Sunday, June 29, 2014

War and safari hunting

I have an op-ed in the New York Times today (30 June) arguing against shaming people involved in safari hunting in CAR.

Those who know me are likely surprised that I'd take this position. Over the past year I've been reading memoirs by safari hunters in CAR, and they are as full of sexism and paternalism (when not more overt racism) as one might fear. In addition, over the past thirty years safari hunting has been propped up by armed conservation initiatives carried out by a variety of actors, and the attempt at rigid policing of what had previously been more negotiable boundaries (e.g., between protected park and grazing areas) heightened tensions and in some cases contributed to armed conflict. As I pointed out in a recent post over at African Arguments, the current military head of Seleka, Joseph Zindeko, got some of his military training while working as an anti-poaching guard.

But the safari hunting industry has changed over the past five years or so. As conflicts in the country have intensified, most of the safari hunting operators have moved on to easier places to work. Only a couple remain, and their success owes in part to their explicit avoidance of conflict. To take the example of CAWA, they chose a site not home to many elephants so that they wouldn't have to deal with the heavily-armed poachers who come for ivory. That meant they did not need to do the armed patrols that safari guides elsewhere had to organize. CAWA took pride in employing hundreds of people and funding social services.

One of the founders of CAWA, together with the pilot working for him, uncovered a massacre site near their concession in early 2012. The killings followed the pattern of a classic LRA attack. But when the safari guides alerted the authorities to the tragedy, they were thrown in prison under suspicion of murder. The two were eventually freed in August of that year, but only because there was a riot at the central prison in Bangui, where they were being held, and the guards told them to leave since there was no way to keep them safe.

And yet they came back and re-started their safari enterprise. There's something a bit crazy about that. Most people (myself included, most likely) would have cut their losses and departed without looking back. But these guys seem to have taken it as a sign that they should deepen their commitment, and, after picking up the pieces after their house in Bangui was ransacked, that is what they proceeded to do.

So for all the problems related to safari hunting in CAR, it nevertheless seems to me like people so intent on building some kind of productive enterprise in the country that will employ hundreds of people should be supported. I remember talking to an expert in the management of safari hunting areas in Africa who said that it was, on one level, crazy to dedicate the whole eastern part of the CAR to safari hunting for a few wealthy tourists. If there were any alternative -- if the Chinese came in and opened a plantation or two, for instance -- safari hunting would no longer make any sense, given the distribution of resources it entails. But that's the thing: there are currently no alternatives. There is some diamond mining, it's true, but there are no other opportunities for salaried work, which is what people long for. For better or worse, it's all we've currently got.

I find myself turning, as I so often do, to Ed van der Elsken. After his trip to Oubangui-Chari -- his first sojourn in Africa -- in the mid-1950s, which included a stay among safari hunters that was at once exhilarating and nauseating, he reflected that upon return to Europe,
I find, I have been indulging in a great deal of moralising. I remember now that when I was in Africa, filled with the emotions of hunting, I knew nothing of all the noble sentiments and intentions expressed in my text. I often hunted enthusiastically and by no means always sportingly. Primitive instincts and passions arose in me, inciting me to capture, conquer and kill. I, too, was guilty of many dirty and cowardly tricks. I must admit this because it would be unfair if I were to stand too much aloof from my comrades, who often stood by me in critical moments (24).

The op-ed is my attempt to walk a path skirting both aloofness and excessive moralizing.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

CAR in a Hot Spot

Over on the website of the journal Cultural Anthropology you'll find a series of essays (called a "Hot Spot") Iedited by some of the foremost scholars of CAR reflecting on the recent upheavals in the country. I have an essay introducing the themes and another with a very short political history of CAR, and then I turn things over to everyone else. Some of the essays focus on understanding the recent violence, while others reflect on long scholarly and personal engagements with CAR. All of the essays provide useful insights, and some also moved me to tears. Among those you'll find are:

An essay by RebeccaHardin and Henri Zana reflecting on lives devoted to teaching in CAR, and the “professional death” that has befallen CAR's once-hopeful intellectuals.

An essay by Andrea Ceriana Mayneri explaining the symbolic and historical underpinnings of an act of cannibalism in Bangui earlier this year.

An essay by TamaraGiles-Vernick reflecting on the ways in which historical violence is sedimented into Central African memories, alternately forgotten and remembered.

An essay by BrunoMartinelli (in French) explaining the politicization of religion in recent years and reflecting on the sobering realization that some of his former anthropology students are almong the most virulent anti-Balaka.

… And so much more! Check it out!

ps And a special shout-out to the editors of Cultural Anthropology, Charles Piot and Anne Allison, who have overseen the move to open access, as well as expanding the journal's online forums! Anthropology of and for the future.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Sultan's Two Bodies:* Sovereignty and Northeastern CAR

Last week, Dar al-Kuti, a precolonial state with its capital at Ndele, in northeastern CAR, inaugurated a new sultan. The former sultan had been ill and infirm when I was there most recently, in 2010. He spent most of his time in Bangui, partly because of the better medical care there and partly because former President Bozize had put him under house arrest (or so the rumor went). People in Ndele told stories of how he used to ride on a towering white horse, a rarity here in the tsetse zone. He also used to provide copious food to the poor on Fridays, but in his absence the practice had become but a memory. During the CPJP/government battles in Ndele in late 2009, the sultan's house was hit, leaving a gaping hole in the roof.

The Dar al-Kuti I encountered was a far cry from the Dar al-Kuti Dennis D. Cordell describes in his historical work on the subject, or even the Dar al-Kuti he encountered during his research there in the 1970s. Dar al-Kuti was at its biggest and most powerful during the last decade of the nineteenth century and first decade of the twentieth. The town had some 25,000 residents and the army alone was 6,000 strong (larger than the current CAR army, in other words). Sultan Sanusi was adept at developing relationships with newcomers to the region – first Rabah, sultan to the north, and then the French explorer-colonists, arriving from the south – in order to bolster his own authority. His polity was founded on raiding, primarily for people to be made into slaves, but also for other goods such as ivory.

French agents signed a series of treaties with Sanusi. The language of the treaties is interesting: they refer to Dar al-Kuti as a “country” (pays) or “state” (etat) and describe Sanusi as its “sovereign.” And yet at the same time the treaties successively deplete Sanusi's authority – at least in theory. In reality, neither Sanusi nor the French particularly respected the treaties' terms. Eventually, in 1911, the French agents at Ndele decided Sanusi was uncontrollable and assassinated him early one morning. Though there was some fighting over the course of the next couple of weeks, most people left, dispersed throughout the area and beyond. Ndele became a ghost town.

The area was given the colonial designation of an “autonomous district” – it was too far from the capital and had too few people for the French to bother administering directly. (This status, incidentally, is a spatial category I am developing theoretically in a forthcoming article and book.) In the 1920s, however, the agent at Ndele (at that point there was only one, together with some regional guards from elsewhere in the country and/or West Africa) thought it would be easier to govern if he had a “traditional leader” to lean on and encouraged a few elders to choose a new sultan. They designated one of Sanusi's sons, and the sultanate was reborn, after a fashion. When forced laborers were needed, as they often were, the sultan's guards would go out and track people down. All the villages in the area made prestations (usually part of their harvest) to the sultan. His authority was always in an unclear relationship to government power. On the one hand, he had more effective authority than the French agents did; on the other hand, he had been deputized in order to carry out their will – and did.

Eventually (people were a bit unclear on when the shift happened), the sultan became the sultan-mayor, which was in part an aspirational designation on the part of the government – in the sense that the title indicated his “capture” by the state.

When I spoke with people in Ndele about the sultanate, they used the language of countries and sovereignty. They said that Ndele had been the first place in CAR to have a French “ambassador,” all the way back at the turn of the twentieth century.

I recently came across a photograph posted on the Facebook page of the Front patriotique pour l'autodetermination, which seeks independence for the eastern part of CAR that shows a banner on which someone has written “District autonome de Dar al Kuti – pays de Senoussi”. In this usage, as in my conversations in Ndele, people describe the autonomous status of Dar al Kuti not as a function of French disinterest but rather as a sign of French recognition that Dar al Kuti had a kind of sovereignty that the rest of the country lacked. That past sovereignty is being invoked today in order to justify future sovereignty. But terms like “sovereignty” and “state meant something different and more malleable in the early 1900s than what they mean today, when they have hardened into the UN system of “equal” nation-states. And the Sanusi sultanate today is intimately connected to the history of state-building in CAR, however “tragic when not frankly pathetic” (I'll borrow Jean-FrancoisBayart's French brashness here) it has been.

* The title of this post is a play on Ernst Kantorowicz's The King's Two Bodies, in which he traces the gradual transformation of understandings of kingly authority in Britain from religious to secular sources.