment”, and that her discussion of charity, sustainable development, and Kiganda ethics are framed in terms of “ideal types” (8), I couldn’t help but wonder at the slippages and seepages between them. Individuals seem neatly slotted into one particular category, and this is reinforced by the text’s structure (two chapters devoted to Hope Child; two chapters devoted to Mercy House). We might wonder as well about Protestant forms of charity, and the form of “ethicomoral assemblage” that they may offer. Given that Scherz carefully illuminates how specific kinds of subjects are cultivated under sustainable development and its “ethics of audit” (Chapter 5) and charity and its “virtue of mimetic ethics” (Chapter 6), it is curious that she does not consider how subjects come to see themselves as Baganda. The reader is left with the slightly disconcerting impression that Kiganda ethics are somehow inherently possessed and unconsciously transferred. Certain terms, furthermore, could have been defined earlier in the text. Although “assemblage” is an important part of Scherz’s theoretical arsenal and she offers a cursory definition early on (2), as noted above, it is only in the fourth chapter (85-6), that she offers a more precise definition. (Drawing on Foucault, she defines an assemblage as “a less stable network that has not yet stabilized as an apparatus”; there emphasis here is on the “emergence of ethical forms” (86)). Similarly, “love” (Chapter 4) remains curiously undefined, despite a recent anthropological interest in its various forms (Cole and Thomas 2009; Hunter 2010; Klaits 2010).

While I appreciate Scherz’s comments in the conclusion on the politics of charity, we might question if Uganda is unique in this regard. The politics of Catholicism in other parts of eastern Africa are decidedly different. In Rwanda, for example, the complicity of the Catholic Church during the genocide has led the ruling RPF party to distance itself from the Church, while embracing the new Pentecostal churches. Catholic priests have been imprisoned for speaking out against government policies, and many priests I spoke to felt the government was unfairly persecuting them. Catholic charity homes were caught up in these complex politics, and their best chances of survival often seemed not international donors but rather uncomfortable alliances with the state. To return for a moment to the centre for disabled youth mentioned above, what attracted attention to the centre was not my meagre needs assessment report – no surprise there – but rather a partnership with the country’s military hospital. My friend, well-connected as she and other women on the volunteer board were, had managed to arrange a visit by health personnel from the country’s military hospital to treat the centre’s residents free of charge. While the centre became a news story and its plight was raised (momentarily) in the media, the visit also became something of a PR coup for the Rwandan military. Uganda’s political context is of course different, but the example of the Catholic Church in Rwanda – to say nothing of the Catholic Church in Burundi – suggests the politico-religious terrain is decidedly more treacherous in other east African contexts, and that the forms of charity possible within them may vary significantly. Rooting Uganda a bit more thoroughly in the region – in both its history of development and Catholicism – would have been helpful.

Having People, Having Heart is an important contribution to the literature on development and religion. For an anthropology of Christianity, I see Scherz’s work as opening up two avenues for future development. For one, her work demonstrates the productivity of looking “past Pentecostalism” (Engelke 2010) to consider the mainline churches. Secondly, her work can help push us towards more innovative, multi-sited research methodologies. And by this I do not merely mean exploring different branches of the same church, but rather taking seriously different sources of “ethicomoral assemblages” that may exist in our fieldsites. We might then get a better sense of the complex forms of affiliation – moral, spiritual, or otherwise – that make up our informants’ lifeworlds.

References Cited:

Cole, Jennifer, and Lynn M. Thomas, eds. 2009. Love in Africa. Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press.

Engelke, Matthew. 2010. ‘Past Pentecostalism: Notes on Rupture, Realignment, and Everyday Life in Pentecostal and African Independent Churches.’ Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 80 (2): 177–99.

Englund, Harri. 2011. Human Rights and African Airwaves: Mediating Equality on the Chichewa Radio. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Fassin, Didier, and Samuel Lézé, eds. 2014. Moral Anthropology: A Critical Reader. London: Routledge.

Ferguson, James. 1994. The Anti-Politics Machine: ‘Development’, Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. Minneapolis ; London: University of Minnesota Press.

———. 2013. ‘Declarations of Dependence: Labour, Personhood, and Welfare in Southern A Frica.’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19 (2): 223–42.

Haynes, Naomi. 2013. ‘On the Potential and Problems of Pentecostal Exchange.’ American Anthropologist 115 (1): 85–95.

Hunter, Mark. 2010. Love in the Time of AIDS: Inequality, Gender, and Rights in South Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Klaits, F. (Frederick). 2010. Death in a Church of Life: Moral Passion during Botswana’s Time of AIDS. Berkeley, Calif; London: University of California Press.

Laidlaw, James. 2013. The Subject of Virtue: An Anthropology of Ethics and Freedom. New Departures in Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mattingly, Cheryl. 2013. ‘Moral Selves and Moral Scenes: Narrative Experiments in Everyday Life.’ Ethnos 78 (3): 301–27.

Zigon, Jarrett. 2008. Morality: An Anthropological Perspective. Oxford ; New York: Berg.

———. 2009. ‘Within a Range of Possibilities: Morality and Ethics in Social Life.’ Ethnos 74 (2): 251–76.