Monday, January 5, 2015

The Wealth of the Prosperity Gospel

I arrived at Mission Rhema two hours into the four-hour Sunday morning service. An usher helped my friend Henri, who lives nearby but is not a member, and I to find seats in the full but orderly semi-enclosed space that the church rents from the Central African Women’s Organization. Bright pink and yellow cloth draped from the ceiling gave the place a festive, circus-like feel. From the front, a woman spoke into a microphone, her voice intense yet a bit flat, trance-like, in its cadence.

She told of how she’d had nothing and had no idea how she could give the church anything, but somehow she managed to give more than she ever thought she could. And lo, she was immediately rewarded: for her job, she was supposed to go en mission but when her boss saw her he didn’t even greet her. He just said, “You have been given a promotion!” And that promotion came with a huge raise, of course.

We had arrived in the midst of testimonials, the heart of the service at this evangelical church. One by one, men and women, most of them between the ages of twenty and forty, came up to recount how they had been destitute, or unlucky, and then gave some huge amount of money (referred to as donner les voeux, or handing over one’s wishes) to Mission Rhema. Having given to God so much “that it hurt,” he then provided for them.

One woman recounted how she had been scammed out of a house (she purchased the house not knowing that the person she bought it from was not the owner) and then, after having given her wishes to Rhema, she was rewarded with not one but two houses, each far larger than the one she had lost. Each testimonial was precise in the amounts of money spent, lost, and gained, the value of the houses acquired, as well as the terms of the “appels d’offre” and the “droits d’exploitation” received in return and so forth. The frankness with which those bearing witness rattled off these sums unnerved me, both because I’m not used to discussing personal finances so forthrightly in public and because I couldn’t quite understand how people with so little could give so much – on the order of a thousand dollars or more.

Everyone (except the young kids, many of whom napped) listened, rapt, to the tales. The entire body of a young woman sitting near me and wearing the sash that marked her as a church stalwart was joyful: she leaned forward in her chair, her expression open, as if ready to leap up at any moment. The stories were as satisfying as good Hollywood films. I could empathize with people’s tragedies all the more knowing that things would inevitably turn out better than ever in the end.

And yet they also made me uneasy. The helping hand these people received from on high after they handed over money to the church was more helpful than I could quite believe. Wasn’t this really some kind of pyramid scheme, in which people with very little give it all away and receive none of the expected material benefits in return? The witness accounts couldn’t possibly be true, could they? They must have been embellished. The whole affair seemed exploitative. And yet that was clearly not the experience of the congregation, which was, in a word, joyful, even despite the paucity of song that is usually my favorite part of a service.

Eventually the pastor recovered the microphone. He had laryngitis but told us not to feel sorry for him. And it was easy to do as he said – he was funny and had an easy rapport with the audience, teasing us about God catching us unawares in our bathrobes. He too had tales of having given far more to the church than he ever thought he could, and how it had so obviously paid off. He told of the Mission Rhema bus that had recently been purchased and was en route from Cameroon, of the parcel of land purchased for the Mission Rhema conference center, plantation, and school they were starting.

As things we winding down, the pastor began calling up the couples who would soon wed at the church, sweet-looking young pairs who he ribbed in a good-natured way, telling only-slightly embarrassing stories of their arrivals at the church. The clock showed that we were an hour and a half past the stated end time for the service, but I’d have gone on listening to him for a good while longer – the pastor made me laugh, and I liked him.

We had an appointment to chat after the service, so I made my way to the front and waited while he received people. He knew everyone’s name, and he inquired after their families and their affairs. When I’ve seen ministers or other Central African dignitaries interact with the populations they are meant to serve, the encounters have been marked by a profound sense of hierarchy, as if the big person and the supplicant are not just from different classes, but are rather different kinds of people, almost as if they are different species. That was decidedly not the case in the way the pastor interacted with his congregation. He was a kind, fun, and yet also wise uncle.

I was shown a chair to wait in. From behind me I sensed people busy with some task, and I turned to look. A man held a black plastic bag (the kind offered at the Lebanese grocery stores in town – thin but not ultra-thin) as wide as he could, and a woman reached into a blue barrel (the kind people use for rainwater catchment, larger than an oil drum) and scooped out fistfuls of cash and coins. The plastic bag was by now bulging, impossibly full, and as they closed it and moved on to the next I heard the faint tinkle of coins settling amid the bills. They noticed me noticing them, and I turned away.

As the pastor and I walked to his office one of the women who had witnessed during the service came over to say hello. The pastor asked how she was doing and she replied that she had never been better. Her face radiated joy. The pastor explained as we walked away that the woman had been poor but started a sewing business around the time she joined the church. Now she had eleven employees and supported an even larger circle of relatives.

The pastor could not find his key so we settled in the shade outside his office and chatted for the next forty-five minutes about how he had gotten into this line of work. After obtaining a university degree, he had expected to be integrated into the public service, but he graduated just a few years after structural adjustment ended the policy whereby all graduates received state jobs. He worked as a commercial lawyer for the Central African oil company, and when they were bought by Total he was told he could keep his job but the salary would be cut by 75%. So he returned to another interest: evangelical Christianity, which he had been active in while an exchange student in Romania. He was accepted into the Haggai Institute, a program that trains people to be missionaries in their own countries, and upon return to CAR founded Mission Rhema.

He claimed not to take a salary from the church and instead to live off the proceeds of his livestock businesses. (He raises goats and chickens, growth industries in this city of people who love meat, especially since the supply of cattle has declined now that the Muslims involved in that market have by and large left.) His attire seemed to back this statement up. It was fancy, but it was Central African fancy, not the kind of international fancy of someone who lives much of the year in France or Dakar, like so many Central African politicians. He explained that he wanted to help Central Africans learn practical business skills (investing, planning, accounting) so that they can succeed in the private sector and not see working for the government as their only option. Through the church, he would provide various services traditionally associated with the state to the congregation: transportation, jobs, health clinics, schools.

When I left, I didn’t know what to think. On the one hand, I was still uncomfortable with the idea of people giving so much money in the hopes that doing so would cause God to bring them vast material benefit. And yet I’d quite enjoyed the experience and was inspired by much of what the pastor had to say. Mostly I appreciated the rapport he had with his congregation, which violated what I think of as the norms of comportment governing relations between important people and the hoi polloi, which dictate formality, supplication, and a decided power imbalance (the supplicants have no recourse if they are in the end ignored). I’ve written articles about this political divide. And yet this church compound provided the experience of a different world, one in which God provided agency and efficacy for all.

Mostly, visiting this church was a chastening reminder of the fallacy of thinking about politics in Central Africa like a secularist, cordoning off politics and religion as if they were entirely separate realms. It also reminded me that however much mistrust and uncertainty I see in social life in CAR, there remain public places where you can leave a handbag unattended and not have to worry about it being stolen. Admittedly, that might be partly because all the money inside has already been handed over. But it’s not the only reason.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Boomtown on the Oubangui

Recently back from a quick trip to Bangui, allow me to share some impressions. What surprised me most was the traffic and general bustle.

Even despite the fact that many taxis and minibuses were stolen during “the crisis,” as many in Bangui refer to the violence of the past two years, never have I seen so many traffic jams in the city. (I’d have said too that never has it been so hard to cross the street, except that I was mostly not on the street – for the first time, instead of hoofing it from place to place and hitching a taxi where I could, I hired a private taxi, for safety. Things were calm during my visit, but it hasn’t been long since a flare-up, and the general sense is that thieves still abound.) Vendors with gaudy Christmas gifts – balls that look like they’ll stay inflated for about as long as it takes to bring them home, neon-colored tinsel – as well as the usual boys balancing towering pyramids of boiled eggs and women expertly carving the green peel off oranges to reveal fragrant, glowing-white/yellow orbs crowded the sidewalks and spilled out into the streets. For their part the streets are more potholed and rutted than ever, the effect of no maintenance and the constant stress of peacekeeper tanks and armored vehicles.

Being in Bangui during such a not-yet-post-conflict purgatory reminded me of another time I was in the capital under similar circumstances. It was June 2003, my first visit and just three months after Bozize’s successful coup. Then, the roads remained empty. Much of the downtown remained shuttered after the pillaging and looting. The only sign of playfulness amid the tension was a statue of the ousted president that was each day dressed in colorful drag. There were few restaurants open, and as I recall the mobile phone service was poached from towers across the river in DRC. (To meet people for interviews, I called landlines! That, more than anything else, makes it feel like long, long ago.) A grand total of four INGOs worked in the country then: Oxfam-Quebec, COOPI, MSF-Spain, Handicap International. Today, there are fifty or so. Even with the unofficial curfew, never have the posh cafes and restaurants done such brisk business. A new(ish) Lebanese-run “fast food” (by Bangui standards) joint is packed every day for lunch, both because it serves up decent burgers and falafel and because it suits the temporality of humanitarian work: always in a rush, if only to write the next report.

I’ve read about booming wartime economies before – Carolyn Nordstrom has written about then evocatively, and a bit polemically – but I wasn’t expecting to see one here in Bangui, which I think of as a rather sleepy place. Many Central Africans wonder what the humanitarians are actually doing, as the economic bustle has not done anything to change the structural problems of Central African politics and the weakness of state institutions. LandCruisers and walled villas with brightly-colored gates tagged with signs evoking laudable goals are all quite visible; the effects, whether long term or short term, of their good works less so. These criticisms strike me as both unfair and a bit true. They’re unfair in the sense that humanitarian aid is explicitly a band-aid, not a cure, and should be judged in those terms. Moreover I am sure that the people receiving “pulses,” oil, and maize appreciate the food they get, whether because they can eat it or they can sell it (little baggies of yellow peas can be seen at markets all over). At the same time, though, it seems to me that the biggest effects of these organizations lie not so much in the distributions of household goods, and much more in that they are a legitimate way to bring money into the economy at a time when other types of businesses are for various reasons fraught. Most of that money comes in the form of rents for offices and houses, salaries for locally-hired drivers and maids and guards, the 18,000 CFA (about $35) that expat employees will spend on a prix fixe lunch at Relais de Chasse, and so forth. That this industry operates with an implicit “expat standard” in contrast to a “Central African standard” is a boring fact related to the distribution of power and money in the world (I too lived in a lovely, humanitarian-rented apartment during my stay). That’s not the point I’m trying to make. It would just be nice if there was some recognition that the more prosaic impacts of humanitarianism – namely the economic stimulus, especially to landlords and long-distance transporters and restaurant owners – might be more important than the stated, more-ephemeral goals of solidarity and relief.

I was also surprised by how calm it has seemed in the city. Though carjackings had become normal in recent months, they seem to have declined. The peacekeepers play soccer and chat with people like me but are otherwise a bit bored. Partly this is due to the improving security situation and partly it’s due to the red tape surrounding any action they might endeavor to undertake now that they’re inside the UN bureaucracy fortress. Whether this lull will last remains something of an open question, of course (rumor had it that all the big politico-military entrepreneurs – Bozize, his son Francis, Michel Djotodia, Abakar Sabone – were meeting in Nairobi last week). But, as I heard time and again, people are tired.

The reasons for the relative calm are no doubt many. My personal favorite has to do with the death of Levi Yakete. Yakete was a party operative under Bozize, and he fled to France after the Seleka coup. From there he was active in getting money and supplies to anti-Balaka fighters, and for this he was placed on the UN sanction list. In mid-November, he was driving near his home in southern France when his car broke down. With his wife at the wheel and his children in the back seat, he began pushing the car to the side of the road. But before he got there, another car came up from behind and plowed into this unexpected, nearly-stationary obstruction. So Yakete is no longer able to incite violence.

There’s another layer to this story, however. It is widely understood in CAR that people’s spirits outlive them, and these spirits continue to act in the world after a person’s death. One of the death-spirit’s main tasks is to exact vengeance in the case of a wrongful death. “La mort n’est pas gratuite.” “On lui a rendu la monnaie.” These sayings indicate the sense that vengeance will be had, that people will get what they have coming to them. So the second layer of meaning associated with Yakete’s death had to do with the feeling that the spirits have come to work their vengeance. And so people are proceeding with caution.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Violence, Popular Punishment, and the War in the Central African Republic

Written together with Sylvain Batianga-Kinzi, I have a new article out in the latest issue of African Affairs. 

In writing this article, we had a few objectives. First, we wanted to call attention to the spectrum of violence that has long existed in CAR -- within families, between families, in neighborhoods -- and the way that "non-state" actors have long had the capacity to engage in forms of spectacular violence designed to provoke fear. In our view, these factors help explain the patterns of mobilization that we've seen in the war in CAR over the past couple of years, which have reflected not organized-from-on-high entities but have rather grown out of the way people have responded to the threats they perceive in their midst, on a more diffuse basis. Another objective was to encourage people to jettison the concept "popular justice," the euphemism frequently used in place of "vigilantism." At least in CAR and my guess is elsewhere as well, people who respond violently to social threats like burglary or sorcery do not see their work as "justice," a word that connotes the ideal resolution of a given dispute. Rather, they see it as necessary to punish the (alleged) perpetrator in order to send a message both to the criminal and to anyone else considering that kind of behavior that it is not acceptable. Hence we feel that popular punishment is a more apt term. 

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.  

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The many sides of Joseph Zindeko, Seleka's new military head

I have a piece up at African Arguments about Joseph Zindeko, designated military head of Seleka at a conference in Ndele last weekend. I met Zindeko in Tiringoulou at the end of 2009 and was simultaneously impressed by his openness and by how much he held close and by how carefully he managed information. He was the chef d'etat major for the UFDR in Tiringoulou, and he was the main local interlocutor between UFDR members in the town and the people running disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) in the capital. Though he admitted to me that only a few UFDR members would ever be able to be integrated into the army, he did not spread that information widely among his men. Yet he was an excellent storyteller, including of battle exploits. In short, a man of many (apparent) contradictions.