Magendo: Arbitrage and ambiguity on an East African frontier

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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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)110–137
Number of pages28
JournalCultural Anthropology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2021


  • arbitrage
  • smuggling
  • East Africa
  • temporality
  • money
  • borders
  • magendo
  • fedha
  • Afrika Mashariki


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