6 Ways Congo Wins

I’ve seen a few stories in the news the past few years that proclaim the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to be the worst country in the world for fill-in-the-blank. Indeed, in 2011 DRC ranked last in UNDP’s Human Development Index (though taken on its own, it rose between 1980 and 2012).

While Congo certainly has major problems, some of these proclamations are based on data from only the most troubled provinces (or even highly specific locale) and extrapolated to apply to the whole country; and most of them are made based on or in conjunction with preconceived notions about DRC — in search of sensationalist headlines and/or donations.

Since I moved to Bukavu, the provincial capital of South Kivu in the DRC, about five months ago, it got me thinking about some of the ways in which Congo — well, actually wins.

Here are six ways Congo, in my humble opinion, is the best.

1) Re-using

People don’t just re-use things for pragmatic reasons (like plastic shopping bags, which they do). The whole system of buying soft drinks and cases of beer is based on re-using. You don’t just buy the beverages, you also pay for the glass bottles from the “depots” or outlets of the company. Most re-sellers won’t sell you bottled drinks unless you have an empty bottle to exchange for it in addition to paying for the drink (unless you ask nicely and they trust you to return the bottle in mint condition). Re-using bottles doesn’t just eliminate that much waste, but also eliminates the cost of recycling.

Just outside Kinshasa,
overlooking the Congo River

2) Giant beers

In the US, you might order a 12 or 16 ounce Budweiser at a bar. In the UK, you might order a pint of ale, at 20 ounces compared to the US’ 16 ounce pint. But in Congo when you order a beer, you receive a beautifully grand bottle of Primus or Tembo or Simba or Nkoyi — at 72 cL, or a whopping 25.34 ounces. And usually for about $3.50 (less than £2) at an upscale restaurant. $1.80 if you know where to go. Cheers!


3) Fresh food

In South Kivu if you want food, you go to the market or a street stand where the bread was baked that morning or the tomatoes were grown not more than a few miles away. In the restaurants when you order fish for dinner, it’s likely it was caught that very afternoon in Lake Kivu or Tanganyika. And if you want chicken, there are no refrigerated, shrink-wrapped packages in the grocery store. You find the lady on the street with a sack of live chickens on her back, buy one, let it walk around your garden for a few days, and hope you can find someone not as squeamish as you to cut its head off and pluck it. Then there’s the pilipili. Flavorful pepper that packs just the right amount of heat, whose juices you squeeze over your lunch or make into a tasty dipping sauce.

Fish and chips, Uvira style; with onion,
tomato, mayo, and pilipili

4) Christian-Muslim harmony

In a place where politics are explosive and ethnic identity a contentious fulcrum around which violent conflict turns, religion is by comparison a complete non-issue. And it’s not because people here aren’t devout — in fact, religion plays an enormously important role in people’s lives. Yet on a day to day basis I see Christians and Muslims mingling in shops as though their religions were invisible. Mosques and churches coexist in the same neighborhoods and no one seems to think much of it. The few people I’ve asked: “So, are there any problems between Christians and Muslims here?” have basically answered me with a statement along the lines of, “Not really. Why should there be? They believe what they believe and God loves us all. It’s the same God.” When I wrote the Freedom House report for DRC in 2012, I had to improve the religious freedom score because after days of research I could not find any reports of religious discrimination. In day-to-day exchanges, anyway, the DRC beats the United States and much of Europe in terms of Christian-Muslim harmony.

Our Lady of Peace Cathedral, Bukavu
Photo by Timothee Rolin

5) Music and fashion

While in the UK and US I hear new and re-mixed crap being played everywhere, here people actually have good taste in music. From the latest regional dance hits to the always popular Bob Marley; American hip-hop; Swahili hip-hop (for example, this); and love ballads, the mix that drifts over the lake into my apartment on Saturday nights is melodic and pleasant and often includes some old school rumba tracks. The latter is considered perhaps Congo’s most significant contribution to world culture. On top of that, people have a keen sense of fashion. Whether donned in smart business casual, the bright patterns of kitenges/pagnes/kangas, or a touch of vintage 90′s grunge — people here know what they like and being well-dressed is important even for a quick trip to the market to pick up some onions.

Mama Ada
At the market in Baraka

6) Smoking

You hardly see anyone smoking cigarettes here, at least in Bukavu, Uvira, and Baraka. It’s sometimes associated with militants or armed groups; occasionally with intellectuals. But mostly, it’s an expat thing. That is to say, Americans and Europeans smoke. But rarely Congolese. Billboards fifty feet long may grace the border advertising the local brew, but you will see no such advertising space allotted for tobacco. After being here for a time, it’s almost startling to see someone smoking on the street.


DR Congo is certainly a country that is dealing with a lot. From a dismal colonial legacy that left the country with (among other things) 19 college graduates at independence, a government structure dependent on patrimonial networks, and citizenship policies that are still the source of conflict today; to the assassination of their first democratically elected prime minister with help from Belgium and the acquiescence of the United States; to decades of mismanagement by an authoritarian regime propped up by Western-funded lending institutions and diplomatic and military support from the West; to media censorship; flawed elections; violent conflict complicated by lack of sufficient security sector reform and the presence of some 30 local and foreign armed groups – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg — the DRC has a way to go before it gets to the point where it is truly flourishing the way it should be. But they will get there.


Considering all of that, it is a country not only rich in natural resources but rich in human capital; with a population that is clever, hustles to get by, and works hard to make ends meet despite all the challenges. I so far have not met one illiterate person, even in remote villages. Indeed, according to a study by the African Economist Magazine, Congo’s literacy rate stands at 67.2% (ranking 25th out of 52 African countries surveyed), relatively impressive compared to other countries with similar assessments in terms of indicators like PPP and insecurity.

And as a recent article in The Guardian was headlined, “Telling countries they’re the worst doesn’t help them.”

Posted in Democratic Republic of Congo, Development | Leave a comment

When Satirists Make Better Intellectuals Than Scientists

Recently a friend of mine (hat-tip to @dalliasd) tweeted this opinion piece by Glenn Greenwald over at The Guardian. The piece was a reaction to the stances of Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and popular public intellectual, on Islam.

I won’t re-hash all the arguments here. The Greenwald piece, which is worth a read, lays them all out. Suffice to say, Harris argues that Islam is fundamentally different from other religions, as quoted by Greenwald: “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death.” This strikes me as a surprisingly naive, melodramatic, and ignorant statement coming from someone who is supposed to represent contemporary rational thought.

I wanted, for the purposes of this post, to hone in on one statement in particular, regarding the proposed building of a mosque and Muslim community center at Ground Zero back in 2010; again, quoted by Greenwald:

“The erection of a mosque upon the ashes of this atrocity will also be viewed by many millions of Muslims as a victory — and as a sign that the liberal values of the West are synonymous with decadence and cowardice.”

It’s hard to know where to begin with this one. While Harris probably thinks he’s framing the mosque as one battleground in a conflict between religious fundamentalism and liberal secularism, it is glaringly about politics, not religion. What Harris is doing is categorizing Muslims (in general and in particular) as being in opposition to “the liberal values of the West,” and creating a dichotomy in which these two categories are mutually exclusive.

Most obviously, the statement should sound absurd to anyone who’s spent any kind of time in New York City. People of all stripes, including approximately 600,000 Muslims, live, work, and worship in the city. There are already mosques all over the place, as there are temples and churches and synagogues. I don’t want to paint New York as a utopian melting pot, as it certainly has its problems with discrimination and racism and inequality. But, deep in its Lazarus-ian (and, as it happens, liberal-Western) heart of ideals, it is supposed to be a place where anyone can go to work hard and pursue their dreams; regardless of their background. It’s been that way for ages. And people of all backgrounds continue to flock there.

So it makes little sense to assert that millions of Muslims would see the building of a mosque near Ground Zero as a kind of ideological victory when there are already mosques in that neighborhood (indeed, there was a Muslim prayer room inside the World Trade Center itself). Furthermore, Middle Eastern and Islamic culture and cuisine ubiquitously weave throughout the buzz of lower Manhattan, amid kosher food carts and Indian restaurants and West African music shops. Is Harris also afraid that the increasing popularity of halal cuisine is going to be touted as a moral victory by Islamic fundamentalists?

An estimated 60 to 70 Muslim New Yorkers died in the attacks on the World Trade Center. But Harris’ rudimentary “us-them” dichotomy precludes him from realizing the possibility that a Muslim spiritual center at Ground Zero might play some kind of positive role in the healing process for Muslim New Yorkers who lost (Muslim or otherwise) friends or loved ones there.

Muslim New Yorkers counter-demonstrate at anti-mosque demonstration.
Photo by David Shankbone. Creative Commons license.

Another logical inconsistency rendered invisible by Harris’ false dichotomy is that the West’s liberal ideals, particularly in the United States as embodied in the first amendment, include religious freedom and the right to practice one’s religion free from government interference. How can the building of a mosque be a victory over Western values when freedom to practice your religion is itself a “Western” value?

By a complete coincidence, I was unwinding watching clips from old episodes of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart when I saw a report on the mosque by correspondent Wyatt Cenac. I’ll highlight some of the dialogue for those who can’t access the clip.

Stewart introduced the report: “As you know, this proposed Islamic center down in lower Manhattan has caused quite a bit of controversy. The terrorists hate us for our freedoms; is this any time for us to be exercising those freedoms?”

As if going through my critique point by point, Cenac investigated the Muslim threat in lower Manhattan. And coming to the frightening realization that there were Muslims everywhere (!!!), he says: “Perhaps most chilling, they’ve already created a spicy ring of deliciousness near Ground Zero.”

In an interview with a halal food cart vendor, he broaches the topic of the mosque:

Cenac: I noticed there are a lot of halal carts around. Is this your nefarious plan to get us all satisfied and full and tired and logy so that we can’t resist when you take over with the new mosque?

Vendor: We started here before they had the idea of building the mosque already. This is the most stupid thing I’ve ever heard in my life. You know why? Because here in America, it is teaching one thing to the whole world. You know what is that?

Cenac: God is great?

Vendor: Freedom of religion. Christian, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, whatever, anything.

Cenac: But mainly Christian.

In the report’s closing analysis, Stewart tries to reason with Cenac:

Stewart: You realize, uh, none of what you uncovered is… is real. Or a threat.

Cenac: [laughs] They might not be now, but they will once this mosque is built! And that is the last thing this neighborhood needs.

Stewart: Yeah, I understand. Do you know what it is you’re standing in front of right now? You’re down near Ground Zero…

Cenac: Uh, I don’t know, it says Masjid. Is that a Jewish magic shop? Ooh, I’m gonna make a golem!

Stewart: No… [laughs], it’s— they don’t make golems, it’s not a magic shop, Masjid is a mosque. It’s a mosque.

Cenac: Wait, that’s a mosque??

Stewart: Yes, that’s right.

Cenac: But we’re four blocks from Ground Zero!

Stewart: Yes, I know, that mosque actually is in the neighborhood I live in, it’s been there for forty years. It predates the World Trade Center.

Cenac: Holy crap, Jon! Two mosques near Ground Zero? Now I get it!

Stewart: You get what, Wyatt? What do you get?

Cenac: That’s their plan! That’s how they’re going to take over. They’re going to build a mosque every two blocks, until the city’s completely covered!

Stewart: Wyatt, I think you’re thinking of Starbuck’s.

I may be over-stating this, but I think Jon Stewart and the correspondents and writers at the Daily Show are really the popular public intellectuals of our time. (Not the first time satirists have filled this role; see Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, George Orwell, and The Onion, among many others.) In between the base silliness and college humor, there is an earnest and critically analytical curiosity driving the headlines, reports, and interviews.

At the same time, it goes beyond Socratic gadfly-like feigned ignorance and confronts audiences and guests alike with well-informed and well-constructed arguments, which sometimes take the form of what I would call high sarcasm. I personally don’t always agree with the arguments, but I can at least see the logic behind them. I can’t say the same for Harris, who, as a “real” public intellectual, I would expect to circumvent obvious flaws in logic; think a little bit harder about the issues he analyzes; and be conscientious about how he articulates his positions.

Now. What I’d really like to see is a response to Harris from Bassem Youssef.

Posted in #justsaying, Opinions | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Mixed Messages From M23

This morning I noticed a couple of stories in the news, regarding the decision to deploy a UN-approved military intervention brigade in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo:

AFP: “Rebels in DR Congo say UN peace brigade move is ‘war’”:

“This is the war option that the United Nations is exercising,” said the political leader and spokesman of the M23 rebel movement, Bertrand Bisimwa.

Al Jazeera: “M23 rebels vow not to attack UN in DR Congo”:

The political leader of M23 rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo has vowed that his fighters would not attack United Nations soldiers in the country. The UN Security Council recently decided to create a new unit in the war-torn country to enforce peace and neutralise rebel groups. But Bertrand Bisimwa, the M23 rebel leader, told reporters a political solution is needed to achieve a more lasting peace.

I am guessing this means that they intend only to defend themselves if the intervention brigade goes on the offensive. Still, since the brigade will support MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping mission there, it seems to me it’s kind of like saying, “This means war! But… we’re cool.”

Posted in #justsaying, Democratic Republic of Congo, random thoughts | Leave a comment

We Are Red Macaws

I’ve been doing a very dorky thing lately. I’ve been listening to anthropology lectures while walking around Cambridge, and deliberately walking rather than cycling so I have more listening time (and because I’m too nervous to listen to my iPod while cycling).

Yesterday I was listening to the Oxford University anthropology podcast, and in particular a lecture called “What is social anthropology?” (number 65 in the previous link) by one Professor Marcus Banks. (It’s an excellent podcast; lots of stuff for anthropologist wanna-be’s and beginners like me, and lots of stuff, it seems to me, for those who are deeper into the field as well. I’m enjoying it immensely.)

In the introductory lecture I listened to yesterday, Professor Banks told a story that reaffirmed for me the relevance of taking an interpretive approach to certain social research questions (particularly my own); solidified even further my high level of skepticism with regard to modernization theory; had me contemplating the way we perceive similarities and differences between cultures and the assumptions we make about others; made me think about the literal translation that occurs when studying another culture without adequate context; totally turned on that part of me that is fascinated with metaphors and language; and made me laugh.

In short, Professor Banks told of a French anthropologist in the first half of the twentieth century who picked up on the observations of a German traveler who wrote about the Bororo of Brazil. The German writer observed that the Bororo believed themselves to be red macaws. Literally.

So the German writer assumed, based on the “scientific” knowledge of the day, that because they were so different from Europe, the Bororo were closer to earlier forms of human life in general — i.e. “primitive,” or “original” people. He stated that the Bororo believed themselves to be red macaws because their brains were in an earlier stage of evolutionary development, and therefore they conflated the categories of macaws and humans — they couldn’t tell them apart. The French anthropologist took these observations at face value and included them in his studies about the “primitive” mind. However, the German traveler didn’t probe the matter, and, as far as I can tell from the lecture, the French anthropologist that cited him never bothered to go to Brazil himself.

The people there told the German traveler, quite explicitly, “we are red macaws.” It reminded me a bit of the way some Nuer (in Sudan) talk about cattle. Cattle are so special, and so critical to the survival and social organization of the group, that they’re tantamount to human members of the group. This is part of the reason why the Nuer will not accept cash in lieu of bridewealth cattle; it has no blood, it cannot reproduce. And cattle are so integral to Nuer society that accepting cash in their place would be, in a sense, unethical, like accepting cash for a human being. That’s why the attempts of the colonial government to commercialize cattle only half succeeded. (See this book by anthropologist Sharon Hutchinson for more really good stuff on the Nuer and their fascinating and deep relationship with cattle.)

So, in the short time Professor Banks elaborated, I thought about the kinds of metaphors and alternative realities that might be informing such a statement as “we are red macaws.”

Bororo-Boe youth during Brazil’s ninth Indigenous Games (Valter Campanato/Agencia Brasil: This photo was produced by Agencia Brasil under a Creative Commons license.)

As it turns out, anthropologists living with the Bororo in the latter half of the twentieth century noticed that it was only the men that made statements about being red macaws. Bororo society is matrilocal; so when a couple marries, the husband goes to live with the wife and her family. Many Bororo women, as it happens, are fond of keeping red macaws in cages as pets. Professor Banks says: “Therefore when men say, ‘we are red macaws,’ what they are doing is using, amazingly, irony, and describing themselves as [being] like pets, because they are so much dominated by their wives and their wives’ families in terms of social organization, economic behavior, etc. etc.”

The Bororo macaw metaphor is amusing and easy to relate to (“She’s got him on a short leash,” for example), despite the vast differences between Bororo culture and my own. But, beyond that, the story of the French anthropologist and the German traveler, and their efforts to interpret this culture, got me thinking about the ways in which a social researcher’s own cultural ontology can inform their interpretation and really muck up their analysis if they don’t examine it. More broadly, a story like this should lead people (everyone, not just social researchers and academics) to ask themselves what kind of assumptions they’re making about other cultures or societies when attempting to assess them or a particular aspect of them. I’m aware this is not a revelation, in general or for most people I know, and in a way the story kind of makes me scoff. (“What, is it that hard to imagine that the Bororo can have a sense of irony?”) On the other hand, there are a lot of people I know who would indeed be astounded by this story.

Ultimately, though, it reminds me of the imperative I’ve set for myself to keep questioning my own knowledge of the way things are; or the way I think they are. For the German traveler and the French anthropologist that cited him, I’m pretty sure that even if they had figured out the macaw metaphor, it wouldn’t have altered their underlying understanding of the “truth” that certain human beings were evolutionarily, scientifically, unquestionably less developed than others (the latter “others” being themselves — what a coincidence). So, I ask myself, what do I take for granted that, similarly, may be skewing my interpretation of the way I understand people, particularly those with different life experiences than me?

This is the reason why I struggle with the entire typology of “development.” We’ve stopped referring to other countries, peoples, places, and cultures as “backward” or “underdeveloped,” but we still talk about “developed” and “developing” countries. And I’m not sure I know what that even means these days, to be honest. So the red macaw story, I think — for students of anthropology, and those like me who appreciate its approach and/or recognize its utility — is less about the actual ironic metaphor and more about the context in which anthropologists finally really understood it. That is, what does the story of the French anthropologist (and all his peers who accepted his statements) say about the nature of scientific “reality” and what academically or professionally trained people take for granted? Extending the same inquisitive line to another field, what does the story say about the questions “development” experts should be asking? What is implicit and explicit in “development”? And what might “development” experts take for granted about these categories?

Photo by Tony Hisgett (uploaded to Flickr by Magnus Manske and published under a Creative Commons license)

Posted in Development, For Fun, random thoughts | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

#SudanRevolts: Why Now?

I’ve written a number of posts in the last month or so, for UN Dispatch, about the protests in Khartoum and elsewhere in Sudan. The protests were sparked by the announcement of austerity measures by the ruling National Congress Party in June, and were instigated by female students at the University of Khartoum. The protestors, however, are demanding the withdraw of the ruling regime and a new democratic system in which civil and political rights for all of Sudan’s diverse population will be respected. (See Girifna’s website and the Sudan Revolts website for an idea of what the protests are about.) The protests have also since gained the support of wider communities and professional associations such as the Sudanese Doctors’ Union and the Attorneys’ Bar, not to mention support from the diaspora and from around the world.

My contribution to the #SudanRevolts international support campaign

In the comments section of a post I wrote called “What Role for Celebrity Activists in #SudanRevolts?“, @fariniamujica left the following comment:

Carol I loved this! I think its really helpful for all us “non-Sudanese” on how to support. I was wondering if you could help me answer a question/comment I’ve seen around by some foreigners regarding the situation in Sudan: “NOW they protest because of rise in prices? Where were they when the genocide was going on?” I think you and me obviously know that this is not why they are protesting, but I also believe that up to a certain point this is why international support has been light…? I am probably wrong but I just wanted to know what you’re thoughts were on this. Thank you!!!

I responded, but there appears to be a glitch on the back end of the UN Dispatch platform and it doesn’t show up on the webpage. While that’s being worked out, I thought I’d convert my brief response into a blog post:

I’ve seen that sentiment once or twice on Twitter, yes. What I would say first is that I think it’s important to remember that a lot of these protestors are and have been opposed to the wars on the border, with the south, in Darfur, and in the east for a long time. It would be better to ask some Sudanese activists themselves, as I cannot speak for them, but my hunch is that it’s a matter of power and feasibility.

For example, you might ask an American why there are no mass protests over our continued attacks on Waziristan. It’s too far removed; it doesn’t affect your every day existence in the United States. In addition, the military is simply too powerful. You might be opposed to it, but it’s hard to imagine massive protests in the streets calling for the overthrow of the government because of it. But raise the cost of living, make good college educations tantamount to lifetimes of debt, turn a blind eye to (and participate in) corrupt banking and law-making practices, and you get Occupy Wall Street. Those may be unfair comparisons, and I’m aware of the ways in which they’re unfair, but it’s the best I can do to ellicit some form of empathy for the protestors and an explanation of sorts as to “why now” — now that austerity measures were announced.

I also don’t know the extent to which Sudanese in the north were writing about or protesting these wars in recent years, or the extent to which they would have even been able to. It’s easy to imagine any journalist writing with an anti-war slant being locked up or somehow silenced. So, although I can’t say for sure, I don’t think it’s fair to say that northern Sudanese have been apathetic or complicit in those wars over the years.

Map from 2007 showing roughly the different regions of Sudan. According to the key on the original map, Blue is Sudan, Green is Darfur, Red is South Sudan, and the Purple are “disputed areas” as of 2007. For those interested in Abyei in particular, please see comments section below for a discussion of where Abyei figures on this map, as well as links to more useful Small Arms Survey maps that document the status of Abyei. (Wikimedia Commons)

I’m not sure why international attention has been light, but I have a couple of thoughts. In one sense, the nature of the conflicts in Darfur and South Sudan is quite different from #SudanRevolts. War in Africa, particularly if there is a clear ethnic or religious ideological rhetoric being used to perpetuate it, is an easy narrative for outsiders to reproduce (even if it does overlook the inaccuracies of that narrative), and an easy story with which to appeal to readers’ emotions. I considered the possibility that the nature of the civil war with the south and the conflict in Darfur, with acts of genocide and aerial bombardments of villages, for example, was simply more dramatic and severe than the political protests and detentions that characterize #SudanRevolts. (Sexual violence, too, seems to be a hotter story if it’s a “weapon of war” than if it’s part of political repression.) Since #SudanRevolts is being repressed by what Mamdani calls the “normal violence of the state” as opposed to a genocidal mission (Saviors and Survivors, p. 281), it does not command the same kind of attention.

One of the #SudanRevolts avatars to appear on social media sites since the protests began; a fist with the Sudanese flag imprinted on top of it

However, that doesn’t explain the relative silence on the conflict in the east. While South Sudan and Darfur have got a lot of attention over the years, in comparison, the rebellion in the east has barely been mentioned. It began in the 1990s, and there was a peace agreement in 2006. For more on the conflict in the east, you can research the main opposition movements there: the Beja Congress, the Rashaida Free Lions, and the Eastern Front.

This conflict was in the northeast of the country, a region which fits into the “Arab north” part of our Western story of Sudan. I’m guessing that the reason the war in the east didn’t generate widespread outrage and coverage is that it didn’t fit into the Arab-Islamic supremacy narrative. (Further confusing this narrative is the SPLM support of the Eastern Front. Adding to that, by the way, in the case of #SudanRevolts, is the demonstrated solidarity expressed, on platforms like Twitter, by Darfuris and Southern Sudanese for #SudanRevolts, and by northern Sudanese for those struggling in South Sudan and Darfur. This includes congratulations from northern Sudanese to South Sudan on the one year anniversary of their independence.)

Flag of Sudan at independence in 1956 (until 1970); and map until 2011. (Wikimedia Commons)

So I think perhaps the reason for international support being a bit light is twofold; 1) it’s not an armed conflict, and 2) it doesn’t fit into the dominant narrative we have of Sudan. My feeling is that it’s very hard for many people, in the US for example, to alter that narrative in such a way as to be sympathetic to Sudanese in the north. Al Jazeera’s Listening Post, on an episode I was able to appear on, dealt with many of these same issues.

I think it’s probably true that the Western reaction you describe is part of why international public support and attention has been light, but I think that reaction itself comes out of a broader story we’ve been constructing about Sudan for many years now. The origins of that narrative are steeped in history and politics, and Mamdani goes into great depth in Saviors and Survivors explaining how it came to be (and what the implications are for US foreign policy toward Sudan). If you’ve read a bit about John Garang and his vision of a “New Sudan,” most of this should be making a lot of sense.

I’ll end with some recommended reading for those who want to learn more. These resources are regionally focused on Darfur (aside from the first, which focuses on South Sudan, and the next three, which focus on New Sudan and the north) because I wrote a book chapter about this topic and focused on Darfur (in New Directions in Genocide Research, ed. Adam Jones); thus these are the sources I’m familiar with. However, I highly recommend them for this particular topic. These sources do a very good job of deconstructing the dominant narratives and delving into the nuances of race, ethnicity, religion, politics, and power in Sudan.

Jok Madut Jok, Sudan: Race, Religion and Violence (Oneworld, 2007)

Amir Ahmad Nasr (@SudaneseThinker), “Reviving the ‘New Sudan’ vision,” Al Jazeera, January 27, 2012

Amir Ahmad Nasr, “Ending Sudan’s Identity Crisis,” The Guardian, June 10, 2011

Moez Ali, Thoughts of His Moezness (@his_moezness), “The Sudanese Identity,” February 4, 2012

Mahmoud Mamdani, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror (paperback by Three Rivers Press, 2010)

Julie Flint and Alex de Waal, Darfur: A New History of a Long War (Zed Books, 2008)

Abdel Ghaffar M. Ahmed and Leif Manger (eds), Understanding the Crisis in Darfur: Listening to Sudanese Voices (University of Bergen, 2006)

Julie Flint, Beyond ‘Janjaweed’: Understanding the Militias of Darfur (Small Arms Survey, 2009)

R. S. O’Fahey, “Umm Kwakiyya or the Damnation of Darfur,” African Affairs, 106 (2007)

Musa Adam Abdul-Jalil, “Nomad-Sedentary Relations and the Question of Land Rights in Darfur: From Complementarity to Conflict,” in Richard Rottenburg (ed), Nomadic-Sedentary Relations and Failing State Institutions in Darfur and Kordofan (Halle: Orientwissenschaftliche Hefte 26; Mitteilungen des SFB, Differenz und Integration 12)

Posted in Sudan | Tagged , | 9 Comments

Season of Migration to the North: By Tayeb Salih (1969)

“Everyone starts at the beginning of the road, and the world is in an endless state of childhood.”

It’s the 1960s, and we find ourselves in a village on the Nile. The narrator, a young man who has just finished his studies of English poetry abroad, returns home to discover a newcomer, Mustafa Sa’eed, has moved into town. At first somewhat suspicious of this stranger, the narrator becomes infected with the mystery of his story. Mustafa Sa’eed is from Khartoum and, although we are never certain what his academic role was, we learn that he studied in England and lectured as an economist there.

We are then taken on a journey as the narrator’s intrigue leads him to piece together the secrets of Mustafa Sa’eed’s past. In moments of confidence that seem to be laid out intentionally for the narrator to follow, Mustafa Sa’eed stops short of confessing involvement in the mysterious suicides of the women in his life in England. He recounts his trial there and his return home to Sudan; and before disappearing without a trace, Mustafa designates the narrator caretaker of his wife and sons.

The narrator, like Mustafa Sa’eed, is caught between two worlds in an attempt to reconcile an identity interrupted and brutalized by colonialism:

“The fact that they came to our land, I know not why, does that mean that we should poison our present and our future? Sooner or later they will leave our country, just as many people throughout history left many countries. The railways, ships, hospitals, factories and schools will be ours and we’ll speak their language without either a sense of guilt or a sense of gratitude. Once again we shall be as we were — ordinary people — and if we are lies we shall be lies of our own making.”

The duality is almost maddening as it becomes duality upon duality, and the reverberations of Fanon — whether there intentionally or not — are potent. At times they are distant thunder underfoot, and at other times they are deafening clashes. When the narrator speaks to an Englishman in Sudan who knew of Mustafa Sa’eed’s work at Oxford, he is met with a cynical assessment of Sa’eed as an unreliable economist whose statistics were not academically sound.

The Englishman said that Mustafa Sa’eed was

“… one of the darlings of the English left… It was as though they wanted to say: Look how tolerant and liberal we are! This African is just like one of us! … If you only knew, this sort of European is no less evil than the madmen who believe in the supremacy of the white man in South Africa and in the southern states of America. The same exaggerated emotional energy bears either to the extreme right or to the extreme left. If only he had stuck to academic studies… He would have certainly returned and benefited with his knowledge this country in which superstitions hold sway. And here you are now believing in superstitions of a new sort: the superstition of industrialization, the superstition of nationalization, the superstition of Arab unity, the superstition of African unity. Like children you believe that in the bowels of the earth lies a treasure you’ll attain by some miracle, and that you’ll solve all your difficulties and set up a Garden of Paradise. Fantasies. Waking dreams. Through facts, figures, and statistics you can accept your reality, live together with it, and attempt to bring about changes within the limits of your potentialities.”

The narrator retreats into his thoughts: “What was the use of arguing? This man — Richard — was also fanatical. Everyone’s fanatical in one way or another. Perhaps we do believe in the superstitions he mentioned, yet he believes in a new, a contemporary superstition — the superstition of statistics.”

As Richard and a Sudanese friend continue the debate, the narrator observes: “They were not angry: they said such things to each other as they laughed, a stone’s throw from the Equator, with a bottomless historical chasm separating the two of them.”

The novel is a magical realist tale complete with scandal, murder, sex, passionate love, salacious humor, strong women, postcolonial politics, identity crises, soul-searching, and penetrating metaphors. The timing of the novel is crucial to the development of the story, as it is not told in chronological order; but Salih is a master of this device. The narrator recalls bits of conversation with Mustafa Sa’eed as they come to mind, but at times it feels as though we are hearing Mustafa’s voice as it emerges in the narrator’s mind, without it being an explicit memory. The silences are important too; what is said and what is not said, what is implied and what is left unanswered.

Considering this novel was originally written in Arabic, the translation is really impressive. You can tell Salih worked closely with the translators in interpreting this from Arabic idioms and language into English. Most of the metaphors are not lost, so far as I can tell, and the imagery is, at times, stunning:

“The blood of the setting sun suddenly spilled out on the western horizon like that of millions of people who have died in some violent war that has broken out between Earth and Heaven.”

I am no literary critic; I have no training in reading between the lines of literature or properly placing a work of fiction within the life and circumstances of the author or the time period in which it was written. The introduction to the New York Review of Books edition (2009) by Laila Lalami is very good and I would recommend reading it either before or after reading the novel.

Largely from my own imagination, I think, there may be a loose metaphor in the novel, in which Mustafa Sa’eed is colonialism anthropomorphized. While Lalami, in her introduction, points out the metaphor of colonialism as an infectious disease in much of Salih’s imagery, Mustafa Sa’eed, too, seems to infect people, and with disastrous consequences. Colonialism and Mustafa Sa’eed, in the novel, are both misguided, mentally unsound, mysterious, intriguing, and manipulative; and they both lead those they claim to love to death and madness — which also calls to mind Fanon. Lalami hints at this metaphor when she excerpts the defense attorney from Mustafa’s trial: “These girls were not killed by Mustafa Sa’eed but by the germ of a deadly disease that assailed them a thousand years ago.” (This is in reference to the Roman invasion of Britain, which Britain became infected by and subsequently spread to its own colonies.)

The book is vaguely reminiscent, in its intimacy and depiction of oppression, of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899). It’s been a long time since I read that novel, but it aroused many of the same emotions in me and recalled some of the same kind of imagery. There is also a striking similarity in both novels’ endings.

What I would love is for someone with literary expertise, with more time than I have, to look at both novels and parse the colonialism, gender, and power dynamics of these novels to see what kinds of things they are saying, how they are saying them similarly and how they are saying them differently.

Season of Migration to the North is a beautiful novel that I would recommend not just to students of African literature, but to anyone who enjoys great novels. Little wonder that in 1976 Salih was declared the “genius of the Arabic novel” and in 2001 the book was chosen by Arab writers and critics as the most important Arab novel of the twentieth century.

It’s one of those rare books in which you finish it and think, “I have to read that again.”

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Hassan: Hat Tip to a Local Champion

Last year I wrote a post for A Day Without Dignity about a community based development organization, Mbuyuni Development Youth Group. Mbuyuni works on a number of small-scale projects in their neighborhood, including trash collection and recycling.  They run a tree nursery, make soap to sell as a way of fundraising, and help run the school for children that can’t afford school fees or for whatever reason can’t go to the primary school just down the road.

Mbuyuni is made up entirely of volunteers.

I recently helped Hassan, the director of Mbuyuni and a friend of mine, set up a blog for the group. At the moment we are talking about how to coordinate posting and how best to solicit donations online.

For Hassan, the blog represents a way to get support (moral and monetary) from a broader audience than the suburbs of Mombasa. For me, as a graduate student trained in area studies, it represents a much needed platform for organizations like Mbuyuni and people like Hassan to have a more audible voice. Unfortunately I did not have the opportunity to either interview Hassan or ask him to write a blog post in time for A Day Without Dignity 2012.

This post is a hat-tip to, and mini-portrait of, Hassan.



On the weekends, Mbuyuni makes the rounds in the neighborhood to collect trash.

Trash is brought to a central location, where it is sorted.

Hassan with some of the children at the school Mbuyuni helps run

As if community work and providing a place for the local kids to socialize and learn weren’t enough, Hassan commutes to Mombasa during the week to manage a small curio shop just across the way from Fort Jesus. If I’m reading his emails correctly (my Mombasa Swahili is rusty) Hassan has also just trained to be a teacher. This is a schedule that rivals that of a working graduate student (which, I should be clear, I was once but am not at the moment).

Hassan's shop

Hassan has a great sense of humor and is always laughing with friends and visitors

Hassan packing up his wares for the evening

I write this post, then, in support of A Day Without Dignity 2012, whose focus this year is on Local Champions.

Hassan, kweli wewe ni shujaa ya jamii. Tuendelee kufanya kazi kwa bidii pamoja ili Mbuyuni ikue. Tutawasiliana tena hivi karibuni.

Posted in Development | Tagged , , | 1 Comment