Public Anthropology Conference @ American University

Just a brief note to my DC-based and DC-adjacent readers that the American University Anthropology Department’s annual Public Anthropology Conference will be taking place this weekend. You can find out more about the conference here, and you can see the full schedule for the weekend here. Registration is free and includes lunch, and the conference’s theme is about connecting social movements and academia, which may be relevant to some of you.

I mention this partially because I’ll be participating in a dialogue on the topic of “Ethnography and Advocacy across Categories,” on Oct. 9 at 9:00am at the Mary Graydon Center, Rm. 203-205. A handful of us, at various stages of academia from MA student to professor, will be talking about how we engage in, conflict with, or study activists and other forms of advocacy. Here’s a full abstract of the dialogue:

How can one reconcile the role of the ethnographer, which traditionally strives for objectivity, and the activist/advocate, which is consciously subjective? This dialogue session will explore how one, in the course of ethnographic labor, could tell the story of multiple groups in friction with one another, while also inhabiting the role of advocate for one or more of those groups. We will also examine the broader question of what forms advocacy can, or perhaps should, take in the context of anthropological work. Each participant will begin by discussing the ways in which their own work a) functions across or among cultural categories or groups and b) either intentionally or unintentionally does the work of advocacy for one or more of those categories or groups.

Because it’s a dialogue, it will be informal and we encourage audience participation in the conversation. The rest of the conference has some interesting panels and presentations as well. I hope to see you there!

On Grief, Paper Money, and Finding Tradition

Growing up, I was pretty assimilated for a child of an immigrant. Sure, we celebrated Chinese New Year every year with feasts and red envelopes, and I attended Chinese school every Sunday for six or seven years, but outside of these moments I didn’t always feel like I was Chinese. Christmas was the biggest celebration of the year. My household hosted Thanksgiving every fall. As I grew older, weekly dinners at my grandparents’ house became a good tradition, and one filled to the brim with good Chinese food and good conversation – often even in Mandarin. These weekly dinners were what it meant to be half-Chinese for me.

My mother and her entire family migrated to the U.S. from Asia. Ethnic Han Chinese (I think), my grandmother is from Burma and my grandfather from China (I think). My mother’s generation grew up in Thailand and Laos before moving to the U.S., bit by bit, eventually settling, bit by bit, in the suburbs of Phoenix. And speaking Mandarin, having red envelopes on Chinese New Year, and going to weekly dinners was what I inherited from it all.

When my grandfather passed away ten years ago, we found some tradition. I remember the funeral, a typical affair, but I also remember a steep learning curve when we prepared other ceremonies to remember my late gōng gōng (公公), and suddenly we were being very Chinese. I remember lighting incense and kneeling on a cushion, bowing three times while thinking of my grandfather. We miss you, gong gong. I remember watching my grandmother, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, even my father – midwestern and white as he is – bowing in front of the dining table, which had been converted into a prayer table. I remember there being a kerfuffle about whether everyone in the family  would participate, but it was unnecessary drama. We were family. That day, we lit incense together and we bowed together, and then – as usual – we ate together.

20160826_215604I remember folding thin sheets of paper into little shapes to make gold bars. I remember lighting fires in metal trays and pales in the backyard so that we could drop the paper money in the flames to send it to him. I remember being confused by the “Hell bank notes” that would allow my grandfather to pay for safe passage. I remember laughing as we unwrapped fake paper items to send to my grandfather on the wings of smoke that accidentally singed a tree in the backyard. There was a paper gray car, some paper dress shirts, lots of paper money – even a paper house that we cast into the fire that day.

Every time I had dinner at my grandparents’ house thereafter, my grandmother would prepare a small bowl for her late husband and set it by his portrait, lighting incense and praying before we started eating. On anniversaries of his passing and other important occasions, we burned more money and more incense.

I’ve never studied Chinese funerary tradition. I know little about why we do what we do every July first. I know it’s for my gong gong, and I know it’s for “the ancestors.” But I also know that – in addition to the language we speak, the food we eat, and those little red envelopes – these traditions became a part of what we do as a family. I may not feel the most connected to my heritage all of the time, but I feel it when I feel connected to my family. When we light paper gold bars on fire. When we get red envelopes. When we sit down to eat together.

My grandmother passed away last Saturday. My póa poa 婆婆 was one of the strongest people I ever knew – I mean this in terms of life histories: she raised a family spread across four countries and then raised most of us grandchildren too, but she also went to the gym more often than me right up until her last weeks, squeezing in 2 1/2 hour work-outs between dialysis appointments, thanks to my mom. She taught me Chinese all of my life, right up until her last weeks, too – when I called her last week, the first time we had talked in months, she corrected me a few times. I wish I could remember what words she taught me then. I remember that she was excited about her surgery – an operation to help her cope with pain and thus be more mobile. It didn’t work out that way, and she quickly went from slowed-down-by-pain to paralyzed-and-hospitalized, and now I find myself folding up paper money for her. I find myself debating cooking her recipe for dumplings, or maybe huang meng ji – her chicken wings and my personal favorite – even though I’ve never gotten either dish anywhere close to right. But cooking and eating together is our tradition, after all. Like speaking Chinese, or handing out red envelopes, or burning paper clothes.

We spent last night at my aunt’s restaurant folding paper, and this morning we’ll light some fires and send it to 婆婆. And tonight we’ll eat together.

Development and the Cash Economy

I spent some time this summer in Uganda with a few different undergrads, many of whom were on their first trip to a developing country. One conversation that came up several times (admittedly, I kept bringing it up) was the difference between a Western conception of development versus what Ugandans might actually want. I’ve been thinking about these conversations, and others, because I’ll be teaching a course on development this fall, and I’m likely to have these conversations with some of my students over the remainder of the year. Pardon the disjointed narrative below as I plod through a few things that are still taking shape.

In 2010, when I was on my first trip to Uganda, a friend told me that sometimes the organization she worked for had trouble keeping staff employed because, once people made enough money for the time being, they would quit. While in the U.S. one may work hard to earn a raise, and continue working to earn more, several people in Uganda, it seemed, were working long enough to make a decent amount of money and then choosing to not work for as long as that money would last.

I don’t know if this is true, but it surprised me when I first heard it as a naïve twenty-year-old. But, true or not in this specific instance, these types of stories are commonplace in the developing (and development) world. The capitalist mindset and assumed motivation for accumulation and profit are far from universal, and yet are part of the baggage that many practitioners from the Global North carry with them, often without even realizing it.

But why work more when you’ve made enough to just spend time with family, or drink, or tell stories, or do literally anything but work? The literature in the anthropology of development (and anthropology of capitalism) is rife with these types of stories. Six years, many books, and two more trips to sub-Saharan Africa later, these types of stories are expected. Capitalist wage labor gets equated with slavery1 or tied to devil worship2, just to cite some examples. People don’t focus on wealth in money when they could strive for wealth in cows. They might not strive for individual independence, but rather seek “wealth in people”3. The forms of development we see often have waged employment as a goal, through vocational training, for example. Desire for employment is assumed. Some of the people I met this summer were working on internships or applied research projects that made similar assumptions – that wage laborers wanted to make as much money as possible, that people could be incentivized through bonuses.

I mention all of this not to point out that these students came to Uganda with their own set of assumptions (although that’s certainly true, just as it is with me and everyone else). After all, these assumptions are what make up the foundation of the IMF, the World Bank, and the entire global development regime. I point it out because all of these experiences – my own and those of countless others, from undergrads and newly minted development professionals to those of established scholars, practitioners, and critics – have yet to undermine capitalist development as it is experienced. Even when IMF economists say that neoliberalism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be [here’s a pdf of the report], it’s a half-hearted apology from an institution that is still 100% behind capitalism (see Chelwa and also Hengeveld). I mention this because the assumption of a capitalist desire to make profit is an enduring one, and one that informs virtually all of development, despite development being implemented in societies whose history of capitalism is much briefer than the U.S. or Western Europe, and despite capitalism being a system that is more likely to exacerbate inequality and poverty rather than reduce it.

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In Gulu town since the war shifted across the border, things have changed remarkably. Just in the three intervening years since my MA research and this summer, the town has changed a lot. Roads are paved, a new market has opened, the town has grown. This is, some would say, development.

I was walking with a friend a few weeks ago, and I mentioned to him that I enjoyed living in town. He made fun of me for liking town so much, and told me that he didn’t really like staying there. When I asked why, his answer was simple. “People here are trying to make money.” This was a young university graduate who had multiple jobs and was aspiring to gain a state salary, but he was adamant that life in town was hard (“kwo town tek,” if I remember correctly), and that life in town was marked by people being preoccupied with earning money. Life in the village, though, was simpler and more enjoyable. Several of my friends in town mentioned either yearning for or being in the process of cultivating land outside of town.

This all hearkened back, pretty much explicitly, to Adam Branch’s study of Gulu town during and after displacement [gated, here’s an earlier version as a pdf]. In it, Branch discusses how town changed as displaced people went back to the villages, the region’s poor and returnees ostracized by village life were funneled into town, and the cash economy came with urban development and the NGO influx. While many women and youth saw positive changes in town, many elders (those who were on top of the old system) were wary of these changes, arguing that they eroded Acholi society and values.

But beyond the social structures of life in Acholiland before, during, and after the war, there are also fundamental difficulties that come with a more urban, more capitalist way of life. Branch quotes one women as saying that “village life is better than town life. Life in town needs money at all times and every day which is not the case in the village. In the village you can just dig and eat well even if there is no money there” (p. 3158). Life in a cash system doesn’t come with a safety net.

Development has often focuses on the rural poor, trying to “modernize” people’s farming habits, provide education to those far from schools, etc. But many NGOs now work in cities as well, often with similar goals of bringing people into the economic system. And surely there are a number of entrepreneurial people who embrace this way of life and excel at opening up shops, building up successful businesses. But not everyone wants to make money. What will development offer them?

1. Graeber, David. 2007. Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar

2. Taussig, Michael T. 1980. The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America

3. Mier, Suzanne and Igor Kopytoff, eds. 1977. Slavery In Africa: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives, cited in some excellent recent books that look at why people seek to be dependent on others: Jim Ferguson’s (2015) Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution and China Schertz’s (2014) Having People, Having Heart: Charity, Sustainable Development, and Problems of Dependence in Central Uganda.

Branch, Adam. 2013. “Gulu in War… and Peace? Town as Camp in Northern Uganda.” Urban Studies, 50 (15), pp. 3152-3167.

Caine Blog: “Memories We Lost” by Lidudumalingani

This post is part of a series of reviews of the Caine Prize 2016 shortlist. You can download Lidudumalingani’s story here as a pdf.

This story, one about losing someone to mental illness, and trying to navigate a path between bad options regarding it, is a beautiful one. Lidudumalingani manages to weave the narrator’s memories – flashes of her sister’s episodes of schizophrenia – with a story of coping, escape, and love among siblings. It’s also, as Ikhide Ikeloa notes, a story that sheds light on the precarious situation of South Africa’s rural population in regards to healthcare. The sister undergoes treatment after treatment that renders her docile, but not well. She has no episodes, but she also has no life anymore. Finally, their mother decides to take her to a healer with a frightening reputation:

[T]he next day my sister would be taken to Nkunzi to be baked. This is what they did with people who heard voices or demons, as they called them; they baked them until the demons left them. What was even more terrible than the baking was that people had come to be convinced of it. I had heard of how Nkunzi baked people. He would make a fire from cow dung and wood, and once the fire burned red he would tie the demon-possessed person onto a section of zinc roofing then place it on the fire. He claimed to be baking the demons and that the person would recover from the burns a week later. I had not heard of anyone who had died but I had not heard of anyone who had lived either.

Between medicine that makes you a vegetable and a sangoma that bakes you like one, the options of mental health here are not good. Recently, an interlocutor here in Uganda tried to explain an Acholi phrase to me. He likened it to being in a situation where all options are bad, and you must be prepared to leap at a way out. This whole story, as we move from one schizophrenic episode to another and to the community’s solution, I was hoping for a way out. An out to which the main characters indeed leap to.

This is surely a story about community – the village community that gathers during key moments as well as the familial community and the bond between sisters. But in addition to community, it is also a story about place. When the narrator describes the villagers as they search for her missing sister in the night during a particularly bad moment, for example:

Those without torches or candles walked on even though the next step in such darkness was possibly a plunge down a cliff. This was unlikely, it should be said, as most of them were born in the village, grew up there, got married there, had used that very same field as their toilet for all their lives, and had had in overlapping periods only left the village when they went to work for the white man in large cities. They had a blueprint of the village in their minds; its walking paths, its indentations, its rivers, its mountains, its holes where ghosts lived were imprinted in their blood.

Surely some of the villagers are reluctant to go off into the night in the search, but they are a part of the community, so they do their part. They are also part of the space that they’ve existed in all their lives, and so they are able to go out into the dark. Later, when the narrator tries to whisk her sister away from their mother’s plan to have her baked, they must escape not just the situation, but also the community, also the place:

We walked by the river and then abandoned it, walked up a mountain and down the other side into a village. I was not sure whether it was Philani or another village. I had only ever been there once before and that visit was not even physical. My mother had mentioned it in one of her stories before she moved us into the new house – before a week later replacing our father, and us, with the Smellyfoot.

Once we descended the mountain and found ourselves in a strange village we would knock on the first house that had its light on and sleep there. That had been the initial plan, but it was flawed. Everyone in the villages knew everyone. I was convinced that whomever we asked for a place to sleep, even if we were to lie and give them false names, tell them that we were heading to the next village but something had delayed us, they would have recognised us, either because we have my grandfather’s ears or my mother’s nose or that they had seen us when we were toddlers, even stroked our buttocks. It had always been said that my sister had my grandfather’s forehead. The plan was too risky.

We are close, I told my sister. Close to where, I had no idea. All the same, we were going forward, and it felt like we had reached where we were going, which was nowhere in particular. All that mattered was that we were now far from home. We had no idea where we were going to sleep, what we were going to eat or how we were going to live, but returning home was not an option.

To escape the situation, they had to escape everything else. In the end, the sisters continue on, “to somewhere.” Anywhere but home – even nearby villages ran the risk of being part of the wider community that they were a part of. They needed to escape completely in order to help her sister. She might not be able to escape her mental illness, but she can escape the treatment and the sedation and the burning. But to do that she has to be removed from the community in a different way.

Caine Blog: “At Your Requiem” by Bongani Kona

This post is part of a series of reviews of the Caine Prize 2016 shortlist. You can download Kona’s story here as a pdf.

Bongani Kona’s story, a reflection by the narrator – Christopher – to his late brother Abraham about their lives growing up, moves in interesting ways. Mostly, as Aaron Bady notes, because it doesn’t move it all. “At the beginning of the story, the brother is dead; at the end, the brother remains dead. In seven short pages, we go nowhere.” The first page also includes a descriptive “rewind” as the brother is wheeled out of the ambulance, back to the tree from which he killed himself, and back into the house. From there, we dance around the event of the story and through stories of their childhood, their separate lives as adults, and to the funeral.

And yet, the story does go somewhere. While it may not feature the types of events that a short story is often centered around or at least uses to mark its movement, “At Your Requiem” nonetheless features a gradual emergence of a state of things. We find hints of what drove the brothers apart, what led to Abraham’s death, what sort of environment punctuated their lives growing up. In this way, by gradually sketching out a state of things, the story develops – in a perhaps indirect and all too brief way – an arc of tragedy in family. In this way it echos some of the other stories shortlisted this year.

Also like some of the other stories this year, it addresses illness – specifically drug and alcohol addiction. However, in “At Your Requiem” these issues are mere facts of the story – rehab is mentioned, alcohol abuse is spoken about – rather than features of the narrative being spun, in the way of Tope Folarin’s and Lidudmalingani’s stories. In fact, everything here is a moment, a flash in the story as we shift from one scene to another until, as Bady notes, we end up right where we started.


Conflict after Peace? News from South Sudan

One of the paradoxes of studying insecurity and conflict is that, when your topic of research happens too much, you can’t actually do the research. Five days before my flight to Yambio, South Sudan, I just had to cancel the whole trip as news comes out about increased tension near Nzara (a nearby town and my other field sight) and the potential spread of violence. I’m unhappy about my research prospects, for sure, but really the news of renewed violence in this region is bad news for everyone there, especially as South Sudan stumbles towards what was supposed to be a peaceful resolution of its civil war. This and other news from South Sudan seems to also fit right into an increasingly frequent pattern of violence that comes after peace treaties are signed and disarmament begins.

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In the late 1980s, when unrest first began in northern Uganda, the government signed the Pece Agreement with the rebel UPDA forces (see Caroline Lamwaka’s report here [pdf]). Overtures had been made to include the Holy Spirit Movement groups (including what would eventually become Kony’s LRA), but in the end government forces attacked HSM before talks could begin, and the they were excluded from the Pece Agreement. As Lamwaka says, “the failure of these initiatives was to have lasting consequences. Fighters loyal to Kony resumed their raids on civilian and NRA targets” (31). While many of the UPDA soldiers were either disarmed or integrated into the national army, the LRA remained in the bush and at war. As Adam Branch notes [pdf], “Kony stepped up attacks in reaction to his exclusion from the agreement. Setting a precedent that it has followed since, the Ugandan government had begun negotiations with Kony in early 1988, only to sabotage the talks at the key moment, provoking a outbreak of violence from Kony” (15). This cycle has repeated itself often, most recently in the 2008 Christmas Massacres that the LRA carried out in the Congo after failed peace talks and a government attack.

The LRA’s increased violence after being excluded from a peace process is not unique. Just in this region alone, rebels who have felt slighted by peace agreements, or armed groups who did not get an adequate share of the spoils after war, have turned to more war as the solution in Congo, CAR, and South Sudan. Several anthropologists and others have looked at how peace processes actually lead some actors directly to taking up arms again or reconstituting themselves as an armed group to gain legitimacy at the table.

Even after the peace treaty is signed and demobilization programs get implemented, things aren’t guaranteed to work. Danny Hoffman has described the labor that goes into being or seeming violent in order to claim participation in DDR (Demobilization, Disarmament, and Reintegration) schemes in Sierra Leone and Liberia. In the conclusion to their edited volume on Central African Republic, Louisa Lombard and Tatiana Carayannis briefly describe the failures of DDR programs in a place where the state has never had a monopoly on violence and self-defense groups, while predatory, can also at times be a line of protection. Lombard’s forthcoming book promises to delve even further into these processes.

* *

The peace agreement signed recently between the SPLA and the rebel SPLA-IO in South Sudan has given many some hope for some semblance of a way forward to peace, but it’s a rough road, and not everyone’s on it. Last week, news came of large-scale violence in Wau, where an alleged new rebel group killed 43 people, mostly civilians. Apparently, the peace agreement did not address the grievances of these groups – or perhaps even exacerbated them. If reports are to be believed, the new group includes a motley combination of former government soldiers, LRA, and Janjaweed militia fighters – all of whom likely have unique, localized reasons for taking up arms, but have perhaps consolidated or collaborated in order to effectively threaten the state. Sometimes peace deals bring some people together, but not all, and those left out turn to violence, or those who see the spoils of a peace agreement want to take a share as well.

The southwestern part of South Sudan that I am trying to do research in largely kept out of the civil war that wreaked so much destruction and tragedy in the country for the last two years. But, since the initial peace agreement was reached in August, violence has flared up in Western Equatoria State in a manner that runs tangential, but connected, to the national civil war. This International Crisis Group report highlights the predicament that fighters in the area find themselves in:

Though they were not then a battleground, South Sudan’s civil war created the conditions for new conflicts in the Equatorias. After fighting broke out in December 2013, old suspicions about Western Equatorians’ commitment to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) seemed vindicated, as the region struggled to meet a government recruitment quota, and many sought to keep out of what they saw as a “Dinka-Nuer war”…. Determinations over whether Equatorian armed groups are eligible to join the ARCSS cantonment process [part of the peace agreement DDR program] as “forces previously in combat” at the time of signing have been complicated by the warring parties. The SPLM/A-IO has claimed the Equatorian rebel groups and operations as their own, though they sometimes have not been. The government denies the SPLA-IO is active in the region, which would make Equatorian combatants ineligible for the cantonment, but some still allege SPLA-IO ceasefire violations in the Equatorias. Mutual obfuscation is compounded by the failure of ceasefire mechanisms to investigate peace agreement breaches in a timely fashion and identify armed groups’ relationships to the SPLA-IO. Failure to find a solution for forces which joined the fighting after the agreement was signed in August 2015 could lead to continued combat, a rift within the SPLA-IO and decisions by forces not deemed eligible to continue to fight in response.

After several months of fighting, this spring I got word that I might be able to do fieldwork in this region as things had calmed down. But, as the fighting had occurred largely after the August peace agreement was signed, many of the armed actors in the region have now been excluded from the benefits of peace. In turn, some of them seem to have taken up arms again, with additional grievances.

While unrelated, the potential uptick in violence near Nzara and the killings in Wau may be derived from the same peace process which failed to account for violence at the margins of the war. In an effort to stake their claim that they are to be reckoned with, some of these actors have continued war. Here, Louisa Lombard’s other work, on threat economies and armed conservation efforts, provides a useful analytic. “Threats and confrontations can be a useful means to position oneself,” she says (221), and this applies to armed anti-poaching efforts as well as rebellion. “The rebels who emerged in CAR over the last decade have mostly sought not to unseat the president but to threaten him or her enough to force concessions and be included in largesse in new ways. Rebellion violence is more visible than that of armed conservation, but it relies on the same threat and hiding encounters, and the same claim to entitlements and an income” (224).

As South Sudan attempts to navigate its way out of civil war, it has left behind a string of armed actors that were excluded or otherwise marginalized from the path to peace. This has already had negative consequences in different parts of the country, but only time will tell just how far these consequences will reach.

Caine Blog: “Genesis” by Tope Folarin

This post is part of a series of reviews of the Caine Prize 2016 shortlist. You can download Folarin’s story as a pdf here.

Tope Folarin has a way of telling stories from a child’s point of view. His 2013 Caine Prize-winning story, “Miracle,” was about a child at a church service in Texas. I loved reading it, and I saw him do a reading from his story in the Africa 39 collection, which was also very good. I’m glad I get to read more work by him (seriously when is that book coming out?). “Genesis,” Folarin’s story shortlisted for this year’s Caine Prize, is a really powerful story about mental illness, race, and family in America. It weaves these themes together in a really intricate, beautiful, and sad way.

The story is about a boy’s experiences living in Utah, including being the only person of color at school, or encountering religious differences (and racism) from the vantage of the naivete and vulnerability of a child. It also deals a lot with mental health, as the boy’s mother endures episodes of anger, violence, and even seeing things. These episodes lead the mother to eventually escape with her children to a shelter for a time. Viewed from a child’s perspective, these experiences have a sort of rawness that is really powerful. The story doesn’t just tell what happens, nor does it try to analyze it – the storyteller responds, and it colors the events throughout.

The story is also perhaps semi-autobiographical. Folarin was born in Ogden, Utah, to immigrant parents, just like the narrator of this story. He has also talked before about his mother dealing with mental health issues when he was little, ultimately resulting in her returning to Nigeria. Folarin’s work has always been rooted in his own experiences, which I think is part of what gives strength to the writing. When Aaron Bady asked him about his autobiographical novel-in-progress (from which, I would assume, “Genesis” emerged), Folarin said:

It certainly is autobiographical, I’m not going to claim it’s not. But I’ve discovered that even if I start with an autobiographical premiseyes, I was born in raised in Utah, yes, I went to high school in Texasthe moment I sit and attempt to pin down these ideas, it becomes something different. If a reader is reading my work, and they say “Now I know all there is to know about Tope, or “Ta-peh,” because of what I’ve read,” that would be inaccurate. I’m trying my best to tell a very particular story about identity that, in some ways, is similar to mine, and in some ways isn’t.

Moments in the author’s life surely shaped how and what he has written. This is likely true for many authors, but especially for someone writing fiction that travels in the same circles and paths as their lived life. Unlike Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún, who took issue with a fictional story trafficking so heavily on autobiography (to be clear, Túbọ̀sún wasn’t critical of the story as such, but thinking through categorization and what the Caine Prize includes), I’d rather we shatter the categorical differences altogether. What makes fiction non-fiction? Buried many novels that take place in faraway worlds often lurks the “real.” And non-fiction can be written in a way that bends reality as well. Such categories obscure the complexities of a story. For a writer to write aspects of his life into a story that is also sometimes fiction seems quite fine to me, and if that process also leads to the story feeling that much more resonating, all the better.

Folarin has said that his “life has been kind of about moving on from one place to the next, and developing an identity that is composed of disparate parts. So my fiction is concerned with that kind of journey.” Taking this story, alongside his other recent works, a broader story of placelessness is surely taking shape, and it’s one that brings family, race, and faith together in very interesting ways.

Caine Blog: “What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky” by Lesley Nneka Arima

This post is part two of a series of reviews of the Caine Prize 2016 shortlist. You can download a pdf of Arimah’s story here.

When a man falls from the sky, it can mean many things. It could mean an accident has occurred, or that the man was pushed. It could mean he committed suicide. In Lesley Nneka Arimah’s interesting and ambitious story, it means that someone who had tried to use a mathematical equation called the Furcal Formula – an equation that explained the core of humanity and the universe – to defy gravity, had failed. Before I got very far into this story, however, it made me think of a different reason a man might fall from the sky. Witchcraft. Or, rather, failed witchcraft.

Let’s back up a step. Just last month I read Human Rights and African Airwaves: Mediating Equality on the Chichewa Radio by Harri Englund. Not a lot to do with fiction and the Caine Prize, but bear with me. In this unrelated but otherwise very good ethnography, Englund highlights how a particular Chichewa news program in Malawi created a new space and new ways for listeners to think about the society they lived in – thinking especially about equality and about rights. One example he gives is a news story in which a man had been flying and flew over a house with powers that knocked him right out of the sky. Another example is a man who took his coworker across the country in a blink of an eye, but on the return flight the coworker let go and dropped in the middle of nowhere. I won’t go into Englund’s arguments, because that’s for another post someday, but it’s why I thought of witchcraft.

Witchcraft, especially witchcraft as it features in (Western) academic scholarship, is often a site of conflicting epistemologies. As far as I’m concerned, so is math and algorithms as applied to social (and emotional) life. And yet, in Arimah’s sci-fi short story we find ourselves in a world where math explains everything, and I mean everything. My own quant-wary sensibilities clutched their pearls as I read about how the formula could explain people’s emotions, and even change them.

Nneoma, the story’s main character, is a “grief worker” – a mathematician who specializes in “calculating and subtracting emotions, drawing them from living bodies like poison from a wound.” This ability is derived from the formula, which explains the universe and everything in it. But when the man fell out of the sky, it fed rumors that the formula was imperfect. Unfortunately, we also quickly learn that being a grief worker is perhaps a precarious profession – one recently drove himself mad and killed himself, another simply disappeared. Nneoma uses her skills to make money removing the grief from wealthy parents who have lost their children. Meanwhile, her ex, Kioni, has dedicated her energy to refugees and other “distressed populations.”

When Nneoma goes to give a talk to some school children – an educational talk that also acted as a recruiting drive for those who could make sense of the formula – she described her job as “fix[ing] the equation of a person” by removing bad emotions. After her presentation, Nneoma faced two different responses – a protest and a plea. One student echoed his father, saying that “you shouldn’t be stopping a person from feeling natural hardships. That’s what it means to be human.” Nneoma dismisses this without a beat, arguing that the child and his father live easy lives free from the type of pain she alleviates (sidestepping the fact that she only works with wealthy parents, whose grief might be relatively less than victims of war, displacement, and torture. Immediately afterwards, however, a poor Senegalese immigrant and survivor of untold tragedy asked, “So you can make it all go away?” to which Nneoma said yes – but hedged that she could not help this girl due to regulations, costs, and citizenship. Despite this, Nneoma takes her grief away, soaking it up herself.

Grief workers don’t just make sadness and pain disappear. They take it. And it builds. When Nneoma tried to help your father get through the loss of her mother, she faltered because of the interconnected emotions. Just speaking with the girl unsettled her – which is why “she rarely worked with refugees, true refugees… the complexity of their suffering always took something from her.” When you subtract, it has to go somewhere.

Also embedded in this ambitious story is a whole setting on which the reader dwells. The story includes short snippets and nods to the Biafra-Britannia Alliance, an agreement the British used to gain asylum but one in which “one hand reached out for help [while] the other wielded a knife,” or to the French “Elimination” of the Senegalese. Or whatever America did to Mexico. These snippets include a paragraph that is packed with new information that we only get a glimpse of:

At checkout, the boy who scanned and bagged her groceries had a name tag that read “Martin,” which may or may not have been his name. The Britons preferred their service workers with names they could pronounce, and most companies obliged them. The tattoo on his wrist indicated his citizenship – an original Biafran – and his class, third. No doubt he lived outside of the city and was tracked the minute he crossed the electronic threshold till he finished his shift and left. He was luckier than most.

These sentences sketch out a truly dystopic world – one where North America, Europe, and Russia are submerged, and refugee populations have radically changed the social fabric of what used to be Africa – now the United Countries. But the sketch is only ever that – nothing comes into clear view, Arimah doesn’t linger on any of the context for more than a few sentences. But she lingers on the aftermath of all this grief work.

Nneoma’s experience trying to help her father, and her reaction to helping the Senegalese girl, give a prelude to the story’s tragic end. So to does the man falling from the sky, a signal that there is something wrong with the formula on which all of this work is built. If eating people’s emotions and suppressing them into distant memories is only possible through Furcal’s Formula, then a mistake in the formula could – and does – have dire consequences for Nneoma and her ex, Kioni. When Kioni finally appears in person, it’s only as what’s left after the grief within has consumed her. And in a last ditch effort to help her lover, Nneoma dives headlong into the “ten thousand traumas in [Kioni’s] psyche,” never to emerge.

In the end, perhaps the Furcal Formula was incommensurable with emotions, with human flight, with the universe and everyday life. Just as trying to explain witchcraft with functionalist analysis and explain political decisions with big data and even ranking burritos via data mining eventually run into problems, explaining emotions with x- and y-axes is a mission that is perhaps doomed to fail. And when you rely on math and turn out to be wrong, you face dire consequences. Perhaps there’s a lesson here for those who rely too firmly on unstable epistemologies.

“We do this for peace”: Former Rebels on the Air

A lot of questions remain about the shooting in Gulu town two weeks ago. Unnamed attackers fired on the central police station in town on the 12th, about a month after a group raided a local defense unit outpost in Opit, a small village in the district. Things have been quiet ever since, but the attack left lingering worries about insecurity and concerns about whether the attackers were a new rebel group or criminals. The government’s narrative is that it is mere banditry, a group of criminals trying to free an opposition politicians who was jailed there. Some news circulated of a new group claiming responsibility. Again, it’s all unconfirmed guesswork for many people watching.

For their part, many former LRA commanders have been proactive in denouncing violence. In the weeks since the attack, several of them have taken to the airwaves to speak against violence. This week alone, several have been on the radio more than once. Monday, for instance, several well-known former commanders were featured on the radio speaking about the attack.

The former LRA field commander “Maj. General” Caesar Acellam, says it is very unfortunate that former LRA fighters are being named as those who were behind the recent attacks on Opit army detach and the Gulu Central Police Station.

Speaking over a local radio station on Monday evening, Acellam said the attacks has led to a rise in sentiments against LRA fighters… Acellam cautioned former LRA fighters against being lured into rebellion saying it will drag the region into anarchy.


“Brig” Kenneth Banya, also a former senior LRA commander, in the same radio programme urged former LRA fighters already reintegrated into their respective communities to resist the influence of those who want them to carry arms and fight the government.

I recently spoke with a returned LRA fighter who also took part in one of these recent radio broadcasts. He expressed concern that these recent attacks might be used to try to “provoke” former LRA fighters to “mobilize,” and that their presence on the radio was to help oppose armed conflict. “We do these interviews for peace,” he said. “We wasted our time in the bush, without education; we want a better future for our children.”

These radio broadcasts have a lot in common – not least of which are the stations, presenters, and guests involved – with the come home radio programs that I’ve studied in the past. Using former rebel voices to speak against violence is a frequent occurrence on the airwaves here. Even though war left northern Uganda a decade ago, insecurity looms – these incidents are just the most recent examples (here are some older ones). Radio messages pertaining to bringing LRA fighters home continue, and get relayed in central Africa where those rebels remain. But locally, the program continues within different contexts – with former rebels coming together to speak out against violence, in an effort to stave off war, but also demonstrate their commitment to peace after having been in the bush for much of their lives.

Caine Blog: “The Lifebloom Gift” by Abdul Adan

This post is the first part of a short series of reviews of the Caine Prize 2016 shortlist. You can download Adan’s story here as a pdf.

This was the first story on the list, and I have to say I am not entirely sure how I feel about it. It’s creative, it’s interesting, it’s very original. It weaves the reader through senses and feelings in interesting ways. It’s also really, really weird. The story is about a narrator who has been suspended from his TSA job for “settling” on a mole on a passenger’s leg. But over the course of the story we find that this isn’t a one-off incident, but that he has an obsession with the so-called Lifebloom Gift.

Viewed as a story about obsession, about yearning, the story moves in interesting ways around the narrator and his friend, Ted Lifebloom. When the narrator meets Ted, he immediately begins to experience new feelings, expanded senses. “I thought I saw the universe in his eyes – the future and the past, and most of God’s holy best” for example. Or, when Ted rests his hand on the narrator’s shoulder and “I got carried into a greenish world I had only seen in dreams until then… It was a thing of the heavens.”

The heightening of the senses is something Ted brings about in the narrator, but Ted himself encounters the senses in a different way. He is tactile. When he was young, he clung to his mother. As an adult, he once asks to touch the narrator’s head to “reassure himself of my existence.” Ted himself says that “to experience something, one had to touch it. He denied the existence of anything he couldn’t touch, including air, the sun, the sky, the moon, and people he hadn’t touched.” But when he touched people, he brought about new feelings. As the narrator describes him – “Ted was love itself in human form.”

The obsession with this feeling, and with bringing about the feeling in others, leads the narrator and Ted to embark on a mission. They sneak into nursing home to find another potential “Lifebloomer.” They approach and overcome an old man, holding him down and touching his moles in an effort to awaken the Lifebloom Gift in him. The obsession with the Gift drives them to great lengths, but to no avail – he never calls the number they leave behind. This leads to Ted’s departure into the wild, and the narrator’s quest to find another Lifebloomer – a quest that leads him to a job and a firing at the TSA.

I agree with F.T. Kola that the story seems constrained by the workshop format (it was published in the Caine Prize anthology). There is a lot of potential in the story – a lot of things that could have been expanded and filled in. Instead, we have snippets – and snippets often work! but here I think the story could do more, could be more. At the same time, as a story about obsession deferred – a desire that never gets fulfilled – a story as short and incomplete as this works, in its own way. The yearning for more of the story is perhaps as close as one might get to the narrator’s hopes to feel.