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.

Checking Checks

In this almost wholly unbanked part of the world, I overheard an interesting bank rant this morning.

When one attempts to cash a check in Bangui (there are less than a handful of bank branches outside the capital), the teller examines it minutely. Very often, she will declare that the signature is “non-conforme” and reject it. This happened to one man's wife with the last six checks she wrote. He “was forced to tell her to change her signature.” This, however, will set you back 11,000 CFA (about $25; it used to be free, he said). Even just to examine the signature they have on file for your account you must pay some 5,000 CFA. The man, a government employee as a guard for the Ministry of Water and Forests, declared these practices a “politique commerciale” - the bank is just out to get money by charging more fees. (Levying fees, both official and unofficial, is of course how the government functions as well, and they contribute to the payment the man receives.)

But leaving aside the issue of whether this is “commercial politics” or not, I was struck by the extreme lack of trust that it belies. I thought of my own signature: thanks to all those electronic signature pads, it has devolved into a scrawl that could be mistaken for a toddler's doodles, different each time. When was the last time the cashier examined what you entered there? More often he tells you to just go ahead and push the green button, because the signature pad is worn out.

I've heard countless stories of Central Africans getting defrauded. You give a friend money to buy you a computer in Europe; he tells you it costs 1000 Euros, and you pay, but when encouraged to look up the model online you find it actually cost less than 400 Euros. Meanwhile I buy books online from some random person trying to clean up his shelves and have every expectation that I'll get what I ordered on time and of the advertized quality. I had a conversation with a humanitarian worker recently in which he said he'd never do development work in Africa because there's no solidarity. He feels useful working, as he put it, as “a band-aid.”

Would the technology of bank cards erase the mistrust in Central African economic transactions? (As of very recently, there are a few ATMs in Bangui, but they work only with local EcoBank cards.) Or would the mistrust simply take a new form? In Nairobi and Mexico City, private security guards continually patrol ATMs, but that doesn't stop thugs in the latter locale from carrying out “express kidnappings”/“millionaires' tours” during which they cart their captives from ATM to ATM until they've withdrawn their day's limit.

I've heard of economic studies that trace the lack of large-scale trust in much of Africa to the legacy of slave trading. I'm not sure if any economists have tried to look at the ways that trust has been affected by the fact that until colonization, with all of its violent distortions of social life, many people lived in “stateless” societies – that is to say, decentralized, with no leader assembling each community into a larger-scale whole. I look forward to someday teaching Thomas Beidelman's article “Beer Drinking and Cattle Theft in Ukavuru” (I might be butchering the place name; internet is too slow to look it up to verify) because I think it shows, simply and yet elegantly, the ways that the colonial introduction of force created inequalities and mistrust that persisted with independence.

From the burgeoning literature on African cities, it seems like there are places – Rem Koolhaas' Lagos and Marie-Francoise Plissart and Filip De Boeck's Kinshasa come to mind – where whatever mistrust exists becomes a catalyst to all sorts of improvisations, sometimes predatory but also productive, such as 419 schemes. In CAR, though, which is landlocked in so many ways, it seems only like a brake. People here in rural CAR describe themselves as moving backward.

Derrida fans would no doubt have their own take on this problem of the signature.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Sultan Senoussi's City on a Hill

After obtaining permission from the First Adjunct Mayor (the Sultan-Mayor's replacement when he is not around), the General Secretary of the Mayor's office, the Zone Commander of the army, and the Unit Chief of the gendarmerie, and finding a guide, this morning I was finally able to climb up the hill to see Sultan Senoussi's old city. (Once there, I discovered that it is in fact an oft-traversed plateau, where people come to collect firewood, to cultivate small, terraced gardens, or just en route to more-distant villages. But for a foreigner, it's different. There would be rumors if I just went up there poking around.)

Senoussi settled on the hilltop in 1891 and Ndele life centered on that well-defended plateau until the Sultan's assassination by the French twenty years later. At that point everyone fled and the city on the hill has been abandoned ever since. The town now spreads out from the southern base of the hill. If I could choose, though, I'd much rather re-site the town up onto that plateau. It is full of dramatic rock formations that provide hollows for afternoon resting spots with lovely views over the surrounding countryside. In a few places, paths shaded by tall trees that almost, just a tiny bit, reminded me of the trails I grew up with in New Hampshire, slope down toward verdant streams.

Of the old city, only crumbling half-walls of the more important buildings remain. The current Sultan-Mayor has put up little signs identifying some of the spots in an effort to make this a tourist site. For the time being it's not a very friendly place to visit, though, both for the red tape required and for the sharp, reedy grasses that remain in the aftermath of the dry season burn and copious other thorny plants through which one must bushwhack. I sliced open my ankle and one of my companion ripped his trousers straight across the knee. On the other hand the guide, Chef de Quartier Yaro, was in his 58, at least a foot shorter than me, wore flip-flops, and even so I kept having to call after him to slow down.

It must have been a vibrant and surprising place, set in such ranging topography and making such use of the rock formations and other natural features. I was struck by how many of the structures of which traces remain are guardhouses, soldier's barracks, or other military fortifications. The guardhouses ringed the perimeter at the access paths. The soldiers and close guards lived nearer to the sultan. (Insert reference to the Presidential Guard, army, and gendarmerie currently inhabiting Ndele, and their, ahem, variable comportment. Deleted for fear of being “too sensitive.”)

Today, when the sultan is in Ndele he lives in a tall house set within a large compound graced by mango trees. During the rebel attack on November 26, a rocket – not clear who launched it – landed in the foyer and burned a living room set that President Bozize had given for World Food Day Ndele 2008 as well as many old photographs of sultans and their families over the years. I ask people when the sultan will return from Bangui, and they cite the state of his house as a reason why he has stayed away: “Where would he live, with his house in that state?” But when I ask who will repair the house, they say that the sultan must return for it to be repaired. No one here has any money for that. If the sultan were here, they would gladly approach him and present in tribute their few francs. But only if he's here. All of which makes me doubt I'll see him in Ndele during my stay here.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Sooner or Later

It was bound to happen. Someone has found my blog, and deemed it to contain vast amounts of information that is “très sensible” (highly sensitive). I knew it would, and yet pretended it wouldn't. I so enjoyed having a forum to think through some of the issues or questions that troubled me and even, when lucky, getting some helpful feedback. It made me feel less isolated than I otherwise did, here in this remotest corner of the world. And it calmed me, made me feel more in control of my fieldwork, to organize observations in a presentable format on the page.

And I even brought the discovery on myself, I think, when, in desperation, I challenged someone who accused me of being a spy to Google me. I figured he'd find some innocuous Duke page with outdated information about my dissertation and maybe the couple of pieces I've written for Making Sense of Sudan. Hopefully my pontificating convinced him that I am indeed but a lowly grad student, but innocuous it was not. As countless others have observed before me, blogging is an odd forum in that it feels strangely private, making it easy to forget or ignore that it is, of course, fully accessible.

In the process of being found out, I have realized something about how politics works here. Much of the game has to do with pretending not to know, and certainly not ever stating, the things that everyone knows. (I mean seriously, as a newly-arrived expat I'm the last to know anything.) That a certain official drinks a lot, for instance, or even that a certain road is closed to humanitarians. Always better to feign ignorance, since you don't know who might betray you (“So-and-so said such-and-such about so-and-so...” can take on a life of its own in a place that in many ways functions on rumors). This can make research difficult. It also makes it hard to change endemic corruption or other malfeasance, because any whistler blower could quickly face allegations herself. Many if not most of the bylines in Bangui's 8-page newspapers are sobriquets.

So I will have to be more circumspect about the things I write here.

If the internet connection permitted, I'd upload some photos from the party I attended yesterday. It was a ceremony thrown by a Chadian man living here in Ndele who had been captured by the rebels when he went to visit his wife and kids in Chad. He was so thankful to Allah to have been released that he bought a cow for the neighborhood to enjoy. We women sat on mats spread across two courtyards and inside the house of a relative of the man, a recent divorcee who had followed her husband here from Ndjamena. They had prepared platter upon platter of delicious food, including things I didn't even know it was possible to obtain in Ndele. (I think the man probably brought some goods back with him from Chad, where more products are available.)

When a foreigner like me shows up at such a gathering, there is usually one outgoing woman among the group who takes it upon herself to try to communicate with the stranger, while the others sit and listen. The hostess, a beautiful woman with movie star teeth (most people here have broken, brown teeth) that she flashed when she smiled, was such a woman, and I struggled to align my Koranic Arabic with her Chadic Arabic. Some words are the same – “lahm” for meat – others are similar - “tayarah” instead of “ta-ira” for airplane – and others are quite different – “kwayyis” instead of “jayyid” for good. As frustrating as it can be, I find such intense efforts to communicate exhilarating too. I departed the gathering bathing in thankfulness: thankful for people like her, who welcome a stranger with friendly laughter, and thankful for those exciting moments when I squeezed some Arabic out of my receding memory.

That night I couldn't sleep, hepped up on the afternoon's glasses of sweet-sweet tea (Southern sweet tea tastes bitter compared to this stuff). And the wind, a whistling, insistent wind like Marseille's mistral, returned, flapping the curtains noisily and sending the neighborhood dogs into barking, whining frenzies.