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.


  1. Loved this, Louisa, and glad to see you're back to blogging. Hope it will continue during your trip - best of luck!

  2. Great post. I think what you're discussing here, the denigration of agriculture, also contributes to the drive towards urbanization. In Monrovia, there's a mayor who is knocking down people's houses in an attempt to force them to move back to the village and farm. Unsurprisingly, this is not an effective strategy.