Friday, July 24, 2009


Houses in Ndele, December 2006

If, at the moment they resolved their Senoussi problem, the French glowed with plans to make the lands of Dar al Kuti productive once more, twenty-five years later it was clear even to them that they had fallen short of their goal. "Earlier, it seems, a land of abundance, Ndele barely manages to feed itself: it's a brutal fact," (“Autrefois, parait-il, pays d’abondance, la subdivision de Ndele arrive a peine à se suffire a elle-même: c’est un fait brutal.") wrote an administrator in the town in 1936. He went on to describe how rain fell onto his desk through the holes in the thatched roof, and how he had killed two snakes and a scorpion inside his house the day before (INSIDE the house, he repeated). Perhaps not quite what he hoped for when he joined the colonial service, which at that time still had an idealistic patina for many. His higher-ups saw him as a slacker.

Though never able to entirely sever the connections between Dar al Kuti and the Muslim north, the French did their best to stop them. The transformation of Ndele from "zeriba" (a fortified commercial outpost on a trading network) to colonial town in itself dramatically altered the region's orientation. By the mid-30s, very few pilgrims on the Hajj traveled through the once-well-visited town and no Koranic school operated. The French did their all to arrest and punish any possible "transfuges" (defectors/deserters) who might try to avoid their labor (they still used tipoyes for transport!) and tax requirements by resettling in Sudan, where rumor had it the British allowed people to live more freely.

The French presence was never great, but the various wars they pursued in the early years of their rule ensured their hegemony over potential rivals for a time. In the process, once-rich, vibrant, and violent societies withered. I am hoping my research will show some of the ways how the old connections have regrown, assuming new forms but influenced by historical relationships, in recent decades. But many questions remain:

* Ndele again has a sultan, but his background is not clear from the reports I've found so far in the archives. What are his powers now, and how did he come to have them? I know that some of the contemporary armed group leaders have backgrounds (Gula, Runga) that trace to the losing side of the turn of the century raiding.
* Who are the modern-day bazinguers (the sultan's soldiers), how do they see themselves, and how do the populations they visit see them?
* Again on these bazinguers: who are the elusive elephant poachers (who kill more than 1000 elephants in a single dry season, according to some estimates), rumored to contain Sudanese military officials among their ranks? What are their connections to the various armed groups in the area, and especially the Chadian/Centrafrican military entrepreneurs that pop up at the head of various armed movements over the years?
* What to make of the new presence of the international system, the UN and NGOs, with their benevolent aims and surfeit of unintended consequences?

The perpetual doubt of the dissertator remains: am I making a mountain out of a molehill? Will I find these connections and raiding networks? A foreign visitor to Ndele, where I plan to do research, will likely perceive it as incredibly isolated, poor and remote, barely able to feed itself, just like the administrator mentioned above. Anthropologists like to try to reverse those stereotypes and instead show the fecundity of supposedly stagnant and "underdeveloped" social systems. There is more than a grain of truth, however, in the foreigner's initial perception, and the challenge will be to balance recognition of that reality while also stretching it apart to reveal what it fails to see.

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