Cattle feeding the armed groups in CAR


For many nomadic Fulani refugees from the CAR cattle has become a memory painted on the wall of their shelter @Mirjam, 2012, Cameroon

Mi tampi, mi walaa, tampere, fuu welleke’
‘We are tired, we lost everything, exhausted, all has gone’; These are just a few words that the three Fulani, one man and two women, whom we met in Bangui last week, repeated in the exchange we had in a bar at a busy road. They refer to the difficulties they have been confronted with over the past decades. I had asked for a meeting with some Fulani who fled to Bangui. A Muslim student who followed my course in Bangui was willing to make this happen. We could not meet in PK5, the quarter of Bangui where the Muslims were uniting to hide for attacks of the anti-Balaka. These attacks are no longer taking place, everybody assures me, but when I propose to go there and meet the Fulani who are displaced and live in an empty school building in PK5 I am held for a complete lunatic, ‘What.. no, no, you cannot go there’. People are still afraid that something might happen, but also the anti-French sentiments seem to be deeply rooted and may lead to difficult situations for people like me, white.


Meeting ‘displaced’ Fulani from PK5 at a bar at the road @Mirjam 201

Meeting Nomadic Fulani in Bangui
My wish to meet some Fulani was inspired by the many stories about their plight. Since 2012 we (with Adamu Amadou PhD student) are working with the Fulani refugees from CAR in Cameroon and in Chad (with ma-student Eli Doksala from Chad), and the flow of refugees and displacement of Fulani is still continuing. They have been the victim of many different armed groups, their cattle serving as a resource for these groups. Already in the 1990s children of nomads were kidnapped for ransom, later they were simply robbed of their cattle. This has now been going on for 20 years. The cattle of the Fulani seems to be  a resource as valuable as gold and diamonds. But the young Fulani men have also joined the armed groups and formed their own armed groups, apparently for their protection. The number of displaced and refugee Fulani is not known. The many we met in Cameroon and in Chad, also outside the official refugee camps, does however indicate that the situation is serious [see for instance HRW report].

The Fulani nomads in CAR
The Fulani in CAR have different origins and come from different countries. In the 1980s they moved with their cattle into CAR where there was space and grasslands, and a need for meat. They settled and now the second generation of these newcomers already has families and the third generation of Fulani nomads is residing in CAR, where they are known as Mbororo. The name Mbororo is in fact a derogatory term, it is the name of their cattle, the so-called Mbororo are many different lineages, Ali Jam, Uda-en, Wodaabe, and so on. The 1980s and first half of 1990s was a period when they were welcomed. The spaces of cattle and agriculture were well separated and the symbiotic relationship between herders and farmers was not just a dream.


Amadou in conversation with a Fulani chief in Bangui @MIrjam 2012

However, from the mid-1990s political struggles were translated in unrest in the countryside. This was intensified when in 2003 Patasé was toppled by Bozizé (with help of the French and the Chadians and the chaos in the country was only increasing. With the absence of the state any measure to enforce the guidance of farmer-herder contracts disappeared completely. The Fulani were increasingly considered an exploitable source of wealth. In the interviews Adamou held in the camps in Cameroon and the one interview we held with a Fulani leader in Bangui (December 2012) the expression of powerlessness, of not being heard and being victimized was dominant.

Fulani resistance
As there was no protection offered to the Fulani, resistance and rebellion could only be expected. Armed self-defence groups turned into bandits (Saibou Issa: les coupeurs de route: histoire du banditisme rural et transfrontalier dans le basin du lac tchad (Paris, Karthala 2010)). Baaba Ladde was the first warlord who organised a movement of Fulani and got indeed publicity for the cause. He had his base in Northwest CAR at the Chadian border. Baaba Ladde, a Chadian, directed his actions and discourse against the


Fulani (wodaabe) with her (sedentary) friend in a village between Bangui and Garoua Boulai @Mirjam, 2012

Chadian State, Idriss Déby. In fact he started his rebellion in 1998, but moved to CAR in 2008. After reconciliation talks he became a member of the Chadian government and later deserted again; then again became a civil servant in a Chadian sous prefecture. In 2014 he returned to CAR, where he was arrested in Bangui in November. He was sent to Chad in January 2015 and is currently in prison. Part of the armed forces of Baaba Ladde joined the Seleka, namely the group headed by Ali Darass, an old friend of Baaba Ladde. He ‘settled’ in central CAR and created the Union pour la Paix en Centrafrique.

Ali Darass
Ali Darass is said to be from Niger, and ‘uses’ the story of the Fulani crisis for the justification of his movement. His territory is expanding. It is alleged that he is an ally of the government and therefore not stopped; one of the rumours around this is that the president whose name is derived from a Fulani name (Faustin-Archange Touadéra), supports the Fulani and UPC. The other story is that as the UPC is not against government measures to control the conflict like the DDR (disarmament, demobilization and reintegration). He is openly willing to support these.

And very recently a new group presenting themselves as defenders of the rights of the Fulani was born: 3R (Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation), that is said to have attacked villages and people, creating a bloodbath in November 2016 in the region North-East, the region where Baaba Ladde also had his fiefdom. This group 3R is accused of serious atrocities. However, their leader Sidiki is invited around negotiation tables and tells a different story. He denies all atrocities supposedly committed by his men.

 ‘les peuls negocient et ont de bonne comportement autour de la table’

(…) said a UNICEF employee when we were discussing the very difficult situation in CAR at the head office in Bangui (27 January 2017). Do the Fulani have a reason to resist/rebel? Also in the stories of our research in Bria, Bambari and Paoua the Fulani are very present both as rebels/resistance fighters and as victims. They have become a new military force in CAR, and are expanding their territory very fast. The seeds sown by Baaba Ladde seem to have taken a new direction in their growth over the past few months.

The Fulani nomads are filling the ranks of their generals, of 3R and Ali Darass, out of anger that their cattle is feeding other armed groups that are fighting in the CAR; this vicious circle can only be broken if the government will take control over the areas again. But that is still a dream for CAR, despite the presence of international forces mission MINUSCA .And until a solution is found the Fulani nomads will also continue to be part of the flows of refugees and displaced people who have no home but an empty school in Bangui.


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

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.

UNHCR in Congo Equateur, layered Counter Voice ‘effect’

(travelling with Catherina Wilson, June 2014)

The small rond point just at the market of Libenge has received a new painting: the logo of the UNHCR to announce a new phase in this small town’s existence. Libenge is a small town in Northern Congo, Province Équateur. It is just a small town, like so many others, so it seems at first sight. But underneath this ‘normality’ the hidden histories of promises and projects that have never come through make Libenge a very emotional and disturbing place. Will the invasion of the UNHCR, the United Nations agency for Refugees, be another white elephant, adding to the experience of lost hopes?

DSC05313-2Why a blog about UNHCR in a counter voice narrative? Because what we have seen needs to be shared; but also because this type of organization functions as a Voice. The UNHCR as an organization makes in its actions a call to the World for the refugees. However, at the same time this Voice and the actions of the UNHCR generate and annihilate individual counter voices, by creating hope but humiliating these at the same time. Can we analyse this as a layered Counter Voice ‘effect’?

White Elephants
Libenge is situated in the homeland of Mobutu and the recently arrested ‘rebel’ leader Bemba. Bemba waits for his trial at the ICC in the Hague. Both Bemba and Mobutu have not lost their hero status for many people here. Some of the youth do not reject Mobutu’s DSC05292-2authoritarian regime, but instead compare it with the present-day situation, concluding that it was better then: anything is better than the rule of Kabila. Many of these young men and women do not have jobs. They try to make a living by being a taxi-bike (that is not their own) man, and do some farming, although they have no real clue to how to create a successful harvest. We visit some of the white elephants; an empty sugar factory, a huge construction that had to become the Panafrican University, and the airport where – until the arrival of the UNHCR – planes were only sporadically appearing.
UNHCR’s arrival in the region dates from the time before the first refugees from CAR arrived in the camp. If the information of the sisters (Filles de Saint Joseph) is correct the UNHCR knew long before the conflict in CAR started about the need for refugee camps. They were preparing in 2012. The sisters therefore believe that this is all a set-up. We could not verify this early preparation. Was the influx of refugees foreseen? And what has been the role of international politics and interests? Answers will never be certain. But the presence of the UNHCR and many other Humanitarian NGOs in Libenge (and the region) is a fact. They create jobs, new public spaces, make prices of food and shelter rise, and introduce cars, improve roads, in short create another reality. And everybody knows UNHCR will not stay forever.

UNHCR BrandingDSC05346-2
Travelling the road between Gemena and Libenge and between Libenge and Zongo (about 260 km) by motorbike, we meet fourwheeldrive cars from the UNHCR only, we see piles of wood, we meet the UNHCR sign boards. The fourwheeldrive cars can travel these bad roads, except for the bridges that were reconstructed recently by the UNHCR, as a ‘gift’. The big trucks that pass with a lot of trouble (often 14 days on the road) profit from these bridges. But there are no other cars. Only motorbikes help people from one town to the other. The piles of wooden planks along the road are now mainly bought by the UNHCR to create the camps. Building 25,000 huts and all the rest demands a huge amount of wood. Houses in the villages wear signs of the UNHCR, the UNHCR brand on the cloth that covers some of the hangars, but also the announcements of their good work: rehabilitation of a school, the reconstruction of a bridge, and the many t-shirts. And of course the big refugee camps along the road; one near Libenge (Boyabu) and the other nearZongo (Molè). The colours of the UNHCR, blue-white, are the marks of new buildings, new projects and aid money.

Refugee identity DSC05223-2
The presence of the UNHCR is part of the war economy/situation that we observe in this region; a war that this time comes from the Central African Republic. It is not the first confrontation with war in this region, coming from different sides, and stories of displacement are normal. This last conflict is considered the expected next. In the small towns offices of the UNHCR and the national refugee organization CNR (Congolese Council for Refugees) are the busy headquarters of the organizations. Decisions are taken here about the set up and regulations in the camps, and where the new refugees and displaced will go. Can Chadians join the camps or should they be sent to Kinshasa? These fleeing people who have left their homes and beloved ones behind obtain another identity here. Entering the registration procedure means that one becomes subject to UNHCR policy, applying juridical formats to these people’s identity; from which there is only a very difficult return. The refugee who was a free person becomes a ‘prisoner’ of humanitarian aid. The aid is attractive and hard to refuse, as there is no alternative. For many newly arriving refugees receiving 15 dollars a month per head is enough to survive. Though there will always be hunger and need for care. The decision to give money instead of food was based on a protest in one of the camps. The refugees did not like the distributed food. The other (probably outweighing?) reason was that the UNHCR could not organize the provision of the huge amounts of food, simply because of financial and infrastructural problems.

UNHCR machinery DSC05470-2
The UNHCR, their sub-contractors (like the CNR) and humanitarian NGOs thus install yet another dynamic in the region that will certainly direct people’s lives, for refugees and autochthones, and for the employees. It is remarkable that many of the higher cadre employees are from other regions in Congo. We meet quite a number of people who are from the East. Their explanations reveal that they have become part of the humanitarian circulation that started in the East of Congo, where the UN has been present for many years. It appears that the East was a ‘school’ for humanitarian aid practitioners. The equatorial province offers a new job market for these humanitarians. Perhaps such machinery of humanitarian aid is unavoidable. The world has no other model to care for people in extremely difficult/disaster situations. However the dynamics we observe are also counter-productive and double sided. Both the employees and the refugees are ‘victims’ of the organization. Although the employees are of course happy with their jobs, they do realize that life is not that easy as their families are elsewhere and they are confronted with misery on a daily basis; on the other hand the DSC05357-2refugees become a kind of prisoners, with a subject identity. They will also be grateful for the help they receive. But is there not another way? Many lives are ‘crushed’ and will not be the same after calm has returned. The materials used by the UNHCR will not stay for long after the operation has stopped, the wood and batches will just perish; but the organizational and social structures they created and the mentalities put in the minds of many young and old people will stay, and it is not certain whether this will bring a durable future of peace. This time the white elephant is leaving its marks in the mentalities, and although material structures might not be left behind, it is as well enduring especially for the creation of sentiments that make the population anxious for their historical leaders; a returning sentiment that overrules these leaders’ terrible and violent deeds.

The UNHCR has a message to the world and is a Voice for a better world; but its existence is also based on this Voice. The model of the UNHCR has been developed on the basis of humanitarian models that unavoidably change people’s identities and create a reservoir of ‘refugees’, with another mentality, and ideas about the world. It creates people who will not be the counter voices of the future, but instead dependent and traumatized forever.

World Refugee Day: CAR refugees in urban Congo: potential counter voices?

Co-author: Catherina Wilson, PhD researcher in the project ‘Connecting in Times of Duress’,

Catherina meeting refugee students from CAR.

Catherina meeting refugee students from CAR.

Metropolitan Urban Congo. The city attracts people – this is almost a law, unescapable. Yet a rule that one cannot really understand for the African city, that is often disorganized, has lots of filth, unhealthy living conditions, but still. In this respect Kinshasa, the capital of DR Congo, beats all cities: 13 million people try to make a living in a town where electricity is a blessing and a curse, because the way it operates is lethal. The electricity cables hanging above the head of the ordinary citizen, who is simply drinking a beer, walking to the market or transporting petrol on a motor bike. Each of these activities can end in a disaster if the cables fall, the cabin explodes or if rain conduces electricity to where it should not go and electrocutes a person. In this 13 million city that expands over a large territory, transport is necessary to bring workers to their work, market women to their markets, and citizens to the city centre to settle bills and other official papers. The roads are often bumpy, transport is uncomfortable and relatively expensive. Walking is too often the only option, even though the dirty roads, where pools of stagnant water that generates malaria and the waste of the city assembles, provoke accidents and produce illness. Nevertheless, the city attracts people who want to make something of their lives. For youth, Kinshasa is an opportunity to earn money, to escape the unbearable boredom of rural life, to a more exciting being, to be connected to other worlds, arousing both curiosity and anxieties. The city is a concentration of connectivity, of markets and business, and those who wish, try to (re)create their life in the city – misery being only a side effect.

UNHCR camp near Libenge.

UNHCR camp near the town Libenge.

Student refugees
In DR Congo motivations of movement are often related to political conflict. In the last year, Kinshasa has received hundreds of Central African refugees fleeing the clashes between the government and rebel groups from the North. These groups have instigated a bloodstained conflict that continues today in Bangui and elsewhere in the Central African Republic. Mediation for this specific group of refugees in Kinshasa is done by the Commission Nationale pour les Réfugiés (CNR, the National Commission for Refugees) and the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR. Hence we discuss here urban refugees, who fled Bangui, the capital of the CAR, about a year ago, through refugee camps along the CAR-Congo border, via impossible roads and waterways to Kinshasa. A journey that took them up to two months. The youth we present here are the urban educated, often from a relatively wealthy and middle class background; students that never had the idea that the refugee status would fall upon them one day. Without disregarding their hardships as a refugee, the horrible things they must have witnessed in CAR/Bangui, their struggle with the circus of UNHCR, all of these experiences will become an ineffaceable part of their identities and carve out a future that neither they nor their parents had foreseen, but: a future nevertheless. This moment in CAR-politics will prove to be a vital conjunction for the youth of Bangui. And it might plant a seed to grow counter voices.

UNHCR selection of 50 ‘chosen’ ones
The first thing the student refugees were confronted with after their long journey was the way in which the CNR & UNHCR in Kinshasa interpreted refugee assistance: in order to receive assistance they had to go back to the refugee camps in the North of Congo; urban refugees have no clear rights. One of the leading figures in the refugee community and a former student association’s leader commented: ‘In the camps there is nothing that can help us further. No possibility to follow higher education and no way to find a small job. So for us it is no option to return to the camps’. He had better expectations for Kinshasa. They did not make the long journey – for which they sold their phones and laptops – to simply return to that despondency.
During the year they have been in Kinshasa, the struggle with the UNHCR and the NCR has been harsh. On arrival they were acknowledged as refugees, but instead of helping their cause forward, it brought them into an impossible fight. The first encounter was when they had to move out of the house that was given to them, without any alternative. Their protest against this decision was broken by the police who even tortured some of the refugees to such a level that they have become handicapped, also as a consequence of the bad treatment they received in the hospital. They feel that their rights are completely crushed. The battle continued until June 6, when the UNHCR finally gave them an answer: unfortunately, less favourable than they had hoped for. The refugees will not be given the opportunity to go to school or university, and most will have to create their own life. The UNHCR did however select 50 of them who are confined to a ‘gift’ of 650 dollar that should help them start a new life. Is this an arbitrary ‘divide and rule’ policy? The leader of the refugee association (that was created with the help of the UNHCR), one of the 50 chosen ones, told us they would not accept this offer and insist on furthering their struggle. On 20 June, World Refugee Day, they will make themselves heard again.

Remembering Bangui.

Remembering Bangui.

Future intellectuals of their country
In the meantime the struggle to survive and further their dreams continues: ‘After all, we are the future intellectuals of our country ’. Another refugee young man exclaims: ‘Why do they not see that we are the future, why is there no regulation to make us the people we want to become?’ Integration in Kinshasa is difficult. The refugees are real foreigners and feel the difference with their home town every day. In their memories, life in CAR was so much better; in terms of transport: the taxis are recognizable, ‘Here you have to guess’, and the food was so abundant, ‘Here food is difficult and expensive’, and ‘We do not speak Lingala’ (the lingua franca in Kinshasa) and: ‘It is difficult to find a job here’. However, when we walk through the neighborhood where the refugees were first housed (but where they moved out), it becomes clear that the Kinois do not entirely reject them. Church women help the young men to find food. The girls of the neighbourhood were fond of these newcomers (as the first baby girl born out of a union between a girl from Kinshasa and a CAR refugee attests). The student refugees do stop at several houses to greet people, who have helped them and became their friends.

Photo: Mirjam de Bruijn

‘Photo-minute’, refugee-photographer who prints pictures instantly.

Some of the refugee students do find their way in Kinshasa and four of them live together in a simple two-room studio, coated with some plastic chairs, a small cupboard with some kitchen utensils, a sleeping room with two mattresses on the floor under a mosquito net, some books and lots of clothing, because even in refuge, one needs to be dressed well – even though refugees, in the eyes of the UNHCR at least, are not supposed to be well-dressed. The first of the students now works as ‘photo-minute’. He was able to buy a camera and a small printer with money he made in Brazzaville by selling phone credit. He now walks along the bustling sidewalks of Kinshasa in order to make pictures that he prints instantly. He lives together with the secretary of the refugee committee who runs up and down the entire day visiting fellow refugees, listening to their complaints, organizing meetings and talking to the UNHCR/CNR. His brother is also in the house and helps the photographer. A fourth young man stays with them. He has a long history of illness, and should undergo heart surgery that cannot be paid for. During his stay in hospital he learned to sew bags out of beads and tries to make a living out of it. These students are thus fending for themselves and in the meanwhile learning new skills, in order to survive tough circumstances. ‘Yes, what we have learned is a real school’, another comments. They also become well informed about the working of politics, and the working of their societies in international contexts, which makes them even more dedicated to become who they want to become.

Determined to take up their lives
Two students are determined to cross over to Brazzaville in order to continue to Cameroon where they want to further their study. If necessary they will not travel with their refugee papers. The secretary continues fighting. His family may help him financially. The photographer is determined not to get stuck in this mess, but he cannot expect assistance from his siblings. He will take up life and fight his way. In metropolitan Kinshasa he might be able to make enough money to go back to university. The refugee world, the capricious behavior of the CNR and UNHCR, the urban environment, it will all become part of their identity, but will they ever become Kinois? These young men are at a crossroad: confronted with a metropolis and all its insanity and opportunities, confronted with the immobility of the refugee status, confronted with a fight for their lives without the protected environment of their parents’ home.

Compound in Kinshasa.

Compound in Kinshasa.

Seeds for new counter voices
But while these educated urban refugees experience the ups and downs of one of Africa’s biggest cities and the impossibility of being a refugee in it, they are also freed from the parental jug and free to become who they want to be, leading them to be more articulated and explicit, and inviting them to give their lives a new turn. Just like the Chadian youth comes to Bangui ‘pour se défouler’ (to go on a spree), the Central African urban refugees in Kinshasa too can become someone else. The secretary’s life here has an added value in Kinshasa. Of course he was active in Bangui before the crisis, but his motivation in Kinshasa is somehow different, as it hurts him to see his compatriots suffer and nobody caring about it. By writing letters to the CNR, and visiting his fellow refugees, he knows their problems, their whereabouts. He too tries to fight injustice, and his life takes a new course. These new forms of anger and the political activities that arise from it may indeed mean a ‘new direction in life’ potentially planting the seed for a new, fresh counter voice.

Juliette – encouraging students in Bangui as an act of resistance

Co-author: Catherina Wilson, PhD researcher in the project ‘Connecting in Times of Duress’,

Catherina Wilson and Juliette

Catherina Wilson and Juliette

The civil war in the Central African Republic started in March 2013 when the Seleka (Northern) opposing rebel coalition realized a coup d’état, chasing Bozize from office. Instead of a transition government, hatred and violence were installed and led to chaos and violence in Bangui, the capital, and beyond. Many people had to flee, especially those considered ‘strangers’; a xenophobia against Chadians and Muslims became a main discourse and harsh practice of life in CAR.

Invisible counter voices are probably the most numerous, but also a contradiction. When one is not heard or seen, can one be a counter voice? Indeed big feats are realized by these silent voices. Our search for counter voices does not only focus on public events, on ‘ hearing’ and ‘seeing’, because it would amount to a neglect of those silent and invisible heroes. In Africa invisibility is gendered: Women are often invisible in the public and political spheres, yet acting decisively at the background. Juliette from Chad but living in Bangui, is certainly an example.

Juliette in August 2013, phoning about the tense situation in Bangui.

Busy job
It was so nice to meet Juliette again in N’Djamena (Chad) in March 2014, where we did not expect to meet, and a month later again, in Yaoundé (Cameroon). People move in spite of war. As such, our team has met Juliette at various reprisals and slowly but surely she has become entangled in our work. Our first encounter, in the Autumn of 2012, was in Bangui and with her busy job at the European Union office she then had no time to visit her family in N’Djamena. The (civil) war made her life different, but by no means less busy. When we encountered her about a year later, in August 2013, Juliette seemed to be at the heart of exchanges on the events in Bangui, calling and walking around with three phones, a walkie-talkie and a radio.

Bombarded convent
This is not the first time Juliette endures a crisis. Juliette has many stories to tell and she has been confronted with a lot of atrocities and (political) violence in her life, both in conflict ridden Chad and the flammable Central African Republic – countries among the poorest nations of Africa and with a long history of war and conflict.
Her youth was not easy, in terms of poverty and not having anything to eat besides manioc flower and sewing little things for babies in order to take care of her younger siblings. Later, as she decided to become a nun, the convent where she stayed was heavily bombarded by the French in the late nineties. It was actually a wonder the nuns survived the attack, the French were astonished to see them walk out alive.

Juliette in December 2012.

Juliette in April 2014.

Feminist in action
Juliette was eager to study. She left Chad for Bangui where she went to university, without any means to survive. She left with only 1500 FCFA (almost € 2,50), just enough to arrive. A nice traveler gave her 50.000 FCFA (about € 80), for which she bought the plastic cords out of which baskets and other utensils are woven. That is how she earned some money and was able to fund her studies. But it was a struggle to receive her degree in Sociology from the University of Bangui. Juliette proudly showed us her thesis, yet her university experience was not necessarily a positive one. Male professors do not always think rationally and forget to look past the attractive looks of young female students. Beyond exemplary works, they look for exemplary bodies. Juliette was one of those bodies and as she refused to be seduced into obtaining easy grades, the professors made her graduation almost impossible. But she fought, challenging the professors to point out the mistakes in her methodology, a real feminist in action! To think that Juliette should have been born a boy! When her father found out that his sixth child was again a girl he refused to accept it, and by way of punishment, or maybe from disappointment, he neglected her mother who fell ill, and the girl was raised as a boy. ‘That is why I have become who I am.’

A peace dove on a rond-point, Bangui 2012.

A peace dove on a rond-point (left), Bangui 2012.

Funding dozens of students
Despite her disillusionment with the academic institution, Juliette discovered the importance of scholarship and erudition that can be obtained through study. Her determination gave her the dignity and beauty that she embodies so elegantly. Actually, the fact that our team works and resides with her is by no means a mere coincidence, but rather based on her philosophy of supporting academia, not the institution, but the people, and through the people, the knowledge.
And thus learning and studying by herself and for others became her vocation. ‘It is the only way forward.’ And this is where her social project crystalizes. She wishes the best education, not only for her two daughters, but also for so many others. She invests part of her salary in funding schooling of young people in Bangui: her cousins, but also people from Centr’Afrique; ‘ it doesn’t matter’ . She has been able to fund dozens of young students in this way. Some have gone back to Chad, others are still in Bangui and visit her regularly. This is Juliette’s quiet contribution to the development of her two countries (Chad and CAR), to end the madness of the region. In her opinion the only way.

Juliette now.

Juliette now.

Vulnerable position
When the Seleka conquered Bangui in early 2013, Juliette was living there with her two daughters. They lived in a relatively well-protected house and certainly at the beginning she did not feel threatened. Juliette would cheerfully tell us about the drinking under the mango tree, about the shooting, the taking cover inside for a couple of minutes before regaining the mango tree to continue drinking as the shooting had calmed down. There is also a normality to war, just like any other anecdote. Yet the atrocities against Chadians soon increased. Juliette as a Christian was less at risk, so she assumed. However, with the intensification of the violence her situation has now changed. Her children have left for Chad, where they stay with their aunt in N’Djamena. They ‘fled’ Bangui in a plane where they were packed like animals. Juliette on the other hand, decided to stay. She likes her job and would not leave it. Her boss would not let her go either and so she became one of the only Chadians at her office. This vulnerable position leads her to keep up an exaggeratedly friendly attitude to all, even to the point of not denouncing colleagues who she sees stealing, fearing that they will accuse her of being a foreigner among the Centr’Africains. Nowadays she does not even dare to wear the accompanying headscarf so characteristic of the three-pieced African dress; she fears that covering her head would associate her with Islam. No, the conflict is not religious but many of those who have fled, have done so also for religious reasons, misplaced associations in chaos turn lethal.

SLAM Scene in N’Djamena

Chad’s nightlife shows a different reality… does it? Is it in the boîte de nuits where the ethnic groups unite? The music imported from elsewhere, full with DJ’s beats, work as a drug for those who dance. Danse is the ‘medicine of the poor’, as an older man and artist said at a conference about ‘la danse in Africa’. He is right: for the youth dancing (and music) is like a medicine. To forget? Or to get energy, to unite and to be? Is it their quest for identity? And what role do the Jokers that we follow on our journey play in this quest?

The search for the Jokers brought us in contact with Croquemort, a famous SLAM artist in N’Djamena, Chad. He is part of the African SLAM scene. We participated in the SLAM festival he organized in N’Djamena: ‘N’djam s’enflamme en slam’. SLAM is a form of expression, musical poetry, poetry on melody. The words sing and flow into a blossoming rhyme that contains the critiques and emotions that are so much part of everyday life. It is a style that comes close to the ordinary person, it phrases experiences that may be horrific and therefore almost comic. There is no dance but there is rhythm, rhythm of words, that become sentences, that become poems composing a story for those who want to listen.

slammer-smallMedicine student
Croquemort’s success is probably mostly due to his open character and ways of connecting to others. He is not a poor young man, rather a middle class medicine student with a destination as a psychiatrist, who loves to make (protest) music. As a baby he already showed his rebellious character, refusing the mother milk from the start. His mother was very sick when he was born in Pala, Mundang country. He shares this start of his life as it explains his ‘being’. That is how ‘it’ started.

Being disciplined
It was not easy for him to become part of the music scene. First there were his parents to convince: his mother accepted it, but his father was ferociously against, until he understood that the music would not stop Croquemort from being a good doctor. He sent his son to a boarding school, to be disciplined. It conversely deepened his consciousness of inequality and the violent realities of social exclusion.

Free expression
The boarding school episode made him more determined to make music that could change and allow him free expression.  First he made modern urban youth music, freestyle and hip hop, until he discovered SLAM. The raw Chadian SLAM poetry became his passion and brought him into contact with Preston, a producer of music, film and clips, who pushed the creation of an album, a few years ago – album making is the basis of the hierarchy in this scene. Subsidized (partly) by the French Institut de la Francophony au Tchad,  Croquemort became the star of N’Djamena and his music the SLAM of the youth. He joined festivals of SLAM Poetry all over Africa and in France. This year his travels are cancelled, he doesn’t like the slow and bad organization of most of the festivals. He will soon travel to Cameroon but that will be for family reasons. Croquemort has a child-son and a Cameroonian wife.

His determination to make himself useful for his people and the quarter he lives in, ‘Chagoua’, is strong. As strong as his partly authoritarian character, that is in such contrast to the timid and modest young man he shows as well.

In Chad SLAM is of recent and people are not yet relating to it that much, but there is a future. SLAM allows the youth to express their frustrations. The former minister of Culture assured us that the Chadian government will let them do (…) as long as they do not become too influential. The Chadian governance structure, a rhizome creeping into every corner of society, will not allow them to become that influential; their open attitude will either be co-opted, or silenced violently.

‘Le temps n’est pas favorable’

Filming in Chad is not the easiest thing to do. The procedure to acquire a filming permit started three months ago by identifying journalists who would be interested to join our project and help to bargain the permit. It appeared not so easy. The first journalist lingered and finally did not want to join our project. The second journalist missed the appointments and the third simply delayed the process. Finally the director of CRASH (Centre for Research in Anthropology and Human Sciences), our collaborative partner, decided to organize the permit in his own way. The disappointment was big when finally we received the message from the officials that they consider ‘the moment not favorable’ to make a film on ICT and nomadism (‘le temps n’est pas favorable’). Would the moment have been favorable three months ago? The decision was taken by the ultimate chief in command: the chief of the ANS (secret service), Deby, the president himself. The head of the ministry of Communication could not turn this around; no way to negotiate. Conclusion: no filming permit for the documentary of the Fulani/Peul in Chad.

Behind this decision appears a world of fear, and being feared. The past year many sudden and unexpected arrests also affected our colleagues and friends here. As Khalil Alio, General-Secretary of Crash and Professor of Linguistics, rephrased a saying: ‘La peur a changé de camp (…) de la population au gouvernement’ (14 March 2014), meaning that the government is executing excessive control, because they fear more resistance. Was it not Deby himself who announced last year in one of the national newspapers that the Arabic spring had arrived in N’Djamena as well?

Behind this decision is also the tough reality of the region: the numerous refugees from CAR (Central African Republic), who live in refugee camps around N’djamena and in the South; but also the numerous armed men who enter Chad along with the refugees; the threats from Boko Haram; and from the Jihadists who have warned Chad for repercussions after Chad joined the UN mission in Mali and in CAR. The Mbororo (Fulani) nomads are squeezed in this violence and it is their story we had hoped to register. We had no other option than to concentrate on plan B.

The Jokers
The Arabic spring did not (yet) arrive in Chad, but the effects of the presence of the (often very poor) internet connections, mobile telephony and mobile internet do show in everyday life experiences and socio-political dynamics. What is this new dynamic and how does it make a difference for people who want to steer social change? We follow the Jokers of these worlds, where rapid technological changes open possibilities in an otherwise closed and impossible world. Our Jokers are young people who try to change Chad, but all in their own special way; by engaging in politics, in photography, in music, in human right advocacy, etc. Their stories show how difficult the struggle for freedom in their countries is.

André Shamba is a journalist and writer from Congo (DRC) and worked for Okapi, the UN critical radio in Kinshasa. We met him here in N’djamena (Mirjam met him first in October 2013) and immediately engaged in intense discussions about Chad, where André was confronted with social and political dynamics that he had not known in Congo. His attempt to build a living in Chad had not yet led to anything constructive so far.

André has been dwelling in N’djamena since October 2013, literally discovering why he will never succeed to make a constructive living here: The Clique. This is the group of filthy rich and medium rich or those related to them who protect each other (for as long as they need each other) and exclude those that do not belong. Nevertheless, this world of wealthy people attracts and it is assumed that without being part of this world there is no possibility to make one step forward, to progress in Chad. André as a Congolais will certainly not become part of it.

In order to succeed, the Jokers must somehow have a link to this rich world that they deeply criticize and detest. They link to the other world, the world of poverty, for most of them one of imagination and observation. That is what the jokers refer to, what they want to change. Yet they probably don’t realise that it is the denial of the world of poverty by the clique that gives the Jokers a reason to exist and act.

Is this part of being a Joker, like being a griot? One step in the world of power, the other in the world of poverty; the latter is the basis of their success even though their activities may be dangerous for those in power. They are tolerated because those in power do need Jokers. Deby’s apparently new policy to allow ‘the arts’ in his country seems to be part of this game. Popular culture in the era of new connectivity is increasingly visible in the public space, where political leaders like Deby can no longer deny its existence.