Turbulence on the Anthropological Path

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Adamu Jenitongo greeting the spirits at a spirit possession ceremony in Tillaberi, Niger. Photo by Paul Stoller

During my long apprenticeship to Adamu Jenitongo, a great healer among the Songhay people of Niger, my mentor recounted countless stories to convey to me the wisdom of his ancestors. Here’s one story that is germane to current discussions that have emerged in the wake of the implosion of HAU, a prestigious anthropological journal that has also published scholarly books.

At the market of a town on the great River Niger, an old man sold firewood. In a feeble attempt to save quickly disappearing forests, the state forbade the sale of firewood. And yet, week-in and week-out the frail old man, who always wore soiled trousers and a frayed tunic, sold his wares. As the local, do, master of the local waters, no one wanted to confront him. One day a dugout brought to the market a uniformed forest ranger–tall, thick and fearsome. He approached the old man and began to belittle him for selling firewood. A crowd gathered. When the old man protested, the forest ranger slapped him in the face. The crowd gasped. The forest ranger smiled and confiscated the old man’s firewood. Humiliated, the old man staggered away. His mission accomplished, the forest ranger, who knew nothing of the old man’s mastery of the waters, needed to take a dugout back across the river, where he would have his driver take him back to Tillaberi, the town that housed the provincial government.

 No one wanted to take the forest ranger across the river.

 The old man reassured the canoeists that that they’d be fine. “It’s okay,” he told them, “take him across.”

 The dugout slipped out into the River Niger. When it reached midstream, a whirlpool developed.   The water’s force threw the forest ranger overboard. He drowned. The dugout and canoeists returned safely to shore.

Having told the story, Adamu Jenitongo said: “People sometimes surprise you. Who would give that frail old man a second look? But he had powerful river magic. That government man lacked respect. He suffered the consequences. The best course, my son, is to show some respect for everyone–especially elders.”

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On June 2 of this year I agreed to serve a new three year term on the Editorial Board (EB) of HAU, which in a few short years had quickly become not only a leading journal of anthropology, but also a publisher of highly esteemed books. During my first three years on the EB, I knew very little about the inner dynamics of HAU as an organization, but was happy to contribute in a small way to its mission to reaffirm the great traditions of anthropological thought.

Roughly two weeks after my acceptance of the EB renewal invitation, I began to read on social media a series of serious allegations about the inner-workings of the journal as well as a wide-ranging set of disturbing allegations about the abusive behavior of its editor-in-chief. Given the scope and depth of the allegations, I resigned from the EB.

For me, the ongoing implosion of HAU is a sad event. I’m a great believer in honoring our academic ancestors and learning from their imperfect traditions. Even so, the speedy unraveling of an institution that perhaps grew too big and too fast is a life lesson for us all. Anthropologists of all persuasions and generations have written thoughtfully about how the implosion of HAU brings into relief all sorts of social and disciplinary cleavages. Beyond the disturbing allegations of misogyny, power-tripping, and questionable dealings, I wonder what the implosion of HAU means for the future of our discipline.   Many commentators have discussed the persistence of anthropology’s colonial edifice, an edifice in which prestige and intellectual power is centered in a few elite institutions. The view from the top, of course, tends to narrow the institutional gaze and to silence marginalized voices on the intellectual periphery. This centralization, in turn, has determined who is hired, what is “in” and what is “out”, and how our work has been—or has not been—valued.

The image and reality of the academic top, of course, is still present and foreboding for those who occupy the lowly margins. In anthropology, as the implosion of HAU has demonstrated, social media have begun to level the playing field. We now discuss open-access journals and advocate for a wide-variety of media to do and represent anthropology. Despite these developments there remain significant structural inequalities, a theme that has bubbled up in the recent debates. Is there a widening divide between senior and junior anthropologists, between securely tenured scholars and precariously employed academics and graduate students? Has this divide precipitated anger, distrust, and lack of mutual respect?

In all of the edifying anthropological debate about structural and gender inequalities, open access publishing, decolonizing the discipline, and abusive behavior in professional settings, we have perhaps paid too little attention to the process through which one academic generation conveys knowledge and insight to the next. The key to successful mentorship, no matter where it is practiced, devolves from an ample dose of mutual respect. We all need mentors. I certainly did and was lucky to have as mentors Adamu Jenitongo and Jean Rouch who, each in their own way, led me on to my scholarly path. They always treated me with affection and respect. They never expected me to do things exactly their way. Instead, they patiently guided me along my path to the future, but encouraged me to find my own way to insight and revelation. They never expected anything in return.

In the wake of the HAU controversy, perhaps we need more of this kind of slow, patient  and respectful mentorship in our departments, in our professional encounters and in our efforts to articulate our knowledge to our colleagues and to the public.

For Songhay elders like Adamu Jenitongo, mastery came slowly after years of patient  learning.  Despite his long and powerful practice of Songhay healing, Adamu Jenitongo always insisted that his greatest obligation was to be a mentor who would pass precious knowledge from his generation to the next.

Is that not a model well worth following on our turbulent anthropological path?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guest Blog: Weaving the World Through Storytelling

Ola Plonska, our former student who now works with us at the department of social and cultural anthropology, attended an Intensive summer workshop on ethnographic writing and blogging with Professor Paul Stoller. We invited Ola to write her impression of the workshop and share with us what she learned:

 

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‘So what is it that you do, as an anthropologist?’ A question that I, as a young aspiring anthropologist, still frequently struggle to answer. I don’t know what to say because so many things come to my mind that I don’t know where to start. I sense a similar feeling when somebody asks me why I am a vegetarian. Where do I even start?

Last week, I have attended an intensive four-day writing workshop called ‘Weaving the World: Writing Evocative Ethnographies’ and the participants were mainly Ph.D. candidates in the field of anthropology. Professor Paul Stoller from West Chester University conducted the workshop. The course inspired me to craft new answers and respond to the usual question, but I also learned how to reevaluate my own position as an anthropologist. ‘First of all, I am a storyteller. Then, I am a writer, and then I am an anthropologist’ were Paul’s words when introducing himself to us on the first day. The course focused on ‘evocative writing’, which is a way of writing, that it does not tell the reader what to imagine but rather shows it through descriptions. We practiced it through interactive exercises focusing on the descriptions of spaces, people, and dialogues.

Personally, I was really looking forward to the last day of the course with the theme ‘blogging’. Although I have done some attempts to write blogs before, I felt like I was missing some kind of guidelines of what I could and could not say. Paul outlined the relevance of blogging by giving a short historical overview of engaged anthropology. For him, an important and overarching idea is that we as anthropologists practice a slow science in a fast world. Anthropology is slow as it can take years to learn new languages, learn understanding nuances and fundamental principles of other cultures. Plus, certain things in life can only be learned with life experience. Learning, in general, is a slow process, and we are continuous learners. Or, as Paul said ‘the mind matures and stretches with your own personal experiences’. Blogging is a way to use these personal experiences while engaging with the fast pace of the world.

A blog is an online text, preferably around 800 words, which invites readers to a conversation. Blogs can attract a high number of readers, which is one of the advantages, however a pitfall might be that the texts are very short and leave little room for a nuanced argument. Another benefit of blogging is that it can improve your writing skills as you are forced to write quickly, short and clear. The general format of an anthropological blog should contain a brief sketch of the context and a social analysis of the topic. A good way to engage with your readers is to ask questions in the blog to stimulate further discussion.

The statements about the position and moral obligations of anthropologists in the public domain raised an interesting discussion in the group: is it not also dangerous if we write blogs about any topic we like, assuming that we can be critical about everything ‘just’ because we are anthropologists? Can I, while having done research on urban gardeners in Cuba, write a blog about Trump’s policy on family separation? Although it might be better to start writing about something that is connected to your own research, what is more important is the depth of the culturally critical analysis that one can provide to a blog. And, of course this is easier if it is a subject the writer has in-depth knowledge about. However, it does not mean that blogs cannot be written as opinion pieces that could be shaped by our analysis of any given topic, using our anthropological understanding of cultures. The conclusion of our discussion was that of course, not every anthropologist has to share his or her opinion in the public domain. But, if you do feel the urge to share your opinion while observing certain events in the world, why not do in a way that can trigger discussions with a wider audience. Why not use the knowledge that is gathered over long periods of time to criticize injustice, environmental degradation or present portraits of people that defy stereotypes and prejudices, by using first-hand knowledge of people all over the world. During the course Paul emphasized that cultural critique is one of the obligations of anthropology, which is ‘to use what you have learned to reflect critically on your own society and to bring anthropological insights to the public debate’

So will I from now on answer the question I asked in the beginning by simply saying: ‘I tell stories’ or will I elaborate on the connection to larger political issues, the importance of first-hand knowledge of people from all over the world and the slow learning process that we embrace? In either case, I realized there is still plenty to learn for me about the possibilities and limits of this discipline. Nevertheless, last week both Paul’s insights and all the other stories I have listened to me encouraged me to put more time and effort into critically analyzing current debates and to write about them. And maybe, at this point not even with the motivation of sharing it with a large audience, but also because writing about these things helps me to get a better understanding of the fast world I live in.

Writing Anthropology in Perilous Times

IMG_1652.jpgGround Zero for the Beatles, Liverpool, UK Photo by Paul Stoller

A few days ago as I was traveling through Germany and the Netherlands, I stumbled upon a video of James Corden’s The Late Late Show that chronicled  his recent tour through Liverpool with Sir Paul McCartney.  In the video, Corden and McCartney perform carpool karaoke, travel to Paul McCartney’s house where as a teenager he wrote songs with John Lennon.  Eventually, they end up in a Liverpool pub in which the young Paul McCartney performed.  It was a typical afternoon at the pub except for the presence of Corden behind the bar.  He asks a patron to pick a song on the jukebox. In response to the jukebox selection, a stage curtain opens and a makeshift Liverpool band featuring none other than Paul McCartney begins to perform Beatle’s songs (Hard Day’s Night, Back in the USSR, Love Me Do.  People rush in to see Paul McCartney. The last song is Hey Jude.  For a very special moment the pub audience as well as anyone on social media who clicked on the video link—slipped into a joyous world where they stomped their feet, sang along, and waved their arms as they immersed themselves in a universe in which they celebrated our common humanity.  People in the pub smiled and shed tears of happiness. Waiting at my gate at the Frankfurt Airport I, too, stomped my feet, smiled, shed a few tears and remembered that there is more to social life than our society’s ever-growing record of social and political atrocity.

Social life in America has become perilously surreal. The social fabric has become dangerously frayed.  If you look at commentary on social media, it’s evident that what’s left of our civility is quickly dissipating. The example of our bigoted, ignorant and authoritarian “Dear Leader” has unleashed a flood of hate to justify shamefully inhumane behavior that is shockingly reminiscent of Nazi Germany.  We now rip screaming babies out of the arms of their asylum-seeking parents who, to save their families, have uprooted their kin from unthinkingly violent conditions. Although these parents are asylum seekers, mostly from Central America, they are now erroneously considered criminals and are treated like animals. Following the cruel dictates of the “Dear Leader,” our heartless government has separated these parents from their children and has corralled the innocents into fenced-in locked-down detention centers where they cry in anguish for their mothers and fathers. In a state of utter fear, they try to sleep on caged-in concrete floors. Faced with mounting pressure to reverse this cruel policy, the “Dear Leader” will no longer separate these children from their parents but will indefinitely jail whole families–of non-criminal asylum seekers.

How many of the previously separated innocents will get lost in the system?

How many of them will be needlessly traumatized for life?

Have we no respect for the integrity of the family?

What have we become?

What can academics do slow the inexorable spread of hate in contemporary America?

Scholars have long been the custodians of knowledge who have spoken truth to power. Given our relentless descent into an unimaginatively fetid social swamp, we should redouble our efforts to convey our insights to the public. Beyond participating in protests and voter registration drives, social scientists, including, of course, anthropologists, are well positioned to speak to the social ramifications of the dissolution of the family, the expansion of income inequality, the acceleration of climate change, the tenacity of racism and bigotry and the steadfastness of socially disruptive violence in everyday and political life.

One very good way for anthropologists to speak truth to power is to write ethnographically contoured blogs about the vicissitudes of social life in these perilous times.  Although it is vitally important to engage in a sustained and trenchant cultural critique, it is also important to use the blogosphere to recount stories that demonstrate the ingenuity and social resilience of populations, both foreign and domestic, that mainstream politicians and their legion of followers like to denigrate as murderous animals. In perilous times, it is also important to bring into the public sphere portraits of people and descriptions of events, like the Corden-McCartney journey to Liverpool, that celebrate our collective humanity.

It is very important to bear witness to the grave dysfunction of our social relations and our politics, but it is equally important for anthropologists to saturate the public sphere with uplifting stories of anthropological others who are courageous, resilient, and wise.  Their stories bring light in times of darkness.  They remind us of human decency.

To write anthropology in perilous times is to commit yourself to fight a common enemy— ignorance.  Indeed. much of the pain and suffering that seems to shape contemporary social life devolves from ignorance—ignorance of science, ignorance of the other, ignorance of history, ignorance of poverty and the daily struggle to feed, clothe and house many of our children.  If we write public anthropology in perilous times, we put ourselves on the front lines in the fight against ignorance.

By the same token, are we not also obligated to write blogs that recount the foot-stomping, sing along stories of the inspiring people and remarkable events that constitute the ethnographic record?

 

 

 

The Return of the Plague

In times of rage and divisiveness during which the American state separates immigrant children from their parents and warehouses the ones they haven’t lost on military bases, during which it becomes okay to openly express racist, anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant sentiments, during which unarmed young black man are routinely shot and killed by police, during which daily political chaos has unsettled our social psyche, it is yet again the moment to remember the moral devastation that unbridled hate brings to our social well being. In that spirit, I am re-posting a blog I wrote shortly after the election of Donald J. Trump. The message in that blog is perhaps more relevant today than it was in November 2016.  The blog is in the form of a letter to my students.

 

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Plaques in remembrance of Jews deported from Gross Umstadt Germany in 1941 Photo by Paul Stoller

Dear Students:

I write with some unwelcome news for your immediate future: the plague has returned to America.

The rats have crawled out of their holes and are swarming over our bustling cities and our sprawling suburbs.  They have infested our peaceful small towns, our bucolic farms. They have spoiled our pristine pastures and meadows.  I’m sure that you would prefer to receive better news, but I feel it is my professorial obligation to give you an idea of what to expect from this new round of the plague.

Maybe you feel that I’m being an alarmist or overly dramatic.  But I’ve been around long enough to have seen and experienced the vile nature of the plague. You see, when I was coming up in the 1950s and 1960 the rats came after me—and many, many others.  They taunted us with epithets. On several occasions they physically attacked us just because we were different.

When the plague comes social life is transformed.  Even if you think you are one of the good ones—the good Muslim, the good Asian, the good Latino, the good African American, the good LGBTQ person, the good Jew or the good woman– sooner or later the rats will come after you.  Their appetite for hate is insatiable.

If you don’t believe me, consider what happened one day after the upset election of Donald J. Trump.  In his recent The Verge report, Sean O’Kane listed the following incidents:

  • A swastika and the words “MAKE AMERICA WHITE AGAIN” were spray painted on a baseball dugout in Wellsville, NY (p. ~5,000). A black baby doll was also found with rope around its neck in an elevator on campus at Canisius College outside Buffalo, NY. — The Buffalo News
  • A reporter for CBS North Carolina posted a photo of a wall in Durham, North Carolina where the words “BLACK LIVES DON’T MATTER AND NEITHER DOES [sic] YOUR VOTES” were spray painted. — Derrick Lewis, CBS North Carolina
  • A swastika and the words “Seig Heil 2016” were spray painted on a storefront in South Philadelphia. The Anti-Defamation League issued an official statement in response to the incident, saying that “while we view this as an isolated incident, we cannot allow this behavior to become routine. Everyone has a role to play in combating bigotry — we must advocate, educate and investigate until hate is no longer welcome in our society.” — Philly.com, The Anti-Defamation League
  • Also in South Philadelphia, the words “TRUMP RULES” and “TRUMP BLACK BITCH” were spray painted on an SUV. — Philly.com

According to “Hate Watch,” which is maintained by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) “….between Wednesday, November 9, the day after the presidential election, and the morning of Monday, November 14, the Southern Poverty Law Center collected 437 reports of hateful intimidation and harassment.”  The SPLC stated that….

Most of the reports involved anti-immigrant incidents (136), followed by anti-black (89) and anti-LGBT (43). Some reports (8) included multiple categories like anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant. The “Trump” category (41) refers to incidents where there was no clear defined target, like the pro-Trump vandalism of a “unity” sign in Connecticut. We also collected 20 reports of anti-Trump intimidation and harassment.”

These ugly incidents, which are likely to increase exponentially during the Trump Administration, are signs of the plague’s return. It is a return baited in large measure by the silences, words, choices, and behavior our President-elect!  Such news dims the bright light of the future.

What can you do to combat the plague?

How can the light of your future be brightened?

When I confronted the plague as a young man I took solace in the wisdom of a great work of literature, The Plague (La Peste) by Albert Camus.  In this book, Camus described how the bubonic plague changed the lives of the people of Oran in Algeria.  The authorities of Oran were slow to appreciate the gravity of the situation even after thousands of rats had died in the streets and people began to sicken and die.  Only when the death tally reach 30 people per day did the authorities finally recognize the severity of the situation. They quarantined the city.

The townspeople became depressed. Violence spread. Hoodlums looted city shops. People lost their loved-ones.  Babies died.  Oran became utterly chaotic.  Eventually, the rats returned to their holes and the plague retreated.  People could re-unite Families reestablished and reinforced their ties of love.

For Camus, the plague comes and goes but can never be completely eliminated. The plague is, of course, allegorical. Camus wrote his masterpiece in response to rise and fall of Nazi Germany  The recent rise empowerment of hate groups in Europe and the overt bigotry of Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign underscores the wisdom of Albert Camus.  Is it any wonder that Trump’s unexpected win unleashed a torrent of hate crimes directed at Muslims, African American, immigrants, and the gay community, and women?

What can you do?

Should you be like the elders of Camus’s Oran try to ignore the presence of plague in our midst?  Should you do nothing and let the plague spread?

Camus’s message is clear.  First you have to recognize the plague when you experience it.  Second, you have to fight it back with all your resources. Third, once it retreats you need to be vigilant because given the right circumstances, it can always come back.

In the end, though, Camus novel celebrates human resilience. Toward the end of th book he writes:  “…once the faintest stirring of hope became possible, the dominion of the plague was over.”  He goes on to say that love trumps hate for once the plague has been beaten back you know that “…if there is one thing one can always yearn for and sometimes attain, it is human love.”

And so the times are difficult and will become more difficult, but eventually the rats will go back into their holes, the plague will be in full retreat and you will realize fully the power of love to overcome hate.

Your professor

 

Trumping Toward the Storm

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A dust storm approaches Tillaberi, Niger. Photo by Paul Stoller

 

In defiance of history, facts, and any sliver of good sense, DJT, our presidential champion of divisive hate and “alternate reality” has pulled out of the multi-national nuclear agreement with Iran, a move that certainly destabilizes the already unsettled Middle East, a decision that brings the world ever-closer to a catastrophic nuclear war. DJT’s withdrawal is a perfect storm example of a central concept in anthropology: ethnocentrism.

Ethnocentrism has long been the defining feature of American foreign policy.  It drove G.W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq as a way of spreading “democracy” in the Middle East.  It was the defining feature of Barack Obama’s more pragmatic foreign policy, which, at least, considered the global impacts of climate change and the local complexities of Islamic politics.  In the era of Trump, we have ethnocentrism on steroids. Indeed, we have entered the era of the politics of “America First.”

What’s so bad about ethnocentrism.?

Anthropologists, after all, have long admitted that everyone is ethnocentric.

Put bluntly, ethnocentrism is  a “my way or the highway” set of beliefs.  There are two types of ethnocentrism: ethnocentrism with power and ethnocentrism without power. In the former type, people or nations have the economic or military capacity to force people to adopt their beliefs, their values, and their system of government.  This example is the ethnocentrism of conquest and domination, a practice that has brought to the human condition a seemingly endless series of conflicts and wars.  In ethnocentrism without power people believe that although they are powerless, they nonetheless possess moral and cultural superiority.

In DJT’s dystopian America First world, we occupy a mythical ethnocentric world that is structured by an ethos of reality television in which “alternative facts” displace facts, in which conspiracy displaces science, in which arrogant ignorance overshadows modest reason.

Does DJT know or care about the social and political issues in the world?

Does DJT know or care about international laws or the rule of law?

Does DJT know or care about the US. Constitution?

No, he does not.

He does know how to build buildings and, if the recent history Trump property bankruptcies, fires, and name-removals is indicative, he’s not very good at that.

It comes as no surprise that DJT would ignore the advice of his advisors and our allies, for he alone knows best–which, of course, is symptomatic of the ego centrism and credulity of those who are woefully and ethnocentrically ignorant.  Why listen to people who have studied Iran or the Middle East?  Why listen to egg-head scientists and scholars who have slowly developed their sage expertise about the history, politics and society–about the human condition.  They were the smart ones in school.8

What do they know?

We live in increasingly dangerous times.  Given the politics of ignorance that DJT champions we must fight back each and every day–to protect reason, to save science, to ensure our social future.  Anthropologists have a major role to play in this fight.  We understand and can explain the dangers of ethnocentrism in the America First world.  We can bring forward the wisdom of the peoples we’ve studied and use it to illuminate our social problems and find alternatives to our social and political dysfunction. We understand the hidden of dimensions of the exercise of power.  We understand the social and cultural ramifications of the information age and how it shapes social and political life.  We understand how climate change will precipitate massive social disruption. We understand the whys and wherefores of the what it means to be a human being in the world.  And we know how to use ethnography to powerfully bring our important insights into the public sphere.

Given the onset of DJT destructive policies, it’s time for anthropologists to use media to practice an engaged, rigorous and ongoing social and cultural critique.  As I’ve said in previous blogs, it will not be easy for anyone to combat the rise of ignorance in the culture of speed.

But as The Grateful Dead lyric informs us: “speed kills.”

The stakes are high.  As the elders of the Songhay people of Niger and Mali like to say:  The person who looks back as he or she walks forward eventually walks into a deadly storm or, falls off a cliff.

 

Cultural Ignorance Kills–in Niger and Beyond

The sad story of how a contingent of ISIS fighters overran and killed four out-gunned US Green Berets in Tongo Tongo, Niger is in the news again. The Pentagon report on what transpired during an ill-fated “routine” mission will soon be published.  In a front-page story in the March 20th edition of The New York Times some details about the mission have been revealed.  According to preliminary findings, ”The leader of the ill-fated mission in Niger last fall warned before the mission that his troops did not have the equipment or the intelligence necessary to carry out a kill or capture raid against a local militant.”   In the report, which is not fully complete, the focus is clearly on why this mission was authorized and who is responsible for a tragically fatal screw-up. In the same article we also learn that there have been subsequent attacks against joint American-Nigerien military patrols. Considering the historical and cultural context of Western Niger, where the initial attack took place, there is a high probability that there will be more attacks and more fatalities in the future.

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A Songhay village along the Niger River in Northwestern Niger (Photo by Paul Stoller)

Can we attribute these fatalities to equipment deficiencies or to problems in the chain of command? How will we explain away future mission failures that result in serious injury or in the deaths of civilians and/or military personnel?

What does the US military know about Niger?

Based upon what we know from the preliminary Pentagon report, our civilian and military leaders know very little about the history, cultural and ethnic politics of this part of the world. Stepping into a social arena about which “we’ are ignorant, American taxpayers are constructing in Niger a major drone base—an important tool in the battle against Muslim extremists, an increasing number of whom have found safe harbor in remote West African countries like Niger, one of the poorest places in the world.

Given the high stakes of these present and future operations, what will our ignorance cost us in terms of wasted treasure and wasted lives?

Having thought, read and written about Niger for more than 30 years, having learned one of the Nigerien languages (Songhay-Zarma) and having lived many years in villages like Tongo Tongo, allow me an anthropological intervention into this blind discourse about “intelligence” and “chains of command.”

As I stated in a previous blog post about this tragedy, Tongo Tongo is situated in the northern sector of the Zarmagunda region of Niger—the heartland (or the “belly”) of the Songhay-Zarma people. These are people long known for their bravery, their independence, and their perseverance. In and around Tongo Tongo you also find Tuareg and Fulani—peoples also known for their bravery and pride.  The mix of very different kinds of people in this region prompted a history of inter-ethnic conflict. The people in the area are also known for their resistance to French colonialism and to the Nigerien government, which means that the region has a long been an arena of political volatility.   There are other places in Niger, of course, that are equally volatile.

The proud Zarma people who live in and around Tongo Tongo don’t like strangers (called yo in the Songhay-Zarma language). For them, strangers can never understand what’s important to the child of the village (kwar’izo). This deep-seated belief means that strangers, which include Niger government officials as well as Nigerien, French, and American soldiers, can never be trusted. Strangers come, stay for a brief period of time, and then leave. As the Songhay proverb states: “Strangers are like the mist. If they haven’t left in the morning they’re sure to be gone in the afternoon.”

Given the social and cultural complexities of life in Niger, can the presence of soldiers, or drones, compete with the ever-increasing popularity of radical Islam?

Probably not.

As in much of the world, the central political issue in contemporary Niger is deeply entrenched poverty—not military tactics, chains of command, counter-terrorism strategies or the presence of a fleet of technologically sophisticated drones. The cost of ignoring this fundamental truth is monumental.

An America First ideology will not protect innocent villagers or American soldiers from attack.  It will not snuff out the spread of Islamist ideology in places like Niger, Mali, Chad and Burkina Faso.

Bombs, sophisticated drones, military meet and greets with village elders, or kill or special capture missions will not resolve inter-ethnic antipathies or diminish religious prejudice. There is no quick fix for radical Islam in places Niger, Mali or Burkina Faso.  There is a slow solution, though:  fully funded programs (education and technical training) that will make people more self-sufficient.  These programs will take many years to show results, but in the end they will result in social and economic improvement, which, in turn, makes radical Islam less appealing.

As wise Songhay elders liked to tell me: a slow path is usually the most rewarding way to reach your destination.

 

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