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 I figured he'd find some innocuous Duke page with outdated information about my dissertation and maybe the couple of pieces I've written for Making Sense of Sudan.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.
Looking in the Mirror (Part 2 of 3)
4 days ago