Activism Forum at Anthropology News

In continuing my trend of working on anything but what I should be working on, I have a small update for you all. You might remember that I participated in a dialogue at American University in the fall discussing the role of anthropology in activism and activism in anthropology. I’m very pleased to announce that, in the intervening months, that dialogue has turned into a very nice little edited collection over at Anthropology News. The facilitators of the dialogue edited the collection and it just went up about a week ago.

My own article, titled “Writing and Research in a Conflict Zone,” touches on the ways that anthropologists might find themselves using similar tools as activists (gathering data, telling stories, etc.) either in the same, parallel, or opposing ways. I then give some short reflections based on my own interactions with, along side, and against popular non-profits working on ending the LRA conflict. Here’s a brief snippet:

The conflict between the LRA and the Ugandan government was the focus of numerous academic monographs and NGO reports for 20 years before I heard about it. Little of this coverage mattered when the film Invisible Children: Rough Cut toured the United States with the tagline “discover the unseen.” While anthropologists, political scientists, humanitarians, and northern Ugandans were certainly aware of the conflict with the LRA, the film’s primary audience of upper-middle-class millennials was not. And so the film and the grassroots activist movement it sparked caught fire over the course of the 2000s, culminating in the Kony 2012 campaign.

The idea that raising awareness about an issue will lead to it being addressed is a common narrative in social and political activism. From the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge to Kony 2012, awareness (and fundraising) is central to activism, especially in the digital age. And a crucial part of raising awareness through activism is storytelling: activists must tell a digestible and actionable narrative that tugs at the proper emotions to galvanize a response. For Invisible Children videos, the formula was one that shed light on the effects of the conflict on Ugandan children, with a request for funds to address these negative impacts (building schools) and a call to take action (lobby the government). This strategy isn’t unique. The Save Darfur Coalition created a similar narrative (Hamilton 2011) and the campaign against “conflict minerals” in your cell phone does similar work (Seay 2015).

Storytelling has, of course, long been the domain of anthropologists. We are trained (or at least learn by doing) to write stories about people and places, shedding light on the lived experiences of others. While sometimes criticized as neither digestible nor actionable, ethnographies broadly do work that is similar to many activist and advocacy narratives. Anthropologists interested in either doing activism or speaking to activists must navigate the different publics and different modes of storytelling involved in such acts. The type of activism I saw emerging around the LRA conflict is part of how I came to find myself an anthropologist trying to write within and between these spaces.

The article centers on how we write about what we write, and for whom. Part of this emerges from the long debates around non-profit messaging about Africa, and part of this comes from a longer academic reflection on how we write about violence. It is also another example of me navigating through how to write about my own progression from one place to another in regards to the conflict that I study. Have a look, I hope you get something out of it.

But more importantly, you should read the other pieces in the collection. The introduction by Haley Bryant and Emily Cain sketches out what the dialogue was all about, and the important questions highlighted by the conversation. Each of the individual pieces resonates with something either implicit or explicit to my article, and the different parts of the collection speak to each other in interesting ways. Chloe Ahmann’s piece looks at the politics, ethics, and methodology of being (in)visible when studying activists in Baltimore. Hugh Gusterson discusses the different audiences an anthropologist has, and the responsibilities one might feel toward particular groups and not others in the course of research. Emma Louise Backe looks at the importance of care and self-care involved in ethnography through her experience studying a rape crisis hotline. Each of these pieces is well worth reading, and I learned a lot from speaking with everyone involved (including Shweta Krishnan, who was a part of our PAC panel but did not write a piece for AN) both during the dialogue and in the writing process after. A big thank you to everyone involved in the event and the publication.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing recently, and a lot of activism. These sometimes overlap, but don’t always. I strongly believe that scholarship can and should be a form of activism, but it is certainly not the only one. This collection is just one small part of an ongoing conversation and reflection about what anthropology and activism can offer each other, where they converge and diverge, and how to use both to imagine and enact a better world.

Shameless Self-Promotion: ICC Justice at Warscapes

Hello – brief note that I had a piece go up last week at Warscapes on the Dominic Ongwen trial at the ICC, now underway. It builds off of my first article for them last March, and parts of it are visible in this post I wrote the day the trial began. Here’s the article, and here’s an excerpt:

The courtroom is thought to be a site of justice, but critics have pointed out that justice often lies beyond the confines of law–that transitional justice, social justice, and a just memory can be attained not only in the courtroom but in  everyday public life. As Giorgio Agamben once claimed, “law is not directed towards the establishment of justice. Nor is it directed toward the verification of truth. Law is solely directed toward judgment.” The ICC case is arguably about judging Ongwen, regardless of what that judgment might mean. The LRA conflict is a good example, as Ongwen will likely be the only person to stand trial, and the four attacks for which he is charged are merely the ones with enough evidence to make it into court. This is shocking considering that the war has ravaged northern Uganda for the better part of three decades, resulting in thousands of killings and abductions and the displacement of millions at the hands of both the army and the rebels. The infamous rebel leader Joseph Kony is still in hiding; most other rebel commanders are dead or have been granted amnesty as part of a counterinsurgency demobilization effort. The Ugandan military has never been investigated for its role in the conflict. As such, Ongwen and the four attacks he is being tried for bear the weight of the quest for justice for countless victims of untold violations.

International criminal law has little room to acknowledge Ongwen’s unique position as both a war criminal and as the victim of war crimes. He himself was abducted as a child and forced into the rebel army in the late 1980s. Charged with the very crimes of which he was a victim, Ongwen’s personal history sheds light on the limits of international criminal justice in complicated situations like the war in northern Uganda. Ongwen has had to live his life in the context of everyday violence. His actions, whether he found himself reluctant or enthusiastic about the beatings, rapes, murders, and abductions he carried out or ordered, were shaped by this environment, making him what Erin Baines, professor at the Liu Institute for Global Issues, calls a “complex political perpetrator.” Growing up in such traumatic times, how does one pursue a moral life? And to what extent is one held responsible for failure in that pursuit? While admitting that “the evidence of many of the child victims in this case could, in other circumstances, be the story of the accused himself,” Chief Prosecutor Bensouda argued that “having suffered victimization in the past is not a justification or an excuse to victimize others.”

The uneasy act of prosecuting a victim-turned-perpetrator, and the continued failure to hold the Ugandan state accountable, are some of the reasons that justice here is seen as a fiction, or as justice only partially realized. For victims of other attacks–for victims of Ugandan state violence, and for victims in South Sudan, Central African Republic, and the Congo–justice still seems out of reach. The pursuit of justice, after all, is the quest to establish a fair and equitable society for all. In northern Uganda, where the president whose ascendancy provoked the LRA into existence is still in power thirty years later and increasingly authoritarian, there is little in the way of justice. The people of the other three countries have fared even worse, both in terms of justice and peace, as each state has seen numerous crises and wars in recent years. If, as anthropologist Kamari Clarke claims, “justice itself is not a thing but a set of relations through which people establish norms of acceptability,” then revealing the truth of what has happened in the war is as important as finding new ways for people to understand and reconcile with one another. This requires much more than a single trial.

Click on through to read the rest. Big props to the Warscapes team and the critical edits that got the piece out rather quickly. Ongwen’s trial will continue into the spring, so I’ll be keeping an eye out as everything moves forwards. I’m sure there will be more.

#AES2016: Justice and Forgiveness

As a cadre of anthropologists flock to DC this week for the annual meeting of the American Ethnological Society, let me flag a paper I’m presenting at the panel, as well a public event in town.

First, Thursday night at 7:00 – at the Busboys and Poets on 5th and K, three anthropologists will be discussing recently published books in a public event co-hosted by AES titled “Homeland Insecurity: Anthropologists Discuss Terror, Corruption, and Displacement.” Catherine Besteman will be talking about Somali refugees in Maine, Joe Masco will be talking about counterterrorism, and Janine Wedel will be talking about corruption in U.S. politics. You should go – I’ll be there.

For followers of the blog, though:

I’ll be presenting a paper, “Between Justice and Forgiveness: Accountability across Borders in the LRA Conflict,” on panel 5.3: “Postconflict and Military Order.” It’s a diverse array of presentations on conflict, and it promises to be an interesting one. You can find us on Saturday, 8:00-9:45, in the Metro West room at the Capitol Hill Liaison Hotel. If you’re attending AES, hope to see you there!

Shameless Self-Promotion: at Warscapes

Short post to link you all to a new piece I have up at Warscapes: “Dominic Ongwen and the Search for Justice.” The article focuses on Dominic Ongwen, an LRA abductee-turned-commander who sat before the ICC’s confirmation of charges in January. I explore his particular case, but also look at the ICC’s broader intervention in the LRA conflict, and how it has narrowed the popular understanding of what types of justice are possible and for whom. You should read the whole thing (please!) but here’s a preview:

When Dominic Ongwen stood before the International Criminal Court on January 21, he confronted  a team of prosecutors and judges presenting a list of his alleged war crimes.  After spending years as a brigade commander in the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Ongwen was no longer outfitted in rebel attire, but stood in a gray suit and tie, listening to the proceedings as they were translated into his native Acholi language. He waived the right to have each of the charges against him read aloud in court, so the presiding judge, Cuno Tarfusser, summarized the seventy charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

When Ongwen was first taken into custody last January, major rights groups heralded his capture as an important step towards justice. Amnesty International argued that “Ongwen now needs to be held to account for the numerous charges he faces of murder, mutilation, forced recruitment of child soldiers and use of sex slaves.” Africa director of Human Rights Watch, Daniel Bekele, called Ongwen’s transfer to The Hague “a major step for those affected by the LRA’s long history of crimes.” This was a sign of progress in the ICC’s first case, which was opened in 2004 and has otherwise seen little development.

But while Western rights groups were nearly unanimous in supporting Ongwen’s transfer to the ICC, the mood among Ugandans was decidedly mixed—even among victims of LRA violence. The Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative issued apress release regretting that Ongwen had been sent to the ICC, arguing instead for him to be brought home and forgiven through traditional reconciliation ceremonies. The statement said that the ICC, “which is punitive or retributive, promotes polarization that only leads into ultimate alienation on both sides” of the conflict. Around the same time, Makerere University’s Refugee Law Project facilitated a dialogue of local leaders in Gulu, a town that was at the center of the conflict for many years. A report on the discussion found that attitudes among the Acholi people were complicated and support for Ongwen’s arrest was far from universal.

#ASA2015: Come Home Messaging on the Radio

Greetings from San Diego! I’m here for the annual meeting of the African Studies Association. On Saturday, at 8:30am in Room 411, I’ll be presenting as a part of a panel on “Accounting for Violence.” My presentation, entitled “Encouraging Rebel Demobilization by Radio in Uganda and the DR Congo: The Case of Come Home Messaging.” It’s part of a chapter from my MA thesis, which is also a forthcoming article. Here’s the abstract:

For several years, local radio stations in Uganda broadcast “come home” messages that encouraged the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army to demobilize. Since the rebels began carrying out attacks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Central African Republic, several international actors have introduced the same messages to these regions. This new effort has internationalized radio programming, benefited local radio stations, innovated new forms of messaging, and collaborated with military actors. This article provides an overview of how come home messaging functions in different contexts, examining the effects of these actions and highlighting an important shift in military-humanitarian relationships.

If you’re interested, come check it out! If you’re at ASA, let’s get in touch! If you’re down for drinks, there’s a tweet-up tonight at The Grand on 5th at 8:30.

Conferences, Conferences, Conferences

A few conference-related items of potential interest.

Firstly, I’m issuing my own brief call for any fellow travelers in justice/reconciliation/Africa/intervention studies by anthropologists thinking about attending the American Ethnological Society this March 31-April 2 in Washington, DC. I’m thinking about submitting a newer iteration of the paper I presented at ASA last year, on reconciliation and accountability, the ICC, and Invisible Children. I’m open to ways of framing it, so if anyone wants to help me cobble together a panel, I’d greatly appreciate it. Deadline is Jan. 31, but you can’t submit until after you register (I know, right?). I’ve heard AES is awesome, and I can’t wait to go – hopefully you’ll come with me! Comment, e-mail, tweet, etc. if you’re down to do a panel together on any of the aforementioned subjects.

On a related note, doing my grad-student-Africanist duty and spreading the word of a couple of Calls for Papers to any relevant Africanist scholars-in-training:

Boston University’s African Studies Center will be hosting its annual graduate student conference this March, with the theme of “Mobilizing Africa: Innovation, Syncretism, Appropriation.” Deadline for submission is Jan. 15, and the conference is March 25-26. I’ve never been, but it looks mighty interesting and is geared towards graduate students, so check it out.

At about the same time, Tennessee State University will be hosting its annual Africa Conference March 31-April 1, with the theme of “Africa in the 21st Century: The Promise of Development and Democracy.” Deadline is Dec. 31, and more details are in the CFP here [pdf].

And lastly, it’s almost that time of year again. I’ll be headed to San Diego in two weeks for the African Studies Association’s annual meeting, where I’ll be presenting a chapter from my MA thesis that is also a forthcoming article in African Studies Review. The paper is on the role of come-home messaging in the LRA conflict, focusing on how come-home radio programs began in Gulu, how they fared in neighboring Lira district, and how they have been transplanted into northeastern DRC. Looking forward to presenting, and if you’re headed to ASA, it’s session IX (Saturday morning), panel I-1, vaguely titled “Accounting for Violence.” Hope to see you there!

To Indianapolis!

For the Africanists among you, I’ll be making my way to Indianapolis for the African Studies Association’s annual meeting.

I’ll be presenting a conference paper entitled “Invisible Children and Acholi Notions of Reconciliation in the D.R. Congo,” based partially on my MA thesis research as well as my experience with Invisible Children over the past few years. My paper is part of an awesome two-part panel on “Conflict Activism and its Consequences” organized by Kristof Titeca and Laura Seay and including several papers/topics that sound vastly more interesting than anything I could think of. You should check it out!

You can find the full program for ASA here [pdf], and I’ll be around from Thursday around noon until early Sunday morning, so get in touch if you want to meet up/hang out!

Shameless Self-Promotion: At Yale

The blog has lain dormant this month, but it’s because I’ve been keeping rather busy. While the site has hibernated in the cold, I’ve been working on coursework and the thesis, and preparing for another talk as part of the African Studies Brown Bag series. If you’re in the New Haven area, I hope you’ll swing by. The talk will cover the come-home messaging programs in the LRA conflict, looking at how they “work” and how they differ from each other, with some exploratory talk about the transference of reconciliation across communities. See below for more details:

Come Home Messaging: Radio and Forgiveness in Uganda and Congo

Wednesday, February 26 | Luce Hall 202 | 12:00pm

In response to intense violence that included conscription of civilians into rebel ranks and atrocities on a mass scale, some civilians in northern Uganda have tried to end the war through reconciliation in the form of forgiveness, amnesty, and peace negotiations. One means of promoting these ideas has been various types of radio messages. This talk will focus on radio messages that encourage abducted rebels to surrender and come home and will look at how the radio messages – and notions of reconciliation – have traveled across borders.

Shameless Self-Promotion: At the Fair Observer

I was recently tasked with writing about the Justine Sacco issue, what it says about our perception of Africa, and any lessons learned from the debacle. I tried to stick to the prompt, but went instead towards what people thought about when the hubbub occurred, and what they should have thought about:

AIDS does discriminate by race. It does this because our societies allow it to. Sacco’s joke is a joke precisely because it is true: being white means she probably will not get AIDS. The prevalence of HIV/AIDS for blacks in South Africa was 13.6% in 2008. For whites it was 0.3%. While the conversation rightly lambasted Sacco for a stupid, awful joke – the discussion should also turn to why the AIDS crisis has unfolded the way that it has.

South African history, like much of African history, is fraught with racism that resulted in real damage to black lives and livelihoods. South Africa’s AIDS epidemic exists partially because of what colonialism and apartheid did to South African livelihoods — that much is clear.

 

Read the rest at Fair Observer.

Shameless Self-Promotion: On Yale African Studies

Another brief interlude to link you to an article I wrote for Yale Daily News‘ magazine edition, entitled “Looking for Africa.” It’s perhaps the biggest piece I’ll write on the subject, but I don’t expect it to be the last. It’s only a part of a larger conversation which the Yale community has been having, which I’ve linked to before. I hope you’ll take a look, and of course I’ll continue to write about the issue, as it’s important directly to me but also to the conversation about Africanist scholarship (and area studies) in U.S. universities.

 

Cover art, courtesy YDN Magazine

The Yale Africa Project (as it is now known) can and probably will do a lot for Africanist scholarship at the university, but that’s not difficult given the small and narrow focus of the university’s Africa focus now, but many of us are hoping it will do more. After recent faculty departures and downsizing across the area studies, it is good to see a focus specifically on Africa, but I’m not yet convinced it will fulfill its potential. Unfortunately, a lot of this is dependent on donors rather than university governance, largely because Yale hasn’t committed as much to the campaign as it could. My hope is that, in a couple of years, I’ll be able to say that I was wrong.

I interviewed about a dozen people – professors, former professors, alumni, and students – and sent an e-mail survey to about a dozen African Studies students. I also worked tirelessly with two editors who took a 6,000 word statistic- and quote-ridden article and made it legible. The design team also put together a wonderful graphic for the magazine’s cover that essentially sums up why the piece needed to be written. I want to thank everybody involved for helping make it what it is, because they seriously deserve it. I also want to encourage everybody interested to continue to think about how Yale (or any university) can engage with the scholarship it promotes, and what it means to focus on Africa as a university.