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-Fran├žois 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.