At ASA!

This year I’m a commuter over at the African Studies Association’s annual meeting, as it’s in Washington today through Saturday. If you’re around. let’s meet up! In particular, I’m promoting two social events in addition to the panel I’ll be speaking on. Check them out!

Friday night the good people of Twitter will be congregating off-sit for our annual #ASA2016 tweet-up. Join us at Perry’s in Adams Morgan, a short hop away from the Marriott, starting at 6:00.

Also Friday night, the newly founded Institute for African Studies at George Washington University will be hosting a reception back at the Marriott at Wardman Park. As the institute is new, there won’t be tons of alumni hogging all the drinks and snacks – come hang out, meet people affiliated with the institute, and celebrate the opening of the new institute! 7:30-8:30, Virginia A.

Lastly, and most academically, I’ll be presenting on a panel alongside several scholars of Uganda on Saturday at 2:00pm, in room Washington 3. The paper I’ll be presenting on is a little bit of a departure for me: it will be less about radio, less about justice, and more about the work that words do in how we talk about the LRA conflict. Here’s a snippet:

Dominic Ongwen is desribed as “one of the highest profile defectors,” but Ongwen is not in the bush helping track down Kony but is actually sitting in The Hague awaiting trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Ongwen is a returnee, an alleged criminal, a former child soldier, a victim of LRA abduction – he is many things, but defector is probably not the most appropriate term. That the word is used to describe him calls into question who the rest of these defectors are. Also telling is the fact that the very next few paragraphs highlight the role of amnesty in encouraging rebels to come home – even though Ongwen received no such amnesty.

This seems to be evidence that defection, as a concept, is evacuated of its usual meaning as it is applied to any LRA fighters who surrender. But this broader application imposes the word’s two-sided framework, with militaristic consequences. Some of the LRA fighters who come home may integrate into civilian life, but some may choose to help fight their former captors. If we think of them as defectors, these are sensible outcomes. But if we were to call these returnees former child soldiers, would we be so quick to accept their new role in continued warfare? This is the work that the word does – a militaristic lexicon urges us to accept military roles for defectors, when a more thorough reflection may lead us to conclude that former child soldiers should demobilize. It is important to juxtapose defection and demobilization. While both acknowledge that one is leaving ranks, the paths lead in different directions. Defection implies a changing of sides – a shifting of ideologies, but a continued fight. Demobilization, quite literally, signals an exit from the battlefield.

In an article about military humanitarianism, Sverker Finnström (2012) quotes a New York Times article from 2010 in which a U.S. officer states that “these ex-LRA guys don’t have many skills, and it’s going to be hard for them to re-integrate… But one thing they are very good at is hunting human beings in the woods” (132). Finnström rightly discusses this in the light of the fact that, that same year, President Barack Obama issued a waiver of enforcing the Child Soldier Prevention Act to the Congo and South Sudan, two countries where the LRA had been active, in the name of national security. As Finnström argues, we should feel uncomfortable about Obama’s implicit (or maybe explicit) claim that the use of child soldiers is tolerated in the Global War on Terror, especially as former LRA fighters who escape conscription go into UPDF ranks rather than home to civilian life. The linguistic slippage of using “defection” to describe what should actually be demobilization is part of a larger global and militaristic process that normalizes warfare. I must admit, however, that “demobilization” itself also calls into action a technocratic and bureaucratic model for post-conflict realities, one that universalizes the LRA conflict to the logics of a global humanitarian regime, and both of these terms run the danger of either misrepresenting or flattening LRA returnees’ lives. Acholi efforts to encourage rebels to defect or demobilize are, at their core, efforts to encourage children to come home. Dwog cen paco.

Hope to see you at ASA!

Minneapolis-Bound

I’m about to head to the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Minneapolis. For those who are there, I’ll be doing a thing:

Negotiating the Radio: Sensitization, Militarization, and Media Interventions in the D.R. Congo on Friday at 1:45 in the Marquette VII room. Come say hi!

The talk will be based partly on research conducted in 2013 on FM radio come home messaging and the HF radio early warning network. The abstract is a hell of a mess, so rather than paste that I’ll just say that the talk will cover different ways that these radio interventions have created new publics and new ways of communicating for the local population as well as NGOs. This includes come home messaging on the FM radio as well as the spreading of rumors and creating new public audiences, as well as the HF network’s reliance on the military actors and the ways it allows communities to connect with one another.

I’m hoping to continue this research this coming summer, so hopefully it’ll show up at the blog more often. In the meantime, I’ll be in Minneapolis for the rest of the week – hope to see you fellow anthropologists there!

Lastly: another way to resist Trump’s America is to produce and exchange knowledge. Excited to learn from brilliant people this week, because learning is part of learning to subvert and resist.

 

Losing the Vote, Claiming the Future

This post is divided into two sections. This first part was initially written after spending five hours on Monday talking about the election and its impacts with my students, my peers, and the faculty of my department. It was an exhausting day, but one which saw people pushing to expand our understanding of how the world works – in part to dismantle it and build something better. It was also a day of learning from one another, building bridges (instead of walls). The second part was written Wednesday morning, after Tuesday’s walkout at George Washington University.

In the aftermath of the election, there are many autopsies of the campaigns and the polling numbers and the voter turnout. Clinton didn’t speak to the working classes enough. Trump tapped into a latent (or, more often, explicit) racism in Middle America. The rust belt felt ignored. Something about voting for change. Something about inching towards oblivion. Somebody said something about “a banana peel at the edge of the apocalypse.”

One thing that is incredibly clear is that the divisions between different parts of American society seem wider than ever (I say seem, because history). Looking at the electoral maps Tuesday night, it was obvious that there is a rural-urban divide, especially as commentators discussed the electoral minutia of specific counties in Wisconsin and Michigan. The urban-rural divide may be the most salient cleavage, but it carries with it class, race, and party implications – there’s no one metric with which to understand the nation disaster we find ourselves in. Divisions were also apparent in our news consumption and our social media use. Something about Facebook algorithms and feedback loops. Something about blocking racist uncles, but also something about my old racquetball friend once telling me I’d figure out conservatism when I got older.

The most apparent conclusion from the election results, however, is that a man who spouted hate the entire campaign garnered enough support to win the Electoral College and the presidency. No matter how much he backpedals his rhetoric of deporting over ten million immigrants and banning millions of Muslims, these are the promises on which he campaigned and won. Millions voted for him because of these statements and actions. Millions more voted for him for other reasons – distrust of Clinton, anxiety about ISIS, desire to repeal Obamacare, whatever – despite the racism and misogyny. Holding their nose or not, tens of millions of Americans voted in a candidate who has targeted almost every demographic from people of color to veterans to the disabled to women and beyond. It largely doesn’t matter how tightly you hold your nose. We all smell it. We see it. And we saw you vote for it.

A common refrain in the commentary has been that white working class rural voters felt disenfranchised. These voters reacted strongly and out of desperation after years of not being heard by Washington elites, most recently the Obama-Clinton Democrats. These same voters are also calling anti-fascist protesters “crybabies.” This disdain for the left’s proclivity to reject the neoliberal and far-right dismantling of everyday life is not new, of course. The last few years have seen continuous belittling tirades from conservatives and liberals alike against millennials for being “coddled.” But what is brattier than lashing out at the most vulnerable populations because elites wouldn’t listen to you? What is more coddled than white people claiming disenfranchisement in the first election after the Voting Rights Act has been eviscerated, by electing a candidate supported by the Klan?

Trump’s campaign stood for hate, and there’s no doubt about it. He made this country unsafe for millions. His rallies saw violence against protesters – violence that he not only enabled but encouraged. Forget the brown shirts and the black shirts; we’ve got the red hats, and they’re now draped in the legitimacy of the president’s office. Regardless of what policies come forth from his administration, the Trump administration will be one that is associated – rightfully – with tearing apart many of our communities. Fundamental to resisting his political project will be maintaining these communities and building solidarity to others – caring for one another in the face of violence, community in the face of division, love in the face of hate.

Amidst all of the election analysis fever, there have been numerous calls for breaking down barriers and reaching across the urban-rural divide. To understand those that voted for the next president. This is an important task that is part of the organizing work that lies ahead. As families gather for Thanksgiving and other winter holidays, conversations will be had. (see this thread on how to organize around the dinner table and these two readings on why not to reconcile with hate in the family) Let these conversations – to the extent possible – be conversations mobilizing those who have not been engaged and building coalitions across our existing social networks. And let them grow. At the same time as we reach outwards, though, we must spend time with our own. Liberal and conservative tut-tutting about safe spaces be damned, self-care and care for one another are a central part of struggling against ideologies that figuratively and literally beat you down. Reach across divides, but also check in with your people.

While many white American liberals are surprised by the election results and by the sheer tenacity of the president-elect’s brazen hate, many others are not. The country’s black, Latin American, indigenous, and immigrant populations have known this hate for decades, for centuries. And they have worked against it this entire time. Just in the last decade new movements have flourished demanding rights for these communities, and those fights are ongoing. The best response to Trump is to engage with these struggles, to help them come together, to welcome others, to build a radical coalition against hate. Here are some good notes on building the movement.

Many have already taken to the streets against the incoming regime. Many of these groups are diverse and show the power of community. A general strike has already been called for the day of the inauguration. At the heart of any general strike is a call for solidarity. Everyone – workers, students, whomever can afford to sacrifice a day of work – should respect and honor the strike and take part in whatever types of actions they can.

The Trump White House and the Republican Congress will try to reshape the country according to their ideals. They must be opposed every step of the way. Fortunately for all of the leftists and liberals, most centers of state and corporate power are in urban settings that went blue. The space between our homes, our workplaces, and their offices will be where the struggle is played out. In Washington, DC, where I work and where 90% of voters cast their ballot for Clinton, the inauguration itself will have to become a site of resistance. I aim to make my voice – and my presence – clear to these leaders. The future of this country is not one of hate or divisiveness. Those of us who participate in electoral politics may feel that we lost the vote. But we can’t lose sight of the future we want, the future we can imagine, the future we can call into being.

* *

Yesterday, I joined hundreds of undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, staff, and allies a walkout at George Washington University. Earlier in the day, several DC high school students had also walked out in protest of the election. In response to the finger-wagging about respecting electoral democracy, the walk out and march was a reminder – a loud reminder to Trump – that the electoral college is not a mandate to govern with hate. The popular vote went to Clinton, and many others did not vote at all because they disliked both candidates, and still many others did not vote because they could not. Among those in the streets everyday this week are many immigrants and youth who do not have the right to vote, but surely have a right in how they are governed.

Gathered in a crowded Kogan Plaza, I heard passionate pleas and brilliant speeches from GW students who are Muslim, who are immigrants, who are first-generation students, who are lesbians, who are trans*, who are Latina, who are black, who are queer, who have experienced sexual assault, who fear for their loved ones, who fear for themselves, who are undocumented, who are indigenous.

From there, a march hundreds strong took Pennsylvania Avenue, chanting “We! Reject! The President-Elect!” And I knew I was where I needed to be. In the face to white supremacy and misogyny, a diverse group of beautiful people who stand for a more just and equitable future.

After more speeches at the White House, students returned to campus and delivered a list of demands to the George Washington University administration regarding student needs for inclusion and access on campus. The list was as diverse as the crowd – calls for supporting Title IX, calls to ensure GW is a sanctuary for undocumented students regardless of DACA, calls to admit more Palestinian students. The lesson these student organizers are teaching the whole school is to speak against power both small and large, on campus and on Pennsylvania Avenue.

To reiterate, there is so much work to do. This has been apparent for a long time. Trump’s election can galvanize even more action than we’ve seen over the last few years. Actions will continue and continue, everyday. As one student said yesterday: we won’t be done marching for another four years. And, regardless of what these four years look like and how 2020 goes, I’d say we’ve got even more marching to do. And bridges to build. And barricades to erect. And policies to oppose. And people to protect. And futures to ensure.

Feelings

It’s been a tough week. I’ve had a lot of feelings, and I’ve shared a lot of thoughts on social media and in the arms of dear friends and in safe classrooms. I’m writing here because it’s how I usually process things. Reflections on what this means, what to do, and – for those distant family members and strangers who voted differently than myself – why I’m afraid, despairing, filled with rage.

What does it mean that the glass ceiling at Javits Center became so real that Hillary Clinton was unable to give a victory speech there Tuesday night? Whatever it means, that answer is amplified by the fact that instead a misogynist who has been accused of sexual assault, who has been recorded admitting it, who has targeted women for years, won instead. It also means that a strategic proportion of less than half of voters either agree with his hateful rhetoric and proposals or (even worse) will tolerate it for other means.

It’s hard to think of who the next four years will help. Every single person I know will be worse off, often in extremes. Women, but also Muslims and undocumented immigrants; queer and trans people, but also black people, documented immigrants, refugees, those with disabilities, the poor, those with job precarity and those relying on ACA for health insurance, indigenous communities, intellectuals, Jews, journalists, protesters.

Despair because this election happened, and millions of voters supported that decision. Anger because it shouldn’t have happened, for a host of reasons from the technical (she won the popular vote) to political (his policies will be bad for so many) to moral (multiculturalism and intellectualism are apparently now evils to be excised, and they’re central to my being). Fear because women’s bodily autonomy and right to public life are being threatened, because Muslims and immigrants and refugees are being pushed out rhetorically and through the power of the state. Rage because fuck all of that.

Last night, I joined a group of people – mostly college students – in the streets of DC. When we arrived at the White House, we also ran into a rally of and for undocumented immigrants. Locking arms and marching in the streets was empowering – a welcome euphoria I hadn’t felt since watching Manhattan get shut down in response to police violence – and the intersectionality of the protest was invigorating. Among the chants I heard and screamed:

Donald Trump, can you hear? Immigrants are welcome here!

No Trump, No KKK, No Fascist USA!

(women:) “It’s my body!” (all:) “It’s her body!”

Undocumented? Unafraid!

Trans, queer? Unashamed!

Black Lives Matter!

I’ve been in much of a daze since going to bed late Tuesday night. In my class on Wednesday, we turned it into a safe space where we could reflect on what this means and think about moving forwards. I cried several times; many of us did. This isn’t what losing an election should feel like, but the stakes were so high that many of us feel that we lost more than an election. We lost our future. We lost our rights. We lost our humanity. And he isn’t even in office yet.

Most of my students are young women trying to move up in the world, and facing sexism and rape culture and misogyny every step of the way. Most of my department’s students are women doing the same. Several of my students and half of my PhD program are international students, students whose immigration status is called into question – and for the Latin Americans especially, threatened in everyday life. I have a number of young cousins growing up in a state that by and large – and always has – makes space for white supremacists and not for women, minorities, immigrants. I still remember hearing snide remarks from white men behind me when I went to vote for the first time in the 2008 primary. They weren’t even directed at me, but I’ll never forget them.

What do I tell my students, my friends, my cousins, about their future? I certainly can’t give them guarantees about what’s to come. But I can tell them that I’ll do everything to stand in the way. I’m male. I pass as white. I’m a citizen. I work in a field where the threat of the law is less of a liability (but still frightening: another vivid memory is being roughed up at a protest).

In my classrooms, in gatherings of friends, and online, I’ve been hammering away at the same few points. Trump’s racist, misogynist, Islamophobic, xenophobic rhetoric, platform, and eventually policies will aim to create anomie and fear in this country and the world over. In the face of that, we need to care for one another and build community. Organize and resist. A party that represents and enacts hate and fear mongering will control much of government this January. But there is power in people.

To those who are scared, sad, or angry. I’m here for you, reach out.

To those who are celebrating right now. I see you.

To those who will stand against Trump and all that he represents. Solidarity.

To those who are willing to work with Trump, even on specific issues. You’re useless in this struggle.

To those with privilege. Wield it in service of those who do not.

To those who are with me, we have work to do. There’s a lot that’s already apparent – indigenous rights, anti-police and anti-capitalist movements, reproductive rights, immigrant rights – but there’s also a lot of work that we don’t even know yet. It will become clarified in the years to come. Do what you can, how you can. Let’s get to work.

The Future of the ICC and Justice

It’s an interesting time to be watching the ICC. Last month, Gabon surprised many by referring a situation to the Court, potentially opening up another investigation on the continent. But in the last week South Africa, Burundi, and The Gambia have all officially withdrawn from the Court, throwing the entire institution into question as the collapse of African support for the ICC is manifested after years of erosion.

I don’t have too many hot takes right now, but do want to note both the obvious importance of such ongoing events, but also flag the long and thorough critiques of the ICC’s structure and capabilities. The ICC as an institution rests on state compliance and participation, and so the withdrawal of these three African countries – particularly the unexpected decision by South Africa – will have a big impact, especially if they herald a larger exodus. At the same time, the type of justice that the ICC offers is a narrow and specific one. If the ICC is indeed crumbling, it is not the end of justice. It may even be a new beginning. That said, the ICC continues to have its hand in many pots. The trial of Dominic Ongwen is set to begin in January, and will be a place to watch for what types of justice might be offered by the ICC.

For now, though, a brief link roundup.

Kate Cronin-Furman and Stephanie Schwartz have a good write-up on what Burundi and South Africa’s withdrawal means in light of the continent as a whole. Burundi’s withdrawal was almost expected, and the reasons for it are clear. The case of South Africa is a little harder to discern:

As anti-ICC sentiments have hardened within the A.U., South Africa has struggled to balance its role as a regional leader with its ambitions as an emerging global power. One read of the situation is that the withdrawal is less about South Africa’s relationship with the court than it is about its view of itself vis-à-vis the rest of the continent. If, in fact, a mass walkout is imminent, South Africa would prefer to lead the movement rather than follow others.

Mark Kersten agrees with this analysis, but doesn’t think a mass walkout is in order – though a few states may follow suit. In his post, Kersten also takes a hard look at the domestic political situation in South Africa, which is worth perusing. In the end, as always, we’ll have to watch this play out and see how the chips fall. The ICC is a robust institution, but its record is shaky and its reliance on state participation means every state that leaves weakens it little by little. But it’s never had the overt support of powerful states like the U.S., China, Russia, etc. – arguably a bigger obstacle to any effort at establishing global justice norms.

It’s this reliance on states that renders the ICC ineffective from the start. While many criticisms of the ICC are about bias, the power inequities of the global stage as well as who has signed the Rome Statute and who has not create an inherent bias – an inherent impunity. As Samar Al-Bulushi notes:

From the protection of victims and witnesses to the apprehension of suspects, the ICC’s operational reliance on powerful states ensures that individuals from those states will largely escape scrutiny, and that the Court’s decisions are often far removed from the very people it was designed to protect.

[…]

The ICC and its more prominent supporters, much like proponents of the “responsibility to protect,” generally lead us to believe that the Court is the answer to impunity, as though the law were divorced from politics, and as though “peace” and “justice” can simply be delivered at the push of a button.

Yet the ICC is an institution located within a larger architecture of power that endows some crimes and some victims with legitimacy, and not others. At the same time, its “responsibility to punish” is subject to political manipulation that allows for further exception and impunity.

This last point is why, regardless of what happens to the ICC, justice will have to be found elsewhere. The ICC will continue to receive referrals and investigate conflicts, it will even issue warrants and charges and try those it is able to get to The Hague. But even if these withdrawals didn’t happen, the ICC’s crippling reliance on member states – and the refusal of human rights-abusive states like Syria or Sudan, Israel or the U.S. to even join the Court – mean the ICC would still face be biased not only in where it chose to investigate, but where it even could investigate legally. What justice is there if some will never even be investigated?

So let’s not conflate justice with international criminal justice. As Kamari Clarke writes in Fictions of Justice, “it is limiting to assume that ‘the law’ – rule of law, criminal law, national law – is the only way that justice can be achieved, especially because justice itself is not a thing but a set of relations through which people establish norms of acceptability” (147). Western liberal legal norms at the international level are certainly not the only place where people can be held accountable, guilt can be attributed, responsibility meted out, and reconciliation fostered. The ICC is one place where some of this can happen, sometimes, for some people. What happens to the ICC matters, but we can and should imagine justice happening outside of The Hague. The withdrawal of these three countries should be taken seriously not only for its potential consequences for the ICC, but also as a signal to think beyond the ICC, as Al-Bulushi urges.

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.

* *

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.