Reviews at AQ and JMAS

Earlier this year I had two different reviews published in journals. Just wanted to drop them here for folks who study violence in Africa.

In the winter issue of Anthropological Quarterly, I have a book review essay titled “Violence, Intervention, and the State in Central Africa,” reviewing two great recent works. Louisa Lombard’s State of Rebellion: Violence and Intervention in Central African Republic helps us understand the humanitarian intervention in CAR as well as roots of violence there, inequities in the global state system, and problems of peacekeeping and peacebuilding. A translation of Marielle Debos’ Living by the Gun in Chad: Combatants, Impunity, and State Formation gives insight into the politics of armed labor in Chad as men of arms navigate the violent margins of the state there. Both are useful reads that I’d recommend to folks studying similar processes, in Africa or elsewhere.

In the latest issue of the Journal of Modern African Studies, I wrote a short review of Holly Porter’s After Rape: Violence, Justice, and Social Harmony in Ugandawhich is rooted in Acholi custom, lore, and language, and situates sexual violence—both in and out of war—in local understandings of consent, sex, and marriage; the realities of impunity and justice in Uganda’s political and legal system; and the Acholi conception of social harmony. An ethnography that is locally rooted to an extensive amount, Porter’s book is a useful read for those working on gender-based violence and justice after violence.


On Violence and Truth and Jon Holtzman’s Killing Your Neighbors

I recently read Jon D. Holtzman’s Killing Your Neighbors: Friendship and Violence in Northern Kenya and Beyond and found it really engaging, especially for my current and recent research projects. I added it to my reading list because I thought the title referenced the electoral violence in Kenya in 2007-2008 (I read it alongside other mass atrocity literature), but it’s actually about local (though perhaps just as violent) wars in northern Kenya and asks how community ties break down such that these wars are possible (and enduring). But it’s also about many other processes that are involved in violent conflict.

Holtzman’s ethnography is principally about the Samburu people, with whom he has done fieldwork in the past and has deep personal and scholarly ties, and in this book he studies the various incidents of violence between Samburu and their neighbors. By looking at wars, attacks, or massacres between the Samburu and nearby Pokot, Kikuyu, Somali, and Turkana groups, Holtzman also tries to map these incidents from “both sides” — attempting a sort of multi-sited (but never claiming “holistic”) approach to the study of violence. The central argument of the book is that there is a process through which neighbors are transformed from unkillable to killable people, and that “this transformation is a cultural and historical process rather than simply a material or political event” (4). Viewing violence as part of a cultural system, Holtzman spends much of the book analyzing how different groups and individuals talk about violence, situating such narratives and representations (including his own as the author) within the same contexts in which violence occurs. The ways people talk about, represent, interpret, and make sense of violence matter.

Most interesting, to me, is this last point, which runs throughout the ethnography. Looking at Samburu and Pokot narratives about the war between these two groups, for example, Holtzman admits ethnographic uncertainty (he doesn’t, and thus we can’t, ever know the “real” reason some of these incidents occurred, or what “really” happened) but also the uncertainty of war itself as combatants’ reasons for fighting don’t add up, or their timelines are off, or potential ulterior motives are revealed. In fact, in many of these incidents, his interlocutors agree on the basic facts of what happened, but they bring forth completely different interpretations of what these facts mean.

This is also seen in other examples: sometimes one group would read an incident through a particular historical lens while others did not: Samburu often saw violence with Kikuyu embedded in histories of Mau Mau killings of Samburu on settler farms, Samburu support for British counterinsurgency, and the subsequent marginalization of Samburu by the postcolonial government, while many Kikuyu interpreted the same current violence ahistorically to be about contemporary land issues, political inequities, and cultural “backwardness.” These incidents and divergences demonstrate the role of memory as a lens through which violence is understood. Meanwhile, Samburu saw a massacre committed by nearby Somalis as an unprovoked and major incident whereas many Somalis situated the event as part of a broader struggle against the British and then Kenyan governments. These different analyses demonstrate how interpretations of conflict occur at different scales – of time, space, population, etc. – depending on different subject positions and who you’re talking to (and, arguably, when and where and how).

One conceptual tool that emerges from these different narratives is that of “collective irresponsibility.” Holtzman inverts Evans-Pritchard’s notion of collective responsibility (a mode of solidarity) by noting that “one may assert that things done by members of our group do not reflect collective actions (although what is done by members of other ethnic groups can be subject to collective blame)” (62) and that “just as victims are prone to apply… ‘collective responsibility,’ perpetrators frequently adopt a stance of ‘collective irresponsibility’: the killers are people like us but not actually us” (100).

Collective (ir)responsibility is always situational, always a matter of who your audience is, always a matter of what the consequences or benefits of association might be. And in instances of violence — especially civil war or ethnic violence — these stakes can be rather high. If “violent acts not only do something but also say something” (165), then how people talk about or interpret violent acts is always in relation to whom that audience is. One thing I’ve been preoccupied with in my own research is how different groups – in different times and in different places – make sense of the same or similar acts of violence. This is something Holtzman reflects upon time and time again.

Given that I’ve been particularly interested in ways of writing about violence (and spent much of the spring thinking through the subject with some colleagues here at GW), I found Holtzman’s extended reflection on the ethnographic project to be useful and engaging. Take, for example, his conclusion to a chapter on different Samburu and Somali interpretations of what happened the day that a Samburu counterattack—a reprisal for the massacre of dozens of Samburu—resulted in the killing of a shiekh:

There is no resolution, nor perhaps should there be. At our best, anthropologists translate something meaningful about a world that we have grasped deeply, but subjectively and imperfectly, to an audience who will rarely fully grasp even that translation. There are no complete answers: there are incorrect versions and even offensive ones, but we, like our subjects, always see and portray worlds through gazes that are incomplete, if also in some senses true, though in stark contradiction to other “true” versions.


I am not simply trying to present an array of voices to demonstrate that different people are always going to disagree, nor to present a multitude of disagreeing voices that I as the anthropologist can resolve with monolithic conclusions about “what really happened” and “what it means.” Rather, I am aiming to explore what ethnography looks like when we embrace multivocality as an intrinsic aspect of our subject matter, an intrinsic aspect of the worlds our informants inhabit and live through, and thus necessarily an aspect of how we interpret the data. This is different from rehearsing a postmodern cliché of multiple truths; rather, it explores how our subjects act in accordance with a knowledge that these multiple truths shape their worlds (even if they do not acknowledge all of them as “truths”).


We [anthropologists] understand that the lives of human beings are a messy business, more so when, as in cases of violence, so much is at stake… rather than simplifying this messiness for the sake of analytical or theoretical clarity, we as anthropologists [should] embrace the ambiguities and contradictions within ethnographies that mirror, and thus more truly capture, the uncertainties in the world that our subjects (and ourselves) inhabit. (123-125).

And lastly, in the conclusion Holtzman reflects on the role of truth in war, reading Rigoberta Mechú, Tim O’Brien, and other narratives of war in light of the question of “true” representations of violence. But one reflection stuck with me as I grapple with my own research:

People have died in this book, a lot of people, and it doesn’t do them justice for me to slither off to my university job and get paid decent money to say that I don’t really know who is to blame, that maybe it is everyone or no one. Because someone killed those people, so to them, to their loved ones, or maybe to our sense of humanity, who did it and how it happened matters.

Or maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t… Sometimes blame isn’t really the point. A major issue here is the way the stories people tell about their wars contain understandings and misunderstandings of other groups that sow the seeds for future violence (197-198).

An ethnography of violence (or intervention or reconciliation or peace or–) might have multiple purposes, but if one is to tell what “really” happened, I’m not sure that will always be possible. War is messy; everyday life is uncertain. I think Holtzman’s book does a good job of showing us that uncertainty and sharing the stories that people tell. I don’t know what the best way to grapple with such uncertainty is – but I know I’ll be coming back to this book soon as I work through that question.

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.


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.

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.

Transnational Advocacy and the Single Story Problem

In 2013, a group of students at the Fletcher School at Tufts organized a research seminar on the topic of Western advocacy campaigns and their shortcomings. Several short pieces were posted online (here’s an overview of the seminar [also as a pdf]), which I followed from afar, and I was happy to hear that the organizers decided to turn it into an edited volume. When I was asked to review it, I excitedly agreed:

Transnational advocacy is an increasingly apparent part of activism in a world that is more and more interconnected. As Twitter and other social media sites allow people to forge relations with like-minded individuals, many have chosen to stand with or for others in their activism. Some of this has taken the form of solidarity movements like BDS while others can more easily be categorized as part of the “white savior industrial complex,” like Save Darfur.

While the book covers much more, the problems of Western advocacy campaigns are at the heart of Advocacy in Conflict: Critical Perspectives on Transnational Activism, a new collection of articles edited by Alex de Waal with Jennifer Ambrose, Casey Hogle, Trisha Taneja, and Keren Yohannes. In an age when there are more and more edited volumes that fail to achieve much, this is one example that is more than the sum of its parts. The chapters in Advocacy in Conflict strike at the heart of what activism looks like and does, and what it ought to do.

Advocacy in Conflict: Critical Perspectives on Transnational Activism, edited by Alex de Waal

One crucial theme throughout the book is the role of single narratives. While we’ve all seen Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk on the dangers of a single story by now, not everyone was aware of this danger when planning advocacy campaigns for causes around the world. Mareike Schomerus shows this in her chapter on the most (in)famous attempt to craft a single narrative: Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video and campaign. The dangers of a narrowed narrative are also present in Burma, where Maung Zarni points out the limitations of a narrative centered on an individual such as Aung San Suu Kyi rather than Burma as a nation, which has left the country with a facade of democratization; it is present in the D.R. Congo, where Laura Seay explores the unintended consequences of Enough’s conflict minerals narrative, including a de facto boycott of (and loss of livelihood for) legitimate Congolese miners; it is in South Sudan, where U.S. support of the SPLA helped create a new country out of Sudan, but also bolstered a corrupt and murderous structure that led to the ongoing civil war in South Sudan; and in disability rights, where Tsitsi Chataika et al. show that the complexities of identity and representation get molded into a narrowed discourse as Western donors get involved, a discourse which carries out its own oppression.

The pitfalls of a single narrative are just one thing that the book questions in its attempt to “reclaim international advocacy movements to make them more self-reflective and accountable to the people and the evolving situations they represent” (1). Other key questions that the organizers of the volume set out to answer include critiques of the legitimacy of advocacy on behalf of others, the question of inclusiveness, how to bring academic knowledge and public activism together, and the hierarchies of local and global contexts. The book does not necessarily offer explicit answers to each of these topics, but throughout the pages one can find explorations and ruminations that get us closer to building a better form of activism that is aware of its vulnerabilities and the importance of a more robust activism rooted in solidarity.

The book as a whole does a good job of turning success stories on their head. De Waal’s chapter on South Sudan shows that the success story of South Sudanese independence is anything but, and in so doing he renders the current civil war not a sudden crisis but a long-expected emergence rooted in the SPLA’s history as “a regressive resistance army masquerading as a liberation movement” (165). Citing Rebecca Hamilton’s brilliant reporting on South Sudan’s leading supporters in the U.S., de Waal also shows how these activists provided pressure that made U.S. policy inflexible, something I remember seeing in my own brief encounters with Save Darfur activists. This critique of past policies and advocacy helps place the current conflict in a new context, which can guide activists working to end this most recent crisis.

Critiquing movements that are commonly seen as success stories is more than just a buzzkill exercise. By doing this over and over, the book as a whole attempts to forge a new way forwards. Roddy Brett’s chapter on Guatemala shows that international efforts helped open space for indigenous activists to demand rights and gain a voice, but simultaneously made the realization of those rights impossible. Schomerus’ chapter on Invisible Children emphasizes that even radio programs that seek to inform people about LRA activities can inadvertently feed fear of rebels and empower armed militias that should otherwise be disbanded. Research like this, and others in the volume, show us what to be wary of as we engage in activism regardless of where and for what cause.

It’s crucial to ensure that global activism links all parties, giving local voices a global audience and ensuring the buy-in of those directly affected. Otherwise, we wind up with what de Waal refers to as policy that “can be progressive at home and regressive abroad” (19). Whether it’s central Africa, Burma, Guatemala, or Gaza, transnational activism is susceptible to being co-opted by those in power, and the best way to resist this is to ground our activism with those involved. It is harder for Uganda to entrench its militarization of the region if more Ugandan voices are included in advocacy decision-making. Congolese miners are more likely to stay employed and maybe even benefit if efforts to crack down on rebel supply chains were instead diverted to more fundamental concerns like security, justice, and governance at the heart of rebellion. The lesson in each of the cases featured in the book point to similar takeaways: be inclusive of those involved, be aware of the effects of involvement, and engage with complexity in order to address underlying causes.

The book itself is laid out in four parts – a one-chapter history of activism, followed by three case studies of Western advocacy movements linking with local campaigns (in Burma, Guatemala, and Gaza), then three case studies where Western activism diverged sharply from events on the ground (Congo, the LRA, and South Sudan), and three cases of issues-based activism (disability rights, the arms trade, and land grabs). All four sections offer different perspectives on a common problem: how to do advocacy across societies.

De Waal’s historical chapter is a useful look at how transnational advocacy has changed from decolonization through the human rights regime to today (though whether “today” is defined by post-Cold War, post-9/11, neoliberal, etc. is up for debate). The next section is useful for seeing how movements can merge – but the key is to see how this occurs. Sometimes foreign activists can integrate their message with local campaigns, but other times grassroots work gets derailed by intervention. The third section is most relevant to me, perhaps because it’s on Western advocacy in armed conflict in central Africa, but also because it demonstrates how outside activists can advocate for a cause regardless of what those affected actually feel about it. This power relation is an issue that is fundamental to any activist to be aware of, be it mansplaining, the white savior industrial complex, or some other form of the superiority-via-helping tendency. The last section, on issues-based activism, was to me the least interesting (chalk it up to subjects I’m less familiar with, or a different argument structure), and yet there are still key lessons to pull from disability rights activism being co-opted by big international NGOs, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines’ rapid success which actually heralded its failure, and the ability of actors with very different understandings of land rights to come together to resist it despite their differences.

Regardless of where you’re coming from (academic, development, activists or otherwise), this is a book worth reading. Taken individually, each chapter offers different perspectives and lessons on the particular topic at hand. Taken as a whole, the book coalesces around key concepts and lessons that every activist (and scholar of activism) should commit to her agenda.

In their conclusion to the book, Hogle et al. find four common goals in order to help “reclaim activism.” These are 1) empower local actors, 2) recognize complexity, 3) be inclusive of a range of those concerned, 4) reject single narratives. This call to action, and the volume as a whole, is a salvo in an ongoing debate over how to carry out activism, and it’s packed with important evidence and relevant cases for all aspects of transnational activism.

Watching The West Wing: Teachers and Courts

I am midway through a weeks-long marathon of watching The West Wing. When I was young, my parents watched the show, and I often watched it with them. Most evenings I watched whatever prime time drama my parents were into, and my wife and I recently began to run through the whole show on Netflix. Aaron Sorkin’s tendency to plant teachable moments throughout what is a fairly fast-paced and often context-riddled dialogue – notorious both in The West Wing and The Newsroom – does two things: teach the intricacies of American politics, both complex and simple, to an audience that may not yet know the details of a filibuster or censure or pardon, and allows those who do know feel a sense of being an “insider” as they follow the main characters down familiar hallways.

Coincidentally, Alyssa Rosenberg at The Washington Post is also watching the show this summer, and wrote a smart piece on the personal politics of the show, focusing on the fact that the main characters’ “positions on policy are — at least initially — determined by their personal attachments.” She argues that “it’s an ingenious way to make viewers feel attached to policy debates. But it also lets the Bartlet administration, which was never terribly liberal in the first place, be guided much more by emotion than any particular partisan theory of government.” I suggest reading her article, as it looks at the show’s focus on personal relationships and on its discussion of media and personal lives.


But I have something else I’d like to focus on. In watching the senior staff of the Bartlet administration debate education, drug policy, war, and terrorism, I’m becoming more and more convinced that The West Wing obscures more than it reveals. While the script frequently teaches its audience about the inner workings of the White House and American politics in general, the descriptions and definitions it provides often preclude the viewer from making up her own mind about those very issues. The ideas proposed – recruiting more teachers, supporting international justice, decriminalizing marijuana, selling weapons to repressive regimes, etc. – are introduced not to educate but to show the viewer which one is right (or at least practical, for the latter two realpolitik situations).

The West Wing‘s take on the post-9/11 world is something I’ll have to set aside for another day (that subject will take much, much more time), but here I’m going to outline two specific scenes in seasons 2 and 3. I’m halfway through the show, so it’s very likely that more of these posts are coming. Without further ado, The West Wing, Teach for America, and the International Criminal Court.

Continue reading

On the Social Condition in War

I recently finished Stephen C. Lubkemann’s Culture in Choas: An Anthropology of the Social Condition in War, and there’s a lot there for interested parties. The book is a dense brick of a book, but there is a lot crammed in those pages, and I found the different directions that Lubkemann goes in really fascinating.

The book is based on about a decade’s worth of research into the numerous ways that people adapted to war in Mozambique. I don’t know that much context about the war, but the narrative that Lubkemann strings together and the arguments he makes are fascinating to scholars of any part of the continent (or indeed anywhere there’s conflict). The backbone of his research is this:

[W]arscapes are often treated as interrupted societies in which the myriad social processes and life projects anthropologists investigate are treated as if they have been suspended. In such contexts coping with violence often becomes the only social task that analysts investigate. Such approaches strip warscape inhabitants of the social multidimensionality that is assumed to shape behavior and inform agency under less dramatic conditions.


War-time social existence in Machaze was never merely a matter of coping with violence; instead, as in peacetime, it centered on the pursuit of a multidimenstional agenda of life projects and “other struggles.” Throughout the conflict an array of “other” forms of gendered and generational social struggle continued to inform interests and orient behavior – migratory or otherwise. In fact, far from exercising singularly determinative force in shaping war-time behavior or proving capable or overwriting prior social and cultural difference, both the meaning and deployment of military violence itself tended to be reshaped by the specific sociocultural problematics that had long oriented the social life of the myriad and highly differentiated local groups throughout Mozambique (323-4).

With that as his jumping off point, he finds all sorts of interesting things in how people pursue life goals throughout the war and even after. The most interesting parts are his work on wartime mobility – displacement and otherwise. This includes the ways that men relied on decades-old migratory patterns (mostly to South Africa) to escape the violence, the ways that women tried to leverage war-time displacement to free themselves from the constraints of bride-prices, how men who remained in South Africa after the war ended tried to negotiate (or not) the dual life of keeping wives in Mozambique but careers (and even other wives) in South Africa, and the back-and-forth that all of these people navigated when trying to deal with ancestors and witchcraft to shield themselves. It’s all fascinating stuff, and at the heart of it is his decision to separate the life pursuits of people (and the contexts in which these are pursued) – what he calls a “lifescape” – from place. People pursue their lives in multiple places, in single places, or along routes between places, and his discussion of this (im)mobility during and after the war is really worthwhile.

One other thing I’ll focus on here is his reconceptualizing of Albert Hirschman’s “exit, loyalty, voice.” Hirschman’s initial idea was that there were three ways that people reacted to a situation that they were discontent with: loyalty, efforts to reach your life goals within the parameters set; voice, efforts to do this by modifying the parameters; and exit, refusing to participate and instead finding other ways to achieve those ends. In his book (mostly chapter 9), Lubkemann adapts Hirschman’s concept by framing loyalty and voice not as two of three distinct categories but by placing them on a continuum – reactions can be more loyalty or more voice, but they rest on a spectrum of participation within the terms.

In the context of this work, Lubkemann uses the continuum to analyze men who attempt to justify transnational life by living in South Africa more and more but maintaining ties to their ancestral land and their families back in Mozambique. Some men returned home after the war; others remained in South Africa but sent remittances or planned infrequent visits to placate families and ancestors; others sought to slowly leave Mozambique behind – one even argued that he had convinced his ancestors’ spirits to move to South Africa with him, thus freeing him from needing to return to his home. These variations of playing-by-the-rules are a useful way of looking at how people navigate these types of situations.

Anyhow, this is preliminary blogging for sure – I just finished the book this morning and felt the need to at least drop a word suggesting it for those interested in these topics. I’ll have to sit on it for a bit as I figure out just how much of the work can be applied elsewhere, but surely Lubkemann’s call for anthropologists to shift the way they study conflict is useful – to all disciplines.