Some photos from a recent road trip across the Central African Republic, from Bossangoa to Bangui. (I wrote about the same trip by air awhile back)
If you travel a lot and are kinda a mess, sometimes it’s hard to keep all the documents you need ready to go at all moments as you pass through multiple airport checkpoints: tickets, passport, visa card, yellow card, a pen for filling out customs entry forms, emergency phone numbers, etc.
I have a habit of stuffing everything into my back pocket and crunching it and then dumping it all out in a pile on the customs counter or leaving my passport out while I bend over & dig through my bag for a pen. Every official gets kinda pissed if you hand them an extra document that isn’t applicable to their particular task, but they get way more eye-rolly if you neglect to pass over some random thing they need. This must all go triple for places like Centrafrique where each time I enter the country the passport process changes a little bit. Honestly the more I travel the more I look like a newb, floundering with too much paperwork.
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.
Book Review: Peaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention by Severine Autesserre
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.
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
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.