“Professional Death” and Rebirth? History, Violence, and Education

From the Series: The Central African Republic (CAR) in a Hot Spot

Photo by Steve Conover, licensed under CC BY SA.

What is it like to be a Central African anthropologist right now? On September 6, 2013, Henri Zana, an archeologist at the University of Bangui, wrote the following email to Rebecca Hardin:

It has been several weeks that we did not send news. Just to tell you a little bit about my nightmare last night when Seleka’s men surrounded my neighborhood, shooting with live ammunition. In any case it is the second time recently that I have been the victim of a robbery. Jenny and the children were inches away from being beaten. I was struck, the gun to my head, my computer and other external USB hard drives all taken away. . . . I’m so tired of events that I no longer desire to stay in my country, for which I had wanted to work. . . . Here everything seems so hopeless; we are floundering. And I am not alone. Dozens of people have been affected here in the flesh after these events. . . . I have absolutely no physical strength nor the will to do anything. I’m personally witnessing my own professional death.

Such events are like a nightmare, not only in and of themselves, but because of how far we have each fallen from the measured optimism of earlier in our careers. In the 1990s, Hardin lectured at the University of Bangui. Though many of her colleagues there suffered from the various constraints to careers for scientists from this part of the world, some used their classrooms for dialogue with students about their society’s major challenges: corruption, HIV, and the international geopolitical context of wealth extraction. Others even worked with government officials to make that educational system more accessible.

Today, such concerns seem remote. This is no longer a Central African Republic in which we are worried about whether a smart farmer’s son will get the scholarship support he deserves. It is one where we must hope to spare him becoming either the victim or perpetrator of dehumanizing violence.

Of Ceramics and Civil Strife

The origins of the conflict in CAR today lie in colonial and postcolonial relationships, but also in the specific policy and economic factors that began to foster the conflict over twenty-years ago. Then, Zana was studying archaeology with anthropologist Pierre Vidal and archaeologist Raymond Lanfranchi, at the University of Bangui-based Centre Universitaire de Recherches Historiques et Archeologique Centrafricaine, documenting the longue durée aspects of CAR’s social diversity. As he completed his masters degree he met Hardin and agreed to collaborate with her on her doctoral research, including working with less formally educated local members of the research team to improve their own literacy skills through the research process.

These were heady times for the formally educated in CAR. Bars and cafes were buzzing with life. No one yet realized the ravages that HIV was working under the surface. Where it left qualified civil servants and intellectuals standing, structural adjustment would soon come behind, firing nurses, teachers, and agronomists, or luring them away from their functions with early retirement packages. In the midst of this rising insecurity, the Cold War was ending and geopolitics where shifting. But repeated “années blanches scolaires” in the late 1980s and early 1990s shut down everything from primary schools to universities, foreclosing the possibility of a forward-looking younger generation. Political–military entrepreneurship has become a privileged route to power both for heads of state and dispossessed youth.

During the mid-1990s, as army mutinies brought violence to Bangui and regional conflicts began affecting rural CAR in new ways, Zana was living in France to complete a doctorate on ceramic traditions in western CAR and Cameroon, with senior field scholars Richard Oslisly and Etienne Zangato. Zana had begun conducting field research in the northern Niem region of northwestern CAR, near borders with both Cameroon and Chad. He sought to document remaining ceramic techniques among older Gbaya Kara women, samples of whose work graced the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. Zana suspended his field research when robbers shot dead the archaeological camp manager and stripped the site of radios, computers, and equipment. He retreated to France and eventually was bitterly disappointed to return to Bangui with a DEA (or pre-doctoral) degree in hand instead.

Sectarian Violence, or Sabotage of a National Future?

Today, the Internet is rife with photos of young men of the various “anti-Balaka” groups, with leather amulets on strings across their chests. Such styles echo archival descriptions of the Kongo Wara rebels in the western portions of contemporary CAR from 1928 to 1932, whose amulets rendered them impervious to French bullets according to their leader, Karnou. Testimony from myriad equatorial ethno-linguistic groups clearly stated that they followed Karnou’s lead, describing him as a prophet for Gbaya speakers further north and a model for successful resistance to colonial forces and the “tirailleurs sénégalais” or non-local (often Muslim) forces used by the French to coerce labor and payment of taxes by colonial subjects. The French administration, confounded by the regionally distinct yet politically linked and persistent resistance movements, tried to minimize their importance. But the archives betray a panicked situation on the ground, and Karnou remained an important figure in Gbaya social memory during our mid-1990s research.

Like the Kongo Wara, Central African rebels today are mobilizing specific historical idioms and committing violence in order to restructure commercial networks, civic government, or land and transport at local and regional scales; this is not (just) a “sectarian” conflict. But this is not Kongo Wara; CAR is now in the hands of a desperate generation. They are vulnerable to the whims of transnational and internal interests that are deploying them, dismantling not only their own country but also their own future.

What ways forward exist for anthropological engagement under chronic and brutal conflict scenarios? The timing has never seemed less propitious for an educational solution, but this moment calls for a social vision that is bold and sweeping. How can we redefine education in CAR to address such desperate needs and deep wounds? We do not need a replacement for lost infrastructure but rather new educational geographies and technologies. It must happen in ways that do not relinquish scientific method but that weave rural and urban communities together, while offering more languages of instruction, better technical skills, and adaptive pedagogy needed in the rebuilding of CAR and its neighbors, where similar challenges and chilling violence is unfolding. This means grappling with earlier educated elites’ failings and starting with small experiments that can scale up. Alas, the requisite armies of educators have yet to enlist.


Thanks to Bertin Mbongo for discussions that have assisted in assembling and analyzing the historical and social details cited here; all inaccuracies are Hardin’s own; contact with Zana has been sporadic throughout the recent conflict and has not allowed him to engage in proofing this piece with his usual eye for detail. We dedicate this essay to the memories of Raphaël Nzabakomada-Yakoma, Estienne Goyemide, Daniel Blaise Zigba, and the other fine Central African minds who were taken too young.