Friday, June 19, 2015

Penis-snatching returns to Tiringoulou (in Written Form)

About six hours after returning to Tiringoulou, a town of a few thousand people in far northeastern CAR where I did research in 2009 and 2010, a resident asked if I was the one who had written an article about thepenis-snatching incident there. He turned his laptop to show me the web page. Yes, I replied, that’s me, simultaneously surprised and curious how he’d ever come across it. He then showed me the transcript of the Facebook chat he’d had about the article with his cousin in Canada, back when the article came out in 2013.

We were both cadging Internet from an international medical NGO in town, which had a fickle solar-powered satellite connection. At first I thought everyone working on computers under the paillotte was strangely lazy, as they spent long minutes staring into space, typing nothing. But they were just waiting to see if a webpage would load. Mostly, it never did. There is no cell phone network in Tiringoulou. Prominent people – the many generals of the town’s armed group, a few of the NGO staffers – carry bulky Thuraya satellite phones in their breast pockets, the antennas poking out the top. If a call comes in, the person must run out to a spot with good sky access or else the call drops. Even then, many times the call will drop, or it won’t be possible to hear. Communication with far-away places feels tenuous, the result of answered prayers rather than an entitlement.

(At the same time, there are unexpected sources of technological resilience: when the generator got temporarily fixed everyone rushed to charge gadgets. The watchman’s radio started emitting a steady stream of smoke and we could smell its innards on fire. And yet when he turned it on, it still got the same couple of stations it had gotten before.)

But here, too, people had followed articles I had written, as well as radio interviews I’d done. Several of the people I’d gotten to know on my earlier visits said they had heard me on RFI and appreciated my analysis. “You got it all right. You really understood things,” they said, which made me feel good but also wonder if perhaps I hadn’t been quite critical enough. These guys are members of armed groups, after all, and are responsible for a lot of destruction and violence.

In the olden days of anthropology, the first half of the 20th century, anthropologists could largely expect to do their research among some remote people and write books and articles that their subjects would never read. In recent decades communication technologies and other developments have shattered this illusion of distance between the people we once called informants and the products of our research. Many anthropologists have tried newly collaborative methods as one way of profiting from these changes.

And yet I had still felt like since I mostly write in English about a francophone area that has only very slippery access to long-distance communication I was somehow stuck in that older model: the solo anthropologist separated from her interlocutors. Until this return to Tiringoulou, I hadn’t fully appreciated how wrong I was, and I hadn’t fully appreciated the loneliness accompanying the misguided conception I’d had. This time, eating grilled chicken dipped in Chadian chili powder with General Tarzan, I discovered another nebulous layer of meaning in the anthropological project. I’m not quite sure what it is. It’s not new solidarity, exactly, in that while I empathize with guys like him and appreciate his analysis, I don’t have sympathy for the violence he and his fellows have perpetrated. Maybe it’s simply the sense that people in Tiringoulou know what I’m doing and see value in it. At least as much value as a (delicious) grilled chicken, anyway.