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.