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.