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 clich̩ 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 Рthey 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.