African Writers Speak

Friend of the blog and post-doc at UT-Austin Aaron Bady has interviewed African writers quite a few times. I’ve enjoyed much of it, and I thought I’d take a moment to link you all to something new that Aaron is doing: it’s called “African Writers in a New World” and it’s a series of interviews with African writers published at Post45. The series will be leading up to a Symposium for African Writers this December at UT-Austin.

From the series’ introduction:

If you ask them, a great many contemporary African writers will tell you that they are not particularly invested in being called “African writers.” I know this, because as part of the “African Writers in a New World” interview series that will be running here on Post45 for the next four months, I’ve been putting this question to as many “African Writers” as I can. I might even be tempted to call it a trend, except for the paradox of defining “African writers” in terms of disavowal. After all, if they’re not “African writers,” then who are these people who, collectively, aren’t calling themselves “African writers”?

Perhaps it’s a better question than an answer. It’s many different answers, in fact. Some actively dislike the category, some are indifferent to it, and some accept it without particular enthusiasm. Yet nearly everyone I’ve spoken to expressesin different waystheir sense that the “African writer” category is a necessary evil at best, accurate without being particularly descriptive. If it is unavoidable, it is also not particularly illuminating; “I’m a writer and I’m African, so yes, I’m an African writer,” as Laila Lalami put it. But the sum might be less than the total of those two parts. At worst, the term is a ghetto: by expressing their literary in terms of identity, African writers are not quite allowed to be writers. Instead, they are called on to “perform their Africanness,” as J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello put it, to be Africans who write about being African until the novel becomes sociology, politics, ethnography, anything but literature (Coetzee 51).

As a person who is interested in African literature, but has barely dipped a toe into it, I’ve found these interviews really enlightening – both about the authors and about their works. At the very least, it has built me a reading list – and it’s always interesting to see what authors have to say about their writing, their field, “Africa,” and other relevant topics.

It looks like the series at Post45 will be posting interviews into the new year, so for those interested, I would suggest keeping an eye in that direction. There are already two interviews, one with Maaza Mengiste and one with Laila Lalami, posted on the site. And, duh, if you find yourself near Austin this December, you should go to the Symposium and tell me all about it.

In the meantime, I’m going to find me a new book to read.

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Recent Data on the LRA

Hopping back on the blog train to post links to three helpful, informative pieces of data related to research on the LRA. First is some very basic data on LRA activity in Orientale province of the DRC. Timo Mueller recently tweeted a link to this, a spreadsheet with data on LRA activity in the province from 2008 to 2014.

The file includes data on attacks, killings, abducted adults, abducted children, and injuries caused by the LRA by every quarter and every year, with some various breakdowns for the different categories. It’s not incredibly detailed data, but includes enough to be useful in looking at the overall effect that the LRA presence has had in the region over the years.

More recently and more exhaustive, two recent reports have been published about the victims of LRA violence in northeastern DRC. First is the latest report from the Resolve, Healing Their Image: Community perceptions of the UN peacekeeping mission in LRA-affected areas of the Democratic Republic of CongoAs Paul Ronan (of Resolve) tweeted, the report isn’t surprising, rather it highlights common knowledge on the ground – Congolese civilians don’t trust the peacekeepers in their midst.

When I was in Dungu last summer, I struggled with the same thing. People would tell me the perils of having Congolese or Ugandan soldiers in the area, tell me of incidents of abuse, and then they would still favor these over MONUSCO peacekeepers. This survey includes 347 people in five major towns in Haut-Uele district, Orientale province, each host to a UN operating base. The report includes brief sections on MONUSCO’s actual role in the region and the local communities’ other protection mechanisms (from migration to early warning to militia formation) before going into community perceptions of overall security, MONUSCO’s protection efforts, information sharing, defection efforts, and the opinions about the defectors themselves. Some snippets:

Even though they viewed patrols as an important aspect of protection work, the majority of participants responded that MONUSCO patrols were inrequent and ineffective. Participants stated that peacekeepers rarely patrolled near farm fields, along roads connecting communities, or within town. In one community close to Garamba [National Park, where LRA are active], participant stated, “We see them walk in our midst without protecting the population.” Participants spoke of irregular patrols and how the inconsistency made them feel unsafe, a sentiment that likely contributed to negative perceptions of the peacekeepers (11).

And a quote from a group of women:

We see them, but we don’t know why they are here in our area. [We ask] that MONUSCO inform the community, and explain to the population why they are here, to do what, and explain what are their projects. Especially that they heal their image in front of the population, because for us they bring despair, they are against our safety, they protect the LRA against us, [for] what good do they live among us? It’s better that they leave, and leave us in peace (10).

The report has other useful pieces of information, and is fairly short. Worth reading for anyone studying the LRA, MONUSCO, or peacekeeping in general. It can also be paired with Séverine Autesserre’s recent work on peacekeepers’ everyday lives and how they shape their effectiveness on the ground.

Secondly, Conciliation Resources just published a report of their own, A People Dispossessed: The plight of civilians in the areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo affected by the Lord’s Resistance Army. This report focuses on the continued “chronic insecurity” that Congolese in this region face, both from the LRA and from Mbororo cattle herders, and explores the mishandled response so far, highlighting how protection is defined, ill-conceived military strategies, the unwillingness of the government to concern itself with the region, the (missed) potential of civil society, and lack of humanitarian aid. The report summarizes these factors thus:

At the fundamental level of understanding, international actors and the armies leading counter-LRA strategies have conceived protection too narrowly as protection from violence. In addition, by opting for a military strategy based on ‘search and destroy’ tactics, they have failed to deter LRA attacks against civilians. The strategy is ill-suited to the LRA threat as it leaves fighters free to move and attack at will. In Congo, the state has lacked the will and/or capacity to provide economic opportunities or essential social services that
fall within a broader conception of protection. Civil society actors, both local and international, have stepped up to fill some of the gap. They have had considerable impact through advocacy, but work at the community level has not connected with security sector protection activities. Finally, international humanitarian agencies and NGOs provided a burst of immediate relief to affected communities but their long-term impact appears negligible (9-10).

It’s also a report worth reading, especially for its exploration of these factors (more in-depth than I’ve copied here) and for its look at the Mbororo issue, an issue that most reports mention in passing but don’t really delve into.

In sum, a couple of good reports on LRA-affected regions of the DRC just came out last month. Read them.

8/7/14 Edit to add: The good people at Conciliation Resources have informed me that the report above, “A People Dispossessed,” was released alongside another report also on the LRA. I just started reading it, but Back but not Home: supporting the reintegration of former LRA abductees into civilian life in DRC and South Sudan seems promising and on an equally important topic. Reintegration and demobilization are a huge part of the push against the LRA, but it’s easier said than done – this report highlights some of the obstacles that still need to be dealt with.

Political Ephemera from Africa

Brief interlude from my thesis-writing to share a couple of links.

Sara Dorman, at the University of Edinburgh, has been collecting political ephemera in Africa for a long time. She recently started a Flickr page, The Material Culture of Politics in Africa, which might be worth a perusal. There are a lot of photos of ephemera from election season in a handful of countries.

Browsing the collection at this site, it reminded me of the African Political Ephemera and Realia Project over at the University of Oregon. The project includes everything from bags to mugs in addition to the usual posters, leaflets, and clothing items – all of it political. These databases are great collections of political material from across the continent.

Africa’s Countries

Over at Africa is a Country (very appropriate, I know), Laura J. Mitchell linked to an interactive study map of Africa that she created, saying that:

As Africanists, our stock-in-trade includes pushing back. As teachers, scholars, and commentators we poke and prod at constructed geographies, charting unities across previously demarcated sub-regions and identifying particularities in eco-zones or communities that are conventionally grouped with larger nations. In a post-modern landscape, geography is admittedly malleable. But that does not make it optional. I may be hopelessly old-school to say so: but to make sense of a place, you still have to find it on a map.”

The map, which can be found here, is a pretty straight-forward geography study tool. You can hover over each country in study mode to learn which is which, and you can test yourself by dragging country names over the geographic location.

Whether you’re a student trying to learn about Africa’s many states or just a curious geography nerd, it’s worth a look.

(Shameful admission: I still mix up the western coast of West Africa.)