Thursday, June 3, 2010

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.

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