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.

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