Sunday, December 20, 2009

Crocodile Men

Some years ago in Bangui, I met a man from Obo. He had been working for an ill-fated American anti-poaching militia and was involved in untold drama: he'd accused his colleague, a South African mercenary, of embezzlement (diamonds, LandCruisers), who then accused him of murder, and he spent half a year in prison. Near the end of our conversation, he pulled out some photos of a corpse in the shallows on the banks of a river. The body was bloated, pummeled, and dismembered. “You Europeans don't believe it, but it is a very real problem for us – crocodile men. They are men who transform themselves into crocodiles and kill people in the water.”

I didn't have time to ask more then, but the image of the corpse and my interlocutor's grave mien – even graver than when he described his rivalry with the South African – as he talked of the crocodile men stayed with me.

Evans-Pritchard, meanwhile, in his extensive work on Azande notions of witchcraft and magic, makes no mention of the “pili” (crocodile men). So I was curious to find out more while out in Obo. The problem of crocodile men dates to the early 1980s, when many Yakoma functionaries were assigned to posts here. The president at the time, Andre Kolingba, was a Yakoma, an ethnic group concentrated in riverine areas near the capital, and his loading of the civil service with his kin marked the beginning of the ethnicization of CAR politics.

Many Yakoma are fishermen, and pili developed as a strategy to increase catches. A man who takes the pili medicine, imbibed under guidance of a magician, gains the strength to stay underwater all day and finds all the biggest fish. Only, it can be used for ill as well; pili can also employ these superhuman skills to slay a foe, provided the foe is in the water. As Yakoma moved into Obo, they mingled with the Azande living there and the pili skills passed between friends. Very often, crocodile murders involve rivalries over women.

The pili problem reached its height in 87 – 96. It felt like an epidemic to residents, who sought out and sanctioned any suspected pili in their midst. The usual practice was burning accused crocodile men at the stake. As the flames began to lick at their bodies, they would denounce others. For a while, the Catholic mission stopped giving communion out of exasperation with its members' excitement for the crocodile-men-burning.

Few Yakoma remain in Obo, as indeed few functionaries at all remain. The crocodile men problem has abated too. (Now, ill will is enacted upon others through inflicting sickness, a sickness that resembles AIDS but is not AIDS because it kills people so much more quickly than the doctors say AIDS usually kills, explained one interlocutor. Incidentally, there is no functioning hospital in Obo, so any opportunistic infections would go pretty much untreated.)

But there was one big crocodile man case last year. A boy from the nearby village of Gugbere came to Obo for a soccer tournament. In the afternoon, he and his friends headed home, but found themselves blocked by the ferry, which was at the far side of the river. Undeterred, the young man jumped in and began swimming to pull back the barge that would bring them home. Halfway across, he began yelling, “They've gotten me! The crocodile men have me! You will never see me again!” His head and torso emerged from the water, as if propelled, once, twice, three times, and then he disappeared.

People searched for his body for four days before they found it. The internal organs and the penis had been cut out. People understood them to have been eaten. Investigations ensued, and three men were accused of the killing: the boy's cousin, a man from Sudan, and a boy from the neighborhood. They confessed to being pili and killing the boy. The man from Sudan was the ringleader, in a way. He had been paid by a patron in Sudan. The patron had lived in Obo until the UN decided to repatriate Sudanese refugees a few years ago. He had his eye on a girl in Obo, but the girl thought him too old and preferred the soccer playing boy. So the patron dispatched his associate to deal with the rival. The associate paid the boy's cousin and another young man to help him.

The three accused sat in detention at the gendarmerie. But an angry mob yelling passages from the Bible (an eye for an eye) led by the murdered boy's mother broke down the door and killed all three. Their bodies now repose in a cemetery established by a Colonel who ruled as prefet of Obo a few years ago. This colonel is remembered as a particularly effective leader, because he could see through people to tell who was bad and who was good, a skill enhanced by his drinking, according to local lore, and he quickly dispatched the bad to his cemetery.

While in Obo, I read a novella by Mark Twain called The Mysterious Stranger. The story takes place in modern-day Austria sometime around the 1600s, a period marked by witch scares. The narrator, a young boy, enjoys a privileged view of the world thanks to repeated visits from the titular stranger, who describes himself as Satan. Satan enables his young friend to see the future and shows him how little humans understand about good and bad – early death might in fact obviate years of suffering; madness may bring greater happiness than sanity. What emerges clearly, through the witch burnings and unexpected changes in people's lives, is the ridiculousness of human efforts to make order out of the evil forces they see in the world. By the end of the story, Satan reveals to the boy that none of it exists. Not the boy, not himself; all is but a ripple, a sigh, a joke of the universe. A kind postmodern tale, a product of its brilliantly irreverent author. And yet, immersed in my own tales of crocodile men scares (not to mention LRA depravities), which have a social truth as well as a physical truth and yet are founded in what are, to a logical-rational mind, untruths, somehow it struck me as hopeful.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Attack on Ndele

I arrived back in Bangui last Tuesday night after a fourteen-hour drive down the rutted dirt roads from Ndele. Thursday morning my cell phone's chirpy T-Mobile ring woke me: had I heard that Ndele was under siege? I immediately starting ringing up friends there to see if they were OK and find out more about what was happening. The Sisters sounded tired to the point of being unable to even talk – due, I surmised, not just to the attack itself but also to the fatigue of living twelve years in a place, hoping to see it progress, and being so often let down. The NGO workers were tensely waiting in their compounds and rightly jealous of their dwindling cell phone batteries. And Al-Habib, my fruit buyer/hustling-merchant/friend, was curious and headed out to see things up close.

The attack was over by the end of the day. The rebels – for it was members of the rebel group that controls the road north from Ndele who had attacked – left, carrying their 26 wounded and two prisoner gendarmes with them. Reinforcements from the Central African armed forces (FACA) arrived the following day. They abused a few people (and killed two wounded rebels) but avoided the large-scale exactions for which they have become notorious. Entry and exit to the town remains closely guarded, and the market stopped functioning for quite a few days as much of the population had fled into the bush.

Can I admit to a strange mix of feelings about hearing of all this from the safety of Bangui? My first reaction was relief that I had made it out before all this came to pass. My second approached guilt – I should be there experiencing it all, too, rather than ensconced in the comparative luxury of the capital, with its (occasional) hot water and cafes. After all, the danger was likely minimal for people who stayed in their homes, more or less out of harm's way. As an anthropologist, I'm supposed to live close to the population and and not erect a protective bubble between myself and the hardships they face. But studying an area home to violent conflict makes that more difficult because, quite frankly, when it comes down to it, I value my life more highly than my research. Unlike in the calculations of altruists like Zell Kravinsky, who argued that the risk of complications in his donation of a healthy kidney (which his wife opposed) was far outweighed by the benefit to the recipient, there would likely be little direct benefit to people in Ndele as a result of me “being there” alongside them as the bullets flew.

Tomorrow I head out again: to the far southeast, site of LRA attacks for the past couple of years, if all goes as planned (still awaiting final confirmation of our departure). We will go to Obo, the last town before the Sudanese border, where the president will alight on Thursday for the Journée Mondiale de l'Alimentation et de la Femme Rurale (World Food and Rural Women Day). Each year, the president picks some far-off, neglected corner of his realm to visit for World Food Day. The road is repaired for the occasion (the road to Ndele benefited from this treatment two years ago), and the president gives a speech reminding people of the state in which they live. I imagine that food is distributed as well. (Time and again here, people have illustrated avowals of the virtue of a leader through reference to the food he hands out. The World Food Programme, however, is generally seen as stingy – haven't quite figured that out yet.)

On the way, we will pass through Bangassou, Zemio, and Rafai, all formerly sites of sultanates who were employed by concessionary companies in the early 20th century. The majority of the population is Azande – I'm hoping I'll be able to thumb through my E.E. Evans-Pritchard as we bump along the roads.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Moto lesson

Originally uploaded by louniclom
Taking advantage of the Ndele airstrip before MICOPAX takes it over for their base. The old moto gets up to 75km an hour on the straight-away!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Witchcraft again

Last night as I dozed off reading Graham Greene's The Honorary Consul by headlamp, I came across a passage that struck me as remarkably resonant with descriptions of witchcraft here.

In the book, one of the characters has just described a bomb plot gone awry. The bomb had been placed in a church and set to explode at midnight, but it failed to go off. The police colonel states that the fuse was badly set, but his interlocutor replies,

' “And why was the fuse badly set? One has to go back to the source, colonel. A miracle is very much like a crime. You say the fuse was badly set, but how can we be sure that it was not Our Lady who guided the hand which set the fuse?” '

These are the kinds of questions that animate accusations of witchcraft here in Central Africa. In Christianity, believers tend to cordon such powers off as the provenance only of delineated religious authorities (the baker is not credited with channeling Mother Theresa into the sticky bun that has just come out of his oven – a higher power is). With witchcraft, anyone – including the pushy woman at the water pump – might be capable of wreaking havoc. Makes the world a dangerous and tricky place.

This insecurity is one reason why discipline is so lacking in the armed forces here. An officer will not dare to sanction a subordinate who has known poisoning powers at his disposal. The head of the ECOFAC anti-poaching unit that I stayed with last week described how he had to shift around various members of his force because their wives were recognized as witches and accused of causing all sorts of problems. Clearly, there are many other reasons for the impunity enjoyed by soldiers. For instance, a humanitarian worker was shot by a soldier here in Ndele a few weeks ago, and the general (a government official no longer in the military), the person who should lead the investigation, spent the whole of the next 36 hours too drunk/hung over to deal with the problem and then promptly decamped for Bangui, where he has remained. But the discourse of witchcraft suggests that the reasons might include some beyond simple-to-uproot structural delinquency.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Les Racines du Ciel

A quick plug for a book I just finished – Romain Gary's Les Racines du Ciel, which now gains pride of place among my running favorites (alongside Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory, Sven Lindqvist's A History of Bombing, and Caroline Moorehead's Gellhorn – yes, I admit to odd taste).

Gary is the only person to have won the Prix Goncourt twice (like the Nobel, you're only supposed to win once, but Gary won again under a pen name). Les Racines du Ciel (The Roots of Heaven in English), published in 1955, is a remarkably prescient book about elephants and ecology in Chad in the late-40s. The world it portrays seems eerily similar to the Central Africa of today, except for the great shadow cast by the Second World War, which looms large in the narrative and provides a reminder of the need for...something indefinable, which saving the elephants comes to stand in for – something to do with all that is good in human – and animal – relations.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Peace Corps

CAR is perhaps the only place on earth where people believe Americans are particularly good at learning foreign languages. When I speak in Sango here, people say, “But, are you French?” “No,” I reply. “American.” At which point the person nods knowingly. “Americans are so good at learning African languages!” This reputation owes partly to the work of Yankee missionaries, but perhaps even more to the legacy of the Peace Corps.

Peace Corps volunteers worked in CAR until 1997, when army mutinies in Bangui encouraged the State Department to pull out. The embassy has since re-opened, but the Peace Corps has yet to return. To all the former CAR Peace Corps'ers out there: your students remember you! When presented with an American, educated men will often reminisce about the American they knew –
“We had a Peace Corps volunteer who taught English...we would go for picnics together on the weekends, up on those rocks...”
“We had a Peace Corps volunteer, she was so pale, I've never seen anything like it...and she liked to smoke hashish.”

Critiques of the Peace Corps abound. (Stuart Stevens provides a particularly funny and sad vignette about fish farming in his book Malaria Dreams, which begins in CAR.) And yet it seems like if the program could have a positive impact, it would be here. People yearn to learn English, and have a dire need for teachers. And, perhaps more to the point, as far as the State Department is concerned, the Peace Corps presence here seems actually to have achieved its desired goal: promoting a positive view of the US and Americans.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Hungry soldiers

We stayed in Koubou later than we should have so that the Sister and her helpers could buy manioc, peanuts, and honey from the women there. Darkness enveloped us for most of the drive back. The headlights illuminated the basketball-player height grasses that very nearly engulf the dirt track this time of year, and my view out the front windshield looked just like what a Scuba diver would see through her mask.

A few kilometers from Ndele, a flashlight waved us down. It was a soldier, who proceeded to ask us where we had been and pan his light over the truck's contents, a hungry look in his eyes. The sacks of manioc disappointed him. He had hoped to find bush meat, which, being illegal, he could easily seize (to eat). In a beaten-down patch of grass beside the road a group of about ten women and children hurried to re-position the basins they carry on their heads while the soldier was busy with us. A few quickly disappeared through the grass, and the others made to follow them. They were en route back from the fields after a long day of work until the soldier stopped them to see what he could shake them down for.

Disappointed, the soldier let us pass. Everyone in the vehicle began tut-tutting. “Ce n'est pas normal!” Except, sadly, though it might not be “normal” it is certainly usual here. The soldiers supplement whatever salary they receive by requisitioning from the population. The interdiction of bush meat indirectly favors this practice, because it gives the soldiers a law to use as a pretext. The ministry of water and forests is one of the best posts a soldier can get. (Even the armed group that controls the road leading north from Ndele, which has distributed various posts to its members, has apparently established its own ministry of water and forests.)

While researching Central Africa in the archives, I often felt déjà vu as I read about the armies of old. The sultans who ruled in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries raided with large armies. A sultan expected his soldiers to take their own salaries by raiding the populations just beyond the domain of the sultanate. Even at that point, the French decried the armies' undeveloped tactical maneuvers and general rapaciousness – attacking people rather than fighters, burning villages. (It should be noted that the system the French replaced the sultanates' armies with, the regional guards, treated people even worse.) The first treaty signed between Senoussi and the French, in 1899, included what I consider CAR's first security sector reform (SSR) project: the stipulation that Senoussi would permit French officers to train his troops. For the more than a century since then, CAR's armed forces have been in a near-continuous state of SSR. And yet very little has changed.

I mentioned in an earlier post how surprised I was to find that everyone, ex-pat and national alike, saw the state as the solution. The state needs to patrol and surveille its territory; otherwise armed groups – whether foreign or Central African – will continue to run rampage over this vast, nearly-unpopulated reservoir of resources. These comments remind me of a moment in a meeting of UN officials I attended in New York, during which we discussed the prospects for SSR in CAR. One man did some quick calculations: the size of the army in my country is x, compared to a land mass of y; he realized quickly the absurdity of expecting the CAR armed forces (maybe 5000 men, of whom less than 2000 reasonably-well trained) to control what goes on in their country's territory, which is the size of Texas and has almost no roads. The French realized this in the 1950s, and it was one of the reasons they gave up the colony without too much of a fight.

And yet we keep advocating SSR because what can you do besides work with the state form, in this day and age? I find myself highly critical of SSR and yet unsure what would work better. In his recent study of CAR, “Au marges du monde en Afrique Centrale,” Roland Marchal points out that the World Bank study “Voices of the Poor” entirely misrepresented the results of their survey of Central African priorities. The report ranks “security” as the number one priority, when in reality people seek economic development.

After decades of failed development projects, international planners (and the government officials who play to donor priorities) have positioned security as the prerequisite for development and therefore prioritize programs like SSR and DDR. In reality, of course, security and development have a chicken-and-the-egg relationship. Is it wholly naïve to suggest we go back to re-emphasizing the economic side of things?

(In fairness, not all the soldiers feed off the population. The president's special forces – the Presidential Guard – are thugs, as are many regular soldiers, but a lot of the officers are friendly and respectful guys. I played soccer yesterday with some lieutenants, among others, and though one kneed me awfully hard in the thigh, I can't chalk that up to anything other than my own deficient skills. Our goalie – not a soldier – was the best player on the pitch. He walked with great difficulty owing to an atrophied leg, but his hands magically always found the ball.)


Yesterday afternoon I accompanied the Sister to Koubou, a village 15km from Ndele, where she was checking the level of childhood malnutrition. Never have you heard babies scream until you try to put them in the truss-like UNICEF scale! In theory it's highly accurate, but the babies bounce around so much it's hard to get a good reading. Plus by the time you finish you'll be deaf.

Koubou's choir of screaming babies included two sets of twins, one six months and the other nine months. In both cases, one twin was substantially larger than the other. In the case of the six-month-olds, the little one weighed about half of what the big one weighed (3.2kg – the size of a robust newborn! – and 5.6kg, respectively). According to their mother, the little one sleeps too much. And while she sleeps, her twin enjoys all the milk. In all the time I've spent around African villages, this was the first time I'd knowingly seen twins. It made me think of the societies where people believe twins to be bad luck, or evil, and abandon the weaker one in the woods. (Apparently this happens in some parts of CAR, too, even quite near here.) It almost seemed like something similar was going on with the twins in Koubou, only in this case a drawn out version fueled by a combination of evolution and poverty, rather than belief.

During a conversation with a recent hire at UNICEF recently, my interlocutor expressed skepticism that mothers here need to be taught about nutrition, as UNICEF plans to do. Don't they already know better than we do how to get by in these difficult conditions, he wondered? They've been living this way for many years, after all. Yes and no: the Portuguese introduction of manioc (in the late eighteenth century, I think) has been a blessing and a curse. With colonization and the push toward cash crops, manioc became the staple. It grows easily and cheaply, but its nutritional value is next to nil. One of Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai's valuable contributions has been to reclaim and put back into use knowledge of Africans' once-varied and nutritious diets.

In my completely unscientific assessment, though, the main cause of malnutrition here is simply that women have too many babies. Even the (Catholic) Sister decries this (“Les gens d'ici font des enfants en désordre!”) We saw several mothers with 3-month-olds in their arms and 1-year-olds on their backs. Not enough milk then, and one or both kids will lose out. (Abortion, too, takes on a much less polemical cast here. The Sister told of visiting a woman in the hospital this week who had just had one. “She has eleven kids. She is tired. The mothers here are TIRED.”)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Magical twilight institutions?

One of my favorite blogs, Texas in Africa, picked up on my last post to further discuss the idea of a "magical" state. When I started this blog a few months ago, I figured it would be a good way to start working through my findings, but I didn't even dare hope that it might incite some discussion. The fact that it has is both surprising and gratifying!

Now, off to read up on "twilight institutions" before my internet connection fades out or curfew o'clock, whichever comes first...

Here is her discussion of my post.

And here is the comment I posted in response:

The parallels between eastern Congo and CAR are striking – just replace Mobutu with Bokassa (“C'est notre Louis XIV! Notre Pericles!” gushed one man yesterday). People in CAR, too, feel squeezed by their more-powerful neighbors, especially Chad and Sudan. And the desire for a state that does “the things a state is supposed to do” – and then some – is immense. Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) programs stoke this desire and unfortunately seem always to leave people more frustrated than ever.

Though I'm not thrilled with the term “magical” to describe state power, what I like about the descriptor is that reinserts the idea that state power, as played out in daily interactions, is not necessarily predictable. Thus it's not just about the Big Man who is able to dictate (a line of thought grounded in political theology and the works of people like Carl Schmitt or Ernst Kantorowicz, both of whom pointed to the enduring legacy of the Christian foundation of the European state) or control the heavens (Ranil Dissanayake, if you haven't read Max Gluckman's Custom and Conflict in Africa, you might find it interesting – he too points to the importance of rituals in re-inscribing state legitimacy), but also about the peculiar, almost nonsensical, kind of legitimacy that the state form has – a legitimacy that goes against logical reasoning, as the example of driving permits in eastern Congo so richly illustrates.

But I don't think this is a particularly African quality – I think all state power is magical, in different ways. Veena Das uses the example of India, and she makes the point that state officials themselves often don't know how to properly execute the letter of the law. This is where the unpredictability, and possibly magic, comes in. Every time I encounter the Norwegian state bureaucracy, I have this kind of experience: Norway is relatively small and homogenous, and so its laws often have gaps when it comes to outlying cases, such as Norwegians born abroad (like me). An American-Chilean friend who lived in Oslo for five years still gets erroneous tax reports mailed to her in Bonn, where she now lives. The peculiar thing about high-functioning states like Norway is that the officials truly believe the bureaucracy operates wholly rationally (they figure knowing the letter of the law suffices) and often respond with a “not possible” when in fact even a “not possible” is but one possible interpretation of an ambiguous rule.

Thanks for the tip about twilight institutions – I look forward to reading Lund's work. ICG has a report that labels CAR a “phantom state,” which I think is also nicely descriptive, provided one considers phantoms to be here among us.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

What does the Central African state see?

Yesterday while reading dossiers at the Tribunal in Ndele I noticed how a single name might have many spellings over the course of a file. Similarly, in no case was a person sure of his or her age. The clerk wrote “Around 1967” or “around 1991” instead. This made me think of James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998). What, I wondered, does the Central African state see, if its practices are so unstandardized?

Scott argues that the state engages in necessary tactics of simplification in order to keep track of and “arrange the population” so as to facilitate “taxation, conscription, and the prevention of rebellion” (2). Standardizing names, and making sure each citizen has a last name, is one such tactic of simplification. Scott refers to these simplification arrangements as the state’s (always-immanent, never achieved) “project of legibility.” Needing to make sense of and tabulate sprawling areas and peoples, the state must render them legible through the matrices it prescribes. Central to Scott’s understanding is that these simplifications do not merely reflect reality: the state imposes its simplifications, and they transform reality and re-make it following the state’s optical capacities.

Scott relates the history of scientific forestry as a metaphor for these projects of legibility. Birds, animals, insects, lichens, bushes, berries: the forest houses them all. People use the forest in a number of ways as well, whether for collecting firewood, hunting, or gathering food. But as wood became a commodity in late eighteenth century Prussia and Saxony, the management of the forest came to be increasingly narrowly defined in terms of the quantity of salable wood it could produce. “Nature” became “natural resources” and the only element of the forests to which surveyors paid attention was the possibility of extracting those resources. Thus a tree-filled area became measured only in terms of the quantity of board-length it could yield. As the foresters refined their task, they planted scientific forests they believed would optimize production. These forests contained only species prized for their construction-worthy wood, like the Norway spruce. They didn’t realize that the strength of a forest comes from the diversity of life it contains. Decomposing leaves and a range of plant life contribute to the health of the soil; without these, the scientific forests quickly failed.

(Pushing Scott’s metaphor a bit further than he does: if the vitality and strength of the forest lies in its diversity, the same could be said of society. Emile Durkheim argued as much by showing how increasing interdependence through specialization creates more tightly-woven communities. In contrast, exclusionary nationalism easily twins with statecraft, because both seek to homogenize an impossibly complicated social field. In the end, though, this homogenizing, purifying impulse weakens the society.)

Turning from the metaphor to the practical lenses the state develops in order to “see” its population and territory, Scott delineates a range of processes. The imposition of a state language, the imposition of surnames, the creation of standardized land tenure systems, the regulation of traffic, and city planning all serve to organize people and space in ways that will facilitate the needs of the central state (long-distance trade and taxation, for instance) but undermine rich and complicated local systems of organization. People may resist and subvert the state's imperatives, and illegibility (living in a neighborhood navigable only by a local, for instance), allows for a degree of political autonomy. But by and large the state's project of legibility proves hegemonic, in Scott's view, because the centralized state's quest to dominate by accounting for all aspects of its citizens' lives grows ever more detailed.

What, then, is going on in CAR? A friend who works at a health clinic here (and who lives closer to the population than any other ex-pat – in Bangui she has taken in 30 street children) recently told some stories. Many people come in and don't know their children's names. A person might barely know her own – particularly the last name. Age? “Well, he stretches one arm over his head to touch the ear on the opposite side, so that means he's about 4.”

Or take the example of hunting: it's forbidden in this area, because all the land has been consecrated to national parks. But bush meat is available in all the markets, and most people (even people charged with enforcement) explain that the total interdiction is too harsh – people need to eat, and they like to eat wild animals.

As I tried to follow the different ways the name “Atim” was spelled (Atim, Time) I found myself wondering if the Central African state engages in any projects of legibility at all. In terms of the population, the state here doesn't do much. The NGOs are much more effective at gathering and standardizing statistics about the people they serve, even though they miss a lot of salient information that might help them understand how and why things are the way they are.

In terms of other state imperatives that Scott outlines, the CAR state appears absent, too. It does nothing for long-distance trade and travel besides impose roadblocks and fees (arguably impeding these processes more than anything else). It has an impressive capacity to demand rents, but it does not collect taxes in any kind of standardized or all-encompassing way. (There is a tax code, and the tax collector here does seem to follow it to the extent he can. But that covers only the more-formalized sector of the economy.)

Still, describing the state here as weak, or describing it in terms of the things it does not do, is not very useful. For despite its apparent “lacks” the state here is pretty powerful. But its power lies less in the rational-bureaucratic mode of operating that Weber believed the state to incarnate, but rather leans more heavily on a “magical” mode of operating. (And this brings me back, yet again, to Veena Das.) For instance, when I asked why witches sentenced to prison time don't just use their powers to escape, the court official told me that they don't because they understand that if they try to escape they will fall ill and die.

I'm not satisfied with this word “magical,” but I'm having trouble replacing it. I would like to somehow encompass how the state here can be both the source of so many problems and yet simultaneously held out as the great hope and problem-solver by many people. People's orientation to the state has more of what a secular Western observer such as myself would label a religious character than anything else.

Before I left, one of my dissertation committee members encouraged me to ask the question “What is the state in...?” filling in with different countries. What is the state in Norway? What is the state in CAR? Not sure yet, but I'm glad he suggested this line of thought because it's been at the forefront of my mind here.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Post-Halloween edition: Witches and sorcerers

When I walk from my room to the main mission building, I often pass one or two elderly women sitting on the ground, legs outstretched, a tired and droopy expression on their faces. This frustrates the Sister to no end. The women's children drop them here and then depart, explaining that they are witches and so the Church should take care of them. The Sister knows these families, though, and complains that many of the kids are themselves drunkards and ne'er-do-wells who simply want to be quit the burden of parents who can no longer work to feed themselves.

As my friends know, I find witchcraft fascinating. I count E.E. Evans-Pritchard's seminal study Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande (1937) – many of whom live in southeastern CAR – among my favorite books. Evans-Pritchard wrote that for the Azande witchcraft is primarily a philosophy, a way of understanding causality that also defines the contours of social values: “the notion of witchcraft explains unfortunate events.” For instance, in warm weather Azande often sit beneath the open-walled roof of their homestead’s granary. Termites sometimes eat through the supports, and the building collapses. In the event that people have seated themselves underneath the granary, and the granary collapses on top of them, Western reasoning would state that it collapsed because termites ate through the supports. The fact that the collapsed roof injured people would be explained as coincidental, if unfortunate. In contrast,

"The Zande knows that the supports were undermined by termites and that people were sitting beneath the granary in order to escape the heat and glare of the sun. But he knows besides why these two events occurred at a precisely similar moment in time and space. It was due to the action of witchcraft. If there had been no witchcraft people would not have been sheltering under it at the time. Witchcraft explains the coincidence of these two happenings."

Evans-Pritchard writes that witchcraft co-exists with empirical knowledge of cause and effect, but it adds blame where a rational explanation would insist on coincidence. For Evans-Pritchard, witchcraft was a coherent system of philosophy, but one that the Azande would come to realize was incorrect.

Yet, all the modernizers' expectations to the contrary, witchcraft has not gone away. Instead, it has surged alongside the surge in economic and social instability that much of the African continent has experienced in recent decades. Contemporary anthropological accounts of sorcery and witchcraft have tried to dig deeper, then, and understand witchcraft not simply as a belief (because when we label something a belief, we tend to imply that on some level it is false, or that people could/should come to realize the error of their thought) but as a taken-for-granted fact of life and a tangible actor in the world.

I find some a lot of this work fascinating, because it stretches the limits of my whole way of making sense of the world: what would it be like to see witches all around me, to understand actions and problems in this way? This, to me, is what is exciting about anthropology.

But seriously, the women at the mission are not witches. They are destitute, desperate old women who have been abandoned as dead weight by their families. Today, my own mother's birthday, I have even less patience for scapegoating like this.

Nevertheless, witchcraft came to dominate my discussion this morning. I stopped by the tribunal to speak with the only official currently there (the president and the prosecutor are both in Bangui pending decisions on various disciplinary matters allegedly to do with their involvement in the illegal bush meat trade), the greffier en chef. He's a personable guy who was eager to discuss the vagaries of Central African law with me. (I'm afraid my blog posts have taken a slightly negative tone, and I feel the need to acknowledge here how generous people have been in talking with me, for which I am very grateful.) He showed me his reports and explained that the most common crime they see is “PCS” - Pratique de Charlatanisme ou Sorcellerie. (Ah, the francophone love of acronyms!)

I went through two PCS dossiers in detail to get a sense of how these cases play out. In one, the accused was deemed guilty, in the other, innocent. I'll start with the latter:

A child with no penis (he has had several operations to put him in order, but the doctor said that he should be treated with gentleness) was at the quartier's bathing area to wash. A slightly older neighbor boy came and shoved him out of the way so as to claim the space for his own. When the penis-less boy's father found out, he beat the pushing-boy harshly. The family of the beaten boy objected. Some days pass. One night, the father of the penis-less boy is bitten by a snake. He notices that the beaten-boy's father is outside, coming toward him. The beaten-boy's father is drunk, barefoot, and going to the edge of his compound (the edge abutting that of the snakebitten man) to piss. They exchange harsh words. Later, the snakebitten man notices that a snake is sitting in his usual chair. With neighbors' help, he manages to get the snake out. At this point, he accuses his neighbor of witchcraft: he transformed himself into the snakes, or sent the snakes. However, upon hearing a succession of witnesses, it was determined that the accused had no reputation for being a witch; no oracular proceeding had determined that he was a witch; and there was insufficient witness testimony to condemn him. He was set free.

The other case involved two women. They were at their quartier's water pump, jostling and arguing about who should be able to pump first. The accused screamed at the victim: “You're going to leave this water pump, and you're going to give birth through your mouth!” The target of her acrimony was in fact six months pregnant and had a miscarriage several days later. Following complications, she died. It was at this point that “En tant que africains mon mari et moi [parents of the deceased] avions décidé de proceder à des recherches traditionnelles pour déterminer les causes de la mort de ma fille” (Being Africans, my husband and I decided to use traditional means of research to determine the cause of my daughter's death.) The traditional healer they found did the egg test 8 times (not quite sure what this consists of) and each time the egg broke when they said the name of the woman they later accused. Furthermore, everyone in the neighborhood knew that she was a witch. (Being a witch is not illegal; only committing public offense through witchcraft is punishable.) And, when first accused, she didn't so much as open her mouth to deny the charges. Verdict: guilty of PCS in the case of the dead pregnant woman.

The lesson in all this: don't get into fights at water sources.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Arrival in Ndele

I arrived here in Ndele on Tuesday, but I've been slow in writing about it – I'm not sure why. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that I plan to spend a substantial amount of time here, and so I'm more hesitant to make any snap judgments. Or perhaps it's because I haven't yet found the exciting information and stories that I hope to find. I'm still largely operating on the surface level. Whatever the case, it's time for a quick update at least.

My first few days here I've spent much of my time making the rounds to various offices and officials, both to interview them and also just to introduce myself and extend my courtesies. Unlike in Tiringoulou, where the state representatives can be counted on less than one hand, here in Ndele state offices abound. By one count, there are 21 state agencies present in Ndele, from the ministry of water and forests to the weather service. Conversations with the “inspectors” or “regional directors” who man (I have yet to meet a woman in an official position) these offices play out along a familiar pattern. The official will explain his office's role and responsibilities (generally a question of various taxes to be collected, or permits to issue). The sous-prefet, for instance, has an impressive lazy Susan-type contraption that houses all his various official stamps. Bit by bit, it will become clear that the official in fact carries out none of the functions that he theoretically should: “Le probleme de moyens” extends to the tax collector, who has nowhere to put the money he collects (except his pocket), because the former treasurer died without telling anyone where he put the key to the safe. As these officials to a man plea for a vehicle so they can cover their terrain, I flash back to some of the documents I found in the colonial archives. A series in which the French resident in Ndele wrote letter after begging letter, asking for a typewriter, comes particularly to mind. Note to the government in Bangui: there's still a lack of typewriters here.

And despite the various offices scattered around town, there's also actually a dearth of state employees. The addendum “...but he is in Bangui” finishes many a sentence here. Appointed officials stay in the capital in hopes of better access to their salaries, or because they don't like the privations of life in “the bush,” or because they went on vacation and just haven't gotten around to coming back, or because they're ill.

(I think the explanation that a person is in Bangui for treatment is a general purpose one that may or may not be true, similarly to how in Tiringoulou the explanation “he's in his fields” is a general purpose way of saying, “he's not here,” and did not necessarily mean that the person in question was in fact farming. I wonder if this is because both explanations are ones that foreigners such as myself tend to accept without further probing or tut-tutting, as might happen if someone responded “he's been drinking since 9am,” which is another possibility.)

These conversations, with the exception of one thoroughly jolly tax collector, were a bit frustrating. What, really, am I trying to find here? What I see so far is a skeletal state that exists of little besides opportunities for fee- or salary- collection. But of course, there's a lot more going on here, at once more disheartening and, admittedly, intriguing.

Shall I stop there and leave this post a reasonable length?

I'll say only that a conversation yesterday with someone running a program here proved fruitful, and I look forward to discussing more with him when he returns from a trip to the capital. It turns out that though the state and rebel groups would like people to believe that their main problem is their lack of means, or their lack of force in the face of better-armed northern invaders, in fact they create a substantial portion of the treats they currently face themselves. The rents they collect from the armed actors that use the space (for instance, by leasing national parks to migrant herders) overlap, causing violence to break out. In CAR, having your cake and eating it too means welcoming internationally-funded anti-poaching militias at the same time as you charge (armed) herders to use the national parks as grazing lands.

But now I really will stop, because I do not yet fully understand these dynamics and need to find out more before pontificating.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Goya's forgotten Central African series:

(Smoking, roasting monkey.)

Waiting for the state

A few days ago I wrote about my surprise at how often people here – whether locals or expats – see the state as the solution to the problems the country faces. If only the state would do its job, all would be well. Some tens of interviews later, my initial surprise has given way to state fatigue. How many times have I heard people here – especially young men – express their frustration that their “prise en charge” by the state has not yet taken place? If I were to write my dissertation today, it might be titled, “Waiting for the State.” It would be a sadder version of James Ferguson's Expectations of Modernity, because whereas the Zambian copper miners Ferguson studied at least had an upswing before the calamitous economic decline they endured as a result of structural adjustment and other macroeconomic disasters, here in CAR the dreams of modernity have never even been close enough to really visualize, let alone expect.

The other day I sat with a group of “rebels” who await disarmament and reintegration. I justify the quotes around the term because of the twenty or so people assembled around me, only some handful actually had any part in their group's attacks back in 2006-7. The rest joined later, whether to benefit from DDR or for other reasons. One by one, they stated that they had joined the group because the presidential guard (the military strike force) had come and attacked their families and burned their houses; one by one, they vented their frustration that their “prise en charge” by the state has not yet been effected.

The attitude that the state should take care of people by providing salaries to its citizens is widespread here. There are almost no private companies, so the only way one can get a salary is through a state post. (As I've described before, a state job does not necessarily carry with it the service ethic that one might hope would accompany it.) The mayor's son, for instance, has finished school and submitted his dossier to a ministry where his father has an acquaintance. “Maintenant il attend sa prise en charge.” By god, it's enough to make a libertarian of me, all this whining and waiting!

During my meeting with the ex-combatants, the subject turned next to the oil that allegedly bubbles somewhere far below ground here in Vakaga prefecture. A presidential party official had flown in the day before for an early campaign visit (a visit composed of little but cash and promises, as the cliché about African elections would suggest), and he averred that the oil would be exploited before his party left office. This drew massive cheers. One of the most vocal of the ex-combatants, a man named Col. Tarzan (a nickname given by some Russian ex-Foreign Legion guys who used to prowl the area with an anti-poaching militia), piped up that oil had made Sudan and Chad powerful and rich. At this point, I couldn't take listening to what sounded to me like false hope in miraculous state benevolence anymore. The Chadian people, the Sudanese people – they haven't seen one penny of that oil revenue, I retorted. Chad's president Deby just uses it to buy more weapons and fight off the rebel groups that challenge his authoritarian rule. Tarzan shook his head exasperatedly. But if the state exploits the oil, they will have to build a road, he retorted.

I shut up then. It's true – even a road would be a big thing for people here, who live on an island for the rainy half of the year, when then dirt tracks leading here turn into lakes and rivers. My flood of libertarian fervor receded.

I found myself thinking of the philosopher GA Cohen, who passed away just two months ago, and who contributed to the debates about optimal levels of redistribution/state interventionism led by interlocutors like John Rawls and Robert Nozick. Cohen argued that because there is nothing natural about the way that private property is distributed, any distribution of property requires a set of trade-offs that in fact might restrict liberty, rather than enhance it. Therefore some form of redistribution might enable greater liberty and greater equality. Later in his life, Cohen argued less for state intervention, such as through socialism, and more for individual moral engagement as a way of bringing about a more just world. My observations here in CAR have led me to agree that waiting on the state to act for the benefit of its inhabitants is probably not the best way forward. But it also seems unlikely that individual moral engagement is going to get the people of Tiringoulou their road. Faced with such conundrums, hoping for something miraculous doesn't seem so unreasonable.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Quote of the day

“Des fois je me demande pourquoi on m'a mis au monde ici. La Centrafrique c'est quand meme un pays bizarre.”

(Sometimes I wonder why I was born here. Central African Republic is a pretty bizarre country.)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Signs of the financial crisis

Last week the president celebrated his birthday. As his motorcade rolled down Bangui's main drag, he tossed 500 CFA (about $1.25) notes out the window to passerby. People grabbed at them, but also shrugged – he used to throw out 10,000 CFA notes. Call it a sign of the financial crisis.

I heard this story from an NGO employee, who was appalled at this manifestation of local politics. That same week, another employee of his NGO flew into Tiringoulou, unloaded three tons of food, and promptly departed, without so much as helping to distribute in an equitable way. (Their departure was slightly delayed due to the fact that the plane got stuck in the mud at the edge of the runway – one of the most exciting things that has happened around here in ages.)

Parallels, anyone?

Friday, October 16, 2009

The magical, problem-solving state

Time and again during my time here in CAR, I've been struck by how people look to "the state" (or, in the realist-inflected terminology of one diplomat, "le pouvoir") to solve all problems, especially the problem of conflict. I find it odd because the state here has done absolutely nothing to earn that kind of credit.

I'm in Tiringoulou, a village in northeastern CAR, a place with very nearly no state presence. The town boasts a mayor, but otherwise has only a few rebel-group gendarmes and a community- and NGO-run school and health post. And yet, when the question of the building conflict between the Gula, Tiringoulou's major ethnic group, and their neighbors the Kara comes up, the solution proposed is that the state should step in - whether the Sudanese one or the Central African one - and hold a formal peace process. Only, a meeting of kota azo (big men) requires financial means. And of course, people here have pretty much none of those. (The situation is such that I think even the Muslim at dinner had some warthog, which is unclean, like pork.)

Following the fall-out from the killing of Tiringoulou's sheikh (whose house I'm now staying in) in 2002, the Central African and Sudanese governments did meet and worked out a formal peace agreement. Sudan was supposed to build a school here, which I see no sign of. And apparently the peace didn't take, because the tensions have re-emerged in, if anything, stronger form.

I'm not sure where these thoughts will go, but I find it interesting that in the place in the world with arguably the least state presence (the army shows up occasionally and attacks, but that's about it), the state is nevertheless imagined as some kind of almost magically-powerful entity. Veena Das makes this point in her book Life and Words - the state, far from being simply a totalitarian political-theological relic, can be magical and surprising in the ways that it appears in people's lives, because the people comprising its bureaucracy have power, but not omniscience, and often don't fully understand the gray areas that surround the laws they are implementing. But Das' research is on India, where the extent of the bureaucracy is legendary. The situation here is the opposite.

This is also, incidentally, the place in the world with the least light pollution, according to National Geographic. I sat tonight and alternately slapped at the swarms of mosquitoes and admired the Milky Way, until the hum of the generator replaced that village idyll with the imperative of getting together all my notes during the day's two-hour power allotment.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sunday in Bangui

I had heard that a walking group met on Sundays at a restaurant near where I'm staying, so early this morning I headed out to find them. I arrived a few minutes too late and set off in the direction onlookers said they'd gone. No trace of them, but I did bump into Gilles, a logging company employee, and his trainer Manuela, the head of the Central African track and field association. After chatting a bit they invited me to join them for their ascent of Mt. Bangui (OK, it's really just a hill).

The hill is the site of one of Bangui's major landmarks, a large, illuminated sign that tries to be reminiscent of the Hollywood one. Only, lately I guess some bulbs have gone out, because at night all you see is "BANG". (If the city slogan, too, were illuminated, the sign would read "BANG la coquette".)

Photos available here.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Sango lessons

Sentences in Sango tend to be pretty long, because it consists of a relatively few words that are then strung together to make a new word. The words, too, are often an amalgamation of shorter words. Some of my favorites:

lakui: la (sun) + kui (dead) = evening

bekombite: beko (anagram of "kobe," food) + mbi (I) + te (eat) = noon

I've learned several ways of saying "It's hot," but the one I learned today is by far my favorite:

La asu mingi: literally, the sun is sucking a lot.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Privatization of the state

Alex de Waal has just finished up his five-part critical review of Jean-Francois Bayart's The State in Africa. (For those without the time or inclination to read the full five-part series, I'll serve up the punchline here: despite critiquing the lines of analysis Bayart does and does not pursue, de Waal concludes by giving the book the highest praise an academic work can hope for – that it's “useful.”) Part Two looks at the idea of extraversion, which I discussed in a previous post. De Waal uses the Sudan/Chad/CAR context to illustrate his critique of extraversion, and in so doing he lays out the broader context of the raiding dynamics I'm studying ethnographically in CAR.

In another of Bayart's books, The Criminalization of the State in Africa, the author argues that the state in Africa has become privatized. The public/private distinctions associated with the Habermasian democratic ideal are inoperative and political institutions represent means of private enrichment. The political position is coterminous with its holder, rather than existing as a set of theoretical ideals of service apart from the “kota zo” (big person) inhabiting it.

I have mentioned in earlier posts how the French leased pretty much the entirety of CAR's territory to concessionary companies. Any administration was a by-product of the quest for private profit. That kind of privatized state is pretty straightforward to imagine. It is similar to contemporary enclaves like mining operations. But what does it really mean to talk of the privatization of the whole state today? I heard a story yesterday that provides an excellent illustration, if also a tragic one.

Armed men, believed to be members of the Lord's Resistance Army, attacked a truck carrying humanitarian and development supplies for an NGO working in the southeastern part of the country. Two of the people in the truck were killed, and one was gravely injured. The injured man suffered a bullet in his spine, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down, and he was airlifted to the hospital in Bangui. There, his condition worsened and his body wasted as the doctors waited, apparently unsure whether they had the expertise to treat him. Finally, two weeks after his arrival in the capital, the doctors issued their verdict: he should been flown to Cameroon and operated upon immediately.

The NGO employees launched into making this happen. Foreigners here generally have health insurance and so can be evacuated with relatively little red tape, but CAR nationals do not, and airlifting them requires a signature from the minister of health. Following many frantic phone calls and intervention by the UN humanitarian chief and various other high-placed people, the minister of health signed the paperwork at 11am on Tuesday. The once-weekly plane would depart just three hours later. One of the NGO employees called the doctor needed to accompany the injured man. For various reasons, only this one doctor could accompany the patient – it is a state hospital, and the patient was his responsibility.

The doctor was at home when he received the call. Perhaps he expected that it would take longer to obtain the minister's signature than it did. But he flat-out refused to get on the plane. He said he didn't want to. It didn't suit his schedule. He didn't elaborate and didn't seem at all ashamed that he was so flagrantly neglecting the responsibilities of his post. Obstinate, the doctor continued stalling. Soon the plane would depart, and he wouldn't have to leave for another week, if at all.

In the end, the NGO employees prevailed, and the wounded, quite possibly dying man made it on the plane to Cameroon at the last possible minute.

In this situation, the doctor's position in the civil service position represented little more than a bundle of his individual interests. It could almost seem like to the doctor, the patient was somehow less than human – otherwise, how to explain the lack of empathy for the dying man under his care?

This question reminds me of Peter Singer's recent book, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End Poverty. In it, Singer argues against valuing the lives of those proximate to us over the lives of those far away. Thousands of people die of water-borne illness and worms and other scourges, and all of these would be easily treatable if only the world's wealthy people would open their pocketbooks. Moreover, our dollars go further in poor countries than they do in rich ones. Singer asks readers to picture a starving person, or a worm-ridden person, standing in front of them: shouldn't you give a few bucks to save that person's life? It shouldn't matter that in reality the person lives thousands of miles away. Singer, in other words, argues that we all face the doctor's choice on a daily basis, and most of us respond as the doctor did.

I don't think the situations are as analogous as I imagine Singer might, but they do raise the issue of the relationship between responsibility and proximity when it comes to helping those in need. Still, I find the privatization of the state especially troubling because it means that the structures intended to ensure some kind of generalized responsibility for fellow humans are just a front for personally-determined interests. It is such an insidious problem it's difficult to know how it will ever change.

But then, perhaps from the perspective of people like the doctor, there isn't really a problem. Perhaps from his perspective, responsibility does not lie with him, but rather with the NGOs that have stepped in to fill the need created in the wake of the neglect of people like him and the officials who preceded him. If so, the doctor and Singer would be making strangely similar arguments, both placing private charity above public responsibility.

Either that or private charity has become the new public responsibility. But in that case what's the value of the vestigial state structures?

Friday, October 2, 2009

The real usefulness of private security

E.E. Evans-Pritchard, of The Nuer and Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande fame, averred that the best way to learn a language is to immerse oneself in the world of children. They speak simply and have no compunction about pointing out one's mistakes. I don't doubt the effectiveness of Evans-Pritchard's method, but nowadays I have another group of teachers to add to it: security guards. Every ex-pat or otherwise wealthy house or business has at least one, but more often two, security guards, and they while away their days with nothing to do amid the alternating squawks of their walkie-talkies and the birds. Thus every time I leave the house and enter an office, I have the chance to exchange pleasantries with four eager conversants.

This morning, for instance, I learned “Mo lango nzoni?" (Have you slept well?), a common morning query, to accompany my comments about the weather (pouring rain). The word for rain in Sango, incidentally, is either poetic or yet another manifestation of African religiosity, or both, depending on your point of view: ngu ti nzapa (god's water).

From the Small World Department

The other day I had lunch with some friends in the export business. I slurped my dessert so I could rush off to meet a prospective Sango teacher. The teacher, it turned out, himself had to rush out to meet his next student, who is studying French to facilitate business transactions in the provinces. The student? One of the people with whom I'd lunched. Later, at dinner, I mentioned to my companions that I'd found a room to rent while here in Bangui. They asked where it was, and it became apparent that one of the people at the table, a government minister, is my new landlord.

Ah, Bangui.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Alex de Waal on Jean-Francois Bayart

I recently posted a few thoughts about Jean-Francois Bayart's idea of extraversion. Now, on the occasion of the republication of Bayart's opus _The State in Africa: Politics of the Belly_, Alex de Waal has started a five-part series on his blog reflecting on the book and its resonances with the Sudanese situation. Part one is available here.


Today I took my first step on Libyan soil. Well, concrete. With the airport here in Tripoli surrounded by construction, my plane from Paris parked far from the terminal, and we passengers had to troop across the tarmac in the late afternoon sun. Tripoli airport is an odd holding pen. The faded glamor of a long ago-modern motel meets third-world dim lighting and endless checkpoints of civil servants. Today a swarm of men in white jackets and face masks met the plane. They handed us forms to fill out about disease and contact information and then bustled off to puzzle over the results. In the duty free shop, one can purchase cans of salted nuts from Sweden, little rhinestone-studded ceramic boxes in the shape of dachshunds, and shelf after shelf of cigarettes. The gift shop is never open, and the restaurant serves little besides dates and cookies. Every time I'm here, at least one airport official will crow over my name and let it roll off his tongue. I know how to respond: “Hua ism arabiy” (it's an Arabic name). Not really, but close enough, especially if it makes their day of tedious work pass a little more quickly.

All that being said, I've not a single complaint about the journey so far. The plane here was nearly empty and I could stretch out across a row of seats freshly upholstered in Libya's signature new-grass green. I had my pick of six films and went with “Tropic Thunder,” none the less enjoyable for the bleeped expletives and fuzzed cleavage, bare legs, and gore.

As I write this I sit in the dusky final holding area before boarding. Here, finally, no one will express shock upon learning our little-known destination (“You're going where?”) I can't help but look around and wonder about what brings this collection of people to a plane bound for Bangui la Coquette. Some are from there, of course, and there are people whose appearance gives them away, like the two nuns sitting across from me. But many betray little beyond a drifting gaze: an eager and canny businessman, perhaps, next to a grizzled aid worker.

And then there's me. Not quite sure where I fit into all this. Anthropologists used to consider fieldwork a rite of passage. This idea has come under extensive critique in recent years, but I have to say it still feels true to me as I set off on this minor adventure. Will people talk to me, and keep talking so that I can sift layers of information? Will I finally learn enough Sango to understand the teasing and arguing that goes on all around me? Despite these doubts, thinking of the experience as a kind of rite of passage helps me face the prospect of all these months on my own, because it's something I know I must do, and, dare I even think it, I get excited at the prospect that it might even go well and I might actually find out something interesting (at least in hindsight – these things can be hard to judge underway). I wouldn't want to fall back a year – to when I was in the throes of grant-writing, with exams on the horizon – nor, obviously, do I feel ready to start next year's task: writing up. I do, however, already look forward to being close again to family and friends, and I've barely even left.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The old problem of pirates

I've had several conversations in recent weeks during which my interlocutors, including one of my professors here in Osnabrück, have expounded on piracy and non-state combatants by proclaiming the newness of these threats. This is a new problem, the likes of which we've never seen before, they said.

How such commentators would do well to turn to history!

The pirate and the non-state combatant have served as the foils against whom the nation-stateLink system has defined itself and its laws of war since the 1600s, or earlier if you count Cicero's Philippics, which so inspired the 17th century theorists. (In making this observation, I'm drawing on what I read and learned in a mind-blowing course I took my first year at Duke taught by Ian Baucom, as well as some of his writings.) Opinions may differ about the extent to which these characters have become a more numerous and pressing threat in the contemporary period than they were before (my friend Jatin Dua who studies piracy has pointed out the immense challenges piracy posed to New York City in its early years), but I would hesitate before describing them as tearing apart the state-based mode of political organization when they are precisely the figures that the state has long used to justify self-preservation using whatever means necessary.

The pirate, the brigand, or other non-state combatant has appeared in many guises. To Cicero, he is the man without a state; to Hobbes, he is homo homini lupus (man who is wolf to man, i.e., someone living in the state of nature); to Zouche (a humanist international law scholar), he is inimicus (inimical to our way of life); to Kant, he is the unjust enemy; to Bush, the unlawful combatant. All distinguish between war with an enemy (another state), against whom laws of war apply, and war with this stateless other. The stateless other has violated Hobbes' first law of nature, namely that one exit the state of nature (that horrible space of war of all against all, where life is "nasty, brutish, and short") by joining into a system of covenants. Anything is permitted against someone who has committed this cardinal sin, whether the transgressor be a pirate or an apparent savage like the "Hottentots" of southern Africa, or the natives of the Americas (both of these latter groups figured prominently in the 17th century theorists' writings). In all cases, it is the form of social organization these "unjust enemies" represent that justifies harsh corrective action.

In this vein, one could see the period of European-led slavery and colonialism as a variant of this continual project of ridding the world of its "stateless" menaces. Existential fears like these do not emerge in a vacuum, but rather, as Saskia Sassen might put it, reflect the accrual and interplay of capabilities, organizing logics, and tipping points -- in a word, history.

Or maybe I've just been spending too much time in archives lately.

The "Uighur question" gets an answer in Africa

I keep thinking about a recent post on Chad blog, the project of a journalist named Celeste Hicks. The article present the statement of Mohammed El-Gharani, the youngest Guantanamo detainee, who was recently released in N'djamena. The story seemed so bizarre I wasn't sure whether to believe it, but a quick internet search provided a range of articles to confirm the skeleton of his story, which apparently first appeared on BBC. What would it be like to be held uncharged for seven years only to be plunked down in the Chadian capital and forgotten, passportless and confused?

His testimony, also available here:

I was so scared in Guantanamo. Sometimes I thought they would kill me or throw me into the ocean. I was there from 14 to 21 years of age, but sometimes I feel like I’m 40, because I’ve been through so much.

When I was in prison I called Al-Jazeera to tell them what was happening. Lots of people thought that when Obama came in things would change but it wasn’t true. In January I won my case because the judge said there wasn’t enough evidence against me. But even then I was still getting people pushing me around and not treating me well.

I don’t know why they sent me to Chad, I thought they would send me to Saudi because I was born there and my parents are still there. I’d never even be to Chad before. But when they asked me if I wanted to go to Chad I said of course I do! I could get to see my family and my country. There was no choice.

They gave me no help for the future. The day I arrived, the Americans brought me to the airport and handed me over to the Chadian authorities who welcomed me, and that was it. No more contact with them. The Chadians kept me at the police station for eight days. I don’t know why. They had to buy me a mosquito net and a mattress. I kept asking them every day why I was being kept there, they said don’t worry we’ll give you your papers you’ll get to see your family.

Finally they let me go, but I still don’t have a passport which means I can’t go to visit my parents. I don’t understand what’s going on. I’ve asked every day. Sometimes they say they don’t know if I’m really Chadian. I say if I’m not Chadian then how on earth did you guys take me from the Americans? They have no answer. I always say if I’m not Chadian, then just tell me, and if I am just give me my passport and let me live like everyone else.

Guantanamo is like a dream to me. I’m still living it, even now I’m free. Sometimes I wake up on a morning and I think I’m still there! I feel like there are guards around me, but after maybe half an hour I finally realise that I’m free. I never believed I would be there for so long, I never even believed I would go to jail. But I always knew I would get out. I read the Koran every day and I never gave up.

So I’m here in Chad now with no papers and no money, and my family are having to support me. I don’t speak Chadian Arabic and I’m still trying to learn my way around the city. But I’m free. Chad is really hot and not very developed, but I would rather spend the rest of my life here than another hour in Guantanamo.
I’m not angry with the Americans. I just want to get on with my life. I want to study, I want to work. I think I’ll try to go to school and find a job. I hope I can get back to Saudi Arabia to see my parents as soon as I can. I’m so close to them but I can’t get there. I call them every day. I tell them not to worry because I’m free now. Seven years away for no reason is inhuman.

How jealous he must be of the Uighurs, who, after a long period of uncertainty as they awaited hosts, now lounge on Bermudan beaches! (OK, that's an exaggeration, but four did end up there. Seventeen more are on their way to Palau.)

The dilemma posed by people like Mohammed El-Gharani has become known as the "Uighur question," and it's one of the biggest challenges slowing the closing of Guantanamo. What to do with people who can't return to their home countries, whether because that country won't take them, or because they risk torture there? According to Jonathan Mahler, there are sixty people at Guantanamo who have been cleared for release but have nowhere to go. Ireland recently announced it will take two. At this rate, these people might languish for months, years.

I haven't found any details about the quid pro quo the US offers to countries that accept ex-Guantanamo prisoners. It probably consists of money, or military aid, or some such tempting perk. With a system like that, it seems likely many detainees will end up in Africa. Perhaps I'll come across one in CAR. Stranger things have happened.

Hague visit

Photo: Wikimedia

It would be challenging to design a less-peaceful-looking building than the Vredespalais (Peace Palace) in the Hague. Spiky crosses jut out of the severely-angled roof like the barbs on the back of a horse-shoe crab, and a single tower on the left-hand side dominates the rest of the building (the architect had envisioned two towers, but but the project ran out of money, despite Andrew Carnegie's founding gift of what would in today's currency equal 200 million Euros). It was completed in 1913, just in time to stand sentinel beside the carnage of WWI. Tragi-irony.

The Peace Palace was intended as a solution to the problem that loomed large for the first half of the 20th century: wars between nation-states. It was to provide a neutral, posh meeting ground on which world leaders could unite to work out their disagreements civilly. As such, its failures dwarf its successes. But the threat of nation-state war has faded nevertheless.

Today, the Palace's main occupants are the International Court of Justice and the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Most of the cases are secret, but the tour guide gave as an example a recent non-secret hearing between the Khartoum government and the government of South Sudan over a site of potential oil exploration.

Overall, the Peace Palace stands as an aesthetic monument to a bygone, short-lived era of nation-state grandeur and jostling. The tour guide's narrative directed my gaze from the mosaic floor (a gift constructed with the labor of "15 French girls") to a giant cross-carrying statue of Christ ("It stands only for peace, not religion -- it was a gift from Argentina and Chile commemorating the end of their border dispute") to a set of stained glass windows (thanks, England). Then we arrived at the "Japanese room," which houses silk tapestries made, our tour guide said, by 48,000 artisans (which seems ridiculously high, but they were definitely ornate), as well as a giant kilim from Turkey and Ming dynasty vases, each the size of an obese ten-year-old, from China. This chamber provided the tour's most intriguing mystery: each chair was donated by a particular country and bore an embroidered back with a flag or a crest, most of them immediately recognizable. But one contained a diamond shape half-filled in turquoise and half in white, with a pole with a red ski cap perched on top bisecting it. Any ideas who this might be? Argentina, perhaps?

On my way from the Peace Palace to Malakkastraat, in search of the home of a long-lost friend, I passed the embassy of Chechnya. From the staid, frozen-in-time pompousness of the Peace Palace, which struck me as an anachronistic artifact in an era marked by non-state enemies and the blurring of public/private distinctions, the Chechens' outpost reminded me of the intensity and ardor behind struggles for statehood, which are ongoing and play out far from the Hague's plush halls.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Dependency, extraversion, and all the rest

With my seminar on Law, Culture and Language here at the University of Osnabrück winding down, I finally have a moment to turn away from frantically playing catch-up on course topics like cultural rights (still not sure what those are, or why they are rights, a topic to which I will return) and intellectual property and instead return to working through questions nearer to my own project, here on my blog.

Today's topic: extraversion. Such a richly descriptive term, one wishes it were not a neologism, a category that too often consists of jargon created as a way of circumventing accessible, precise description.

I spent a fair amount of time in the archives reading about how the concessionary company officials interacted with African leaders in the areas they sought to exploit. What struck me was the entrepreneurial attitude with which the most powerful African leaders met the European newcomers. For instance, with no roads, few navigable waterways, and far-flung outposts in need of equipment, the sultans of Haut-Mbomou (Bangassou, Rafai, Zemio), saw an opportunity and became "veritable entrepreneurs of transport," in the words of Louis-Bernardin Metefia. In practice, this meant they excelled at (forcibly) conscripting porters. The epic story of the Faidherbe, a tugboat the French sought to transport from the Congo to the Nile, rivals Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo debacle in the South American jungle, and was possible only with the sultans' collaboration. The first concessionaires to arrive in Haut-Mbomou in the 1890s found the sultans had, to varying degrees, adopted EuropeLinkan style of dress (Bangassou wore a British general's tunic) and spoke excellent French.

All of this seems a perfect illustration of political scientist Jean-François Bayart's concept of extraversion. Bayart proposes the term extraversion to describe the ways in which Africans have actively participated in the processes that created and maintain the continent's dependent position within the global system. The continent is not marginalized or marginal, he maintains, but in recent years there has been an "aggravation of its dependence." Rather than indulging the "meanderings of dependency theory," however, he argues for the importance of analyzing the dynamics of dependence. Such an approach enables a historical reading of change, participation, and movement. Extraversion, as he terms African participation, consists of six sets of strategies: coercion, trickery, flight, mediation, appropriation, and (its opposite) rejection. Overall, then, these are rent-based modes of action. Bayart maintains that in Africa sovereignty is defined by the ability to manage dependence through rents. On the one hand, Bayart seeks to make sense of Africa's inferior position in the global economy; on the other hand, he wants to take seriously the ways in which Africans have taken external constraints and re-made them into new creations (for instance, through emulation of attractive colonial "life-styles" and religions). But in the end, he is pessimistic, describing strategies of extraversion as "pathetic when not frankly tragic" and ill-suited to solve problems of "accumulation, representation, and legitimacy" that currently plague the continent.

Extraversion is a brilliant theory. It describes some large portion of the processes through which democracy, development and other donor-fed buzzwords become so hijacked. And it describes many of the dynamics of war on the continent. Sometimes, such as when thinking about the ways armed group leaders play with qualifications in order to obtain the recognition of the international system, I wonder what remains for me to find out and describe besides the ways these strategies represent extraversion. Extraversion can seem to encompass everything.

Any totalizing theory makes me inherently suspicious. What might it miss, or distort? For one thing, it ascribes all developments in Africa as in some sense responsive/reactive to stimuli from the exterior. Bayart would take issue with describing an "interior" and "exterior" to Africa, because he sees the continent as constituted by sets of relationships whose parties cannot be isolated for the sake of analysis. Point taken. But extraversion remains a reaction, whether within the continent or beyond.

Extraversion also misses the unpredictable processes of governance and collaboration that one finds on the ground. (Foucault termed systems of governance techniques "governmentality," but in an attempt to minimize jargon on this site, I'll stick to dictionary-available approximations of this term.) Thomas Bierschenk and Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan provide a telling example in their article "Local Powers and a Distant State in Rural Central African Republic" (1997). They describe the differences between two types of Groupement d'intérêt rural (GIR, rural solidarity groups). In the associations, membership may be required (as is the case for cotton producers). The cotton producers' association is the real village treasury (the village chief gets nothing from the central state), able to raise substantial sums, thanks to inputs from members. Recognizing the importance of these associations to village life, aid donors began creating and subsidizing additional associations with organizing aims such as pig-raising or small business support. The donors bring with them large sums of money and seem to require nothing in return. Except in the case of a pig-raising project that trained a particular set of already resource-strong individuals, the outputs of these projects are next to nil. The few successful projects became sites of development tourism, with officials from Bangui and Washington (including the president of CAR) making visits, which rapidly inspired copy-cats eager to get in on the action, who used the all the trendy buzzwords like "participatory" and "community-based" to woo funds their way. In a word, these copycats are engaging in extraversion, and next to nothing remains in the village to show for it besides the installation and maintenance of a "subsidy-based mentality." The extraversion lens does not make visible the non-aid funded associations, however, which seem to be the real locus of political struggle in the village. They are there not just during the aid donors' pop-in assessment visits but all the rest of the time as well.

A full discussion of the drawbacks of aid is beyond the scope of this post. Because the roles and effects of international agencies are one of my interests, Bayart's theory of extraversion will in all likellihood be an important element of my analysis. But I hope that by drawing attention to the governance effects that accompany strategies of militarized extraversion in particular locales I might also reveal more about the ethics and political structures that organize people's daily lives.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Borders - or, in a way, Mayotte postscript

Over coffee with my friend Henri-Michel Yéré yesterday afternoon at the BNF (French national library), I had the kind of discussion that reminds me why I chose this life of the mind: all sorts of possibilities I hadn't seen before opened up, and information came together in new ways to suggest alternative conclusions. Henri was excited because, upon the afore-mentioned Fred Cooper's recommendation, he had found some articles that dramatically shifted his reading of Ivoirian nationalism, his dissertation subject. For me, the re-thinking centered on a new appreciation for changing nature of political borders, which is one reason I sought to study of a borderland.

The usual gloss on the current map-lines on the African continent is that they were the largely-arbitrary impositions of colonialism, and Africans today must cope with their deleterious effects. There is truth in this reading, but it is also quite misleading. For borders have meant very different things through time, and the present situation represents a postcolonial legacy as much as any other.

The French grouped their colonies in administrative regions like AOF (French West Africa) and AEF (French Equatorial Africa). Within these regions, they continually redistricted and re-organized. For instance, one of the two "autonomous districts" of northeast CAR went back and forth between Oubangui-Chari and Chad. Because all these colonies were for the benefit of France, administrators could make them perform a kind of division of labor. In West Africa, Côte d'Ivoire was largely a place for the production of cash crops, while its neighbors had more administrative and educational institutions. This created a sense of "bildungsrüggstand" (I'm not sure I'm spelling that properly, but it was Henri's mot juste -- it refers to backwardness, backward development) among many Ivoirians. A group of Ivoirians banded together in the 1930s and demanded that the French implement preferential hiring for people born on Ivoirian soil. They felt all the plum jobs were going to Dahomeyans and Togolese, and they worked together with the French administrators to draft the new policy.

Fast-forward to the independence years. With the adoption of the constitution of the 5th Republic in 1958, all of France's colonial holdings became members of the "Communauté Française," which granted them a great deal of autonomy (they would organize their own currency, their own defense) under the umbrella of greater France. They would in a way be citizens of both France and the African Community, and, for instance, a Senegalese man could serve as French ambassador to the US.

All of the French colonies chose this option but one, that is. In Guinea, Sekou Touré wanted nothing of this association and opted for independence instead. Very soon, the leaders of other African nations saw him getting the red carpet treatment wherever he went, representing Guinea at the UN: the first Big Man. Meanwhile, Felix Houphouet-Boigny emerged as the leader of Côte d'Ivoire (and went on to rule until his death in 1994). He stood at the opposite end of the spectrum, drawing the ire of more militant types like Franz Fanon or even Léopold Senghor. He campaigned for the communauté by writing excited articles like "Un Véritable Etat Multinationale" (a real multinational state). But it was not to be. All of French Africa opted out of the communauté and became independent in 1960.

This article took Henri by surprise. He had been looking at 1963, when Houphouet-Boigny proposed the idea of "double nationnalité" for Ivoirians and Burkina Fasans. A number of interviewees had explained that Houphouet-Boigny hit upon this idea after a trip to Burkina. But try as he might (and he tried -- nearly giving himself microfilm whiplash), Henri found no such trip. Could it be instead that the trip explanation has become the common understanding partly because of a contemporary desire to forget that for Houphouet-Boigny double nationnalité was a kind of disappointment, a contraction of his previous efforts on behalf of a united French Africa, which has now more than ever in a Côte d'Ivoire ravaged by debates about autochthony become politically unpalatable?

With the benefit of hindsight we see how "françafrique" (the tight relationship France maintained in its former colonies, including various treaties that all post-independence leaders signed providing preferential treatment for the French in questions of resource exploitation or military cooperation) enabled the French to use their former holdings only in the ways that were beneficial to them (such as operating military bases), and wash their hands of the rest. The leaders of the new countries of course did not have this vision of the future. They were justifiably eager to emancipate themselves from the dominating structures they had endured. One does wonder, though, how things might have been different if those post-independence leaders had not become increasingly jealous of the borders they had inherited.

This made me think of some letters sent from Abel Goumba, the prime minister of the CAR under the communauté, to the French ambassador in Khartoum in 1958. Apparently a couple of Fellata herdsmen had killed a person in northeast CAR, and they had also killed some protected animals. Goumba wrote in hopes of convincing the ambassador to make a case to the Sudanese authorities to make more efforts to control the hunters coming onto Central African territory. We hope to become safari destinations like Tanganyika or Kenya, he wrote, and if those Sudanese kill all our animals that will become impossible. In an accompanying letter, a French administrator in Bangui explained that Goumba had initially sought to permanently bar Fellata from entry into CAR, but he had convinced Goumba that was neither practicable nor necessarily desirable.

Three years ago President Bozizé did officially close the border with Sudan. This meant nothing to the few people who lived along the border, who continued to cross as they needed. But it wreaked havoc on UNHCR's plans to repatriate Sudanese refugees living in CAR.

My how the ideals of fellowship that the UN was supposed to represent have instead helped to increase emphasis on the sanctity of borders and division, to say nothing of the importance of red carpets...