Thursday, March 18, 2010

Penis snatching update

I have wanted to write an update on the penis snatching incident that occurred here in Tiringoulou last week, but some of the responses I've received to my previous post have reminded me that a phenomenon that seems normal (though unfortunate) here appears bizarre to people elsewhere, and I don't want to portray people here as exotic rubes.

As I learned more about the incident, I had one of those moments that occurs sometimes during field research when words on paper suddenly become animated: so this is what the recent surge of anthropological literature on “occult economies” was about. Led by the Comaroffs, this branch of research investigates the ways that people make sense of a world in which the origins of wealth have largely become obscured from view. Before, this argument goes, wealth came from things like factories. Townspeople could see in front of them why the owner had a mansion: the coal-spewing workhouse. But when people become massively, incomprehensibly rich from something as ephemeral and mysterious as credit swaps (or government corruption), it is bound to have an effect on our explanations about how the world works. And one effect that scholars have noticed is a heightened anxiety about the body and trades in organs.

Several people with whom I spoke in Tiringoulou made these links. “You see how advanced Cameroon is compared to CAR? They have multi-story buildings! It's because they are so strong in commerce of all kinds – including in genitals and scalps.” (Male pattern baldness sufferers take heart: your bald pates fetch higher prices in this trade.) Practitioners of such magic profit in one of two ways. A man here in Tiringoulou who used to live in Cameroon had seen both with his own eyes. In a crowd, a person might suddenly realize that his penis has disappeared. He cries out. Immediately his savior steps forward: I'll heal you, he says. For a fee of 25,000 [about $50]. Or else the penis-taker sells his loot to the boss who taught him the magic, for which he is handsomely rewarded.

The man who had lived in Cameroon described one case that particularly stuck in my mind. A woman arrived at the airport, off to Europe to sell a load of penises. The airport guard sensed something fishy about the woman and decided to thoroughly go through her hand luggage. He saw that she had packed some baguette sandwiches and asked if he could have one. The woman assented and made to hand him the one on top. But he persisted in reaching deeper, deeper into the bag and picked one from the bottom. Now the woman became agitated. He unwrapped it and found that, though butter leaked from the edges to make it look innocent, a row of penises were lodged between the loaf's halves. A penis-butter sandwich. Not to be eaten. Without a doubt this is the most memorable tale of “effective” (the story-teller's term) airport security I've heard.

When I asked another man if he'd heard of any similar magical crimes, his response surprised me. “Yes. In Bangui sometimes a child in a crowded street will eat a biscuit and suddenly disappear – all the way to Nigeria!” All of a sudden people's anxiety here sounded familiar: how many ridiculous strictures (not allowing kids to walk to school, for instance) have been erected in the US in recent years due to a largely irrational fear of the dreaded candy-offering kidnapper?

If the idea of penis-stealing seems beyond-the-pale weird, consider what people in a subsistence economy might think upon hearing of an American woman who starves herself near death because her reflection in the mirror convinces her she's fat? Or consider the affliction philosophers love to ponder which consists of being convinced that certain of one's limbs are not supposed to exist, making them beg their doctors for amputations. What, ethically, should the doctor do when the person avers that she will cut it off herself if necessary (and those sufferers who do so report immense relief afterward)? One hundred thousand people in the US have this condition, if Wikipedia is to be believed. I cite these examples only to highlight that there is no end to the strange things people experience when it comes to their bodies.

Did the men in Tiringoulou really have their penises magically removed? Everyone here (including the doctor at the hospital) thinks so. I don't, but the men's experience of debilitating illness certainly seems real. Perhaps their maladies are as real and yet medically invisible, unexplainable, as certain kinds of back pain or chronic fatigue syndrome. For this latter condition, the only effective treatment appears to be group talk therapy with fellow-sufferers – people who don't doubt your agonizing reality. In that respect, people in this poorest of places are well-off.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


The other day a diplomat offered his serious opinion that in fifty years the CAR will no longer exist. Each neighboring country will subsume the part extending out from the shared border. We're at the end of the road, he said. This prognosis strikes me as the most hopeful of any I've heard. I'd even go so far as to say that it is more realistic than assuming that the aid directed here will bring about a turnaround in the governance of the CAR state, which is largely privatized, in Bayart's sense of the term.

If you consider the political map of Africa as a kind of jigsaw puzzle, the CAR is like that pesky piece that you just can't find when you've otherwise finished. It was the space left over and claimed by France at the Berlin Conference in 1884, a grab made partly so that France's colonial holdings looked bigger, and so that they could try to repeat the Belgian Congo's incredible profit-making by experimenting with their concessionary-state-on-the-cheap idea (it failed, and they even controlled the sea access, which CAR currently does not). The CAR's anti-colonial leader, Barthelemy Boganda, never thought that it could be a tenable country on its own, and he chose the anodyne name it now bears in hopes that it would facilitate joining forces with the rest of Central Africa to become a federation. However, he died before independence, and going solo proved too tempting to the leaders who outlived him. They all did quite well by this arrangement, but the people they govern have suffered.

Life expectancy in CAR drops by six months each year. For men, it's now 39.2. On a continent that has seen its population skyrocket in recent decades, CAR's has stagnated for 25 years and remains at a measly 3.9 million in an area the size of France and Spain combined (or Texas). Meanwhile, everything is imported (even manioc, the staple food), and importing is hugely expensive (and quite profitable for Cameroon, from whence most products arrive). Even eggs are imported from Cameroon – keep in mind that to get eggs from Cameroon to Bangui requires two days (or one long, if you have a good vehicle) of travel on terrible roads. A supermarket owner I've gotten to know (Lebanese, of course) entreated me to try the pineapples that she sells every Monday. They're really good, much sweeter than the ones you get here, she assured me. They're from Cameroon!

A friend's Cameroonian boyfriend came to visit her in Bangui. He paid 15,000 CFA (a little more than $30) to ride as a passenger in a merchant truck (the only “public transport” available in CAR), and 180,000 CFA ($400) in payments to the assorted soldiers, gendarmes, police officers, and water and forests guards who man roadblocks. By the end, he convinced the driver of the truck to let him try to pass as a truck-boy so that he wouldn't be so tempting a target. The roadblock-keepers' authority derives from their status as officers of the state. Without that state, they would no longer be able to act as such a brake. (Granted, CAR is not the only country in the region to have problems with metastasizing roadblocks.)

In Tiringoulou, a town in the far Northeast of CAR where I am currently, residents complain of the discrimination they face from the faraway central government, which labels them Chadian or Sudanese and therefore sub-standard citizens. “We're Central African!” they lament. Little good that has done them. Crossing the border to Chad or Sudan, one finds towns that bustle with commerce unimaginable here – motorcycles, bread, you name it – even products difficult to find in Bangui. The unrequited nationalism expressed by those in CAR's hinterlands is frankly tragic.

If dissolving the CAR state seems like sacrilege under the principles of sovereignty that govern the international system, and maybe especially African Union-era Africa, or if it seems like some flavor of lack of solidarity with CAR (a put-down, in the sense that they couldn't make a go of it on their own), I'd argue that such points of view reflect a lack of the kind of creative thinking that could actually help the people who live in this literal center of the continent. Contra Mamdani (who recently argued for efforts to ensure the equality of sovereign states), I'm in favor of it.

A final thought, also somewhat inspired by Mamdani (who calls for greater accountability from aid and advocacy groups), but in contrast to his view: The usefulness of aid provided by NGOs and international agencies notwithstanding (I have on multiple occasions benefited from the medical care provided by aid groups here, for which I am grateful), in my observation these agencies do more to strengthen the state (and not necessarily in good ways), even though they see themselves as a kind of counter weight. They must interact with state officials as the legitimate rulers of the territory and respect their wishes (agencies like UNICEF work solely in partnership with the government), while in many cases those leaders have lost legitimacy in the eyes of the population, who burst with stories of monies bouffé or piqué (eaten or swiped). Would it be possible to re-think the whole foreign aid (and I include humanitarian aid) system so that it it could include radical alternatives? David Kennedy suggests as much in his study of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, when he argues that it should not take state sovereignty as its organizing principle. Putting such an agenda into practice is, of course, much easier said than done. But from where I sit in Tiringoulou, it seems worth more than idle consideration.

The arrival of the penis snatchers

In a previous post I wrote about the effusive greetings here in Central Africa. Yesterday morning when I arrived in Tiringoulou, in the remote Northeast of CAR (even further northeast and even more remote than Ndele), however, I was told that since yesterday people had forsaken the usual handshakes in favor of a small wave. Why? The day before a Sudanese merchant truck arrived in town. One of the passengers alighted in the village center and went to take tea. He shook the proprietor's hand firmly as he sat down.

The guest left, but the proprietor soon felt an electric tingling all over. He knew suddenly that something was wrong. He looked down: his penis had shrunk to smaller than that of a baby. (Witnesses aver that the penis was in fact teeny-tiny, but unfortunately no one had a camera for proof to convince those who weren't there at the time.) This fate befell one other man before the mob descended upon the visitor, the only one judged capable of committing the crime because of his contact with the men at the fateful hour (bodily contact is sufficient to remove the penis). Under duress from the UFDR (the armed group that runs this town) forces' “interrogation,” he admitted his guilt. He was executed (gunshot) shortly thereafter.

This is the first case of penis snatching seen in Tiringoulou, but a woman in a village not too far from here had her genitals disappear as well. The visitor, a Chadian, worked for some merchants in Nigeria, where, if newspaper reports are to be believed, penis-snatching occurs in epidemic proportions. When I asked why they snatch penises, people here responded that they could be sold for a lot of money in Nigeria, where they would be used by “feticheurs”.

I admit: I'm skeptical. For one thing, the victims have their members back and currently complain only of a bit of testicular pain. But I also find it really interesting to think about how the phenomenon of penis snatching has traveled through West and Central Africa, finally now reaching this most remote corner of the world. How did people here become aware of it, and does it resemble anything they have seen before?

I hope to meet one of the victims tomorrow. Perhaps then I will have more answers.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Humanitarianism Under Suspicion

Since the rebel attack on Ndele on the 26th of November, the government has severely limited humanitarian and NGO workers' movement. The rebels occupy a stretch of road some 80km north of here (not far from the Chadian border). Before the attack, there were four international NGOs in Ndele. Now there are three, and they are allowed only to work in Ndele and on the road leading south toward Bangui. An NGO that hoped to do a risk assessment on the Golongosso road, another road to Chad, was told “nyet” (as many Central African francophones put it). That road has had problems with cattle rustlers and highway robber-type incidents (some perpetrated by the rebels), and past 84km from Ndele it's said to be more or less in the control of Chadians in uniform (which, given the pervasiveness of men-in-arms in Chad does not necessarily mean soldiers). But it's not particularly more dangerous than many other places where humanitarians work. The government's, and especially the military's, aversion to allowing humanitarian access seems to be motivated not just by security concerns but by a certain mistrust as well.

In a recent conversation, my interlocutor explained one version of the government's reasoning. For one thing, the humanitarians cannot help but support the rebels, he argued. The rebels have a road block, and they will demand “formalities” even of humanitarians. But this man went further, arguing that humanitarianism and rebellion are symbiotic. “If the rebellions end, there will be no more NGOs. In order for an NGO to exist, there have to be rebellions. You will at least agree with me on this one? So, if you want your career to exist there has to be rebellion. When the rebellions end, they'll tell you no, we don't need NGOs and that will end their careers. There won't be any more funding from over there either.”

The boom in NGO presence in CAR dates to late 2006 and 2007, when CAR was able to capitalize on its proximity to Darfur and the extensive fund-raising of a highly energetic UN coordinator to draw international interest. Not entirely incidentally, since then the number of rebellions has gone from two to five or so, depending on how you count (one of the groups is generally brushed off as Chadian and thereby an illegitimate contender for the upcoming disarmament program. Never mind that the leader of one of the other armed groups – Abdulaye Miskine – is also a Chadian/CAR citizen and under suspicion of the ICC to boot).

For the international NGOs there is always another crisis somewhere else, whether an earthquake or a war. But their local staff might have to scramble a bit to find new employment. One young man I met in Birao (the far northeast, near Sudan) a couple of years ago who was doing dance and games for kids courtesy an NGO contract now sells pilfered flowers outside a Bangui supermarket and, when he recognizes an NGO face, pretends that they were in fact a gift to this special person...and does she know of any job openings?

Many state employees have explained to me that, in contrast to “here one day, gone the next” NGOs, the biggest advantage of their posts is that once a public servant, always a public servant. You even get a pension. Not necessarily a regularly paid pension, but a feeling of entitlement to one. But the people who seem to have the most dignity and self-respect are those who aspire to use whatever jobs they hold to squirrel away money so they can buy a tract of land in the countryside where they can farm, raise animals, and live off the grid, free from politics.

Though the comment above exaggerates and simplifies, it reminded me of the reason a friend gave for leaving the anti-landmine world, where she had worked for a number of years. Getting rid of landmines, she said, is entirely doable. It takes nothing more or less than tedious work by humans (guinea rats and dogs are not reliable, meaning that the fields they “clear” are not really cleared). But she came to the conclusion that her fellow bureaucrats in Geneva were so comfortable with their modern offices and business class travel to international conferences that, whether consciously or sub-consciously, they stalled real progress. Sometimes it seems to me that all an armed group needs to do to go from highway bandit – criminal – to rebel – political opponent – is to adopt a patriotic acronym. And once one does that, recognition from the international system, with its peacebuilding programs and aid and all the rest, descend. Arresting the cycle of rebellion does not get easier as more disaffected politicians try to work these levers, with all the jobs they represent.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


For all those who have recently endured my complaints about the heat here, proof that I was not exaggerating: the report of the African Centre of Meteorological Application for Development (ACMAD) for early February showed that the highest average daily temperature (37.4 C) was recorded in Ndele, CAR. (Granted, of the 61 locations around the continent measured by ACMAD, none were in the Danakil Desert. But still.) I should add, too, that I now remember early February as a time of wonderful cool compared to the baking days we're enduring now. On top of that, the sinus-clogging harmattan has started blowing. This is most troubling to me because it calls into question my thus-far workable strategy for avoiding sunstroke: an umbrella that accompanies me on all daytime walks. (Three years in North Carolina and only now in Ndele do I affect the Southern Belle, with her parasol!)