Anthropologist Louisa Lombard on Anti-Balaka and their gris-gris (note that she doesn’t even address the translation found in every English-language newspaper article that anti-balaka = anti-machete):
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.
In my current travels in northwestern CAR, I meet a lot of Anti-Balaka, mostly just wandering around, poking around, or blocking the road. This is a low-resource rag-tag home-defense militia cum homicidal mob; there is no cloth available for matching uniforms. Instead the Anti-Balaka cultivate style that makes them easily identifiable from a ‘civilian’ of the same age group, even as their clothes vary person to person. They wear mostly western (vs. traditional cloth) pants or jeans, and t-shirts or tanks. Their hair is amazing. It’s braided into tight knobs like liberty spikes or shaved down into hawks. They layer necklaces of handsewn gris gris in colorful 3x3inch pouches made of tarp or leather or cloth in all kinds of colors, sometimes necklace on necklace, inches thick across their chests. I have no idea what’s inside. They are these teenage men and sometimes women in tight dark ragged clothes arranged with care to project this tough, intimidating, handcrafted aura. It’s so diy punk I cannot even.
It would be wildly inappropriate to take photographs in the moments I meet them, so google image search will have to try to do justice (I swear I will take photos of things that aren’t food or craft projects, one day). This photo post and maybe this capture some of what I’m trying to describe. Smarter theory people than I could write something good about how aesthetics can play a powerful role in unifying a group or military force, serve as a cultural identifier, and project a (invincible, terrifying) message to outsiders; could question multidirectional influences of youth culture and the fashion of rebellion in a globalized but also isolated world; could sift out the practical vs artistic aspects of Anti-Balaka dress without disrespecting the significance of either; could prod the impact of western media & blogger & the occasional daydreaming aid worker on long car rides’ romanticization of revolutionary chic style on beautiful young men in the midst of ugly carnage.