Saturday, February 20, 2010


Last summer I spent a few days reading and researching in the French National Library. As anyone who has worked there knows, it's an odd place. Readers are confined to subterranean rooms while the stacks of books rise above them in four glassy skyscraper towers. Researchers must sign up for a date, hour, and numbered seat. Somehow or another, the same people often end up sitting next to each other, day after day. Silence reigns, of course, but one nevertheless has occasional contact with one's neighbors when asking them to keep an eye on belongings when one needs a bathroom break or that kind of thing.

Hour upon hour of reading – classics like Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch's Le Congo au temps des grandes compagnies concessionaires as well as browsing the bizarrely prolific genre of safari hunting memoirs from Central Africa – left me crazed for human contact. When I passed my neighbors in the hallway, or at the cafe, or elsewhere, I would attempt to give a mild greeting – a sort of 'Hey, I've seen you before and I acknowledge your existence' kind of thing. Always the attempt was met with a blank, icy glare of non-recognition. A French friend tried to help by introducing me to her friends, but when we all met for coffee they would all turn away from me and my friend, and their body language made it clear that they had no interest in including me in their conversation. The next time we saw each other, they would forget that they had met me before.

Imagine my happiness when an Ivoirian friend of mine showed up to read Ivoirian newspapers from the 1950s, together with a Canadian friend looking into the enduring effects of colonial health policies! Finally, people I could greet effusively and share wonderful discussions with over vending-machine coffee! Say what you will about the falseness of American “have a nice day” tendencies, that friendliness is something I often miss when abroad.

Here in Ndele one of my favorite things is greeting people I know or recognize on the street. I always get a response, and it makes me feel more like I belong. (I'm even making my peace with the swarms of “Munju!” chanting kids.)

The other day I discussed the importance of greetings with a Central African friend. “Here, if you're on the road coming toward my village and you pass some people sitting in the shade and you don't greet them, people will take you for a criminal. People will start saying that we need to figure out who this person is. People will make problems for you,” he explained gravely. He told of a now-departed NGO employee (French, as luck would have it) who never had time to say hello. He would call it out only in a harried way as he rushed off to some oh-so-important task or another.

That NGO currently finds itself embroiled in a set of rumors and associated problems preventing it from working in the area, at least for the time being.

On that note, I've been surprised how often I've heard of NGOs having to negotiate with the government for the right to do their work, and this in the CAR, putatively one of the weakest of states. Though there's more than a grain of truth to Mariella Pandolfi's idea that international interventions constitute “mobile sovereigns,” time and again I've noticed how international organizations and NGOs, partly because they specifically define themselves through reference to the state (as its counterpart), end up propping up and legitimizing the state more than anyone else. NGO employees are in about the same situation as “kota azo” (big people) in the government: above/outside the law (not subjected to humiliating roadblock searches, for instance) and yet nevertheless at the mercy of the state and its whims, which seem often to turn on rumors. Rumors can come around for anyone. I learned a bit about that myself a few weeks ago.

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