Whose minds need to be revolutionised?

Guest author: Catherina Wilson, PhD researcher in the project ‘Connecting in Times of Duress’, www.connecting-in-times-of-duress.nl, for which she travels the borders between CAR and DRC.

Sapin behind the easel at Libenge’s main market’s corner.

Sapin behind the easel at Libenge’s main market’s corner.

An artist, a historian and a researcher

Sapin is a Kinshasa based popular painter. Popular painters are mostly innate, self-taught artists who learn the art at the ateliers of more experienced painters. Since childhood, Sapin used to make sketches for his friends at school. He often recalls the anecdote of how he, at the age of ten, used to shape a crocodile out of sand each evening. The neighbourhood kids baptized this reptile the wild animal. Sapin would have liked to go into university or to study arts but was not encouraged to do so. He points to the neglect of both his parents. His father was even against the idea of an artistic career, forcing Sapin to finish his secondary school in electricity instead.

At the age of twenty, Chéri Chérin, one of Kinshasa’s famous popular painters, took Sapin under his wing. Sapin started developing skills and meeting people. Through his art, Sapin has befriended many mindele (whites). The relation with researchers like us who visit Kinshasa, is partly linked to his art, and to the knowledge he has of his city; walking with Sapin in Kinshasa is like walking with a living encyclopaedia, one that jovially mixes historical facts, personal anecdotes and lyrics of anciens succès (Congolese ‘golden oldies’). Sapin is a great storyteller and entertainer. On a deeper level, Sapin’s relationship with researchers finds its roots in an innate thirst for knowledge.

Observing Sapin has taught me that he is not just an artist, but also a researcher and a historian at heart. Curiosity is the first prerequisite for being a good researcher. Sapin is curious and has showed at several reprises an urge to delve into the past. Experience is another asset in the researcher’s repertoire and it has taught Sapin. As mentioned before, Sapin has accompanied researchers at various occasions during their data collection; instead of standing by idly, he observes and participates, he notes down, he asks questions and makes interviews, he pushes the researcher to think. It was Sapin who first came up with the idea of what would later be called a ‘painting performance’. When I asked him what a researcher is, he responded: someone who understands something in order to share it with others. What he most admires in the researcher is the latter’s courage. Sapin’s lack of studying has become a weight on his shoulders, a hindrance, however, by meeting up with researchers he has learned to be courageous too. He now dares to ask questions himself, he dares to know, and thus to quench his thirst.

Papa Henri’s project in Libenge: An incentive for the imagination

A couple of months ago, I told Sapin the story of Papa Henri in Libenge, where I did research. Libenge is an awkward little city is the northern Congo, along the shores of the Ubangui river, at the border between Congo and the Central African Republic. On the one hand it is a jewel in the jungle – old colonial houses, roads bordered with ancient mango trees, and home to Congo’s first international airport. On the other hand, Libenge is a thorn in the heart. Decay and forlornness have become too painful to observe. The best example of this are the carcasses of what was supposed to be the Panafrican University, built during Mobutu’s reign: 25 auditoriums, eleven student homes, an autonomous electricity central… all looted, forgotten and eaten by the jungle.

Balancing between glory and forlornness, Libenge is a historian’s paradise and Sapin’s enthusiasm motivated me to conduct a joint project around Papa Henri. In the past, Sapin had worked around a student insurgency that took place in Kinshasa in the 1960s. This experience motivated him to relate important yet unknown stories of his country to his compatriots. Now it would be Papa Henri’s turn to, perhaps, enter history. Papa Henri’s passion for his work inspired Sapin: “He is irregularly paid and works in a dead airport, yet despite of his age he fosters a love for his job. Why is he still working? And what has become of the first international airport on Congolese soil?”.

Sapin started his painting at the premises of the Libenge airport.

Sapin started his painting at the premises of the Libenge airport.

Sapin considers himself as a big absent of the past, a missing witness. His imagination was triggered by the airport’s history. Libenge received Congo’s first international flights. It was here that the first airplanes from Brussels landed, and it was here that, for instance, in 1960 Kasa Vubu, Lumumba, Tshombé and others took the plane to attend the famous Table Ronde in Brussels, announcing the eve of independence.

 30 June 1960, then Congolese delegation (L to R): Kasa Vubu, Lumumba, Bomboko and the Belgian King Baudoin at the Brussels airport. Did the plane at the back pick up its passengers in Libenge? Source: http://www.lecongolais.cd/quavons-nous-fait-de-lindependance/

Congolese delegation (L to R): Kasa Vubu, Lumumba, Bomboko and the Belgian King Baudoin at the Brussels airport. Did the plane at the back pick up its passengers in Libenge? Source: http://www.lecongolais.cd/quavons-nous-fait-de-lindependance/

For the occasion, African Jazz wrote the celebrated Indépendance Tcha Tcha, one of Sapin’s favourite ancient succès.

Alternative methods, alternative ways of ‘writing’

The purpose of Papa Henri’s project was to collect data in an alternative way, through a visual method. A painting elicits conversation and discussion among people. Discussion can be fruitful for understanding. A painting performance allows those who do not normally take part in the discussions to participate, for instance children. It was a way to share this great episode of history with Libenge’s own children, both young and old.

Research is often presented in written documents. Being able to write well (implying: proficiency of language in terms of spelling and grammar, but also access to computers) is another requisite for good research. Writing empowers the researcher to analyse, to understand and to share with others what s/he has collected in the field. But what does writing mean? There seems to be correct and erroneous writing systems. Moreover, writing is institutionalized and politicized. The Congolese educational system is in crisis, making writing dysfunctional. Does this imply that many Congolese are excluded from a life as a researcher? Are there other semiotic systems through which knowledge can be shared? Is our Western vision on how data should be analysed global, encompassing and fair?

During our visit to Libenge I gave an introductory course on anthropology, which consisted of a theoretical and a practical part. During the practical part, Sapin posed his easel in front of the students and painted, as he had been doing elsewhere in Libenge. I asked the students what type of data one could collect through a painting performance that one could not through an interview? To which one of the them replied: “In short, we can conclude that painting is the monument of speech. Painting materializes what speech expresses ephemerally. Words are carried away but that which is written (painted) is kept.”[1]

Through painting Sapin shared our research with others, mixing historical facts to social commentary. He ignited conversation, he ignited thought. A painter is a popular igniter. In the case of Libenge, he ignited conversations on how the country was and how it is today. But in me, he ignited more than that. Sapin ignited the question of the various possibilities to display research, of which writing is only one…

[1] “Bref, on peut conclure que la peinture est le monument de la parole. Elle matérialise en concrétisant ce que la parole exprime par l’air volatif comme on a dit tantôt : La parole s’en va mais les écrits (peintures) restent.”



Escaping polarization

DSC_1929 small

Mirjam de Bruijn meeting Croquemort (in grey suit) and his friends. Croquemort is one of the Counter Voices she has written about in this blog.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo shakes the Western world. Such attacks lead to and are a consequence of polarization; that hurts and denies rights of freedom, claimed to be ‘our’ Western values, so highly esteemed. The polarization also stretches to wealth inequalities; it confronts us every day in the media, on the market, in the streets. As a normality it has become part of us. Difficult to escape! Difficult even to notice.

Complex situations elsewhere
Being caught ourselves in this process of polarization will hopefully lead to a better understanding and hence a different relation to similar but often more complex situations elsewhere in the world. It might (finally) open our eyes for the difficulties that Chadians, Cameroonians, Nigerians (to name just a few) face and that they are fighting against. Boko Haram and Al Qaida attacks and dominance in the Sahel multiplies existing polarization tendencies. The present day oppressive regimes of Cameroon and Chad for instance ‘use’ these threats to ‘improve’ their repression. The attempt to get a bill through Parliament allowing the arrest of any suspected individual and the closing of the borders between Cameroon and Nigeria are examples of how this works. Chad joined the French and UN in Mali to fight against terrorism, and joined CAR fights with similar explanations, and just recently they joined the Cameroonian forces to fight Boko Haram in Northern Cameroon. This might be a noble stance, and it certainly has the effect of adding to the jubilant international image of President Déby. It is also a false excuse to continue the practices of dominant clans to feed on oil money and deny access to ordinary people, who are arrested or killed while fighting for their simple well-being, under the pretext of them being a threat for the stability of the State. A recent example is the demonstration in Doba, in the south of Chad (read http://makaila.over-blog.com).

Escaping logic
The Counter Voices and Voices for Thought we have presented in this blog so far are confronted today with this new polarization, built on older ones. What I admire is how they try to escape this logic in which they are brought up. For them, much more than for us, the polarization has been part of life, built in their families, villages and towns, and has become a way of thinking. Falling back in these oppositions is the easiest of languages. Fighting against them is the most difficult, as it will not be very much appreciated by both sides. However, will the Voices be able to keep to their mission in the extreme polarization that is turning increasingly into a threat to their own families and friends?

Struggling with polarization
Chadian society is divided in North and South, the civil wars have been explained in these terms. A division that is a heritage of the French colonial regime, that defined the South le Tchad utile, and the North le Tchad inutile. This simplicity has been translated into ethnic and religious oppositions. This heritage feeds into the new opposition of ‘Muslim terrorists’ against ‘the Others’, non-terrorists. To fight new divisions, old divisions have to be eradicated. Croquemort, Selma, Beral, Eli, the Cameroonian Joky and the other Counter Voices are all in their own way experiencing and fighting against such oppositions. They refuse to be part of this heritage, but for how long?

DSC_1930 smallWe all met in January during events, meetings at the bar, face-to-face conversations in N’Djamena. Discussions about Boko Haram and the polarization in their societies were inevitable. The experience of Boko Haram’s violence in the family of Salma (who live in Maiduguri), in the family of Joky (in Cameroon), the trucks with refugees from Nigeria in the streets of N’Djamena and the many discussions and debates in the newspapers made the topic part of life. On the streets, young men greet each other with the word Ebola to which the answer is either Ebola or Boko Haram.

Bridging oppositions through art
These people being the intelligentsia of Chad (or the coming one) try to reason and discuss. They had already taken their position in earlier years. Let me present the efforts of two of the Counter Voices already presented in this blog: Salma and Croquemort.
Salma is a Muslim woman, in her artistic and social work concentrating on the position of women. All her work is in a way directed towards bridging gaps: between religions, between her society in the Guera (Central Chad) and the cities, and probably especially towards bridging the polars within herself: being a Muslim woman of the Hadjeray people, whose strict rules do not allow her to be the intellectual artist that she wants to be. She has to behave according to the gender rules. She is especially moved by the stories of violence and afraid that such violence may exacerbate existing relations of violence. She will continue to bridge oppositions in her society with her photography and organization of meetings for women and youth in N’Djamena.
Croquemort, from the Southern part of Chad and raised as a Christian (but now an agnost), composed the song ‘Je suis du Nord, je suis du Sud’, registered on his new CD that was presented end of January in the Chadian press. It is a song about the division of Chad and how he, as a traveler, manoeuvres in between, repeating that it is nice to meet the other, eat and drink together, being proud to be a Chadian who has so much cultural diversity.

‘Je suis du sud, je suis de l’est, je viens du nord je viens de l’ouest
Je me sente chez moi
C’est me ballade là où je veux
A la découverte de déserts, déserter la savane rester à découvrir

Saluer les nomades sur leurs chameaux, demander de l’eau
Aller dans le centre partager un repas
Sous la reine du Guera
Entrer dans les tentes et demander l’hospitalité
Ecouter le chante du berger et boire le lait caillé
voir la jeune fille de BET

Me sente chez moi c’est slamer partout..
Découvrir l’ouest pas pour les militaires mais pour entendre le voix de muezzin
Me sentir chez moi c’est regarder le musulman et le regarder dans les yeux
Un frère un cousin et neveux

Unité unité
Un peuple
Une idée

On chantera la paix
Unité d’un peuple une idée

Listen to the entire song (8th song of the list shown).

Discussing positions
Béral, a friend of Croquemort, a writer/singer himself and part of the opposition in Parliament, questioned the cartoon issue: Would Christians react the same when their God would be mocked? Muslims became angry and he cannot understand why. God is greater than all this blasphemy. Is each individual Muslim a God, a judge of these cartoons or of football players? Béral supports the move of Chad to send soldiers to Cameroon, and hopes that they will make it. They will; I also hear a certain pride in his voice, despite himself. He is a real opponent of Déby and the regime, but this time national pride is present.

Salma, Croquemort and Béral are part of an emerging group of (relatively) young people who ‘y en marre’ (‘are fed up with it’) and want to change the world. Their fight is based on experiencing violent polarization, injustice and inequalities that were created by their governments and in endless violent actions of the State, rebels, colonial regimes, etc. The new polarization we are facing as a world is building on this and embedded in it; that is why it will be so difficult to eradicate it. More will be needed, but the start has been made by these young people’s efforts.

The recent turn in world politics, however, makes them reflect differently on the situation between groups in their own countries. It is difficult to accept that Muslims are against ‘Je suis Charlie’ manifestations. Take for example the football match between people from the North and people from the South, where T-shirts with ‘Je suis Charlie’ on them were worn. Instead of a peaceful match it became a match of hatred. People who were offended by the cartoons molested the youngsters.

More of such incidents occurred, leading these young people to reflect differently on, and discuss more fatalistic about the polarization in their society, reflecting like Béral does on what it means to be Muslim within their society and for their society.