Inge Butter – Post-fieldwork report: CAR and Chad, June 2013
From October 2012 until March 2013 I carried out my third fieldwork period, following the leads I had picked up in Central Africa in order to gain an understanding of the dynamics of this post-conflict region. More specifically, I mapped and followed some of the social and economic networks of which a group of semi-sedentary Chadian nomads are a part. The excerpt below serves as a short informatory piece on this past fieldwork period.
Bangui, 26 October – 3 December 2012
Late October 2012 I embarked on an Air France flight to Bangui where I would spend about a month, visiting the family members of the nomads I had met earlier that year in Central Chad. I really enjoyed being in Bangui, its location alone, in the bend of a fast-flowing river, overlooked by Congo Zaire (as everyone referred to it). It spoke to the imagination. Obviously it wasn’t all as idyllic as it sometimes felt. Bangui is a rather small capital city. Souleymane (fellow PhD on the CTD project) and I explored the city on foot and by taxi on numerous occasions. I even brought up the courage to borrow my host’s car and drive around, alone. It wasn’t the traffic I was worried about but the traffic police. I soon learned which roads to take to avoid their sporadic check points. They taught me the French word for ‘fire extinguisher’…. It cost me 2000 cfa.
Within that month in Bangui Souleymane and I gradually grew more confident in our explorations of various neighbourhoods and in the search for respondents. Souleymane was interested in finding and talking to Chadian anciens combattants, something in which he proved successful- mostly due to his impressive knowledge of regional historical events. My own goings in Bangui focused more on the family members of those nomads I had spent my second four-month fieldwork with. The trace led to the neighbourhoods of Miskeen and Cinq Kilo, in which large Chadian populations can be found. In fact, the Soudanese Market is dominated by Chadian merchants, selling typical Chadian produce. This is where I spent a lot of my time, getting to know the merchants, both male and female, and their stories of how they came to be in Bangui. Their stories differed, some had been born and raised in CAR while others had come over different periods of time. There were those who recollected leaving for CAR a few days before Habré became president, others had come for more sporadic and commercially-driven reasons. An almost unanimous claim by members of varying generations was that they were first and foremost Chadian. Some had purposefully kept their Chadian national identity while others had found a way to obtain the Centrafricaine identity. All though, proclaimed to have the somewhat nostalgic intention of, at some point, returning to Chad and settling there. One of the main factors impeding their doing so were the high costs of living in Chad and the lack of land ownership there.
In Bangui I had stayed with a lovely Chadian family consisting of two young children, their mother, a female cousin, a male cousin, a young girl who the mother had taken in, and the occasional family member visiting from Chad. I loved being a part of this family and think about them often. A few days after Mirjam (who had come on a supervisor visit), Souleymane and I crossed the border between CAR and Cameroon, the first rebel insurgence broke out.
The threat was very real; I could hear it in her voice when we spoke on the phone. She was scared. Scared for her children, for her young male cousin. Scared of what they might have to go through this time.
These are the realities I have come across in my fieldwork. Lovely stories of happiness, freedom, care, children learning, children having trouble with math, puppies being born, of being taken in as part of the family. At the same time the rumors of threats, violence, are always there—making it an unsure place. A place to be angry with for making you deal with uprisings and defeat every time.
She would say, I am not leaving this country. I am a Chadian but Bangui owes me. I have given it too much to leave. She will pay me back for all I have given her and lost.
It seems to be a mixture of frustration and despair, what I encountered amongst the Chadian population living in Bangui. Pride as well, for what they have built. It’s a feeling of belonging to this ‘foreign’ country, with a parallel feeling of Chad being the one and only motherland.
A brief inland adventure
On the way from Bangui to Bertoua in Cameroon we purposefully drove passed the village where one of my main respondents was now living. We had spent three months together in her family’s nomadic camp (ferikh) in Chad earlier in the year and she had driven back to N’Djamena with me on her way back to CAR. She had gone back to join her husband who now manages the store her deceases father left behind. I was curious to see this place which she had so often described to the other women of the ferikh. Surprisingly, the one thing she had never mentioned in all those three months was the exploitation of diamonds! The diamonds found in this region of CAR are not of the big kind yet valuable discoveries are made from time to time. It appears that these Central Chadian nomads can also be found in this industry, ranging from daily labourers (earning 2000 cfa per day) to collectuers (collecting diamonds from the mines and selling them on to the larger companies). I would love to know more about the diamond business in general and more specifically, in relation to CAR and (Chadian) labour migrants.
The roads we traveled inland were not bad—given you travel with a set of sturdy 4×4 wheels. Public transport along these roads consists of mini-buses up to a certain point, and is to be continued on the back of a motorbike. Commercial vehicles do pass by the village (pick-ups mostly) but do so seemingly rarely. One of the main obstacles seems to be the waterways of varying sizes and the way to cross them. In one case a large lorry had misjudged the location of his wheels on a wooden bridge, causing the structure (and the lorry) to tilt over and blocking the way. This was solved with some human ingenuity (and brute force by fearless youngsters). In another case we ended up spending the night in a town because we weren’t sure we would make the last ferry across. It really does speak to the imagination—the old steel constructed bridges, the dodgy wooden crossings, the ‘route’ through a shallow river indicated by youngsters standing in its midst, and then the ferry’s which are pulled across to the other side and back.
In Bertoua I was very lucky to have Adamou (fellow PhD in CTD project) show us his fieldwork sites amongst the Mbororo. The refugee camps in which they live more closely resemble permanent villages while certain traditional pastoral practices remain in place. Driving through CAR and Cameroon, their landscapes struck me as so different from that in which the pastoral nomads of my own research live and function— high and dense grasses, jungle-like vegetation and many smaller and larger waterways (vegetation and water sources are scarce in Central Chad, especially during the dry season). I wondered in which ways that alone had impacted some of the differences Adamou and I were discovering between the nomads we were studying.
After having made the full-day trip from Bertoua to Bamenda, we spent a few days in the latter, having been given the chance to explore this, to me unknown, region and its major city with Mirjam. The limited presence of armed and uniformed men was enlightening while the overly present churches felt almost threatening and the freshly grilled fish was perfect.
On one occasion we made a day-trip to a small village just out of Bamenda. On this occasion Rukaiyata, a MA student came with us and I greatly enjoyed her account and interpretation of the land as we drove through the region in which she had grown up, amongst her Fulani family and their cattle. The landscape definitely begs to be hiked through!
Chad, 13 December – 28 March 2013
Mid-December I made my way back into Chad, via train from Yaoundé to Ngaoundéré and on by mini-bus and shared car to Moundou. In Moundou I was met by the husband of the woman I had stayed with in Bangui and immediately immersed into practices which I had never really done previously in Chad—drinking beer on a street corner with university staff members, clearly a ritual for them. I was impressed by the seemingly relaxed atmosphere of this southern city and felt much more at ease out and about on the streets than I had ever felt in N’Djamena. After a long, yet relatively comfortable, bus ride to N’Djamena the following day I was met by B. and his youngest son. It was very good to see them again! I was to stay in Chad for the further duration of my fieldwork, through to the end of March. I would like to say that overall the fieldwork period was uneventful. Nonetheless, the regional ‘noise’ created the necessary rumors, tensions, unease and color-coded warnings from certain embassies. Chad’s military role in Mali had its impact on the population, especially once those fallen in battle started coming home.
Unlike the previous fieldwork period, I only spent about a month-and-a-half in and around Mongo and the ferikh, spending the remainder of the time in N’Djamena. This time, however, I was equipped with a video camera! The return to the ferikh and to those with whom I had spent a close three months was a rewarding experience. It was good to see everyone in relatively good health. Life in the ferikh seemed to boil down to business as usual, except for the presence of an exponentially-grown herd of camels. When I last left them one of my respondents had been the owner of five or six. Almost a year later he now possessed at least forty-five! In short, it has to do with an inheritance and business in CAR. In addition, the school which had opened a year ago now comprised of two classes spread over two constructions! This and other processes greatly reflect the worth of the often strategic and tactical decisions and choices made by heads of the nomadic community.
Throughout this period in Chad my interest in the links my respondents have with Libya and CAR grew, focusing on the way in which remittances are sent back home to family members in the ferikh. In most cases, a mixture of formal (MTOs, call boxes) and informal channels (merchants, family members) are used. Another prominent feature was the almost soap opera-like events that continuously took place, interestingly enough, reflecting many socio-cultural practices (values and norms) as well as individual and group interactions with the state (power-relations, frustration, fear, powerlessness and bravado).
Inge Butter is a PhD student at the ASC and Leiden University. Her fieldwork takes place in Chad with a recently-explored link into CAR. This was her third field visit.