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 fa├žade. And isn’t that just a way of saying it’s artful, ritualized and entertaining lying?

And thus a dissertation speed bump arises.