‘Les cicatrices c’est notre passeport’, Disappearing histories in Southern Chad

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Roro: a market where three countries meet @Mirjam (2017)

The taxi driver who brings us back to Sarh from Kyabe is a young man. He wears the signs of his family on his face. He is Sara-Kabba, an ethnic group that has its main living space around Lac Iro in Central Chad. He shares a story with us: He once searched adventure in Yaoundé, Cameroon. He went without a coin in his pocket and was wandering the streets of Yaoundé when a person talked to him, asking where he came from, pointing at his scars. They were from the same region and same ethnic group, brothers. Hence he found his place to stay. You see, ‘les cicatrices, c’est notre passeport’. But he adds that this is also the past. It has not much meaning today.

Forgotten cultures
We are travelling to Southern Chad, through Moundou, Sarh to Kyabe and final destination Roro, the region of Lac Iro. We enter a forgotten land, not flooded by NGOs, where the state’s social services are almost absent. The few health centers that we see are equipped by religious missions of various denominations. There is one ethnographic work on the region, written by Claude Pairault (1923-2003)° and based on research done in the 1960s.

During our trip we meet Yaya Sarria, a dancer from Chad. He is travelling the region for a month to find out about songs and dances that are at risk of being forgotten. ‘All artists should know this’, he exclaims. We listen to the songs he and his friend gathered: beautiful stories told on rhyme, women singing at funerals, and so much more. Almost everything they have recorded is the art of old people. Young people do not learn these songs any longer. They also recorded interviews with people who relate about their traditions and lifestyles that are in danger as a consequence of subsequent wars and new religious forms.

Loss of resources
Southern Chad has been suffering – like all other parts of the country – from more and less intensive periods of wars and rebellions. The main heritage is non-development. Conflict and war eat resources that are hence not invested in the country for infrastructure or other purposes. The exploitation of oil during the past decade did not

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A ministry building in Sarh, renewed colonial building @Mirjam (2013)

change much, apparently. Even though the road from Moundou to Kyabe was built by means of oil money, after Kyabe the road stops altogether and, so it seems, all other things we see as modernity as well. The recent developments in the region can be summarized around issues of land and refugees, partly the result of conflicts in neighbouring countries. Add to this the kleptocratic character of the state’s ruling clan and the recent crisis that has hit Chad and one can imagine that the relative stability of the past ten years, including the oil money, has not changed much to the conditions of the people in this region.

However, the market in Roro is a space of encounters, here the three countries (Sudan, CAR and Chad) meet and the people from the region come to sell their cattle, food, and Kalashnikovs. It is an impressive market. Roro is a far-away place for those who come from N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, but a central place in the region. It’s also a place where the government receives a lot of tax income, but these revenues cannot stay in Roro, as it depends on Kyabe, the district capital, where the money goes to. The money flows somewhere but not back into this region.

Identity and belonging
How does the population in this region relate to recent history? What are their points of reference? Where do they belong to? In a recent study Souleymane Adoum a Chadian historian, explains about the lack of archives in this region. All archives in Sarh-region have disappeared in fires or pillage or have simply been destroyed by the rains in the dilapidated houses. During the various rebellions people were also forced to abandon their ‘modern’ objects, as those objects did not fit the rebellions’ anti-Western ideology, hence all letters and pictures or other objects that are reminiscent of personal histories are gone. For his research Souleymane depended almost completely on oral histories and life stories.

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Cailcidrat, colonial trees through the ruine of Hôtel de Chasse @Mirjam (2017

In Sarh we come across a small museum. It has no money to buy objects. Hotel deChasse, a colonial legacy, was burned down ten years ago – an accident. However, the state did restore the colonial buildings in this town. It seems a strange contrast to me that the colonial legacy is conserved, while the region just outside Sarh is lacking all social services. The museum could have been an important point of reference for young and old people to discover their identity. But it is visited only rarely and contains so little objects that it feels as if the country has no history nor memory.

Chinese art

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Place de la nation: N’Djamena (internet picture)

What then is the orientation for the youth? The ethnic markers? As the young taxi driver continues, referring to his scars: ‘These are now remnants of the past. We no longer do this; things are changing’. Many people from the region Sarh now live in N’Djamena. The search for a little income cracks up most youth; the university is on strike all the time, surviving in the city is difficult. The image they develop of the world is a polarized one, due to differences with Europe and the USA but especially due to the differences within their own country: between the rich who flourish well and the poor who are denied a normal subsistence. The president promised a ‘renaissance’, but this is only captured in symbols created by Chinese artists, such as the Place de la Nation in N’Djamena, or in the restauration of colonial remnants in Sarh. Are these really meant as new symbols of identity? In Chad people cannot choose their own symbols of belonging. Their symbols of history and identity have disappeared and the replacements are empty.

Yaya Sarria’s art project should be continued!

°Claude Pairault, 1966, Boum-le-Grand,, village d’Iro, Paris, Institut d’ethnologie, collection Travaux et Mémoires LXXIII. ;  Claude Pairault, 1994, Retour au Pays d’Iro, Chronique d’un village du Tchad, Paris : Karthala
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‘Exhibiting Africa’: Whose voices?

Call boxes from Cameroon in the Science Museum in London.

Call box from Cameroon in the Science Museum in London.

Africa’s image
Ebola and civil unrest turn Africa’s image back into a negative spiral. (Dutch) media publish terrifying pictures. Universities forbid their students to go to Africa for training and research. Africa is back in the media with horrifying stories. To counter this trend we should portray Africa as just another part of the world. That this is not easy is shown in our recent experience with the London Science Museum (LSM). How do we portray Africa in a museum as part of world history, and whose voices do we allow to tell the stories?

The Science Museum opened the exhibition ‘The Information Age’ on 27 October 2014. We started to collaborate with the museum in 2011, when one of the  exhibition organizers contacted me about our research on mobile telephony in Africa. He came over to Leiden, which was the beginning of a discussion about ‘Africa at display’, resulting in the presentation of a Cameroonian call box and phone repair shop at the current exhibit.

Banner of the exhibition "Information Age" at the London Science Museum.

Banner of the exhibition “Information Age” at the London Science Museum.

Caged objects
The Queen of the UK, who opened the exhibition, seemed surprised to see so many nice colours and to see Africa included in the presentation. Joe, a volunteer at the museum, assured me that it was one of the more interesting parts of the exhibition. At first I was a little shocked to see our materials had been caged, like turning Africa into a colourful but still backward ‘country’. This was not the image that we had worked on. How had this part of the exhibition come to life? And whose representation was it? Did I see it right?

When the exhibition organizer at the museum had explained their ideas and invited me to make our research part of the exhibition, I was of course flattered and eager to make it happen. I subscribe wholeheartedly to the idea that  academics have to share their work with the public. Indeed, we have a responsibility to help present Africa as just another part of the world. Modern communication technology did change the African societies where we have worked and they show a very inventive Africa, which should indeed be part of the story about the information age.

Walter Nkwi and I did research on the objects and presented these to the museum crew. In London we held a meeting to decide which objects the museum should buy. The next step was a trip to Cameroon with the museum crew, Walter and Sjoerd Sijsma (film and cameraman). Negotiations with the owners of the objects were sometimes tough, but in the end everybody co-operated, we interviewed the users and owners of the objects and made visual documentation of the objects while they were being used. Then the objects – sometimes literally in 1000 pieces (like the big call box) – were put in boxes and were shipped to England. After being stored for a while, some objects were chosen to be part of the exhibition.

Have a look at the pictures of the process:

The first time we met this  call box owner in Cameroon.

The first time we met this call box owner in Cameroon.

Just before dismantling.

Yellow call box, just before dismantling.

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Yellow call box dismantled for the journey to the UK (photo: Sjoerd Sijsma).

Yellow call box in the museum: caged.

Yellow call box in the museum: caged.

Whose Africa?
How then was this ‘representation’ for the exhibition decided on? Who had the authority to decide which objects to display and accompanied by which story? The museum adopted a participatory approach in which Cameroonians living in London together with the museum curators and museum community workers decided on the main stories and how to tell them. I was involved in some of the discussions that took place with the London-based Cameroonians. They are participants in several ways: as diaspora community they use mobile telephony to connect to their family and friends at home. They are also among the expected visitors of the museum.

Hence, the voices that were competing for the representation of Africa were the curator of the museum, the diaspora community, academics, and a cameraman. It was a long process in which the authority of voices was well defined: the community had the final say. But then there was the last step to be taken: the technical ways of the museum and the rules according to which its exhibitions are set up. In the end the objects were put in glass boxes, as is the LSM way. Short films and images were on display next to the glass boxes.

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Africa in the world
After a longer stroll through the exhibition, I kind of accepted the idea of the colourful and explicitly social representation of Africa-in-a-box. After all, it had become ‘a’ representation of communication technology in the long world history, and I think it is good that Africa is explicitly part of that. However, we should add African voices to this exhibit, captured in texts and longer films. A book and film should follow.

in the museum

Voice4Thought
‘Authority of voice’, and ‘who chooses which voices should be heard’, are issues that are not only at the core of museum exhibitions, they are also at the core of our project Voice4Thought, of which this blog is part. The three day conference at the museum in London was a good moment for reflection. ‘Giving voice’ and ‘processes of co-creation’ are never neutral. As one of the presenters said: ‘the voice we invite into the museum turns into our own voice in the interaction’. Often indeed, interaction leads to a middle ground, but also to a changing mindset, and then the authenticity of the voice is at stake.

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So after all, the exhibition is again another representation of Africa. Volunteer Joe compared what he saw with his own experiences regarding technology as a young boy, about 50 years ago, and expressed his respect and understanding of the situation in Cameroon. Hence this ‘show box’ generates a reflection on Africa in relation to our own lives, and to the world. It might become a counter voice for the negative spiral of the image of Africa-in-crisis.