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.