Monday, April 7, 2014

The Bulletproof Project comes to CAR

Inspired by a story about what Jeffrey Goldberg would call "security theater" (performances of control that lack an empirical basis in actually making us safer) in Iraq, Brendan Koerner launched the Bulletproof Project, an effort to catalog instances when people have believed that any manner of "magic" will make them impervious to bullets. CAR contributes much to the project, as I'll explain.

Nearly every article about the recent crisis in CAR includes photos of fighters decked out in gris-gris that will, their wearers say, keep bullets from hitting them. One of the origin stories about the name of one of the main agglomerations of fighters, the Anti-Balaka, has it that it stems from the initiations members go through, which render them impervious even to "balles-AK," or "Balaka" (Kalashnikov bullets). When I was interviewing CAR rebels in 2009 and 2010, they said their gris-gris knowledge had swelled as a result of collaborations with Chadian men-in-arms, who are "très forts" in that kind of thing.

Today, while revising a chapter on French colonial administration in Oubangui-Chari, as the CAR was then known, I was reminded of another origin for these bulletproofing practices. The French, always short on cash, figured they could impose a head tax on their subjects in order to raise revenue. Colonial subjects generally had no colonial monies, though, so the tax would be collected in labor -- literally backbreaking (or head-breaking) labor, such as carrying 65kg for days, with no provision for food or shelter along the way. Oubangui-Chari was the poorest of all the French colonies, and so it had the highest head tax. How else would administrators get anything done? This policy proved disastrous. It caused tens of thousands of deaths due to overwork, illness, disruption of agricultural production, and the brutal violence that was necessary to coerce people to do their bidding, and so further de-populated an area that already had a very low human population thanks to decades of slave raiding. People resisted however they could. Many fled to less repressive places like the Belgian Congo (yes, even the notorious Belgians were seen as more lenient, at least in certain respects). Many others revolted. And those who rebelled made sure to take medicine given to them by a "sorcerer" that made them impervious to bullets. Some of those rebels were quite successful. One group managed to hold Europeans at bay for a full six months.

To my knowledge, no one has mapped, though time, the gris-gris/medicine phenomenon across Central Africa (kind of like what Julien Bonhomme did for the penis-snatching rumor), but it would be a fascinating project.

P.S. Anyone interested in learning more about the history of revolts, repression, and general colonial blunders/malfeasance must read Cathérine Coquéry-Vidrovitch's masterful Le Congo au temps des grandes compagnies concessionnaires.  And of course my book, when it eventually sees the light of day.

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