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.

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.

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.

Two Ethnographies of Conflict

I’m peaking my head over the books to give a brief glimpse at two really incredible books that I read recently. In a course on insurgency, the state, and political consciousness, I’ve had the chance to read two ethnographies that present really interesting approaches to studying conflict: Danny Hoffman’s The War Machines and Sharika Thiranagama’s In My Mother’s House. I’ve wanted to read the former for a couple of years, the latter I hadn’t heard about until I picked it up. Both are new books which hopefully haven’t slipped under everyone’s radar (and if they have, now you have no excuse!) – they’re well worth your time if you’re interested in how conflict shapes society and vice versa.

Continue reading

Reading World War Z

In what is both a moment of procrastination (I don’t want to do homework) and an act of slight progress (I’m finally clearing out some of my blog drafts), I present an unpolished, never-quite-finished essay on the novel World War Z by Max Brooks. I started this thing almost a year ago, but don’t see myself working on it anymore. Might as well let you read it. Note that I have yet to watch the film adaptation, this is meant to be a reading of (specific parts of) the book.

World War Z is not a typical zombie story.  For one thing, the book is “written” in the aftermath of the conflict, and while some segments tell what happened during the zombie outbreak, there is a significant portion that deals with how humans were responding to the consequences of it all, after the war.  The book includes scenes of workers patrolling the arctic circle for thawing zombies and towns rebuilding after being cleared of the undead.  In addition, the novel is an effort to tell the story of the whole world rather than a region (like southern Georgia in The Walking Dead), a mall (Dawn of the Dead), or an individual (Robert Neville of I Am Legend).  It does this by framing itself as an oral history, a compendium of interviews conducted by a U.N. worker.

But oral history isn’t the same as history.  At its core, oral history isn’t so much the study of evidence but a study of memory.  World War Z isn’t a historiography of the zombie war so much as it is a glimpse at how survivors remembered the war.  Above all, since it is fictitiously compiled by an “author” (the U.N. worker) and also actually compiled by an author (Brooks), it is a collection of memories that Brooks thought best represented a history of his war – and a history of the world.  The story isn’t about the characters really (some interviewees reappear in the conclusion, but I had to go back to piece together who was who – there is little actual character development) so much as it is about the countries that deal with zombies and the notion of the global zombie war itself.

In an interview about the book, Brooks stated that “everything in World War Z (as in The Zombie Survival Guide) is based in reality… well, except the zombies. But seriously, everything else in the book is either taken from reality or 100% real.”  Adding zombies to reality, then, allowed Brooks to show what he thought of the world through its response to catastrophe, its governance, its resilience.  In another interview, Brooks called the book an effort to combat American isolationism and argued that he wanted to “break down the stereotypes Americans have about other cultures… and maybe give my fellow Americans a window into the political and cultural workings of other nations.”

But how did Brooks choose to represent the world?

Brooks’ decision to shed light on the outside world, if taken seriously as an attempt to enlighten us where our isolationism has sold us short, rests on the same old stereotypes and dangerous whitewashing that he proposes to combat.  A number of societies are portrayed in one or two short segments that are more about applying the zombie war to our preconceived notions than about opening a window to new cultures.  For example, the only two Japanese characters interviewed are a young, cyber-connected loner and an old, blind, traditional warrior.  North Korea is portrayed as an isolated and paranoid mystery.  South Africa’s role is framed solely by its apartheid history.  Iran takes the position of America’s greatest fear: the trigger-happy nuclear power.  The story’s structure doesn’t lend itself to much in terms of developing a more nuanced look at cultures or politics around the world, so this is your only glimpse at some societies.

Where foreign affairs don’t rely on stereotypes, they rest on a scary depiction of the “real world.”  The two countries that lead the world out of the zombie war are South Africa and Israel, two countries with infamous histories of dealing with actual hungry and helpless masses within their own borders.  Both countries have experienced decades of forced segregation that leave a significant part of the population isolated, oppressed, dying.  In portraying the world through the zombie war, it is implicit that these histories – of segregation, oppression, and degradation – are the reason that these countries manage to weather the storm of zombie infestation better than others. Continue reading

Caine Blog: “The Whispering Trees” by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim

Here’s a belated addition to the Caine Prize blog carnival. The third story we’re reviewing is “The Whispering Trees” by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim from Nigeria. You can read the story as a pdf here and see other reviews linked at the bottom of this post.

I have had some trouble trying to figure out what to write about Ibrahim’s short-listed story. This isn’t because I didn’t like it, and it isn’t because there aren’t things to say. The story says a lot of interesting things about death, is written with some wonderful imagery, and tackles religion and magic in an interesting way.

Twice in the story, our narrator wishes for death. Both times he sees, or imagines that he sees, the world of the dead, the gates of heaven, etc. but is denied entry and forced to live first with his blindness from a car accident and then without the love of his life after she finds somebody else. It is after this second encounter with loneliness (he kept to himself for the most part after being blinded) and the subsequent phase of depression (interpreted by his community as possession by the devil) that he finally succeeds in encountering the world of the dead. He sees souls in the woods, and begins to see them everywhere, regaining a new type of vision that moves far beyond sight.

I’m curious how this plays against the first story we reviewed, Tope Folarin’s “Miracle.” In that story, vision and sight and religion and magic also played a role. But there, we were shown that the power of magic and religion from the blind was really a ruse. It was an attempt to convince people that it was real, an attempt that showed that the miracle wasn’t that the narrator regained his sight (he didn’t) but that everyone saw that he had regained his sight. They all saw the miracle happen, and in that way, the miracle was real. But the reader knows that the narrator still needs his glasses.

In “The Whispering Trees” we see a narrator begin to actually see, but not the same type of sight that he had before. But we, as the reader, see it the same way the other characters do – real. There is no ruse here, no trick to convince the masses or sell sermon tapes. There is only an attempt to free people, to free their souls, and to free our narrator from his waiting at the gates.

Other posts:

Caine Blog: “Foreign Aid” by Pede Hollist

This is the second review of the Caine Prize 2013 shortlist. This week we’re covering “Foreign Aid” by Pede Hollist of Sierra Leone. You can read the story yourself here [pdf] and scroll to the bottom of this post to see the other posts discussing the same story.

Pede Hollist’s short story “Foreign Aid” chronicles the return trip of its protagonist, a Sierra Leonean who has spent twenty years in the States, to his family and home.  The return doesn’t exactly go the way that our protagonist, Logan (formerly Balogun), expects. He loses his suit cases, quickly spends most of the money he brought with him, and encounters trouble in connecting with his family over their needs.  As Aaron has pointed out, this last part is precisely because the journey “is just a visit, just a brief interlude, a long awaited vacation. This, it seems to me, is where his problems begin.” Logan is no longer of Sierra Leone, he is only returning briefly.  While I agree with Aaron that this is where Logan’s problems begin, Aaron calls the return a vacation, and I would push to describe Logan’s trip back more as a debt payment or a journey of obligation.  After all, when he’s preparing for the trip, Logan is not ecstatic to see his sister again or eager to catch up with his parents, he brings gifts because he is “motivated by guilt and a desire to make up for neglecting his parents and sister for almost twenty years.”  If the immigration officer asked him if the travel was for business or pleasure, it’d be hard to discern by looking at the events that follow.

Once in the company of his parents, Logan offers to pay for things or hands money to his family no less than nine times.  But it is clear throughout that Logan has twenty years of debt to pay back, and he never seems to get close.  His gifts are lost, his cash depletes, and his sister isn’t interested in his offer to take her to America.  Finally, in his effort to confront Ali Sayyar, the father of his sister’s child, Logan encounters the hard truth.  Logan tries to put Sayyar in his place, accusing him of being a foreigner and demanding that he support the unborn child, when Sayyar reveals that he is not just the father of the child but he is also supporting the entire family through a host of loans, and that he is a native Sierra Leonean, something that Logan can hardly say for himself after spending half of his life in America.

When Logan explains the situation to his family, arguments break out left and right over the rapidly growing number of debts the family owes this one man.  Logan shrinks into solitude for the remainder of his trip, realizing that his absence had left his family in debt, and that his trip to repay his own debts to his family had done close to nothing. His last bit of respite is to go on a date with his sister’s friend Tima, and even this ends terribly.  After walking into the hotel “with high expectations, like an indebted gambler into a Vegas casino,” and then he is stood up.  His attempt at a last hurrah before returning home to his wife (to whom he might also be indebted, since she refuses to send him more cash as he requests) is dashed, and later explained by a note from Tima explaining her inability to date a married man. Is the house always wins in Vegas, perhaps Sierra Leone always wins when those who leave try to return with only money and intentions.

Besides the frequent presence of debt and obligation, the other major theme here is couched in the title, “foreign aid.” Logan engages in two types of giving, he hands out cash to all of the distant relatives at the party his parents throw for him, and he also gives specific amounts to his parents for specific purposes, such as his mother’s doctor’s visit and his father’s car parts.  He also works to change his family for the better, offering his sister a ticket to America and to help his parents understand the benefits of going.  As several other bloggers have discussed, this attempt fails miserably.  In his effort to set things right with Ali Sayyar, things fall apart even more.

In the confrontation between Logan and Sayyar, it is revealed that Logan’s nativist sentiments collapse under the realization that he is the foreigner in the situation.  While it is important to acknowledge that Sayyar is in some ways more native that Logan, it is also important to look at Logan’s prejudice against Sayyar as it relates to the theme of foreign aid.  Logan’s attempts at assisting his family, both through handouts and direct (shall we say conditional) aid, fail to meet his community’s needs.  Meanwhile, Sayyar is able to pay every member of his family regularly, to the extent that he virtually owns the family and literally owns their home.

Despite his Sierra Leonean citizenship, Sayyar is still a stand-in for the West’s growing competitors in African development: China, India, and the Middle East.  As Kola notes, the boy at the end of the story talks of an “opposite migratory pattern eastwards,” moving to Nigeria to learn to become a pilot rather than travel to America as Logan did.  I saw these as fairly explicit nods to the growing presence of the greater “East” in confrontation with America and the rest of the West.

Lastly, I feel the need to note how much this story reminded me of last year’s shortlisted story, “La Salle de Depart,” by Melissa Tandiwe Myambo (pdf of the story, my review).  It doesn’t remind me of the story because of the similarities, but for the differences.  In Myambo’s story, also of a man going back home to visit family, his sister begs him to take her son to America and he refuses because he does not believe it is a good decision and he is wary of its effect on his life back in America.  In Hollist’s story, another man goes home and tries to bring his sister to America, but she refuses, saying that “America has problems too” and that she has heard stories of friends who are “worse off in America than here.” I thought it was interesting to see just how directly opposite the two stories were in their depiction of the return trip and of life both leaving your home country and of life being left behind. While much of this story is long and ugly, I think putting it in context of other depictions of the divide between diaspora and home softens it up a bit.

Other bloggers’ thoughts:

Caine Blog: “Miracle” by Tope Folarin

This is the first of five review posts on the shortlist for the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing. This review is of “Miracle” by Tope Folarin of Nigeria. You can find the piece in .pdf form here, and scroll to the bottom of this post to see additional reviews and analyses by the other participants in the Caine Prize blog-carnival.

In the last two years that I’ve written about the shortlist for the Caine Prize, all of the stories have been set in Africa. It’s a welcome change this year that at least one, “Miracle” by Tope Folarin, is set in America. I think it’s fitting, since so many of these writers have spent at least some time outside of Africa (Folarin graduated from Morehouse and Oxford and now lives in Washington, DC), that some of these African short stories deal with non-African aspects of African lives. The setting is central to this story, as the narrator – a Nigerian in the Midwest – tries to define a miracle from the vantage point of life in the diaspora.

The narrator is attending a Nigerian church service in north Texas, and the gathering of churchgoers excitedly participates in the festivities of churchgoing. They’ve arrived, gathered from across the region, to witness miracles. But instead, they’ve often been left unsatisfied, or at least misled. For example, at the beginning of the church service, the churchgoers have to stop at the beginning of each song in order to figure out what song is playing because there is no cue, no leader to guide them through the music. Instead, they must fend for themselves. When they sing, they sing songs of hope, “hope that, one day soon, our lives will begin to resemble the dreams that brought us to America.” But even in successfully coming to America, a feat that can only be described as a miracle, they have been misled.

The prophet that is visiting the church tries to guide them, but it is literally the blind leading the blind. He leads his followers on a meandering road, telling them to thank God that they have been blessed enough to arrive in America, but in the same breath condemning America for making them accept their ailments. And yet, in neither instance is he leading his followers anywhere new. The narrator describes the needs of the community thus: jobs, good grades, green cards, a clearer understanding of identity, to replace failing organs and limbs. And what does the prophet attempt to fix? The narrator’s poor eyesight. There’s no effort to fix what needs fixing, only to get rid of the narrator’s glasses. When the prophet begins by chasing away the bad spirits, the crowd cheers without conviction. It’s no small wonder that the narrator has the same feeling on an individual basis once he has been singled out. He cheers, but with no conviction. His sight remains lost, just like the prophet’s.

If seeing is believing, and the narrator’s sight is still blurred in the end, then his participation in the event is worth noting. After the prophet performs his miracle, the narrator thinks back to his father’s daily reminder of their place in society – in America. Compared to the journey out of Nigeria and into America, his sight is a minor problem that is no need of miracles. Not when people need jobs and green cards and new organs. Not when he suffers from asthma. But his eyes are what the prophet tries to heal. And so, when the prophet sets about correcting the narrator’s vision rather than his breathing, the narrator plays along, aware that he must in order to keep up both the miracle of healing, the miracle of life in the diaspora.

From the co-bloggers:

Blogging the Caine Prize!

The shortlist for the Caine Prize for African Writing has been announced, which means a growing cabal of bloggers will be writing reviews/analyses about the five stories soon. This will be our third year going, and I’m really excited about it. The stories are always really interesting, and I get exposed to things I would never find otherwise. The shortlist itself is often more exciting than just the ultimate winner, and seeing the various types of stories that make it this far is really interesting. I’ve learned a lot from my co-bloggers in how to read a text, and it’s helped me recently as I’ve been organizing the African Studies Reading Group here at Yale, an ad hoc eating and close-reading group of folks, within our department this past year.

And so, with that, I’m excited to announced that I’ll be joining the ranks in reading the Caine Prize shortlist this year in the last week of May and throughout June. If you want a taste, feel free to click the “Caine Prize” tag and see posts from the proceeding years, and I hope you’ll check out posts by the whole crew of bloggers at the bottom of each of my reviews. If you’re interested in joining us, please do! Drop me a line and I’ll make sure to link to it.

The shortlisted stories for the 2013 Caine Prize are [links to pdfs]:

We’ll be tackling them weekly and in that order, starting the week of May 27th. Won’t you read with us?