Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Pirogue race photos

Finally, a few photos:

Bozize gives a thumb's up to the crowd (note the stylish life preserver/suit color coordination):

And they're off:

Photos shot by Pichou Stone (, professional photographer based in Bangui and Paris.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Pirogue race!

Tuesday morning I awoke early, stepped onto the balcony and peered down to the fog-swaddled Oubangui, the river that separates CAR from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Already at such an early hour, the water teems with pirogues (canoes made from hollowed tree trunks). Some are full of fishermen, who paddle (sometimes with oars, sometimes with flip-flops, cupped hands, or whatever else they can find) to the calm, current-less spots that dot the water like knots in a piece of wood, where they cast long nets in hopes of ensnaring the ever-more-elusive capitaine. Some have outboard motors and transport beehive-like Styrofoam structures full of plastic baggies of neon-colored juices for sale either here or across the river in Zongo. It's a Bruegel painting come to life, even on the calmest of Sundays. But Tuesday was different: the annual pirogue race. My two housemates had slept on the balcony in anticipation of catching the first preparations.

Sadly, though, I saw only the usual puttering river folk. Perhaps the race was on Wednesday after all – it is usually on 1 December, which is the day CAR celebrates independence (not the actual day of independence, which is in August like that of all the other former African colonies save Guinea). But this year they decided to roll the usual independence day celebrations into the 50th anniversary commemoration, and hence expected a number of the region's heads of states, and the festivities spread over several days. The official program (a few hastily photocopied sheets stapled into a book, such that the text ran in randomly inclining and declining lines) placed the race on Tuesday, but who really knew? I sighed and commenced the usual early morning ablutions.

Then I heard it: drumming, and some cheering, and people beginning to gather on the patch of beach that has emerged now in the first weeks of the dry season. All of a sudden a monster pirogue appeared around the corner. Whereas the daily pirogues carry maybe five people, some 45 people filled the enormous race pirogue. They stood in two columns. Each column was divided into thirds. The front and rear third rowed in unison, and then, as they rotated their paddles through the air, the middle third cut into the water: a human piston. In addition to the rowers, each boat carried a drummer to keep rhythm, and many carried a bailer to triage the water inevitably taken on.

Pretty soon the water teemed with drumming, whirring boats. Some teams sported a fresh-white t-shirt from their sponsor. An Areva employee tossed them out to his boat. One of the KNK (the president's party) boats got to wear their signature orange. Another was inexplicably pink. Others stuck with the rainbow of knock-off soccer jerseys they wear every day. Meanwhile, the Navy (yes, landlocked though it is, CAR has a navy) zipped around in Zodiacs and wore their orange horseshoe life preservers with all the dignity of ermine-bedecked royals. A fight broke out between a young man and woman on shore, but the crowd quickly broke it up. Last year the police spent a lot of time whacking people with sticks to clear the finish area of people. This year they didn't even seem to mind as fans climbed on top of their vans for a better view.

And they were off! The race started more suddenly – ahead of schedule! – than anyone thought possible. The water churned with these human pistons, who quickly sped around the bend and out of sight. They returned via the far bank, some 800m away, racing millipedes to us now. Then, immediately in front of where they started, they cut across at a 90 degree angle to finish by ramming into the shore in front of the assembled dignitaries. The rowers jumped out quickly to avoid those behind them and as they did so the pirogues often became water logged and sank. The skill of many of the rowers – none of whom ever seem to practice – became even more apparent alongside this reminder of their crafts' fragility.

Meanwhile, pirogues kept arriving from both sides. I learned later that the initial race had been a false start, but the navy had been unable to catch up to all the boats to alert them to turn around so they just let them complete the course. Either that or the VIPs weren't in place yet. By the time President Bozize, gliding by in a Zodiac (no life vest for him, just a sober beige suit), made a surprise appearance, flashing his trademark double thumbs-up at the crowd, 32 boats jockeyed for position at the start. The gun cracked and they again flew downriver. Whistles blew and Zodiacs whizzed: false start. It seems impossible to actually line up so many boats evenly in such a strong current, and I wonder if the false start verdict is simply a way of increasing the illusion of fairness. Whatever the case, it meant that we got to watch the most exciting part not once, but thrice.

Apparently two pirogues overturned during the race (post-race rumors said two died), but I didn't see it. I saw only the masterful cooperation of one of the white teams, which powered to shore in first place. The rowers celebrated with gymnastic leaps from their craft. In their euphoria they seemed not to notice the runners-up sailing in behind them, but by some unknown artistry, disaster was avoided.

After the race, overheard shrieks led us to wander to the deck on the side of the building that fronts the road. A large woman, resplendent in a boubou, screamed at a man with a pousse-pousse (a hand cart similar to those Americans use for their gardening). The pousse-pousse was filled with pigs trussed by their legs. The woman grabbed each pig by the ear and hurled it angrily onto the ground. The pigs wailed their too-human-like squeal at the pain and attempted futilely to scootch away. They came to encircle a homeless man who'd made the grassy patch his bed and slept tranquilly through all the drama. The woman disputed the delivery charge the pousse-pousse man had leveled for his service. In the end, she tossed the pigs – using either the ear or the tail as a handle – into a taxi and drove away. The turbaned Chadian soldiers that accompany the president watched on, seeming bored, from their on-guard positions in the middle of the road.

For the rest of the day, I bubbled over attempting to convey the morning's excitement to friends: Did you see the pirogue race? It's the most impressive sporting feat I've ever seen! Never have I felt such exhilaration and euphoria at an athletic event. The West Africans who populate the middle levels of INGOs and UN agencies sniffed, “Pirogue races? We used to do that.” Expatriates shrugged, “I had to work.” Central Africans seemed happy to see a foreigner so impressed with their country but a little baffled by the eagerness.

Far greater sportswriters than I have dedicated their careers to describing the effervescence that animates these mass events. And yet in the end it always comes back to: you had to be there.

Truth in advertising

What is the name of Bangui's best hotel?

Decades after "the Sofitel" lost its international affiliation, a fresh coat of paint brings new accuracy to Bangui's leading accommodation. It seems likely to be upstaged, though, by a soon-to-open edifice, known to all as simply "the Libyan hotel."

Monday, November 22, 2010


A reader pointed out that it was unclear whether the woman in the picture I posted last week understood the meaning of her shirt or not, so I'll just say it outright: she had no idea.

After meeting her I traipsed off to an INGO-run hygiene promotion seminar for community leaders. There our presenters treated us to text bubble- and arrow- filled PowerPoint presentations, which they referred to as "tools". As the t-shirt illustrates, modes of representing abstract information are culturally-specific and learned. If they're lucky, people here have grown up copying sentences written on a chalkboard, the main school-day exercise. Bubbles of text, arrows, and flow charts don't enter into it. At the risk of anthropological pedantry: this should factor into the creation of "tools".

Friday, November 19, 2010

T-shirt Hell lives on...

For the record, this woman is a deaconess in a friend's church as well as a primary school teacher here in Kaga Bandoro and is by all accounts an upstanding person.

(For those unacquainted with T-shirt Hell, it truly is hellish.)

Saturday, November 13, 2010

CAR: 2014 World Cup champion?

In June and July, when World Cup drama swallowed sports fans, Central Africans too followed the action – only from far beyond the sidelines, their country's team finishing in nearly last place in the FIFA rankings that determined who could take position on the field. Unfortunately, this year no one organized an alternative World Cup Final for the two last-place teams in the world, as an enterprising Dutchman did in 2002. In that match, Montserrat fell to Bhutan, and the result is perhaps the most genuinely uplifting sports film I've ever seen. (And this within the genre of sports films which, rightly or wrongly, prides itself on uplift.)

As the year's football/soccer teams have played on, however, CAR's has jumped from the doldrums to 112th position – the largest improvement made by any team the world over this year (from #202). First, the Central Africans tied Morocco. Then they played Algeria – the same Algeria that everyone watched eliminate Egypt for the World Cup, the same Algeria that came in second in the African Cup – at the Chinese-built stadium in Bangui and won. Never has Bangui seen such joy, such pride. (Incidentally, CAR also has a surprisingly good basketball team – any NBA scouts out there should take notice of this entirely untapped resource.)

My posts here tend toward the negative, confronted daily as I am by the myriad challenges that people here most overcome to achieve anything more than basic subsistence. So I am happy to be able to report this kernel of positive news among the rest. One can argue – rightly, in my view – that sports are far less important than fostering more substantive, and more widespread, political, economic and social opportunities. But, in the country that has attained last place in the World Bank's Doing Business rankings for two years straight, people relish the good news they can get.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Oil flares, theft and trust: A long, rambling trip to Bangui

According to a National Geographic article I happened upon a couple of years ago, northeastern CAR has the least light pollution in the world. It has no doubt struck many people who have flown over the region that there might be something to those problematic stereotypes that label Africa “the dark continent”: in addition to vast un-peopled spaces, there is simply very little electricity to go around. Scarlett Lion recently linked to a gorgeous photo essay by Peter DiCampo about “life without lights” in rural Ghana. A photo of a teenage girl cooking expertly over a small open fire and of a teacher holding a paper-grading pen in one hand and a flashlight in the other evoked intense memories for me. The only thing missing from the shots are the inevitable swarms around a spot light – insects, moths, mosquitoes, gnats, and thousands of other creepy-crawlies you never before knew existed.

I thought of all this as I flew to Bangui the other day. Looking out the window, for hours I saw nothing but blackness. But on the Casablanca – Douala leg, we jogged out over the Gulf of Guinea, and there, suddenly, burned a haphazard series of red-orange lights. Oil flares, I realized. The fires that erupt from leaks in the underwater drilling stations. Immediately recognizable as non-electric light, how large must those bonfires be to blaze so vibrantly from 40,000 feet above?

I arrived in Douala near midnight, chastened at the reminder of how exploitative resource extraction can be. Immediately after the Douala-bound passengers filed out, leaving only the few continuing on to Bangui, I had another reason to be chastened: someone had made off with the duty free bag of gifts I had left in the overhead bin. No amount of tearing around Douala customs and baggage claim yielded the lost items; they were no doubt safely stashed away. All the gazes that met mine wore a composed look that came across as smug innocence. The bag contained Scotch for the friends with whom I'm staying in Bangui, one of whom explained that the same thing had happened to her when she passed through Douala. Luckily she woke up just enough to see as the man made to place her sack within his and intervened.

In future research, I would love to study trust. I have no idea yet how I would go about doing it (I find Nathan Nunn's work fascinating but lack the training to perform such quantitative gymnastics), but it strikes me as a crucial, and under-theorized, aspect of social life. Trust resides in shared expectations about likely outcomes. In other words, one could in theory trust in a likelihood of theft. But is that really the way it works – trust becoming a vector for heightened suspicion? Maybe partly, but not entirely. In his new book (Africa: Unity, Sovereignty, and Sorrow), Pierre Englebert cites a statistic from the Afrobarometer survey of Nigeria showing that most people simultaneously do not trust the police– indeed, even see them as the root of many problems – and yet also have confidence that the police is the institution that should handle all theft and crime. This made me wonder whether it is possible not to have trust in, and yet to have confidence in, at least of a sort. Perhaps all this is rather a question of faith – faith in the face of what an empirical analysis alone might label damning evidence.

A final, disconnected thought to conclude this rambling post (one of the luxuries of blogging is an ability to override the inner editor that argues against random asides): the Arabic maps on Royal Air Maroc's overhead monitors labeled Kisangani with its colonial name, Stanleyville (actually staanleefeel in transliteration). Odd how these little time-travel glitches arise; the English version, and all the other Arabic terms, were up-to-date.

Welcome to Bangui.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Truth and Rumors

I promised months ago that I would review Julien Bonhomme's Les voleurs de sexe: Anthropologie d'une rumeur Africaine (Paris: Seuil, 2009). Now, on the eve of departure for Bangui, I must write at least a few quick words or else postpone months more, as I'm trying to minimize the number of books I lug around with me.

Bonhomme argues that the penis-snatching phenomenon can explain “forms of sociability and modes of communication” in African urban areas. It is a response to the dislocation and uncertainty wrought by moving from a village-based social structure, in which roles and relationships are at least partly determined by family and lineage, to an urban one, in which few have these networks of trust and support. On p. 89, Bonhomme has created a chart to compare penis-snatching to “traditional” witchcraft, of the E.E. Evans-Pritchard variety. Whereas the earlier forms of witchcraft took place at night, within the family, and at home, penis-snatching occurs in the daytime, between strangers, and in public space. Where news of witchcraft in the village travels through gossip, in the cities news of penis-snatching travels through rumors. (Bonhomme is careful to dissociate his argument from negative connotations that the rumor has had throughout Western scholarship – notably in Durkheim – in which rumors have been portrayed as a kind of social cancer.) In other words, penis-snatching is a way of understanding the world that draws from the various stressors of life in the city

Bonhomme's argument is a compelling and useful one, except that penis-snatching is not at all limited to urban areas, as he suggests. After all, it happened in Tiringoulou, which barely even has a market and could hardly be characterized as urban. This oversight is probably due to the bias introduced by his sample: he draws on his own experience and interviews in urban Gabon as well as newspaper accounts from all over West and Central Africa, which report almost exclusively on urban areas. (I should not that the book also benefits from an impressive mastery of both the English and French literatures on occult phenomena.) Moreover, though this point goes somewhat beyond the scope of his book, it bears mentioning that though he sees villages as running on gossip, in fact they, too, are saturated with rumors. A social life organized through rumor is not a new experience for recent city arrivals. And dislocation and uncertainty pervade both urban and rural spaces.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is Bonhomme's discussion of whether people “actually believe” that genitals are stolen in these encounters. He points out that part of how rumors circulate is because people are unsure, perhaps even doubting, of the veracity of an account, and they seek guidance by relating the story and observing their friend's reaction. In this way, the rumor spreads, even though its perpetuation is laced through with uncertainty. This is similar to the scene I described in It's Complicated, and I think it's a useful addition to the debates on witchcraft and belief, which have tended to assume a binary between belief and unbelief. Figuring out what is true is a social process, after all. In addition, people tend to assume that what they want to be true is true, whether or not this is actually the case. For instance, in the run-up to the 2000 election, an email circulated with a series of quotes attributed to George W. Bush, each one more stupid than the last. The email went viral, and I can imagine much tut-tutting over water coolers: “Can you believe this idiot wants to be president...?” None of these phrases issued from Bush's mouth, however; they all dated back to another notorious word-mangler, Dan Quayle. But few if any of those who sent on the email bothered to check. It seemed true because it correlated with what they wanted to be true. Similarly, think of the debates over Obama's religion, whether Nixon was a crook, or whether Christine O'Donnell is a witch. Repudiating the charges (“Obama is not a Muslim”; “Nixon is not a crook”; “O'Donnell is not a witch”...) simply entrenches belief on both sides of the issue. Hypothesis confirmation bias strikes us all, some more often than others.

This observation meanders away from strictly speaking about penis-snatching, but I wanted to mention it because of the initial reactions I tend to get when I tell people about the phenomenon. They usually follow a similar trajectory: “Huh?” → [head-shaking] → “But they don't really believe it, do they?” Part of the strength of Bonhomme's book is that he re-frames the issue around ambivalence. Rumors -- the (in)famous radio trottoir – enable ideas to circulate, but they may circulate more from a “better safe than sorry” mentality than anything else. The phenomenon's progress through the continent, and beyond, hides these variations in degree of certitude about what is happening. The more analytically-minded may regard a failure to always question and test one what one hears as stupidity, but that makes the tendency none the less widespread.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Bangui on the Potomac

A faded Central African flag hangs above the door at 1618 22nd St. NW and a busted doorbell to the side. When I walked in to renew my visa (I'll be returning to Bangui in a couple of weeks), two men greeted me. Stephen and Jonathan, I soon learned. Jonathan invited me to please sit down, motioning toward two chairs. I hesitated; the seats of both had ripped apart, and spiky springs burst through the Naugahyde. Stephen hunched in a parka and warmed his hands in front of a heater the size of a small plate. The embassy, he told me, receives no money for heat. (For the record, it was 65 degrees out – hardly freezing.)

The woman in charge of visas was out, so while I waited I asked Stephen and Jonathan what they did at the embassy. Stephen is a driver, except that there is only one car, and the ambassador drives it. If they had another car, Stephen would chauffeur the other employees on their errands. But, he has no car. So instead he sits and warms his hands. Jonathan is the security adviser. I asked what that job consists of. “Well, for instance, when you came in here I asked your name...” A receptionist, in other words, in an embassy in which I've never seen another visitor.

Eventually Jonathan showed me the way upstairs, over treacherously carpeted steps – uneven and threadbare. He flipped a couple of light switches, to no avail, and shook his head. If I hadn't known better, I'd have been sure I was in Bangui.

Meeting Stephen and Jonathan in the heart of a city bustling with business-suited office warriors made for a stark contrast; I was struck by how little my new acquaintances' jobs are about work. In places like the CAR, especially in the case of government employees, “job/salary” has to a large extent been divorced from “work,” in the sense of mental or physical labor. To make this observation is emphatically not to say that Central Africans do not work hard. Most spend their days sweating in the sun as they toil in their fields. But field-work is not considered work, in the sense of an occupation that carries payment, and so it falls into a different category, more like a chore. People with postes may desire to do their jobs well, but the decades-long lack of sufficient materials and resources has changed people's ideas about reasonable expectations of productivity.

Jean-François Bayart explains how in the 1960s and 70s African leaders in effect created citizens by distributing salaried posts: a post in the government and its accompanying salary made a person a full member of the polity. The ranks of the civil service swelled. The 1980s saw the advent of structural adjustment and a push to clear the rolls of these “ghost workers.” The fact that so many residents' citizenship was effectively downgraded at a time of broad economic decline and donor eagerness for multi-party democracy helps explain the apparent chaos of the 1990s in Africa.

The CAR hews loosely to Bayart's trajectory. But Bayart's analysis does not delve into what it might mean that labor and salary-drawing have been severed from actually doing much of anything besides showing up at an office. In a way, the oversight for which feminists love to hate Marx – that he failed to consider women's work labor – has been reborn. Only in this case peasants of both genders take the place of women and an empty office with a single chair replaces the buzzing factory floor. There is a clear hierarchy that makes that which is paid that which is “real.” Pundits like to comment on the transformations of the knowledge economy, which produces ideas and information instead of tangibles like widgets. But the situation I'm describing produces something even more ephemeral than that.

The Danish Refugee Council runs programs aiming to change the way people think about farming. Rather than just a chore that enables daily sustenance, they want to show how agriculture can bring wealth and even status. If they succeed, perhaps even the hustling, stymied, under-employed youth who yearn for the status and salary that accompany a poste will re-think their preference. I can't help but think that would be a positive development.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

House proud, or else!

A couple of weeks ago in Bangui I had a conversation with a Central African lawyer who lamented how so many of the disputes she sees concern real estate. She explained that a person will buy a house or a plot of land, build on it, inhabit it, and then, for whatever reason, leave for some period of time -- perhaps a month, perhaps a year. In a place where the search for paid work often takes people far from home, this is a common cycle. Upon seeing a house or plot thus "abandoned" the chef de quartier will often seize the opportunity to put the lot up for sale. It's the Central African variant of the infamous Nigerian "419" scheme in which entrepreneurs sell already owned and/or occupied houses to rubes from the countryside in need of lodging. In true Central African style, in the Bangui version it's the governing official -- chef de quartier, chef de village -- rather than a businessperson stricto senso who assumes the helpful huckster role.

This kind of scamming is generally considered a contemporary phenomenon stemming from the upheavals of urbanization. And, on one level, that is correct. But hearing the lawyer's explanation, offered with a rueful shake of the head ("People these days...") reminded me of a now-distant case I happened upon in the Ndele tribunal "archives." It dated to the early independence years, when most of the colonial-era laws remained on the books and in people's minds (today the former may still be true, but rarely the latter). The court found a certain man guilty of "failure to maintain his property". He had been away working on a cotton plantation and did not return to sweep his yard and otherwise keep up appearances. The judge sentenced him to prison time and/or a hefty fine.

At first, I thought this ridiculous, as I thought the home re-sales. But the more I think about it, the more I understand the usefulness of both the 419/chef de village lot recycling and the house proud law. In a place like the CAR, where plants and prickers grow rampantly, an un-swept yard quickly becomes a breeding ground for snakes and other poisonous beasties. If today local officials lack the judicial means to make sure that people abide by certain home ownership maintenance norms (which are after all established for the sake of public good, however bizarrely that good may be constructed -- think anti-clothesline rules in the US), selling the house to a more-conscientious user might be both an effective deterrent and a way of furthering public safety.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Genital theft goes to Hollywood: Another penis snatching update

On a plane recently I made the bad decision to pass the time with the film "It's Complicated." Meryl Streep leans on the coos and croissants of her Julia Child portrayal to this time incarnate a supremely irritating SoCal divorcée. I squirmed with embarrassment for the actors' sake, especially Alec Baldwin -- please, Alec, do us all a favor and return to 30 Rock, where you belong.

But the film does contain one noteworthy scene. Toward the end, Meryl and her gal pals are dishing about their lackluster sex lives when one bursts out the assertion that a lack of sex can cause a woman's vagina to close up. "It's true!" she insists, "I read about a case on the internet!" The others laugh, but the scene is ultimately ambivalent about the veracity of the tale, leaving viewers with the impression that whether or not it's true, it's a real fear for women of a certain age and status.

Though most of the African stories of disappearing genitals involve men, women can suffer the fate too. For women, it usually happens much like the actress said: the crotch becomes strangely sealed, like a Barbie doll, though in the African case lack of sex is not understood to be the precipitating factor.

Julien Bonhomme, in his book Les Voleurs de sexe: Anthropologie d'une rumeur africaine, argues that because the notion of the rumor carries such a negative social-epidemiological charge -- the rumor as social cancer -- the phenomenon of penis snatching is better understood as gossip, a major mode of communication in the African city. It's "radio troittoir" as the animating force of social life, in newspapers (Bonhomme's main source) as well as in curbside conversation, and penis snatching offers a prism through which to grasp that reality. I'm only a few chapters into the book so will save a full review for later. For the time being, I'll say that if nothing else, "It's Complicated" reminded me that gossip, even penis-snatching absurd gossip, is far from solely an African thing. Perhaps Bonhomme will have to write a sequel: Anthropologie d'une rumeur américaine.

(This is one of the things I love about anthropology: navigating and exploring difference and finding unexpected convergence amid the divergence.)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Surprising ways of fulfilling the responsibility to protect?

One of the highlights of attending the Law and Society Association annual meeting was having the chance to catch up with my friend and fellow Duke cultural anthropology grad student Jatin Dua. Jatin, one of the most brilliant people I know, is studying piracy in the Horn of Africa, and he specifically looks at how the region's modes of governance turn on the fusion of protection and profit. As he writes (in an abstract of his research),

Western Indian Ocean piracy may be seen as an attempt to produce protection from global poaching and dumping and from the surveillance of regulators more generally, and signals a shift from the purchase of protection through taxes, tariffs and bribes to collecting rents through a form of capital-intensive armed entrepreneurship. As such, piracy as a system of protection competes with a variety of state and non-state forms of protection in this area.”

Both the pirate-cum-coast guard (the Somali Coast Guard has apparently renamed itself the Somali Sovereignty Protection Unit; shape-shifters with much in common with the the highway bandits/rebels in Central Africa, these armed Somali seafarers often play both pirate and coast guard roles) and the maritime insurance agent at Lloyd's describe their actions as important forms of protection. A form of coerced rent collection has taken on an important role in the region's political economy, similarly to the way that Charles Tilly described the history of the state as a the evolution of organized protection rackets. Jatin will soon start fieldwork on the Kenya coast, in Somaliland, and in London, and as he learns more the synopsis I've just offered here will prove increasingly simplistic, but it at least outlines certain contours of what he will be looking at.

Jatin's analysis fascinates me for several reasons. For one thing, through the R2P doctrine (Responsibility to Protect) “protection” has become the organizing principle of humanitarianism, and the main fault assigned to places like CAR (or Somalia) is their failure to protect their citizens. I have myself had a hand in perpetuating this line of analysis through publications with titles like “Still Waiting for Justice and Protection.” And, maybe especially on a visceral level, such accounts have a high degree of explanatory power. As Achille Mbembe pointed out in his contribution to Law and Disorder in the Postcolony, in parts of Africa government forces and the rebel groups that oppose them more often attack civilians than their putative enemies. Upon meeting peasants who have recently been racketed by highway robbers or cattle thieves or poachers or “rebels” or soldiers or any of the other kinds of militarized entrepreneurs, the lack of protection does indeed appear a defining feature of the region's politics.

And yet, as an anthropologist, I find this analysis deeply unsatisfying. Anthropologists have long been in the business of countering/completing the analyses that identify how people and places fail to measure up to certain theoretical principles derived from the intellectual history of the West by instead studying social systems as they actually work. (For a contemporary incarnation of this argument, Alex de Waal, himself an anthropologist by training, made an impassioned case in his Christen Michelsen lecture last year.)

This is partly why I found Jatin's description of the existing Horn of Africa protection regimes, which turns the aspirational humanitarian vision of the term upside down, so stimulating. Given the similarities between piracy and highway banditry and the like in Central Africa, I wonder in what ways the model of protection that Jatin describes might be working here. In my simplified model of his reasoning, it could possibly be distilled as

rent-based mode of governance + profits/entrepreneurship = protection

The CAR is also home to a profitable, rent-centric mode of governance. But where and how might protection enter into the equation? What kinds of protection (rackets) do we see here? I'm finding it hard to get out from under the humanitarian model of lack.

Post script: Contradiction

A couple more examples, as food for thought:

In his book For the City Yet to Come: Changing Urban Life in Four African Cities, AbdouMaliq Simone describes scenes he saw in Khartoum: devout Muslims hanging out in back lots, drinking alcohol as they arranged used car sales. Simone invokes the example to show how people might deploy different qualifications in different situations in order to create opportunities; ie., shape-shifting brings benefits, and to the people who do it, such transformations are neither contradictory nor solely instrumental.

In a presentation I listened to last week about “shanzhai” (bandit, counterfeit) phones in China, the speaker showed a photo of a tightly packed shanzhai shopping mall in Shenzhen. Someone had unfurled a large banner in the atrium: “Respect intellectual property. Every day is intellectual property day!” it proclaimed. Not quite sure what to make of that one.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Contradiction and social life

Social science researchers speak of the need to triangulate – compare multiple sources of data about the same topic – in order to parse the meaning of contradictory information. But what should one do when a single individual contradicts herself – espousing diametrically opposed opinions with equal force – in the course of a conversation?

I've struggled with this question during my research in CAR, particularly in relation to Central Africans' views and management of international aid. What to make of a conversation in which a government environment ministry employee, with the patience of a practiced teacher, explains (in French) the workings and importance of wildlife conservation (including a moratorium on all hunting), and then, just a few minutes later, yells (in Sangho) in favor of his right to hunt, a right he is prepared to fight to maintain?

One diplomat to whom I posed this question responded, “It's simple. They're lying.” But that response offers little analytical meat.

Linguists would likely describe it in terms of code-switching, a literature in which I am woefully little-versed (suggestions for readings welcome). As I understand it, code-switching refers to the ways that multilingual people switch between the languages they know in order to better suit the demands of the social situation in which they find themselves. A person might code-switch within a single sentence, or else might speak employ different languages to suit different settings. Relatedly, Foucaultians might describe this as a situation of overlapping “epistemic communities.” The term epistemic community refers to the people who accept a set of truths/assumptions about the way things are, a shared understanding that forms the basis for their cohesiveness (and control).

These perspectives interest me, but, given that epistemic systems do not exist as discrete, bounded units within a person's head, I'm curious about how contradiction is itself a part of the human condition. A witchcraft-believer might accept biomedical explanations for disease causation at the same time as she pursues a witch for “poisoning”; a racist might count a person of color as a close friend. The exception may prove the rule, but that doesn't harmonize the contradictory beliefs. It seems to me that humans have a great capacity for holding contradictory statements as simultaneously true.

For a number of years now, anthropologists have tried to expose contradictions – the Plato talking to the cave-dwellers model. These analyses might take a form like, “Development workers think they're working for liberation, but really they're enacting a more-invasive form of neo-colonial discipline!” (Ditto human rights activists.) There are some useful works in this literature (I found Harri Englund's Prisoners of Freedom: Human Rights and the African Poor useful, for instance), but it has limits. For one thing, you can only pull the wool off of people's eyes so many times before they do it themselves and then get on with the work of living, trying to chart the best course amid imperfect information and inevitable unintended consequences. It strikes me as more fruitful to attempt to make sense of the sincerity that may characterize apparent contradictions. (Bill Maurer is at the forefront of the shift away from what I term curtain-lifting anthropology. Though his writing might be too experimental for some, his analysis usually fascinates.)

To return to my aforementioned Ministry of Environment friend, I'm starting to analyze the statements of people like him as similar to the statements of, say, oil company executives engaged in environmental initiatives or Pepsi employees spearheading anti-obesity projects. They seem sincerely to understand and strive to combat the ills of their industries, and yet they still drill ill-advised wells in the Gulf of Mexico and advertise their soft drinks to kids using cartoon characters. In other words, their actions are at cross-purposes. I'm not sure where this line of thought might lead, but at least it gets me beyond simply seeing Central Africans as gifted liars, which strikes me as an intellectual cul-de-sac demanding a bit of bushwhacking.

A rant: Cell phones and Africa

On the plane this morning (I'm making my way to the Law and Society Association annual meetings), I flipped through the Wall Street Journal and saw an article about Africa illustrated by a photo of a dark hand holding a Nokia. Could this be yet another incarnation of the hackneyed “cells phones revolutionizing Africa oh wow farmers can get commodity prices on their mobiles and no longer get rooked at the market” stock piece?

Indeed it was, in a way.

I swear, these articles come out so often college students could make a drinking game of it – take a shot every time you see the stock-prices-on-phones example! Or is it some editorial world where's Waldo, planted here and there to see who's actually reading (is there a prize?) I, for one, have lost count of how many times I've seen it since the first coverage around 2005. And yet I've never seen a single farmer consulting commodity prices on his phone.

The WSJ article at least took a novel tack: turns out those commodity prices on a phone aren't so revolutionary after all. Service providers in Uganda are finding that once people have to pay for the quotes, few deem the service worthwhile.

So can we move on to another story now?

On Revolution

If anthropologists still described their reflectively loquacious interlocutors as 'chief informants,' a man I met a few days ago in Kaga Bandoro (a local employee of an international NGO) would rank among mine. Though he's only from the next prefecture over, he counts as a stranger in Kaga Bandoro, and, like so many other liminal people, he has a privileged position from which to wonder over how and why things are the way they are in the town.

“The people here say, 'We are like the whites' – they only look out for their nuclear family – and that's not accepted in African culture. They want only to receive, but they never give,” he mused.

Marcel Mauss' idea that “The Gift” serves as the basis for social cohesion popped into my mind, and I eagerly described it to him. What to make of a place where, in my interlocutor's assessment, gifts were limited to within immediate families? He shook his head at the challenge of it. and then returned to Mauss to ask for clarification so he could carefully note the basics of French sociologist's theories. Did I perhaps have a French pamphlet on social cohesion that I could share with him, he wondered?

We sat quietly for a moment and then he asked, with some urgency, “Based on the research you have done all over AR, do you think it would be possible for us to totally change, to reverse all these problems of corruption and lack of trust?”

“Like a revolution?”


And now an old line of Max Gluckman's clamored in my head: “Africans are rebels, never revolutionaries.” To be fair, I'd argue that no one is really a revolutionary, in the sense that new orders never fully wipe out the influences of their predecessors. The blank slate does not exist and history always remains with us in surprising ways. But Gluckman's point, that in African societies conflict, in the form of rituals of rebellion, serves to reproduce the social order, is painfully borne out in Kaga Bandoro, the eastern outpost of APRD territory.

The APRD is one of the first rebel groups to emerge following President Bozize's successful coup in 2003. Its members await integration into the state through the recently-begun DDR program. They fight with the government over the right to man lucrative roadblocks. (I came across a letter written by an APRD officer to the local authorities in which the author even went so far as to eschew the niceties of usually formal written French to blast the government for hassling travelers and subjecting them to searches on a contested barrier.) Like so many in the government, the rebels see politics as a money-generating scheme. They have no interest in changing the system – they want only privileged access to it. Gluckman's rebels, in the flesh.

But this analysis, I sensed, would leave my friend bereft (though he may have agreed). I wended my way through a meandering answer, saying that I thought revolution unlikely, but that change – and even major upheaval of mores, could happen. And I hoped he was not as unsatisfied with this response as I was.


Apologies for the lack of posts of late. Travel together with computer problems have conspired to constrain my posting.

A few posts, written over the past weeks, follow, and from now on I'll try to keep more up to date.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Public Treasury, a Tale in Two Acts

Readers of this blog may have noticed that my posts have tended toward the negative as far as the Central African state is concerned. Today, I have positive news: in February, it became illegal for people to pay taxes to officials in their offices. Instead, good citizens must go to the bank, where there is now a special window marked “public treasury.” People deposit directly into various departments' coffers. In the first month with the new system, revenues more than tripled. The introduction of a basic technology thus eliminated a massive amount of pay-yourself-government (corruption, in common parlance). Of course, money deposited in bank accounts may still wind up building ministerial villas in the provinces, but at least this way there's a potential for more transparency.

This morning as I pulled into the market in Sibut, two hours' drive north of Bangui, I heard a familiar voice call out, “Louisa!” I know no one in Sibut, except maybe for the guys at Restaurant Destroy (the name shares sign space with those of the various humanitarian groups who have patronized the establishment), where I usually get an avocado salad and omelet. I opened the door and saw, to my surprise, a friend from Ndele. He works for some Sudanese merchants by accompanying their truck to DRC to buy coffee and then make the long trek north again to Am Dogon, Sudan to sell the beans. Along the way, they stop in Central African villages and peddle Chinese-made pots and tea sets, toothpaste, and dates. My friend's truck stopped in Sibut to await a money transfer of 200,000 CFA (more than $400) to pay for the rest of the voyage to Bangui. He estimated that in all he would pay 550,000 CFA in road barrier fees for the the Ndele – Bangui journey. Gendarmes, soldiers, police, water and forests ministry guards, and other entrepreneurial sorts set up barriers to extort fees on the roads. Because of the armed group insecurity in Ndele, they can now demand more from voyagers – especially “foreign” Muslims – as a kind of proof of loyalty. Pretty much the polar opposite of the efforts to de-personalize taxes described above.

I can't help but wonder, upon seeing the bedraggled, beaten-down trucks that ply this trade, how on earth they can make a profit from selling an occasional tupperware set and some mid-grade coffee beans if they must pay thousands of dollars in bribes for every round trip. And yet they keep doing it.

Experimental Ethnography

My apologies for the silence. I've been fine, mostly in Bangui due to the recent rebel attack in Ndele and a spate of highway bandit activity on the roads around there.

Partly, my no-post laziness has stemmed from plunging into reading in the wake of encouragement, thanks to a friend in Bangui , to explore the new world of economics – Nathan Nunn (who, incidentally, cites my adviser, Charles Piot, on multiple occasions), Edward Miguel, Stathis Kalyvas...(I welcome further recommendations!) I even caught myself thinking like an economist the other day, trying to draw little diagrams of potential causal relations and wondering how one could isolate the factors and determine the links.

As I approach the end of this chunk of fieldwork I'm filled with mixed feelings including, yes, some regret.

Though the idea of fieldwork as a rite of passage is oft-critiqued in anthropology, it nevertheless persists. My department, for instance, offers no methods course. Throw 'em in the deep end and see how they do. Most people swim, even if just dog-paddling. So on one level this rite of passage practice is fine. But I have started to notice myself developing a certain anxiety over the lack of structure in ethnographic research. This lack of structure was less apparent when anthropologists worked in small villages and immersed themselves in every detail of their social structure. The (artificial) geographic boundary of the village provided the contours for the study. But now as multi-sited ethnography has become common (my own research has been more multi-sited than I had envisioned, simply because the places I had hoped to do research have been intermittently unsafe, forcing me to find other options), there is a risk that the great strength of anthropology – its receptiveness and openness – will make for watered-down research unless one has years in which to do fieldwork, which for most of us is impractical. (The most common question I get from ex-pats these days is, “So, are you done with that dissertation?” Sigh. That's not quite the pace of these things.)

All of this is a rambling prelude to my main point: the methodology-envy that hit me upon reading about Elizabeth Levy Paluck's experimental ethnography.

Paluck sought to assess the impacts of encouraging listening to a conflict resolution-themed soap opera in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). She randomly assigned villages to either receive the broadcasts or not and then designed an evaluation survey that used both quantitative and qualitative measures. At the end of each respondent's interview, the interviewer offered a bag of salt as a thank you. The interviewer then explained that a local humanitarian group had drawn attention to a needy group in the community and asked whether the respondent would share any salt. “Which group?” was the most usual reply. The interviewers asked whether there was a group the person would not feel comfortable giving to. Most people in this area plagued by recent years of violent conflict responded affirmatively. The interviewer then measured the quantity the person said s/he would give, depending on the group. As expected, people gave less salt to members of their rival group. Surprisingly, the results showed, tentatively, that those who had listened to the soap operas were less willing to donate than those who had not.

How fascinating to make social norms and relationships materially visible. I have tried, in my limited capacity as a solo researcher, to do similar things myself, but have bumped into frustration each time because, I think, of my failure to materialize the hypothetical examples I set out.

In my next project, whatever it might be, I would love to systematically integrate some experimental methods. But I have much to learn.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Who wants to save the elephants?

The other night I plowed through Jeffrey Goldberg's recent New Yorker article, "The Hunted: Did American Conservationists in Africa Go Too Far?" (full text blissfully available online). Goldberg reports the story of Mark and Delia Owens, animal researchers turned conservationists in southern Africa. They wrote several books about their life in Botswana and Zambia, and American TV producers filmed a documentary about them in the mid-90s. The film crew captured the shooting death of a "trespasser" (or poacher?) by someone off-camera, believed to be Mark's adult son Christopher. The Owens left Zambia shortly thereafter and, in the aftermath of the controversy, have been advised not to return.

As I read, I kept waiting for the climax. OK, I thought, so the Owenses were perhaps involved in the murder of one person. What else? This thought was immediately followed by another: has my time in Central Africa made me so cynical that I no longer react with outrage to the killing of an unarmed "trespasser"? Perhaps.

But I think my reaction stemmed less from cynicism than from Goldberg's relentless focus on this one charismatic American couple at the expense of placing them within a larger perspective -- a larger perspective that would in fact have been more chilling. For many people are killed every year in the name of combating poaching across the continent.

In CAR, militarized anti-poaching is done by a parastatal "project" funded by the European Union. (The project will end in July, at which point it will be replaced; its successor aims to critically examine the management of space in CAR, which hopefully will diminish the death toll of poachers, anti-poaching guards, cattle, elephants, and other animals.) In the past twenty years, this work has been done by French soldiers ("securing the borders"); an American conservationist (his efforts never really got off the ground, though, because the South African mercenary in his employ got into diamonds and attempted murder and other scandals); Russian former French Foreign Legionnaires funded by safari hunters...I could continue.

The well-armed poachers come in increasingly large groups (up to one hundred strong, with camels and donkeys), and, according to the anti-poaching guards, they shoot first. These are not people you can ask nicely to please not kill the elephants and go home. The poachers, who generally come from Sudan, used to target CAR's north and east, closer to home. But they've killed all the elephants there, and the poachers have now penetrated as far as the southwest, and even Cameroon. Because of this dire situation, appearance alone suffice as justification for the guards to kill an interloper. It is war between the anti-poaching guards and the poachers and cattleherders who seek to profit from CAR's vast, sparsely-populated terrain. Only it's a war that is largely hidden from the outside world.

(I once spoke with a man who does militarized anti-poaching work about the fall from grace of one of his predecessors. The predecessor had apparently mutilated, or allowed his men to mutilate, the corpses of poachers they killed. I suggested that this was why he had been kicked out. My interlocutor, though, disagreed. The problem was not that he mutilated bodies. The problem was that he took photos, and, when he had a falling out with a few people, those photos made their way into the European press.)

There is a case to be made for militarized anti-poaching work. Richard Leakey makes it eloquently in Wildlife Wars, his book about his tenure as head of the Kenya Wildlife Services. It is a difficult issue that demands a sustained examination. But focusing on Owenses, and the fall-out from one particular incident, risks masking that what they appear to have done/abetted slots uncomfortably into a widespread division of labor in the conservation world. I once spoke with a director at a reputable international conservation organization, who explained his personal opinion: militarized anti-poaching work is necessary, and our programs would be useless without it, but we can't do it, or say we support it, because of the outcry. Donors wooed with fundraising entreaties full of photos of furry friends would be scandalized. Again, the message is that it's OK as long as it is hidden.

By focusing on the Owenses' misguided efforts (yes, criminal would probably be a better descriptor, but there is a lot of technically criminal activity that goes unpunished in Central Africa) the article makes them into scapegoats rather than implicating the rest of us who see saving the elephants as an imperative. Goldberg unintentionally obscures the thorny challenges of human/livestock/wildlife coexistance that the world (the ivory market is not in Africa, it should be noted) currently struggles with. (Based on the article, it seems like poaching in southern Africa is somewhat under control; in Central Africa it is anything but.)

It is important not to oversell the successes of militarized anti-poaching. National Geographic published a graphic photo-studded story three years ago about Zakouma National Park in Chad (just across the border from CAR), which has been hard-hit by poachers. The author, Mike Fay, struck a cautiously congratulatory tone in his description of the anti-poaching guards' (also EU-funded) work. Nevertheless, in the past four years Zakouma's elephant population has dwindled from 4,000 to 400. Unless something is done about demand, no conservation efforts will succeed.

The article's best line by far came from an Idahoan reacting negatively to the Owenses' attempts to impose their will on their Idaho neighbors: "We're not Africans." The comment carried a clear meaning: you can't just push us around the way you can those peasants. The comment is such a sad commentary on the state of Western ways of operating -- whether motivated by good intentions or not -- in the continent's "hidden" spaces.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Penis snatching update

I have wanted to write an update on the penis snatching incident that occurred here in Tiringoulou last week, but some of the responses I've received to my previous post have reminded me that a phenomenon that seems normal (though unfortunate) here appears bizarre to people elsewhere, and I don't want to portray people here as exotic rubes.

As I learned more about the incident, I had one of those moments that occurs sometimes during field research when words on paper suddenly become animated: so this is what the recent surge of anthropological literature on “occult economies” was about. Led by the Comaroffs, this branch of research investigates the ways that people make sense of a world in which the origins of wealth have largely become obscured from view. Before, this argument goes, wealth came from things like factories. Townspeople could see in front of them why the owner had a mansion: the coal-spewing workhouse. But when people become massively, incomprehensibly rich from something as ephemeral and mysterious as credit swaps (or government corruption), it is bound to have an effect on our explanations about how the world works. And one effect that scholars have noticed is a heightened anxiety about the body and trades in organs.

Several people with whom I spoke in Tiringoulou made these links. “You see how advanced Cameroon is compared to CAR? They have multi-story buildings! It's because they are so strong in commerce of all kinds – including in genitals and scalps.” (Male pattern baldness sufferers take heart: your bald pates fetch higher prices in this trade.) Practitioners of such magic profit in one of two ways. A man here in Tiringoulou who used to live in Cameroon had seen both with his own eyes. In a crowd, a person might suddenly realize that his penis has disappeared. He cries out. Immediately his savior steps forward: I'll heal you, he says. For a fee of 25,000 [about $50]. Or else the penis-taker sells his loot to the boss who taught him the magic, for which he is handsomely rewarded.

The man who had lived in Cameroon described one case that particularly stuck in my mind. A woman arrived at the airport, off to Europe to sell a load of penises. The airport guard sensed something fishy about the woman and decided to thoroughly go through her hand luggage. He saw that she had packed some baguette sandwiches and asked if he could have one. The woman assented and made to hand him the one on top. But he persisted in reaching deeper, deeper into the bag and picked one from the bottom. Now the woman became agitated. He unwrapped it and found that, though butter leaked from the edges to make it look innocent, a row of penises were lodged between the loaf's halves. A penis-butter sandwich. Not to be eaten. Without a doubt this is the most memorable tale of “effective” (the story-teller's term) airport security I've heard.

When I asked another man if he'd heard of any similar magical crimes, his response surprised me. “Yes. In Bangui sometimes a child in a crowded street will eat a biscuit and suddenly disappear – all the way to Nigeria!” All of a sudden people's anxiety here sounded familiar: how many ridiculous strictures (not allowing kids to walk to school, for instance) have been erected in the US in recent years due to a largely irrational fear of the dreaded candy-offering kidnapper?

If the idea of penis-stealing seems beyond-the-pale weird, consider what people in a subsistence economy might think upon hearing of an American woman who starves herself near death because her reflection in the mirror convinces her she's fat? Or consider the affliction philosophers love to ponder which consists of being convinced that certain of one's limbs are not supposed to exist, making them beg their doctors for amputations. What, ethically, should the doctor do when the person avers that she will cut it off herself if necessary (and those sufferers who do so report immense relief afterward)? One hundred thousand people in the US have this condition, if Wikipedia is to be believed. I cite these examples only to highlight that there is no end to the strange things people experience when it comes to their bodies.

Did the men in Tiringoulou really have their penises magically removed? Everyone here (including the doctor at the hospital) thinks so. I don't, but the men's experience of debilitating illness certainly seems real. Perhaps their maladies are as real and yet medically invisible, unexplainable, as certain kinds of back pain or chronic fatigue syndrome. For this latter condition, the only effective treatment appears to be group talk therapy with fellow-sufferers – people who don't doubt your agonizing reality. In that respect, people in this poorest of places are well-off.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


The other day a diplomat offered his serious opinion that in fifty years the CAR will no longer exist. Each neighboring country will subsume the part extending out from the shared border. We're at the end of the road, he said. This prognosis strikes me as the most hopeful of any I've heard. I'd even go so far as to say that it is more realistic than assuming that the aid directed here will bring about a turnaround in the governance of the CAR state, which is largely privatized, in Bayart's sense of the term.

If you consider the political map of Africa as a kind of jigsaw puzzle, the CAR is like that pesky piece that you just can't find when you've otherwise finished. It was the space left over and claimed by France at the Berlin Conference in 1884, a grab made partly so that France's colonial holdings looked bigger, and so that they could try to repeat the Belgian Congo's incredible profit-making by experimenting with their concessionary-state-on-the-cheap idea (it failed, and they even controlled the sea access, which CAR currently does not). The CAR's anti-colonial leader, Barthelemy Boganda, never thought that it could be a tenable country on its own, and he chose the anodyne name it now bears in hopes that it would facilitate joining forces with the rest of Central Africa to become a federation. However, he died before independence, and going solo proved too tempting to the leaders who outlived him. They all did quite well by this arrangement, but the people they govern have suffered.

Life expectancy in CAR drops by six months each year. For men, it's now 39.2. On a continent that has seen its population skyrocket in recent decades, CAR's has stagnated for 25 years and remains at a measly 3.9 million in an area the size of France and Spain combined (or Texas). Meanwhile, everything is imported (even manioc, the staple food), and importing is hugely expensive (and quite profitable for Cameroon, from whence most products arrive). Even eggs are imported from Cameroon – keep in mind that to get eggs from Cameroon to Bangui requires two days (or one long, if you have a good vehicle) of travel on terrible roads. A supermarket owner I've gotten to know (Lebanese, of course) entreated me to try the pineapples that she sells every Monday. They're really good, much sweeter than the ones you get here, she assured me. They're from Cameroon!

A friend's Cameroonian boyfriend came to visit her in Bangui. He paid 15,000 CFA (a little more than $30) to ride as a passenger in a merchant truck (the only “public transport” available in CAR), and 180,000 CFA ($400) in payments to the assorted soldiers, gendarmes, police officers, and water and forests guards who man roadblocks. By the end, he convinced the driver of the truck to let him try to pass as a truck-boy so that he wouldn't be so tempting a target. The roadblock-keepers' authority derives from their status as officers of the state. Without that state, they would no longer be able to act as such a brake. (Granted, CAR is not the only country in the region to have problems with metastasizing roadblocks.)

In Tiringoulou, a town in the far Northeast of CAR where I am currently, residents complain of the discrimination they face from the faraway central government, which labels them Chadian or Sudanese and therefore sub-standard citizens. “We're Central African!” they lament. Little good that has done them. Crossing the border to Chad or Sudan, one finds towns that bustle with commerce unimaginable here – motorcycles, bread, you name it – even products difficult to find in Bangui. The unrequited nationalism expressed by those in CAR's hinterlands is frankly tragic.

If dissolving the CAR state seems like sacrilege under the principles of sovereignty that govern the international system, and maybe especially African Union-era Africa, or if it seems like some flavor of lack of solidarity with CAR (a put-down, in the sense that they couldn't make a go of it on their own), I'd argue that such points of view reflect a lack of the kind of creative thinking that could actually help the people who live in this literal center of the continent. Contra Mamdani (who recently argued for efforts to ensure the equality of sovereign states), I'm in favor of it.

A final thought, also somewhat inspired by Mamdani (who calls for greater accountability from aid and advocacy groups), but in contrast to his view: The usefulness of aid provided by NGOs and international agencies notwithstanding (I have on multiple occasions benefited from the medical care provided by aid groups here, for which I am grateful), in my observation these agencies do more to strengthen the state (and not necessarily in good ways), even though they see themselves as a kind of counter weight. They must interact with state officials as the legitimate rulers of the territory and respect their wishes (agencies like UNICEF work solely in partnership with the government), while in many cases those leaders have lost legitimacy in the eyes of the population, who burst with stories of monies bouffé or piqué (eaten or swiped). Would it be possible to re-think the whole foreign aid (and I include humanitarian aid) system so that it it could include radical alternatives? David Kennedy suggests as much in his study of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, when he argues that it should not take state sovereignty as its organizing principle. Putting such an agenda into practice is, of course, much easier said than done. But from where I sit in Tiringoulou, it seems worth more than idle consideration.

The arrival of the penis snatchers

In a previous post I wrote about the effusive greetings here in Central Africa. Yesterday morning when I arrived in Tiringoulou, in the remote Northeast of CAR (even further northeast and even more remote than Ndele), however, I was told that since yesterday people had forsaken the usual handshakes in favor of a small wave. Why? The day before a Sudanese merchant truck arrived in town. One of the passengers alighted in the village center and went to take tea. He shook the proprietor's hand firmly as he sat down.

The guest left, but the proprietor soon felt an electric tingling all over. He knew suddenly that something was wrong. He looked down: his penis had shrunk to smaller than that of a baby. (Witnesses aver that the penis was in fact teeny-tiny, but unfortunately no one had a camera for proof to convince those who weren't there at the time.) This fate befell one other man before the mob descended upon the visitor, the only one judged capable of committing the crime because of his contact with the men at the fateful hour (bodily contact is sufficient to remove the penis). Under duress from the UFDR (the armed group that runs this town) forces' “interrogation,” he admitted his guilt. He was executed (gunshot) shortly thereafter.

This is the first case of penis snatching seen in Tiringoulou, but a woman in a village not too far from here had her genitals disappear as well. The visitor, a Chadian, worked for some merchants in Nigeria, where, if newspaper reports are to be believed, penis-snatching occurs in epidemic proportions. When I asked why they snatch penises, people here responded that they could be sold for a lot of money in Nigeria, where they would be used by “feticheurs”.

I admit: I'm skeptical. For one thing, the victims have their members back and currently complain only of a bit of testicular pain. But I also find it really interesting to think about how the phenomenon of penis snatching has traveled through West and Central Africa, finally now reaching this most remote corner of the world. How did people here become aware of it, and does it resemble anything they have seen before?

I hope to meet one of the victims tomorrow. Perhaps then I will have more answers.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Humanitarianism Under Suspicion

Since the rebel attack on Ndele on the 26th of November, the government has severely limited humanitarian and NGO workers' movement. The rebels occupy a stretch of road some 80km north of here (not far from the Chadian border). Before the attack, there were four international NGOs in Ndele. Now there are three, and they are allowed only to work in Ndele and on the road leading south toward Bangui. An NGO that hoped to do a risk assessment on the Golongosso road, another road to Chad, was told “nyet” (as many Central African francophones put it). That road has had problems with cattle rustlers and highway robber-type incidents (some perpetrated by the rebels), and past 84km from Ndele it's said to be more or less in the control of Chadians in uniform (which, given the pervasiveness of men-in-arms in Chad does not necessarily mean soldiers). But it's not particularly more dangerous than many other places where humanitarians work. The government's, and especially the military's, aversion to allowing humanitarian access seems to be motivated not just by security concerns but by a certain mistrust as well.

In a recent conversation, my interlocutor explained one version of the government's reasoning. For one thing, the humanitarians cannot help but support the rebels, he argued. The rebels have a road block, and they will demand “formalities” even of humanitarians. But this man went further, arguing that humanitarianism and rebellion are symbiotic. “If the rebellions end, there will be no more NGOs. In order for an NGO to exist, there have to be rebellions. You will at least agree with me on this one? So, if you want your career to exist there has to be rebellion. When the rebellions end, they'll tell you no, we don't need NGOs and that will end their careers. There won't be any more funding from over there either.”

The boom in NGO presence in CAR dates to late 2006 and 2007, when CAR was able to capitalize on its proximity to Darfur and the extensive fund-raising of a highly energetic UN coordinator to draw international interest. Not entirely incidentally, since then the number of rebellions has gone from two to five or so, depending on how you count (one of the groups is generally brushed off as Chadian and thereby an illegitimate contender for the upcoming disarmament program. Never mind that the leader of one of the other armed groups – Abdulaye Miskine – is also a Chadian/CAR citizen and under suspicion of the ICC to boot).

For the international NGOs there is always another crisis somewhere else, whether an earthquake or a war. But their local staff might have to scramble a bit to find new employment. One young man I met in Birao (the far northeast, near Sudan) a couple of years ago who was doing dance and games for kids courtesy an NGO contract now sells pilfered flowers outside a Bangui supermarket and, when he recognizes an NGO face, pretends that they were in fact a gift to this special person...and does she know of any job openings?

Many state employees have explained to me that, in contrast to “here one day, gone the next” NGOs, the biggest advantage of their posts is that once a public servant, always a public servant. You even get a pension. Not necessarily a regularly paid pension, but a feeling of entitlement to one. But the people who seem to have the most dignity and self-respect are those who aspire to use whatever jobs they hold to squirrel away money so they can buy a tract of land in the countryside where they can farm, raise animals, and live off the grid, free from politics.

Though the comment above exaggerates and simplifies, it reminded me of the reason a friend gave for leaving the anti-landmine world, where she had worked for a number of years. Getting rid of landmines, she said, is entirely doable. It takes nothing more or less than tedious work by humans (guinea rats and dogs are not reliable, meaning that the fields they “clear” are not really cleared). But she came to the conclusion that her fellow bureaucrats in Geneva were so comfortable with their modern offices and business class travel to international conferences that, whether consciously or sub-consciously, they stalled real progress. Sometimes it seems to me that all an armed group needs to do to go from highway bandit – criminal – to rebel – political opponent – is to adopt a patriotic acronym. And once one does that, recognition from the international system, with its peacebuilding programs and aid and all the rest, descend. Arresting the cycle of rebellion does not get easier as more disaffected politicians try to work these levers, with all the jobs they represent.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


For all those who have recently endured my complaints about the heat here, proof that I was not exaggerating: the report of the African Centre of Meteorological Application for Development (ACMAD) for early February showed that the highest average daily temperature (37.4 C) was recorded in Ndele, CAR. (Granted, of the 61 locations around the continent measured by ACMAD, none were in the Danakil Desert. But still.) I should add, too, that I now remember early February as a time of wonderful cool compared to the baking days we're enduring now. On top of that, the sinus-clogging harmattan has started blowing. This is most troubling to me because it calls into question my thus-far workable strategy for avoiding sunstroke: an umbrella that accompanies me on all daytime walks. (Three years in North Carolina and only now in Ndele do I affect the Southern Belle, with her parasol!)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Effective legal aid

On the morning Habiba was preparing to go home from the hospital, two Chadian soldiers approached her room. They called out a greeting and then stood, slightly awkwardly, in the doorway. One removed his large aviator sunglasses. Then he asked her questions about her marital problems.

Since Bozize took power in 2003 with a “liberating” force that was largely Chadian, the Central African army, and especially the powerful Garde Presidentielle, has been full of Chadians, who are usually easily recognizable by their turbans. They have a well-deserved reputation for brutality.

However, that morning sitting on Habiba's hospital bed I saw another side to the soldiers. Habiba explained how her ex-husband had taken her baby daughter to live with his sister six days ago. She described the location of the house the child had been taken to, down to the guava trees in the yard. And she described the little girl. The soldier assented he understood the directions and then he and his companion turned and left.

By mid-morning, both Habiba and her daughter were back at her house. She didn't know the soldier, but explained that he helps out with a lot of problems in the Chadian community here: domestic problems, settling debts, etc. I asked how the soldier does his work, and Habiba joked that he threatens with his Kalashnikov. Or perhaps she wasn't joking. Hard to know.


Last summer I spent a few days reading and researching in the French National Library. As anyone who has worked there knows, it's an odd place. Readers are confined to subterranean rooms while the stacks of books rise above them in four glassy skyscraper towers. Researchers must sign up for a date, hour, and numbered seat. Somehow or another, the same people often end up sitting next to each other, day after day. Silence reigns, of course, but one nevertheless has occasional contact with one's neighbors when asking them to keep an eye on belongings when one needs a bathroom break or that kind of thing.

Hour upon hour of reading – classics like Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch's Le Congo au temps des grandes compagnies concessionaires as well as browsing the bizarrely prolific genre of safari hunting memoirs from Central Africa – left me crazed for human contact. When I passed my neighbors in the hallway, or at the cafe, or elsewhere, I would attempt to give a mild greeting – a sort of 'Hey, I've seen you before and I acknowledge your existence' kind of thing. Always the attempt was met with a blank, icy glare of non-recognition. A French friend tried to help by introducing me to her friends, but when we all met for coffee they would all turn away from me and my friend, and their body language made it clear that they had no interest in including me in their conversation. The next time we saw each other, they would forget that they had met me before.

Imagine my happiness when an Ivoirian friend of mine showed up to read Ivoirian newspapers from the 1950s, together with a Canadian friend looking into the enduring effects of colonial health policies! Finally, people I could greet effusively and share wonderful discussions with over vending-machine coffee! Say what you will about the falseness of American “have a nice day” tendencies, that friendliness is something I often miss when abroad.

Here in Ndele one of my favorite things is greeting people I know or recognize on the street. I always get a response, and it makes me feel more like I belong. (I'm even making my peace with the swarms of “Munju!” chanting kids.)

The other day I discussed the importance of greetings with a Central African friend. “Here, if you're on the road coming toward my village and you pass some people sitting in the shade and you don't greet them, people will take you for a criminal. People will start saying that we need to figure out who this person is. People will make problems for you,” he explained gravely. He told of a now-departed NGO employee (French, as luck would have it) who never had time to say hello. He would call it out only in a harried way as he rushed off to some oh-so-important task or another.

That NGO currently finds itself embroiled in a set of rumors and associated problems preventing it from working in the area, at least for the time being.

On that note, I've been surprised how often I've heard of NGOs having to negotiate with the government for the right to do their work, and this in the CAR, putatively one of the weakest of states. Though there's more than a grain of truth to Mariella Pandolfi's idea that international interventions constitute “mobile sovereigns,” time and again I've noticed how international organizations and NGOs, partly because they specifically define themselves through reference to the state (as its counterpart), end up propping up and legitimizing the state more than anyone else. NGO employees are in about the same situation as “kota azo” (big people) in the government: above/outside the law (not subjected to humiliating roadblock searches, for instance) and yet nevertheless at the mercy of the state and its whims, which seem often to turn on rumors. Rumors can come around for anyone. I learned a bit about that myself a few weeks ago.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Scratch that

Please allow me to retreat from much of that last post.

Thanks to a few days of visiting a friend in the hospital, she and the retinue of women who help her and chat with her have given me an Arabic body vocabulary that surpasses my knowledge in every other language but English. My favorite: rushrush (eyelash).

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Arabic and Sango

Speaking Arabic and Sango together, I notice that the set of words I know in the former are different from the set of words I know in the latter. Often, I'll start a sentence in one language and then want to plug the holes with words from the other. The main difference in the Arabic and Sango vocabularies I've accumulated concerns the body.

In Arabic, I studied for two semesters and have to wrack my brain to think of any body parts besides “heart,” which I only know because it appears in so many Arabic pop songs. In Sango, it sometimes seems like every sentence contains a word that also refers to a body part: “inside” is “in the stomach of,” “after” is “on the back of,” “center” is “heart,” and it goes on from there.

If, as I suspect, the copious body references in Sango and their lack in Arabic is a broader phenomenon than the limited knowledge within my head, I wonder whether that difference has an effect on how a native speaker of one or the other perceives the world. Perhaps it's just a marker of broader cultural traits. (Of course, in English the body part back and the directional marker back are the same, and I don't usually think of my spine when I tell someone “It's back there.” But a native speaker probably wouldn't be the one to notice these things.)

Mostly I just try not to let it all get too jumbled. Considering that in any given day I might write in English and Norwegian and speak in French, Sango, and Arabic I figure a bit of confusion is understandable. Getting to use all these languages is one of the things I really enjoy about my work.