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.