[Centrafrique] Kouki, resilient

The thing about homes made of mud bricks is that when the thatch is gone–burned away– and the rains come, the homes melt back to earth.

Kouki was first attacked by the Seleka in March, 2013. I write this as March 2015 approaches. In these past two years, this big village of maybe 5,000 people recovered and fell victim to attacks every few months, sometimes every few weeks, from March 2013 all the way to another attack last month, January 2015.

An attack: from the initial onslaught of the organized Seleka militia on its way from the northeast to take Bossangoa and eventually Bangui, to the hectic screaming motorcycles of armed Fulani (Peulh) herders dashing in and out on a raid.

I did not speak to people from Kouki about the attacks, though I have a few Central African friends whose families lived, or did not live, through them. We don’t talk about the details; we talk about the pain, or we just pass news. So I do not report here what happened in Kouki. But I will share what a village in northwest CAR looks like when homes and lives are destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed, and rebuilt again. The takehome message is awe, perhaps at the breadth of destruction as I recently walked across Kouki for an hour without finding the end of the same broken sight, but also at the way people can adapt and survive and create lives in new circumstance, and rebuild, and then rebuild again.

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In Kouki, in fleeing and returning, in burned and melted homes and their reconstruction, we see the worst and best of CAR at once, the extremes of vulnerability and unrelenting resilience.

At the heart of the town is the market, which rests remarkably vibrant. Kouki is at a crossroads, on the road that parallels the Chad border as it intersects the road to Bossangoa, and through that, Bangui. Generations ago, the ancestors here declared the village permanent when they planted mango trees in two wide rows, creating shaded space for the enormous marketplace structure that would one day appear for their children’s children.

New mud bricks laid out to sun dry are a declaration of the same commitment to stay.

Book Review: Peaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention by Severine Autesserre

Peaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International InterventionPeaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention by Severine Autesserre

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I do not know how to rate this book! Is it 5 stars because of the seriousness with which the author takes praxis (“the process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted, embodied, or realised”)? Or is it 3 stars because “thou dost protest too much”– so much overwhelmingly documented data to prove the smallest of points (individual behavior by staff at the implementation level will make or break a peace process, regardless of how well crafted)? Why not push, go further, take action, if you’ve got the data, then sweep your conclusions!

I almost never say this, because I hatehatehate poorly sourced work. But Autesserre meticulously researched, qualified, and triangulated every statement and thoroughly documented every method, error, and pathway to a conclusion. I shut the book almost shouting, “When you’ve got the goods, use them!” The final conclusions and recommendations were so limited that the entire project risks being forgotten in the annals of useless academic theoretical criticism: establish cultural orientations for new staff; use acceptance as the preferred security strategy; ensure foreign military peacekeepers have translators; recruit more people with local experience or anthropological technical skills. I docked a star for the wimpiness with which this much strong, conclusive, indisputable data was wielded.

Frustrations aside, Autesserre wrote a good book. An important book. A book that deconstructs elitism in aid work at the moment of daily life interactions. She dares to question the safety in bunkerization and #CompoundLife at the historical moment when kidnappings and targeted attacks on aid workers risk creating indivisible barriers to expat-national-local interaction. She questions the epistemological value of technical knowledge in place of local and anthropological knowledge, and makes a concrete case for the latter’s value, and how NGOs can restructure their institutions to gain and support it. She talks about how things like language and wealth inequality prevent social interaction between expats and communities in which they work, and internally divide NGO staff into classes. I’ve written about this a little: besides the class gap between high-paid international staff and the national staff and people we work with/for, there is also a tendency for the intl staff to be of a wealthier class background than most people in the country they come from. There’s not a lot of ‘solidarity not charity’ in NGOs because it’s an elitist field; few people link the poverty they see abroad with poverty and economic injustice at home.

Then Autesserre slams the lack of social interaction and professional networking as a barrier to the ostensible goals of peacebuilding, demonstrating how little “participation” local actors have in processes that are centered around and respond to the cultural needs of elite, rich, foreign, technical experts who operate in closed feedback loops with each other. Autesserre is clear: while there is value in independent actors and external expertise in a peace process, the mechanism must adapt to local context so that is is comfortable for and makes sense to–and is led by– the people for whom the process exists! She touches on the need to engage civil society instead of just government elites, as well as many other important points, and uses case studies to give concrete examples.

This was a hard book to read! I am an aid worker in a conflict zone based in a rural outpost doing the on-the-ground, moment-of-implementation, relational, interactive, kind-of-sometimes-dangerous business of daily life peace-building. Autesserre was callin me out, and some of what she said was hard to hear. Yes, I hate bunkerization and I push myself to walk, push against curfews and living in compounds. I go out and talk to farmers a lot. I have close professional relationships with a local NGO with whom I work alongside. But also, sometimes I am tired and want to surround myself with English. Also, sometimes I am scared of being kidnapped, or scared of being street harassed by fearless and mean 12 year olds. Sometimes I work 10 hours days without weekends for a few weeks, and all I want is Buffy time in my concrete box. I made a decision that’s part “too tired because my work is already in a 2nd language,” part “have learned the beginnings of too many languages to commit,” part “don’t want to show bias by speaking one local language over another,” and I haven’t learned any Sango or Mbaya or Pular.

There is a lot of power in the choices I make, in this position, because I am tired or because I am ignorant and that is what Autesserre examines.

And it is so, so necessary. Autesserre: pull no more punches, what you’ve got is gold. We need to run with this. OK. You’re getting that fifth star back.

See also reviews by:
Wronging Rights
African Arguments

For a different take on similar themes, check out:
Direct Action: An Ethnography by David Graeber, which uses similar ethnographic approaches to examine US radical activists (I love the idea of anthropologists turning their trained lens on their own communities, as Autesserre does as a former aid worker)
– Anything by Robert Chambers, particularly Whose Reality Counts?: Putting the First Last, another exmaination of the aid worker’s flaws, on recentering aid and development work around the cultural norms of the most marginalized so it becomes accessible and controlled by those aid aims to help

View all my reviews

[Centrafrique] Wandering Bossangoa

I took a few more photos during my meanderings around Bossangoa. I generally avoid taking photos of people without their consent (i.e. few candids) and I try not to whip my camera out in crowds, so these photos don’t capture the lively and bustling town with it’s multiple buzzing markets and reckless moto-taxi traffic. Bossangoa is a city without a center, made of diffuse neighborhoods spread over a wide distance along the Ouham River. Even in it’s busy state lately, and as these pictures reflect, it still looks empty, like a village, not the 2nd biggest city in CAR.

Bossangoa had at one point a population of over 40,000 people. The 5,000-strong Muslim community has been ethnically cleansed from Bossangoa– killed in the pogrom of December 2013 or, after months sheltering behind armed African Union troops in the 2-block radius École Liberté displaced people’s camp, evacuated by commercial truck to barren refugee camps in Chad.

The anti-Muslim pogrom was a (insane, grotesque) reaction to the Seleka occupation over mid- to late-2013. When the Seleka entered Bosangoa, guns and bayonets blazing, the town sought refuge at the Catholic Mission.

Compare this photo from September, 2013, when the Seleka were in control of Bossangoa with the Cathedral today:


And this one vs:


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[Centrafrique] Part II: Benzambe, building

The first thing we saw in Benzambe, the first sign of renewal, of the firm decision that We Live In Town Now and no longer sleeping nights under stars among mosquitoes out in the fields or forest, was a visual metaphor so perfect as to be surreal:


The foundations of burned, knocked down homes make for fertile garden beds, the refuse of daily life providing ample compost for new growth. I noticed the Amaranth, squash, and onion buds began poking up, gently tended, in the ruins sometime over the summer.

But it wasn’t until the rains finally stopped in November that the Benzambe construction boom got well under way. As the days shorten to equilibrium and the cool night wind picks up desiccating dust, gangs of young men in village after village sit on rooftops knotting reeds into rope to hold down thatch while others stand knee deep in square holes, mixing mud into clay, shaping bricks.

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The Need of Being Versed in Country Things

Robert Frost.

The house had gone to bring again
To the midnight sky a sunset glow.
Now the chimney was all of the house that stood,
Like a pistil after the petals go.
The barn opposed across the way,
That would have joined the house in flame
Had it been the will of the wind, was left
To bear forsaken the place’s name.
No more it opened with all one end
For teams that came by the stony road
To drum on the floor with scurrying hoofs
And brush the mow with the summer load.
The birds that came to it through the air
At broken windows flew out and in,
Their murmur more like the sigh we sigh
From too much dwelling on what has been.
Yet for them the lilac renewed its leaf,
And the aged elm, though touched with fire;
And the dry pump flung up an awkward arm;
And the fence post carried a strand of wire.
For them there was really nothing sad.
But though they rejoiced in the nest they kept,
One had to be versed in country things
Not to believe the phoebes wept.

[Centrafrique] Part I: Benzambe, beautiful

Benzambe is the name of the region northeast of Bossangoa, CAR. It’s “dense” for the area, with villages coming one after the other on narrow roads, though many of the villages don’t go further than a row or two of houses back into the forest, which is also denser here. Like hollows in West Virginia, the area is tight, bright, culturally significant, fitted into a tight, bright and dark forest.

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Church 3d

[Centrafrique] My favorite writing on CAR

It’s been awhile since I learned I was moving to the Central African Republic and tried to cram as much learning about the country, peoples, language, politics, and all aspects of crisis as possible, starting from essentially scratch. I described that process, with CAR-specific links but in a more general how-to “learn-as-much-as-possible-as-fast-as-possible” format in a post from February, Prepping for CAR: Studying Up.

That post had some great links in, but after a year of reading I can sift and sort out the best places to start or delve, in English, on the Central African Republic.

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[Centrafrique] On December 5th #BlackLivesMatter

Today is the one year anniversary of the day the Anti-Balaka marched into Bangui. They chased out the armed Seleka rebels, who, wanting only material gain and not to really control a state, mostly left without putting up a fight. Then the Anti-Balaka, a homegrown militia of people whose main suffering under the Seleka was watching family burned alive in their homes, went on a revenge- and trauma-fueled slaughtering rampage and lynched hundreds of Muslim people in Bangui, in Bossangoa, and across the Central African Republic. They chased people into their houses, knocked them down (the rubble is still all that stands in the Muslim quartiers of these cities), killed them with machetes, cut them to pieces and displayed their bodies. Over the next few months they continued to target all Muslim people until they had killed or chased out almost the entire community from the Western half of the country.

This is part of the story. The other part, the silent part, are people across all ethnic groups and religions who protected people from attackers. Who volunteered to run and organize camps of displaced people. Of whole villages who banded together to hide a single Muslim person from marauding killers. Who continue to work in the relief. Who set up their own NGOs so they could receive donations from the UN to bring food to hungry people whose crops were destroyed. Who teach tolerance to children or on the radio even though it makes them targets. Who paste signs on their squatted-building restaurants welcoming people of all faiths. Who went out day after day after day, 6 or 7 days a week, to do the heavy labor of seed delivery because the seeds arrived late but they all knew it was their labor that would make possible a harvest and avert a famine. They did avert a famine in CAR: reason to celebrate.

The CAR response– aid and peacekeepers to protect civilians– is one of the most underfunded responses now. In Syria, the World Food Program is halting or reducing it’s food aid to refugees, so I do not write this lightly– there are incredible needs across the world. But as we reflect on the extremes of racism in the US that allows police to kill Black people with impunity, remember too the colonial and neocolonial white supremacy that resulted in rich lands like Central Africa watching their riches extracted and their people enslaved and killed, resulting in horrific fucked up situations like this one where trauma and need create cycles of inhumane greed and cruelty. Black lives matter. To my white friends in the US, don’t be myopic about which Black lives matter– white supremacy is a global phenomenon.

TRAVEL ADVICE! for the traveler kid who doesn’t normally cross oceans

OK punk, you got your first humanitarian aid job? Well, me too! And I’m trying to document how I’m going about it, to refer to later when I almost forget again what to pack in my carryon to avoid what happened this time when my bags got lost (ok, the third time…) and cuz I like writing advice for people like me who didn’t grow up flitting about the world but instead are only now flitting as grown-ass Adults, whose airplane tickets are paid for by stuff like jobs and school, and who perpetually feel like we missed some kind of basic training for this sort of thing cuz everyone else in the airport is suddenly walking somewhere else really fast and shouldn’t I follow them…?


International aid and development work is some elitest shit. In general, employers expect 2 years abroad experience for an entry-level NGO job (or unpaid internship!). Professional-level fluency in a foreign language and a masters degree are also basic entry requirements. Of course, this means that sons and daughters of rich people who sent them to European language summer schools and volunteer vacations have an unfair advantage over equally or better qualified but poorer peers. And that’s another ugly truth about this field, which is that besides the class gap between high-paid international staff and the national staff and people we work with/for, there is also a tendency for the intl staff to be of a wealthier class background than most people in the country they come from. There’s not a lot of ‘solidarity not charity’ in NGOs because it’s a wealthy-class field; few people link the poverty they see abroad with poverty and economic injustice at home. Writing about and linking to others’ writing on ways to get around some of these barriers to entry and thinking on how to change the dynamics and structures of this work are too much for this post and for my brain lately (see the post about living in a concrete box for details). What I can do is offer some experiences navigating what is.

End rant.

So here is my ongoing series of international travel and aid work how-to’s:


New posts will be added to the Resources page of this blog.

Self-Care in a Concrete Box

this is not the box i live inLiving by myself under strict, early curfew in a dark concrete room with electricity for about 3 hours each night for the last 8 months or so, I find myself able to practice the daily rituals that doctors and therapists and yoga teachers recommend, like flossing and deep breathing. It took effort to put good habits into place, but now that I’m an expert at the alone routine, I figured I would share some links in case you ever find yourself similarly forced to amuse yourself for the last 5 or 6 hours of every day. These ideas are of course a bit tailored to the particulars of low-resource, high stress, and poor sanitation of my current rural Central African Republic living sitch, but hopefully you can alter to your more well-lit, stable, and cleaner conditions. Because hopefully you live in those!

My normal evening is spent winding down after work and early dinner, sitting on the toilet reading news articles I downloaded to my phone during the last 5 minutes before they shut the generator (and therefore internet) off at work, washing my hands and then my feet in the sink, doing a 20-minute workout video followed by a 20-minute yoga podcast, then taking a shower while fending off the cockroaches that come up from the drain as they start to drown by bearing down on them with a waterproof headlamp held in my hand like a chair against a lion, then watching the OC or Friends on my computer while I play Spider Solitaire on my phone and/or flossing and moisturizing, dialing my partners’ phone number to receive the no service noise 10 or 11 times, until finally pulling down the mosquito net and reading in the dark til I fall asleep.

Not the most glamorous existence, but it makes the time pass, and more importantly, it ticks all the self-care boxes I need to practice regularly to build up resilience so that when I am woken to gunfire at midnight or a hospital run at 3am, or I go a month not taking weekends while we navigate delivering late deliveries of life-saving supplies held up by crummy roads and armed hold-ups, I got some structure and built up reserves in place to see me through to the next R&R vacation, when I eat whole blocks of cheese and tofurkey-veganaise sandwiches and go on hikes through the the woods to get back to normal.

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