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.