History, Erasures, and Accumulated Recollections of Violence

“Really, the circumstances under which I left Bangui give me insomnia. My house was burned, I don’t know where the mother of my child is, and I didn’t take a single article of clothing – only my son and a bag with my diplomas.” (January, 2014)

Reflecting on the violence that has shattered the Central African Republic for over a year now, I continually ask myself the same question that everyone else does: how did this happen? Why? And how might Central Africans emerge from this cataclysm to build something like “ordinary” lives? In re-reading the above message from Moussa, a friend who fled Bangui in January and is trying to remake a life with his five-year old son in Bamako, I often wish I had better answers to these questions. Trained as an historian and working at the interstices of history and anthropology, I have lived and worked in CAR intermittently since 1987—first as an agricultural extension worker in the Peace Corps, then as a doctoral student exploring local understandings of history and environmental change, and most recently as a researcher investigating global health interventions and local understandings of childhood health and hepatitis B. Such disparate experiences provide something of a longer-term perspective on historical processes that have riven CAR and the socio-political forms preceding it. I argue that in order to gain better insight into the events now convulsing CAR, we need to attend to how they specifically unfolded in this part of equatorial Africa, and their precise, accumulated consequences over time.

In her work among Punjabi families in India following the 1947 Partitition, Veena Das explores how people “pick up the pieces and . . . live with . . . devastation”—how a violent “event attaches itself with its tentacles into everyday life and folds itself in the recesses of the ordinary.” Das’s reflections provide crucial insight into how violent events over time become enmeshed in what she calls the “weave of life,” undermining and eroding social relations. In the context of CAR’s events, I wonder how accumulated recollections (and erasures) of cataclysmic violence have rent social relations, cultivating fear and repertoires of bodily and social violations. In the case of CAR, attention to the longer-term past helps to situate CAR and the socio-political forms that previously occupied this part of equatorial Africa at the epicenter of violent global processes over past centuries. It also raises questions about how histories of violence embed themselves in everyday life.

In the 1970s, the late Dennis D. Cordell painstakingly traced the expansion of the nineteenth and twentieth-century Muslim sultanate, Dar al-Kuti, into northern central Africa. From the eighteenth century, this broad region was a zone of expanding long-distance trade and by the late-nineteenth century, the Dar al-Kuti sultanate, like many nineteenth-century centralizing states participating in an expanding global economy, had come to rely heavily on slave raiding, slavery, and ivory. Dar al-Kuti, says Cordell, was “founded on violence,” capturing slaves to farm, to serve in armies, to be traded further north, and thus to bring “the weapons and wealth necessary for further conquest and incorporation.” 

In 1992, I began conducting historical research further south in the M’Brès region among Banda peoples, descendants of those raided by Dar al-Kuti. People referred to this especially cruel past as abira (the wars). In one memorable exchange, a village chief, shaking his head, recalled, “Then, we didn’t know how to greet one another. If you saw someone you didn’t know, you knew you had to flee [because that person was probably a slave raider].” Another elderly man showed me an animal horn into which holes had been carved; it could be played like a flute. “This,” he explained, “meant that war had come. People used to live scattered in the bush. And when something bad happened to someone, people blew into this. It meant that war had come.” Oral accounts detailed the slaughter of elderly people, the abductions of women and men, the stoning of defiant Banda leaders. But the violence was not simply perpetrated by Muslim slave raiders on non-Muslim villagers. Similar to Das’s findings, pervasive doubts rent other social relations. An elderly woman, describing fragmented village life during the abira, mused, “We never saw each other. Each village was small, with just a single family. Small roads connected them. But if disputes came between you and these other people, they’d come and kill you.” Louisa Lombard, conducting research in this region decades later, has told me that she found few recollections of these events. This is not surprising: when I conducted this research, the telling of such stories was a tendentious issue between older and younger generations, and the M’Brès region has since experienced the ravages of armed rebel groups. I wonder, too, whether this forgotten past is “remembered” in other ways, perhaps in the accumulated doubts that have eroded usually taken-for-granted social relations.

Abira were multiple across what became the CAR, and over time. Elsewhere in central Africa in the forested Sangha river basin, similar processes of violent incorporation into globalizing nineteenth century economies and slave raiding characterized engagements between lineage groups, clans, and language groups. French colonial rule under concessionary companies, and subsequently, under French colonial authorities brought with it all manner of violent extractions and local reprisals. In the 1990s, Central Africans spoke of the repression and violence under Bokassa as abira. And reeling from the effects of structural adjustment, economic stagnation, and currency devaluation, they also referred to the hardships, protests, and extended strikes under one-time president André Kolingba as abira.

I do not know what forms and explanations abira have taken on more recently. As an Institut Pasteur researcher, I was subject to considerable surveillance when conducting periodic fieldwork between 2010 and 2012 among parents in Bangui quartiers about childhood illnesses and protective health strategies. I thus avoided asking any direct political questions. But it is clear that the erosions—the long-term consequences of violence about which Das has written so eloquently—were at play here, as parents stepped up efforts to protect their children from sorcery-related illnesses, perpetrated, they said, by close kin; as some accused family members and friends of enriching themselves from the proceeds of community pharmacies; and as others set fire to local churches for lining their pockets with followers’ meager earnings. These fires and pillaging have now spread to neighbors’ homes (like that of my friend Moussa), to boutiques, and to health care centers.

Skeptics might argue that I am simply reinforcing assumptions of CAR’s exceptionality, that I am setting it apart from other African states that experienced similar processes. But a truly historical approach would recognize the differences in how these processes unfolded among diverse people and places, and would trace their specific, accumulated consequences over time. Those accumulations, I would suggest, make a difference between sporadic violence and social tensions that might erupt elsewhere, and what CAR is experiencing now. More than anything, though, I frame these suggestions as questions for future research. The linkages between past, accumulated violence and the present cataclysms engulfing CAR need to be traced with more care and more evidence than I can do here.  

Front image: From "Central African Republic: More than 50 Muslims Killed in Two Attacks," Amnesty International website. © Amnesty International.