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.

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