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.

The Prosecutor vs. Dominic Ongwen

Today, the trial of Dominic Ongwen is continuing at the ICC. Opening statements were heard in early December, and the remainder of the trial, starting today, will be held throughout this spring. The case is an important one, both because it’s one of the earlier cases to be heard at the ICC, because it is the first (and potentially only) case to be heard regarding the LRA conflict, and because of the unique fact that Ongwen was kidnapped and forced to join the rebel group as a child about thirty years ago, making him a former child soldier being tried for crimes conducted while conscripted.

There will be a lot written about the trial as it happens and in its aftermath. I wrote about the Ongwen trial last year, focusing on the debate over whether he should stand trial or not, and I’m working on another piece now (update: here it is!). The blog Justice in Conflict also held an online symposium that includes some really good, short posts about different aspects of the case. And back in 2008 Justice and Reconciliation Project published a report about Ongwen and the complicated issue of victim-perpetrators that gets at some of the complexities involved [pdf]. It is the uniqueness of this case and the crucial debates around it that put it at the center of conversations about the ICC and the search for justice in the LRA conflict.

The case has been an interesting one so far. During the confirmation of charges hearings last January, the prosecution laid out its evidence for the case, comprised of numerous witnesses as well as the radio conversations of several LRA commanders, recorded by Ugandan security forces. The facts of the case will address four different attacks on IDP camps – at Pajule, Odek, Lukodi, and Abok camps – as well as “thematic” crimes concerning sexual and gender-based crimes as well as crimes against children. All told, Ongwen faces seventy charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, more than any other person. In the transcript of the opening day in December, the reading out of the charges took up seven pages.

The trial will produce a narrative about the conflict. How much this narrative follows the “official discourse” of the war that Sverker Finnström once laid remains to be seen. As Adam Branch notes, the presentations of the prosecution and defense during this preliminary stage of the trial at times followed this dominant narrative but at other times ruptured it. Over the course of this trial, an archive will be produced by the arguments, evidence, and testimonies. This archive has the potential to shape the broader way that the conflict is understood.

But the trial is just part of the way people will find justice in the aftermath of this conflict. Ongwen is but one man, and his trial will principally be about the four attacks he is accused of committing or ordering. This war has lasted thirty years and spanned four countries, including attacks by both the rebels and the state. There is a lot of accountability that has been deferred. But can a trial bring people justice?

“Law is not directed toward the establishment of justice. Nor is it directed toward the verification of truth,” Giorgio Agamben writes in Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. “Law is solely directed toward judgment, independent of truth and justice” (18). The law is about trials, so international criminal law leads us to the ICC, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to get closer to justice, especially if we are talking about something beyond criminal justice. Transitional justice requires changing the politics that led to the violence in the first place – but Uganda has seen little transition since 1986. Social and political justice requires reshaping society to address people’s grievances – but the more we focus on the trial of one man, the further we get from the reform necessary to prevent future outbreaks of violence. A just memory requires acknowledging the responsibilities of all parties involved, but much of the discourse around the LRA conflict still glosses over state violence and humanitarian complicity. Justice at the ICC may indeed be a good thing, but it’s certainly not the only thing.

If a trial is merely about judgment, and criminal justice becomes the only avenue through which the victims of the conflict can find justice, then we will be left at an impasse. Agamben, again, can be guide us here. In his discussion of the Nuremberg trials and the trials of Barbie, Eichmann, and others, he says that such judgments “are responsible for the conceptual confusion that, for decades, has made it impossible to think through Auschwitz. Despite the necessity of the trials and despite their evident insufficiency (they involved only a few hundred people), they helped to spread the idea that the problem of Auschwitz had been overcome” (19-20). The Ongwen trial will shed light on the specific attacks, victims, and witnesses, but much will not be acknowledged. What will become of those victims? Those perpetrators? Those memories?

As the trial begins, it will be important to pay attention to the narrative being created. It will also be important to not attach too much to this narrative, because it will inherently be insufficient. If the trial is a necessary part of fostering justice in Uganda and the international stage, it is also necessary to remember that it is not the only place where justice can be found.


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 below the cut. Continue reading


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.


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.