Monday, December 26, 2011

Modern nomads

In my conversations with South Sudanese politicians in the western part of the country (the states that cozy up to the CAR), few topics elicited such energetic entreaties to action as the presence of the Mbororo. The Mbororo are nomadic, or at least itinerant, herders. Originally from West Africa, where they're also known as Peulh, they have spread as far east as Ethiopia. (By some accounts, the most violent conflict on the South Sudan/Ethiopia border pits Mbororo against Hausa – two groups usually thought of as West African.) Sedentary folks, maybe especially farmers and politicians, often portray the Mbororo as recent arrivals, as invaders who destroy fields. Though it may be true that the level of armament held by the herders has increased in recent years (a response to rises in cattle thievery and other defensive imperatives, whatever other offensive goals they may harbor), most are not newcomers. Mbororo have made use of western Sudanese space for some two hundred years.

I gained a window onto contemporary nomadism while talking with an Mbororo chief in Wau, Western Bahr-el-Ghazal state. (I should note that the category Mbororo is a nested one in western Sudan. In Darfur, both Mbororo and other groups of West African provenance, like the Fulani, are placed in the broader category Falata. This “Mbororo chief” – how he described himself to me – was probably technically Fulani, for he sold traditional medicines. His willful elision of such distinctions may indicate new solidarities taking shape.) In explaining the exactions meted out against his people (massacres of humans and livestock, theft), he portrayed himself as a law-abiding, yet victimized, South Sudanese citizen. But when he started showing me his treasured collection of faded family snapshots, a different picture emerged: “These are my children in Moundou (eastern Chad)...this is my mother in Ndjamena...this is my wife and daughter in the Congo...this is my wife in Kampala...this is my wife in Rwanda...” He learned English in Nigeria, Uganda and South Sudan. His life has stretched from Senegal (where his grandfather lived) to Sudan.

The professed pacifism of people like this Mbororo chief has not stopped politicians from seeing them as a danger in need of eradication. The fear is that they are “tools” of the government in Khartoum. In this reading, the Mbororo are simply the next group the North has unleashed on the South – invaders sent to squat and appropriate land. “We learned the lessons of Abyei,” was how one politician put it. That is, they see the Mbororo movements as analogous to those of years past involving Misseriya herders, who some southerners see as having planted themselves in borderlands in order to further northern claims to disputed territory. This is not a full picture of either region's politics, but it is an analysis that has proven an effective mobilizer. Other criticisms of the Mbororo include that they collaborate with the Lord's Resistance Army and that they are the authors of rapacious environmental destruction, particularly through hunting and gathering honey (one of the region's main products) with poison.

In all of these accounts, despite being a tiny minority, Mbororo appear an existential danger, in the manner so evocatively described by Arjun Appadurai (channeling Mary Douglas) in Fear of Small Numbers. Support for anti-Mbororo measures reaches to the highest level of government. South Sudanese president Salva Kiir Mayardit recently gave a speech in Raga, north and west of Wau, in which he exhorted his compatriots of the need to get rid of the nomad menace. One appointed official I met in Wau stated that South Sudanese troops are standing guard on the border to prevent any Mbororo from entering. He explained, “Everybody in Africa has his country. They should go back to their country!”

I asked him, “What is the Mbororos' country?”

“We don't know!” he replied, and he and the assembled crowd of suit-clad functionaries (most sported a South Sudanese flag lapel pin) burst out laughing. When the chuckles subsided, he added, “They are not part of our citizens. They are not among the tribes in South Sudan.”

Back in Juba, I rang mobile phone after mobile phone in hopes of reaching high-level officials. Every call ended with the message that the subscriber could not be reached, the tell-tale sign of a switched off phone. In the weeks before and after Christmas the city empties. The INGO and diplomatic crew decamp for northerly climes, and the government descends to Kampala and Nairobi, where their families live. Schools in South Sudan remain basic (universities have yet to re-open after independence last July), and so anyone who can afford to do so keeps his clan in another regional capital with better educational opportunities.

If “everyone in Africa has a country”, why are only some forms of (opportunistic) nomadism visible, and vilified, as such?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Penis snatching comes to Europe

I’m not much of a comedian, but I can usually elicit a chuckle -- if only of disbelief -- by talking about penis snatching. Depending on one’s point of view, genital removal by occult means is either a rumor or an epidemic or both, and it has swept across western, central and southern Africa over the past two decades or so. I encountered an outbreak in Tiringoulou, in CAR’s far Northeast, in March 2010. Penis snatching falls into solidly into the category of African-news-so-bizarre-it’s-funny, and for that reason I often feel a little guilty when I regale people with these tales, for I fear they stoke false images of Africa as the home of startlingly irrational people.

What I hadn’t realized until my mom happened upon a reference on the Norwegian Wikipedia site about witch trials there is that genital theft was a major preoccupation in Europe, too, especially in the 15th and 16th centuries. Detailed accounts of these crimes can be found in the 1486 volume Malleus Maleficarum (“The Hammer of Witches”). The Malleus’s authorship is attributed to two Dominican scholar/inquisitioners living in present-day Germany. Their objective was simple: to convince people that witchcraft exists and that it is a devil-driven scourge demanding immediate eradication. After offering a proof of the existence of witchcraft, the authors begin describing different modes of witchcraft, how they are perpetrated, and what can be done to treat them. They conclude with detailed discussion of how witches should be punished and reformed, which, though advocating the death penalty and torture in certain cases, are surprisingly un-bloody, with forgiveness often an important element. (These instructions cover scenarios from "method three of passing sentence on a woman with a bad reputation who is to be exposed to questioning under torture" to "method two of passing sentences on a denounced woman who merely has a bad reputation" to "the method of passing sentence on a woman who has confessed heresy but is relapsed, though repentant".)

The book explains a range of practices such as turning people into wild animals and such, but by far the bulk of the sorcery described concerns anxieties over procreation. For instance, the authors go into cases of women becoming infertile, and men whose semen can no longer exit or lose power, and men who can no longer get an erection. It also discusses “the way in which they [witches] take away male members”. Here is one such case, recounted by a venerable father from the convent at Speyer. He was hearing confession one day when

“a certain young man showed up, and in his confession he claimed sorrowfully that he had lost his male member. I was astonished and did not wish to believe his words lightly, since the man who believes lightly is judged to be fickle-minded by the wise man. So, I discovered the truth through experience, perceiving nothing by sight when the young man removed his clothes and showed me the place. Then, I came up with a sensible plan and asked whether he considered any woman suspect. The young man said that the did, but she was away, living in Worms. Then I said, ‘Here are my instructions for you. Approach her as soon as possible and strive, to best of your abilities, to soften her with promises and enticing words,’ which is what he did do. A few days later he returned to thank me, claiming that he had regained every thing. I believed his words, though I was once more made certain through visual experience” (p. 324).

One of the main differences I’ve noticed between the European and African discussions of this kind of witchcraft is the importance accorded to the visual/physical aspect. In conversations about penis snatching with people in Tiringoulou, I never met anyone concerned with the physical possibility of removing (and eventually replacing) a “male member” without touching it. When I’ve discussed with people from outside of Central Africa, in contrast, their first question tends to be something along the lines of, “But they didn’t really remove the penis -- that’s impossible!” Already in 1487, the Malleus anticipates this concern. Its authors go to great lengths to explain the mechanics of the operation. For instance, they write:

At this point, a few things should be noted for a clearer understanding of the previous discussion of this topic. First, it should in no way be believed that such members are torn out of or separated from the body. Instead, they are hidden by the demon through the art of conjuring, so that they can be neither seen nor touched. This is shown by authority and reason... . Alexander of Hales says: “Properly speaking, conjuring is an illusion of the demon. This has no cause from the point of view of a change in the thing but only from the point of view of the perceiver, who is deceived, in terms of either the internal or the external sense of perception.” In connection with these words, it should be noted that in this instance the illusion is played on the two external senses (sight and touch), and not on the internal ones (the common sense, fantasy, the force of imagination, that of estimation, and memory (p. 324).

The authors later continue,

As for what pronouncement should be made about those sorceresses who sometimes keep large numbers of these members (twenty or thirty at once) in a bird’s nest of in some cabinet, where the members move as if alive or eat a stalk or fodder, as many have seen and the general report relates, it should be said that these things are all carried out through the Devil’s working and illusion. In this case, an illusion is played on the viewers’ senses of perception in the ways discussed above (p. 327).

(When picturing a nest of members, my mind leaps to the handbag full of penis butter sandwiches that a Tiringoulou man told me about. How odd for such similar images to become socially powerful in such different times and places.)

I’m not sure what to make of this observation about the importance of the physical element to tales of penis snatching. The most facile interpretation would be the developmentalist one: “Africa -- (still) 500 years behind Europe.” For obvious reasons that’s unsatisfactory, to say nothing of simply wrong. I’m in the early stages of developing an article comparing contemporary African penis snatching scares to these earlier European ones. I don’t yet know how it all fits together. For now I’m filing it under the trove that is the mental category of surprising connections -- a category that gives me satisfaction as much for the puzzles it introduces as those that it solves.

Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches). 2006. New York: Cambridge. Christopher S. Mackay, ed.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Warriors and the rest of us

While in Nairobi at the home of a bibliophile friend I picked up Gerald Hanley's Warriors. The book is a memoir of Hanley's stint in Somalia as an officer-administrator during WWII. I only made it about a third of the way through before I had to leave, but the book's understated yet searing descriptions of this work have stayed at the forefront of my mind as I trek around Juba.

Hanley describes privations most Westerners today would find insupportable: a year at a remote outpost training a group of Somali soldiers with nothing but a bi-annual (if he was lucky) alcohol ration that he'd too-eagerly quaff in a few short days to break the monotony and the heat. Finally, a full year in, he received the order to descend to Mogadishu, dreaming all the while of the books and alcohol he'd stockpile, and the vegetables he'd demand, for his next posting, which would start some three weeks later and last another year.

Critiques of colonialism abound, and many are full of merit. But I find myself chastened by Hanley's experiences. Few today would travel across the earth to endure such trials. (To be fair, many of Hanley's compatriots went crazy or fell ill under the stress.) In my evenings with UN folks, I'm continually amazed how quickly the conversation turns to the vagaries of job privileges: if one has classification x, what kind of R&R policy does one fall under, and what are the salary implications? Should one's generator fuel be paid for by the organization? and so on. These are smart people spending long hours packed in converted shipping containers, writing reports and organizing logistics and coordinating meetings. Many of them appreciate the idealistic goals of their work. In mentioning their interest in parsing privileges (puzzlingly dull to an outsider), I don't mean to critique -- I think that kind of exchange is an inevitability, and useful, when working for large bureaucracies in which merit may be less important to success and remuneration than skill navigating rules. And I fully include myself in the category of those gone "soft" -- I enjoy running water as much as the next person, and wifi even more. But I do rather wonder how future generations will view us, our work, and our accomplishments in places like this.

Getting around in Juba

As a foreigner in Juba without an INGO/UN cocoon, I spend a lot of time getting up to speed on the workings of public transport. Private taxis -- often posh SUVs -- are prohibitively expensive. This leaves three options: foot, matatu (minibus), or boda-boda (motorcycle taxi).

[An aside: this city is run by foreigners, and I'm fascinated to see how that affects language -- which words overheard on the street are taken from English (anything NGOish), which from Arabic (numbers) and which from Ugandan street talk (boda boda, of which all the drivers hail from the land of the crested crane).]

As one boda driver observed, laughing, yesterday, "You are fearing!" It's true -- I don't feel very safe on the careening motos. The young drivers wear dark sunglasses even as the gloaming turns definitively to dusk. They take the bumpiest, narrowest, most-rutted and soccer-playing-children-filled dirt tracks so as to avoid the traffic police, who can always find some infraction with a boda driver. When walking is not possible, I prefer matatus. Matatu parks are always a mess: the minibuses jostle, bodas dart, hawkers ingratiate, and would-be passengers stay alert to the alternating squishes of mud, dust, and garbage underfoot as they scope out and push for a seat on the next bus home. They're Hans Monderman on speed.

Here's what I really like about these situations: being forced to rely on strangers for navigational aid often reaffirms my faith in humanity. Usually someone will see my confusion and help me find my way, taking on my cause as her own. (Three times people -- who I'd barely had time to say hello to -- offered to pay my fare. That has never happened to me in CAR.) Here's what I don't like: getting dumped in a far-off marketplace just as it's emptying for the night and discovering that, kindnesses of strangers or no, I am miles from my intended destination.

Monday, September 12, 2011

On dowries and contradictions

While in Bangui last December I attended a dowry ceremony for a cousin of my friend Pichou, Bangui’s best events photographer. The family’s house was in the bustling quartier near the airport, and the yard was already full of people finding spots among old friends and relatives in the rows of white plastic chairs rented for the occasion.

Pichou introduced me to everyone on her side of the family. At one point we met a toddler. “And this is…” Pichou leaned back to think for a moment. “She’s the daughter of my sister so…my daughter! She’s my daughter.” Then we turned to give bises to a vibrant, designer jeans-wearing youth. He died a few months later while working on the electoral census in the Southeast. (The circumstances of his death are a bit murky.)

The ceremony itself involved the groom’s family, represented by a cracking-voiced teenager with an often-malfunctioning microphone, who presented large quantities of household goods, food, and clothes (“two pairs of women’s sandals”; “one liter of cooking oil”; “two sleeping mats…”) to the bride’s family, whose job it was to act miffed at the poor quality of the offerings. Some plantains that the goat had taken a bite out of got a loud laugh. Finally, he handed over an envelope of cash. Now the derisive comments started flying in earnest from the bride’s side: “You want her to walk to the hospital when it’s time to give birth…?” (complete with pantomime of the offensive possibility). One by one people came forward to augment the total. Finally, they’d put together somewhere between three and four hundred thousand (a bit shy of US$1000).

I left early, my exit smoothed by the fact that Pichou, too, had to leave. She had to head on to the airport to take photos of a family friend who was returning in a coffin. The friend had gone to Cameroon to give birth since the hospitals are so much better there. But she’d died anyway. I was headed in the other direction, toward town, and I managed to hitch a ride with one of President Bozize’s sons. (Bozize has many sons. I prefer not to mention which of them was my chauffeur.)

He drove a Hi-Lux kitted out with darkly tinted windows. In the gloaming last minutes before total darkness we traversed the market, which was full of kids running around to fulfill their parents’ final errands of the day. A tiny baggie of cooking oil, a Maggi cube. I was sure we’d hit those darting shadows, but somehow we avoided disaster.

After the held-breath market crossing, we started making small talk. I talked a bit about my research. After an awkward pause, I asked, “So what do you do?”

He hemmed and hawed a bit. “I was a soldier, but, well, I mean, I was in the army for a while, but…” Finally he blurted out, “You know that the president is my father, right?”

I did. I waited for him to continue.

He explained that he was setting up a Christmas fair next to the stadium. Something about selling drinks, and music; and also teaching the youth about peace and democracy.

As we navigated a roundabout at the edge of town he turned to me and asked, “Have you been following the news?” I hadn’t heard anything since the day before. “About Ivory Coast? Gbagbo held his own inauguration today! Mais ca, c’est vraiment trop!”

Bozize’s son then launched into a diatribe about the failings of African executives. He and his friend, in the back seat, agreed that Ouattara would have been the better choice. “Ouattara is open. He’s for the West. Gbagbo is too much of a nationalist. You see what I’m trying to say?” Then he shifted fully into lecture mode: “We Africans, we have a problem. We like power too much. There are people who, once they grab power, stay there for thirty years! Est-ce que c’est normal? Non! Do you think you could see such a thing in America, or in Europe? No way! The problem here is the nepotism and the corruption.”

I nodded and murmured in hopes that he would continue this fascinating speech. To me, these seeming contradictions are the most thrilling moments during fieldwork. Here my interlocutor had gone from describing himself through reference to his father’s power (and remember that Bozize took power in a coup, and the last elections were far from free and fair) to decrying nepotism, all in the span of ten minutes. As we arrived at my place, the conversation had turned to President Biya in neighboring Cameroon, now in power for more than thirty years. “C’est pas normal,” the president’s son clucked, shaking his head.

I’ve been thinking about this interaction as I write a chapter about militarized anti-poaching in CAR. I’m struggling to describe how anti-poaching militia members who can fluidly espouse conservation rhetoric in conversation with me – and not just espouse, but really advocate, with heart – and then turn around and hunt and fish and otherwise break all the conservation laws they are meant to enforce. The cynic might say, “They’re lying,” and move on. But I think that believing one thing and doing another is actually a very human tendency, and to describe it simply as lying misses much of what is interesting about it. Anthropologists might talk about such apparent contradictions using the language of performance: the guard is performing his mastery of the Western conservation dictates, demonstrating that we’re on the same team, so to speak, but it’s just a show put on for potential donors. This evokes some of the emotions at work, but it nevertheless seems lacking. Embedded in the idea of a performance is that it’s fake, a show, a façade. And isn’t that just a way of saying it’s artful, ritualized and entertaining lying?

And thus a dissertation speed bump arises.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Bandits, etc.

My review of Saïbou Issa's Les Coupeurs de route: Histoire du banditisme rural et transfrontalier dans le bassin du lac Tchad was just published in Politique Africaine. Available here (ungated) under the heading REVUE DES LIVRES.

Now there's really no excuse for me not to finish the chapter I'm currently working on, which compares robbery like that Issa describes to roadblocks, two techniques of governance with similar outcomes. And yet.

p.s. A happy post-script, for once: Patrick got his passport!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A passport to nowhere

A few weeks ago I received an anguished message from my friend Patrick, my co-investigator in matters religious in Bangui, as I mentioned in my last post.

Patrick works for an international humanitarian NGO that, with the exception of a horrid (but largely covered-up) sex scandal, has become one of the most steadfast of the aid groups present in northeastern CAR. The job was Patrick's first for an aid group, and thanks to the mentoring of his former boss and his own helpfully-inflated sense of pride in a job well done, he became one of the organization's most-trusted employees. He now has a dream: to work, just once, as an ex-pat. Partly, this is because he yearns to see some of the world. And partly, it is because he has noticed that expatriate employees earn exponentially more than national staff, and just one posting abroad would be enough to secure his dream of building a farm for himself and his family in the southwestern countryside.

Pride, excitement, and not a little apprehensiveness mixed in his demeanor as he told me that his bosses had nominated him to attend a workshop on gender violence in Nairobi. It would be his first trip outside the region. For my part, I was purely thrilled. As someone who has always adored going to new places, perhaps I over-value things like trips. But even if that's the case, I was happy that Patrick would get a chance to see a bit more of the world and expand the knowledge that would help him contrast his Central African experience with those of people elsewhere. Not everyone desires (or has the privilege of) this kind of anthropological perspective, but Patrick does. He put himself through college by spending evenings at the airport, where he could use the streetlights to do his homework while earning money watching travelers' cars in the open car park. Now he too would be taking off.

After a three-week work stint in the far Northeast, Patrick returned to Bangui to take care of passport formalities in advance of his trip. For the past two or three years, CAR has been in the process of switching out its old passport facilities for a new, biometric system. (Apparently, the US has pushed for these changes.) This has meant that the passport authorities have been shuttered for more than two years. The only passports obtainable during that time were those purchasable (illegally) at PK5, Bangui's big market. (The existence of such a large black market in passports is part of why people say there are more Central African diplomatic passports than regular ones.) If your passport expired during the past two years, tough luck. If you never had a passport before (like Patrick), also tough luck.

Fortunately, the new biometric facilities opened at the end of June. Unfortunately, the minister and his adjoint responsible for managing the office went en mission to Ndjamena shortly thereafter. These two lead the process of convening an audience at the presidency, and this commission decides whether the person should be granted a passport. In their absence, Patrick's completed dossier languished. His plane to Nairobi came and went. He remained in Bangui, and the passport officer remained in Ndjamena. “L'Afrique c'est le monde le plus compliqué, comprends” (“Africa is the most complicated place, you understand”), he wrote, and then refused to talk any more about it – the memory was too bitter.

Thus I found myself in the perhaps contradictory position of lamenting the injustice that one person could not go en mission and the injustice that another had gone en mission. A friend who used to work for an international organization in Bangui complained that she would continually get calls from headquarters asking her to name a Central African delegate to a global conference. (These junior staffers are judged on whether they manage to round someone up from every country.) She finally refused when the request came for a representative to the world conference on tigers in St. Petersburg last year: with no tiger within thousands of miles of CAR, why should some functionary be plucked from his office – where ostensibly he has work to do – to spend several weeks (given the paucity of planes into Bangui, any trip quickly becomes a long one) on a per diem-paid vacation like that? There is a small conference class in Bangui that trots around the world to round out attendance statistics. (One friend who is part of this select group admits that most people just show up each morning to sign the register and claim their per diem and then depart, a practice he decries) But for everyone else, even just being allowed to obtain the documents necessary to be permitted to leave the country requires a massive feat of organization and lobbying. (And let's not get started on the travails of those seeking visas to North America or Europe...) Everyone is shooting for those narrow holes – the “conference gaps” in the global immigration system. What would it take to figure out and make new openings?

From Hannah Arendt onward, much thought has been expended over the plight of the stateless, who have no one to approach for a passport; but what of the state-d who nevertheless are denied the basic rights of citizenship?

All this reminds me: time to renew my passport. I sure am lucky.

Monday, July 4, 2011

How to be a Winner

Over the past couple of decades the number and variety of churches in Africa have seen a major expansion. Led by West Africans, and especially Nigerians, the pentecostal churches have quickly gained ground from the staid outposts of the previous century's Christian missionaries. The new churches are the object of much fruitful anthropological study (Birgit Meyer's work has been ground-breaking; my friend and colleague at Duke, Brian Goldstone, studies the prosperity gospel in predominantly-Muslim northern Ghana). The churches arrived late to CAR, but their presence has been growing, so I decided I'd go and check one out for myself.

I picked La Chapelle des vainqueurs (Winners' Chapel) because I remembered puzzling over its name when I saw it while living in Nairobi in 2004. I brought Patrick, a Central African friend who works for a humanitarian agency. We sneaked into Sunday morning's service a few minutes late. Inside, the hall had little adornment. Signs with one-word inspirational-moral prods (“prosperity,” “faith,” “supernatural,” “wisdom,” “healing”) marked the places where other churches might have depicted the stations of the cross. Here, I saw not a single cross.

At first I didn't recognize the preacher's language – his screaming and the microphone's distortion made deciphering words difficult. A translator quickly repeated his every phrase into crisp French. It dawned on me that the mysterious language was a heavily-accented Nigerian English. “Eh-ta-do!” became a clear “C'est fait!” in French. Only thanks to the French version did I figure out that the preacher kept repeating not “the war of God” but “the word of God”.

Despite the continual references to the word of God, God's actual words were notably absent from the service. I counted only two direct biblical references – to Matthew (Jesus as healer) and Romans. And we were treated to only one song. Instead, the preacher and translator worked themselves into rhythmic, repetitive incantations: “Heey-too!” “Il a pris!” “Heey-too!” “Il a pris!” The themes of health and wealth ran through it all.

Testimonials (my favorite part) punctuated the sermon. One man came forward and told how he had been preparing a dossier to submit for a Termes de référence (a contract bid). He lacked some of the required paperwork, but when he went to drop off the folder the person told him it didn't matter. And he got the contract! Everyone cheered and clapped. Another man told how he was en mission (the terminology used for trips outside the capital) to Paoua when he got in a car accident and broke his arm. He made it to a healer in Bossangoa, who set the bone and handed him a piece of string to tie around his wrist and protect him from the town's witches. He tossed away the man's string. And look at him now – his arm is fully healed, and no witches were able to come near him!

Later, the preacher asked “all the businessmen” to come forward. Patrick whispered to me curiously, “It looks like everyone is going forward.” Indeed, the pews had emptied. This is really strange in CAR, where there are very few businesspeople. The small salaried class all draw their paychecks from the state or aid agencies. Most of the businesses are run by expatriates – Chadians and Cameroonians in the markets; French, West African and middle Easterners in minerals; Lebanese in imports – to the extent that “businessman” is almost synonymous with “foreigner” here. I wondered if perhaps Winners' Chapel encourages people to think of themselves as entrepreneurs in order to attain wealth. If so, the arrival of these churches here can only count as a good thing, for an expansion of people's imagination of the realm of paid employment beyond the state is sorely needed.

Toward the end of the three-hour service, the preacher turned to public health. He called on people to avoid exposed food (flies can come and set up on it, he explained), turned that entreaty into a spiritual metaphor (you have a doctor in you!), and then finished on a bombastic note: “Destroy diabetes! Destroy AIDS!”

Once the service had wrapped up, all of us first-timers were invited to stick around and fill out cards with our contact info (I gave my real info and have yet to be contacted) and sip warm sodas. I guess even I won something.


One typo in my SWP Comments piece -- where it says "UN Peacebuilding Fund" it should read "UN Peacebuilding Commission."

Thursday, June 30, 2011

CAR: Peacebuilding Without Peace

Thanks to the generous sponsorship of Denis M. Tull, I enjoyed a couple of months as a guest researcher at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (the German Institute for Security and International Affairs) in Berlin this spring. One outcome is my (short) piece "CAR: Peacebuilding Without Peace" for their "SWP Comments" series.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The 'gerund defense,' alive and well

L'universitaire Roland Marchal a été abondamment cité à Bruxelles, les 16 et 17 juin, lors de la table ronde des bailleurs de fonds sur la Centrafrique....ce spécialiste des conflits a produit un rapport très critique sur le niveau de fraude enregistré lors des élections couplées (présidentielle et législatives) dans ce pays, le 23 janvier. A croire que cela n'a pas convaincu. Au cours de la rencontre organisée au Palais d'Egmont, en présence de quinze ministres centrafricains et de l'homme d'affaires Hicham Kamach, roi des forêts en Centrafrique, le Banque africaine de développement (BAD) a annoncé le doublement de ses engagements à 180 millions $. Et la Banque mondiale, qui a salué "les efforts considérables en faveur de la paix", devait augmenter de 20% en volume son portefeuille de projets.
(From La Lettre du continent, No. 614, 23 June 2011)

Professor Roland Marchal was often cited in Brussels during the donor roundtable for the CAR on 16-17 June. This conflict specialist produced a report that was very critical of the presidential and legislative elections in this country on 23 January. Apparently it did not convince. Over the course of this meeting at the Palace of Egmont, in the presence of fifteen Central African ministers and the businessman Hicham Kamach, King of the Forests in CAR, the ABD announced that it would double its investments to $180 million. And the World Bank, which saluted the country's "considerable efforts in favor of peace," will augment its portfolio in the country by 20%.

What it really means:
The 'gerund defense' is alive and well.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Monday's Tidings

I was happy when I looked across the compound yesterday morning and saw Carine walking toward me, her small frame engulfed in a billowing West African boubou. I had thought of Carine and her sister, Berenice, often since I left CAR in December. Two of twenty-eight siblings, they were due to give birth within days of each other.

I asked first after Carine’s baby, who I’d heard had been sick last week. He’s doing better now, thankfully. Then I asked after Berenice. I’d only met Berenice a few times, but she’d quickly won me over with her vibrancy, generosity, warmth and smarts. I’d brought some baby board books for her and hoped to meet up with her soon.

“Elle est morte.”

Carine’s response made no sense to me. My first thought: she’s joking. My second thought: “morte” must have some alternate meaning that I’m not aware of. The idea that such a strong, healthy woman could just die seemed absurd.

Once I’d sat down, Carine explained. Berenice had gone into labor. At first, it seemed things were OK. But the doctor said she would need an operation. Sometime while she lay there, her abdomen gaping wide, she and the baby passed away.

I suppose I’m naive to be so shocked. CAR has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. But I realized that I had thought of those statistics as the statistics of other people, of people without access to doctors or people unable to take various precautions during pregnancy. When I last saw Berenice, a professor of geology at the University of Bangui, she explained how she was watching her diet and avoiding sugar and caffeine and visiting her physician regularly, all for the sake of her baby-to-be.

I had met her at a workshop of political “fragility”. Of the few women present, she spoke with the most passion. I’ll always remember her heartfelt monologue on the challenges of living with pervasive witchcraft. She joked comfortably with even the most senior people present. She had not just confidence, but confidence back up by intelligence. All that energy. Gone.

I went through the day with half a brain. The rest had clouded over, preoccupied and foggy. When I discussed Berenice’s passing with friends, many responded with some variation on “Si elle est morte, c’est que Dieu l’a voulu” (“If she is dead, it’s because God wanted it to happen”). I don’t buy it. But if I wanted to pull a shred of personal meaning from what was essentially a meaningless death -- that is, an unncecessary, preventable one -- I might take it as a stark reminder of the limits of anthropological values of relativism. I often find myself trying to explain -- to frustrated aid workers, for instance -- how people here aren’t just irrational or backward, and how their ways of life make sense if only you stop to try to understand the world from their perspective.* But deaths like this one are not to be understood. They are to be decried and abhorred and mourned.

* This is something of a caricature of both the aid workers’ and my own perspectives. For instance, recent anthropological work both important and fascinating (such as that of my adviser, Charles Piot) has tried to take the experience of radical uncertainty -- including the fragility of life in a place like Bangui -- seriously as a mode of sociality and understand the struggles it engenders.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Update: Bangui on the Potomac

Last week I trudged through the Washington humidity to embassy row. The facade of the CAR embassy looked even more derelict than usual. Some indeterminate building material (paint?) hung precariously, like the bark of a eucalyptus tree. A piece of paper was taped beside the door. It bore the handwritten message that “The Ambassy of the C.A.R. has moved.” Well, I thought, it has happened. It was only a matter of time.

The CAR government bought this prime real estate shortly after independence in 1960 and then left it to decay. From its innocuous beginnings, the building metamorphosed into a fun house of dangers: rusty springs booby-trapped chair seats, stairs warped so drastically they led climbers downward as they attempted to ascent, light fixtures sprouted colorful exposed wires. Staff learned to pick careful paths through the hazards. Instead of fixing the place up, the CAR government decided last year to put the building on the market. A private couple paid $1.099 million -- cash -- to purchase the house and will likely spend a similar sum to return it to the kind of habitable space they desire.

Meanwhile, nestled between the ‘Sandinista Safeway’ and Chief Ike’s bar, the new CAR embassy announces itself not with a flag (they moved in only a month ago), but with a gaggle of young men hanging out on the porch watching the world go by, just like in Bangui. Inside, employees debated the proper positioning of presidential portraits amid the plastic ficus plants and shiny, lightweight pleather couches. France 24’s talking heads blared from a small flatscreen. The government bought this 2704 Ontario Rd. edifice for $800,000, which, after adding a couple thousand dollars’ worth of furniture, still leaves a tidy margin. The new embassy is not without its oddities: the waiting area abruptly gives out onto a linoleum-floored space, the ghost of a kitchen or bathroom. And here, too, the gaping electric sockets spit wires.

Still, it was heartening to see the evident pride with which the receptionist inhabited his sprawling desk in the entryway. What would it take to transform that pride into a broader sense of responsibility for the building and the institution it represents? Regular cash flow would be an obvious factor; but if it were that simple one would think the $200 visa fee (a $50 hike since last time I checked) would help in that regard, and this doesn’t seem to be the case.

I managed, through no more nefarious means than a little pleasant schmoozing, to obtain my visa within an hour, rather than the official 48-hour processing time. And, by the time I post this, I will be back in Bangui la Coquette.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Dirt, etc.

My mental to-blog list -- on topics as varied as the fascinating books I've read lately (Lauren Benton's A Search for Sovereignty; Saibou Issa's Les Coupeurs de route; Edward Keene's Beyond the Anarchical Society; and, for lazy weekend reading, Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin) to research anecdotes I'm mulling now as I write to observations during recent travels -- is starting to overflow my too-small head.

First up: the timeliest item. In early April I had the good fortune of spending a couple of weeks in London. Most of the time I spent holed up in the apartment pecking away at my keyboard, and much of the rest of the time I wandered around and gazed into the windows of too-expensive pubs and restaurants, like the grad student Oliver Twist, while nibbling a Sainsbury's pre-packed egg and cress sandwich (half price on its sell-by date!).

But the one place I felt rich was in museums. Many of London's best museums are free, making it easy to pop in and out as if the Dutch masters section of the National Gallery were actually your living room. I enjoyed the John Soanes Museum by candlelight (a special treat the evening of the first Tuesday of the month). Soanes was an architect, and his mansion -- now the museum -- is preserved in the overstuffed manner he designed with paintings, sculptures, and even a sarcophagus.

But the two museums I implore you to visit, if you happen to be passing through, both have an anthropological bent (surprise, surprise).

First up, the Pitt-Rivers Museum at Oxford. Mostly housed in one large room full of dusty, dim glass cases, the displays of cultural artifacts at the Pitt-Rivers have changed little in the nearly 100 years since it was founded. I had expected a lot of "exotic" pieces from "native" cultures of the world (Ecuadorean shrunken heads being an obvious example), but I was surprised to find that the collection included many exotic pieces from England as well. Most interesting to me were the items related to witchcraft, and the fact that an Azande rubbing board shared pride of place with various British charms and spells, like preserved lemons stuffed with pins to ward off evil doers, or a bull's heart punctured by nails and needles. A beautiful silvered flask bore a faded type-writer-written tag:

"Small glass flask of bilobed shape, silvered over the inside and stoppered. This is reputed to contain a witch, and the late owner, an old lady living in a village near HOVE, Sussex, remarked, 'they do say there be a witch in it, and if you let un out there'll be a peck o' trouble'. It was obtained from her in 1915."

Exoticizing, Orientalist -- pick your cultural theory-derived insult, and the Pitt-Rivers Museum could make an easy target. But it's impossible to leave the place without feeling simultaneously overwhelmed and elated by the vast riches of human cultural production.

Whereas the Pitt-Rivers Museum is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future, the other expo I recommend will shutter in a few months. The Wellcome Collection, a wonderfully bizarre museum, is hosting an exhibit inspired by the outstanding Mary Douglas's argument that "dirt" is a socially constructed category. "Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life," is an exhibit too wide-ranging to capture successfully in just a few sentences, so I'll just say, if you pass through the city, Go! It combines fine art (seventeenth-century Dutch paintings linking sweeping and other chores of household cleanliness to Godliness); scientific discovery (the first microscope in the world and some of the things its inventor looked at -- first up: the "batter" full of "little animals" that he scraped from his teeth); public health, design (such as the architecture of hospitals) and the development of info-graphics (John Snow's gorgeous map showing cholera cases clustered around the Broad Street Pump -- a feat of visual communication impressive still today); installation art (I admit, I was less taken by the majorette dances in a London waterworks than by some of the other displays); diaries (including the amorous letters between a London photographer and his working class subjects, especially a maid named Hannah); maps depicting the plan to move Parliament far upriver to avoid the noxious sewage stench that pervaded London in 1850s summers...and on and on. I often find museums have a calming effect, encouraging slowing down to ponder the development of artistic technique and its relationship to beauty. "Dirt," in contrast, was quite simply hugely stimulating -- almost as if I could feel new synapses connecting previously dusty or shuttered off corners of my brain.

Now I'm in Berlin and can afford the cafes and bars but not the museums. Go figure.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Meeting Old Friends Anew

“The tidy, systematic and well-rounded texts written by anthropologists are more often than not the end-product of long periods in the field characterized by boredom, illness, personal privations, disappointments and frustration: few anthropologists can state squarely that their fieldwork was a continuously exciting journey of exploration, full of pleasant experiences.”

Those are Thomas Hylland Eriksen’s words, in his Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology, which I came across while preparing to teach an intensive course on Anthropology and Development this May (suggestions for readings and lesson plans welcome).

Eriksen’s words rather neatly describe many of the feelings that dogged me during much of my time in CAR. I went to the dentist today for the first time since I began my fieldwork and learned that I had developed the bad habit of clenching my jaw so hard that I’ve worn through enamel and am now grinding down tooth. My life has none of the stress of, say, an investment banker’s, but I nevertheless think that fieldworkers can lay claim on a particular kind of anxiety (am I doing all that I can? What more should I be doing? Argh -- if I’m bored it means I’m slacking!).

But what an unalloyed pleasure it has been to re-acquaint myself with friends from Ndele and Tiringoulou and Kaga Bandoro and Bangui and beyond as I transform fieldnotes into dissertation text. Acquaintances, pestering youth, stonewalling functionaries, confidantes -- they all become friends in hindsight’s warm gaze. More importantly, there is something I find inexplicably satisfying about presenting a person in all his/her complexity. The other day I was writing about the Chef de Cantonment in the Ministry of Water and Forests in Ndele. He’s someone who, in the span of a couple-hour conversation, might explain Chadian gris-gris innovations; negotiate responsibilities with his boss in Bangui (his cell phone ring: “Appel en provence directe des Etats-Unis, ville de New York!”, layered over a siren); give a forehead kiss to his two-year-old daughter, who toddled into his office every day on her way home from nursery school; argue his theory of the symbiotic relationship between humanitarian aid and rebellion; and haggle over roadblock fees with passing Sudanese truckers. All this while also making peace when his subordinates fight (including with him). Even just re-reading these opinions and tales is a surprising, fascinating jaunt as unknown and known alternatingly intersect and then veer off from each other.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein describes a similar feeling as one of the things she had to get used to, and came to love, when she shifted from academic philosophy to fiction:
“The struggle for clarity doesn’t cease when you write fiction, but it’s a clarity that can’t be pursued to completion, or else the whole point is lost. Hammer home what you, the author, take its meaning to be, and you hammer the entrance closed. The shaping of a work of art means, paradoxically, preserving some space for ambiguity. … Characters let me know they’re becoming real when they start surprising me. Keep them one-dimentional and the deadliness of total control is yours. Give them many dimensions -- details suggestive of rich inner lives -- and a certain wildness takes hold.”

The people who fill my fieldnotes are just that -- living people. They’re not characters. I certainly don’t consider myself to be creating a work of art, but just a rather humdrum humanities-tinged social science text. Clarity must remain my watchword. I’m sure most of those complexity-indicating details will not survive once I turn to editing. (My adviser’s one entreaty was that I please not write a 600-page dissertation, and I’m happy to oblige.) But, oh, how lucky am I who got to meet these people, these endlessly surprising people! “Wildness” is an addictive privilege. Who cares about anxiety.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Rebels, Revolutionaries, Rappers

“Grinning, the rapper lays it down in a local Ugandan language: ‘I was given a knife/ I gave it to the people who harvested millet and they gave me the millet. I gave the millet to the cattle keepers, who in exchange gave me a cow.’ … To reach the farmer-youth vote bloc of this east African nation, Mr. Museveni, 65 years old, has channeled his inner MC: He has crafted his own brand of agri-rap to show he’s hip to young people’s concerns.”

So explain Sarah Childress and Nicholas Bariyo in their WSJ article about the Ugandan presidential campaign.

Hearing of Museveni’s musical strategy reminded me of a provocation launched by Jean-François Bayart that I always found searing. He argues that in Africa

“...democracy has shown its limits. It is, indeed, unable to incorporate either economically or institutionally, in terms of either education or ideology, the groups we have just mentioned, namely young people and rural communities, in spite of the fact that these two excluded categories actually compose the majority of the population. Too often it is war which has instead become the vector of their mobilization.”*

By rapping about cows and millet, has Museveni found a non-war solution to the problem of integrating youth and country folk into the Ugandan polity? The article suggests that Museveni’s raps are wildly popular, so the answer might well be yes. If so, the Ugandan case still does not disprove Bayart’s argument, for, Friday’s “elections” notwithstanding, it is certainly not democracy that has drawn in the dispossessed.

In the run-up to the Ugandan presidential elections, I read several accounts exploring the idea that Uganda might be the next to erupt in democratic protests -- 2011 could be the year of freedom in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya... and Uganda! I read those musings weighed down by a large dose of skepticism. “I doubt it,” I thought, and then immediately wondered why I lack faith in African capacity for peaceful revolution. After all, as recently as a month ago Egypt was notorious for its torpor, a characterization that today seems unfair at best -- perhaps even ludicrous.

Am I just another shill for the old Gluckmanian idea that “Africans are rebels, never revolutionaries”? That is, the idea that social structures in Africa are inherently unstable, but that that very instability and conflict is a functional means of re-establishing the system. Truly revolutionary change never occurs. (Bayart for one criticizes Gluckman for his “vulgar” emphasis on function -- efforts to prove the functionality of social practices often quickly become circular, and hence analytically shallow. But Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, avant garde post-structuralists though they might have styled themselves, had no apparent problem with it.) I hope not, but the idea remains lamentably seductive.

As I write, rumors place Gaddafi in Venezuela. The limits of his efforts to portray himself as an “African” leader have become exposed. Even his scores of African mercenaries (grisly footage here -- not for the faint hearted) seem not to have saved him. He is falling with the Arabs, while Museveni will rule on.

* Jean-François Bayart, “Africa in the World: A History of Extraversion,” African Affairs 99 (2000): 217-267; 227.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


Like Ronald Reagan, last week my grandfather would have celebrated his hundredth birthday. George F.F. Lombard devoted his professional life to the Harvard Business School. Since I'm temporarily in Cambridge, I decided to head over to the Business School to see if I could find any traces of him. I found far more than I could digest: carton upon carton of his correspondence, lecture notes, chapter drafts, dating from his days as a student to his tenure as a dean. He got involved with the Human Relations Group in the 1930s (famous in those early years for the Western Electric research) and remained in the field, specializing in organizational behavior.

I've tried to read some of Grandad's books but never made it very far into the dry, practical prose. But in the nests of correspondence, an intellectual life came alive in all its mundane excitements – thank you post cards from students now far afield; articles passed on by soon-to-be colleagues because they were curious to hear what you thought; conversations about ho to communicate theory so that students can put it in practice. Nothing earth-shattering, to be sure, but a satisfying life all the same, I thought as I browsed.

In addition to teaching a course with Robert McNamara (statistics and data management for air force officers), during WWII Grandad conducted research to help solve some of the “human and organizational challenges of the rapidly expanding Air Force” at a military base near Boston:

“Lombard made almost daily visits to the base over the span of six weeks, early in 1943. He tried to observe as much as possible about the human interactions at the base without disrupting normal routines. He recorded not only what various individuals said, but also what they did; and how what they did affected the work of others around them. This was a different kind of research, which drew upon the lessons of the Western Electric experiments of the 1930s to assess and depict the inherent complexities of a human organization. Lombard quickly perceived a collision of values and a pronounced incompatibility between old and new types of warfare...”*

Grandad, in other words, was an anthropologist! Who knows in what ways his life and studies have impacted the course I've taken. For all the time I knew him, Grandad was a spectral presence carefully mowing the lawn and oiling bike chains while his wife regaled and opined for the two of them. But I'd like to thank him nevertheless.

* Cruikshank, Jeffrey L. 1987. A Delicate Experiment: The Harvard Business School 1908-1945. Boston: HBS Press. P 245.

Photos from the HBS library and the Harvard Gazette.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

What I learned about fragility

While in Bangui a couple of months ago I participated in a workshop organized by the World Bank assessing the factors that make CAR “fragile.”

[An aside: The previous terminology to describe state dysfunctionality (failed/collapsed/failing) seems to have fallen out of favor with all but the gang at Foreign Policy. In addition to sounding rather, ahem, judgmental to development “partners,” “failed” isn't a very useful analytical category because it describes nothing about the ways in which politics work and only what they lack (see this Alex de Waal lecture for a typically erudite explanation of how this impoverishes analysis). But always the critic, I'm afraid I have a bone to pick with the new “fragility” lens as well. This is because many of those states labeled “fragile,” such as CAR, are in fact quite durable in their weakness. They remain mired in a position of low functionality, receiving just enough aid to prop up the status quo; their negative (externally-granted) sovereignty makes revolutionary, democratic change difficult if not impossible to achieve. For a much more eloquent and detailed explanation, see Pierre Englebert's latest book, in which he shows the surprising resilience of the state form in Africa.]

The workshop gathered Bangui 'intellectuals' (I use the term in the broad Francophone African way to refer to people with a level of education that differentiates them from those in the fields). In more and less heated tones, participants decried and celebrated aspects of sociality in their country. Occasionally, thanks to having spent a fair amount of time in provincial towns and villages, I knew that the statements of these cadres, who themselves rarely leave the capital, carried only partial truth.

One man finally highlighted the Bangui-centric nature of their polity. In Cameroon, he said, Douala and Yaounde are weekend ghost towns – all the well-off return to the village to seek the benediction of their communities. In contrast, in CAR, those who have left the village almost never return. Whether a university student or a minister, all fear the “jealousy” of their compatriots. The villages are home to strong powers of witchcraft. (The country's terrible road network and lack of transport options don't exactly facilitate travel, either.) Some in the audience chuckled at this statement. But a friend who lectures in geology at the University of Bangui became exercised – “People might say they don't fear sorcery, but they're lying! Everyone fears it!” She went on to relate several famous cases, and I saw heads nod in acknowledgment.

While in Ndele, I got to know a Chef de Quartier whose son had been Minister of Defense a decade previously; he lived in the same kind of house as all his neighbors and wore the same beat-up flip-flops. What about “wealth in people” – the idea that wealth in Africa is determined by the number of people you support – I wondered? Few to no traces of elite beneficence grace CAR's hinterlands (unless you count the villa the disarmament co-president is building himself, or the monument to his mother the president constructed – both, incidentally, paid for with DDR monies, now used up before the program could even start...but I digress). But elsewhere on the continent, scholars have shown how the return of the successful to the village is perhaps the main means of city/village redistribution.

Claudine Vidal analyzed city-village relationships in Côte d'Ivoire in her Sociologie des Passions (1991). Her perspective spans several decades, which lets her show how these relationships change through time, partly as a function of economic fluctuations and partly due to the changing nature of honor and shame. In something of a reversal of the current CAR dynamic, she found that in the post-independence decade rural relatives begged their city-successful offspring not to build them new villas for fear of neighbors' jealousy, which would manifest through sorcery.

In the following years, displays of wealth became more lavish. Funerals, a kind of theater for enacting relations of dependence and power, are one of the main occasions for such displays. And because people are buried where they were born, these often take place in the village. The increasing need for ostentatious displays went hand in hand with growing feelings of shame attached to coming from a village deemed backward. Qualifying someone's village became a way of describing the person him/herself. For instance, a village (and its progeny) could be described as “pretty” or “have everything one could need”, but it could also be “disgusting” or “have nothing at all”; it was understood that the descriptor held for the person as well. As a result, ministers worked harder to fix up their villages, sometimes even against residents' wishes. (Ivoirian President Houphouët-Boigny's build-your-village campaign, of which his own village, Yamoussoukro, was the never-imitable example, probably contributed as well.)

Vidal's argument reminded me of Kwame Anthony Appiah's new book, The Honor Code. I've only read the op-ed versions of it that he published around the time the book came out, but in those he argued that “moral revolutions” occur when people's ideas of what constitutes “honorable” behavior changes. From the op-eds, I got the sense that Appiah views moral revolutions as generally progressive, and he seems to think that it is possible to push the evolution of the concept of honor (for instance, he discusses the possibilities for approaching the eradication of “honor killings” in Pakistan). Would shaming CAR's intellectuals about their villages' appearance, an economic upturn and better roads lead them to transform their communities of origin with no consideration of jealousy and sorcery? I'm not sure human relations are that rational-functional. Still, even if not so predictable, I'd be curious to see the results.

p.s. I've heard that the magnitude of urban-rural redistribution by elites has been quantified in Côte d'Ivoire but haven't found the citation. If anyone knows the details of these studies, I'd be obliged if you could pass them on.