My savior from unstructured time this summer has been teaching Intro to IR three mornings a week. The students have all been genuinely curious, asking perceptive questions and helping each other in discussions. Because UC Irvine has such an ethnically diverse student population, several of the students have been helpful to me and the rest of the class by giving context from regions of the world that I am less familiar with (including East and Southeast Asia, but lots of other knowledge too!).
Explaining new theoretical concepts has also helped me finish up my dissertation. I remind students to always remember what is at the center of the main theories we're studying: power-seeking is central to realism, cooperation is the essence of liberalism, economy is the core of Marxism, etc. Yet when I'm writing, I lose focus, getting lost in the context of West Africa.
After a conversation with my advisor when I was in the weeds, she reminded me to always relate it back to the WPS agenda, the object of my study, to remember how whatever I am writing about at any moment relates to—explains, questions, nuances—the agenda and its implementation. And I remembered this as what I'm telling my own students to focus on when they become overwhelmed with the details.
I've often heard that teaching a subject helps you master it. And it's true that reviewing material for the class has reminded me of concepts that I've never used once I learned them (appeasement, anyone?). But I didn't expect to reinforce my own learning processes and to remember what it's like to be an amateur.
All through grad school we surround ourselves with experts, ideal examples of scholars and scholarship, to model ourselves after and to show us what we should be working toward. Yet at this moment, near the very end of my own student-ness, it is my students, most of whom are new to politics and international relations, who are re-teaching me how to accept the contingency of my knowledge and what it means to grow as an academic.
I realize that I'm fortunate with this group of students as well as to be teaching a class that I am familiar with, so I don't expect every class to be like this every term. But if my next year at Pomona College and the (inshallah) years of teaching after that are similar, I'll be very thankful indeed. Now back to writing.
In two words: it sucks. After nearly two years of adventure, of traveling and trying to figure things out in new places, in multiple languages (most of which I don’t speak), meeting people, and learning tons and tons of new things, the time has arrived (since January, in fact) to sort out what I have learned, to make sense of it all.
BUT THAT'S NOT NEARLY AS MUCH FUN AS HAVING FUN WITH NEW PEOPLE IN NEW PLACES!
I did write a chapter last summer, and I have lots of notes and a few presentations, so it’s not like I was starting from complete scratch. But putting your data to your ideas, even though you’ve been thinking about the connections for years, is nigh impossible some days. It’s exciting when something comes together, but those days don’t come often.
However, I am finding some joy in the little things, like revisiting interviews and realizing the little connections between what an Ivorian woman has told me and a theoretical concept. And when I can take a few moments to step back and look at what I'm doing, I can see a bigger picture, pinpoint where my tiny contribution fits in, and feel a bit proud of myself.
This drag will end soon, inshallah, as soon as I take care of a bit of conference travel. (I did not fly for more than two months, which is some kind of record for me recently!) As I type, I’m on my way to Lund, Sweden, for the Feminist Peace Research Network workshop, then next week to Long Island for the Berkshire Conference, then the European Conference on Politics and Gender in Geneva, a short stop in Berlin for fun, and finally Brighton, UK, for the British International Studies Association. Several of these are places I’ve never been, and between the travel and the productive conversations, I’ll be looking forward to wrapping up this long slog of writing and moving on …
Like most researchers who use semi-structured interviews, I start off with a fairly routine set of questions – tell me about your organization; what aspect of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda do you focus on; what are your successes so far and what are the challenges you face – though we inevitably get very specific to the organization, their donors, and their target population.
After one interview, the president of the organization I was visiting introduced me to one of her assistants who, as part of a women’s empowerment project supported by her employer, makes organic soap in her home to be sold in the markets.
She invited me to her house to see the project and quickly made some sample soap with the assistance of her son and a couple other neighborhood boys. I don’t even remember the whole process, but the chemistry of the thing and the quality of the soap was amazing!
And now I have the product for myself and for gifts. I don’t want to give platitudes about helping poor women in Mali or that this could completely change her life or whatever, but I’m quite pleased that I got to directly support one of the women I met personally through my work – and that I have such a practical, quality souvenir from Mali.
Edited 27 December 2016:
I wrapped them with brown paper and some Japanese paper that I had stashed away from a few years ago to give away as New Year's gifts!
I love doing fieldwork. Love meeting people and learning about their lives and where they live and how they work. And I love traveling to conferences, again meeting new people and learning about their research and thinking more about mine, plus visiting new cities.
Last month, I got the opportunity to travel to Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, to attend, present at, and assist at a conference sponsored by The CIHA Blog, for which I am an editorial assistant. Once again, the conference was wonderful, a place to catch up with old colleagues and meet new ones. Please read more about the conference and the broad swatch of issues related to religion, humanitarianism, and governance that we discussed.
Then, because it was my first time in South Africa and since I was already there, I took 10 days to drive from Durban to Cape Town – along the Wild Coast, the Garden Route, and into Wine Country. I was so impressed by the diversity of the landscape and the beauty of the coastline especially.
No major stories happened, good or bad, just a relaxing vacation where I got to meet new people, see new things, and learn new lessons about culture, race, gender, and politics.
Aside from the boat trip (see the last post), I've been working quite a lot and haven't yet done much exploring. But the little that has been done always makes me smile.
My home during my time in Mali is The Sleeping Camel, a backpacker hotel that’s retained half that identity and added in clientele from the UN mission (MINUSMA) and various affiliated UN agencies; with the decline of the tourist crowd because of the Northern Malian conflict, UN numbers swelled.
Here, I’ve developed an eclectic group of friends, some from the former travel crowd and some from the new security-minded crowd, most on the anglophone track, but only a few Americans.
The Camel also has a boat that it uses to cruise on the Niger river and is often rented for relaxing half-day trips by all kinds of groups. One Saturday, a couple of the Camel’s owners invited friends out for a day trip on the boat. Food and alcohol were largely provided, but after I said that I made killer brownies, it was requested that I make brownies on the boat.
There was a tiny oven with uncertain temperature and definitely no measuring cups, but the brownies with M&M’s were a success! No photos of the brownies exist because this was toward the end of day that was supported by coolers of beer and a bowl of sangria, but below are photos from the trip.
I reckon these were the first brownies ever made while cruising down the Niger River.
The day that Angelina Jolie was appointed to LSE as a visiting professor at the Centre for Women, Peace and Security, it was all over my social media accounts, and several friends sent me messages asking if I had seen it. Even though I was in the middle of a few days of intense fieldwork, I knew I had things to say about this:
In the few days that have passed, several people on Twitter have given their takes, many of those thoughts well-considered.
I’m truly ambivalent about her appointment. I recognize that LSE has a status and a brand to maintain, and the university’s Centre for Women, Peace and Security and its MSc program will benefit from the exposure that Jolie brings. (I’ve participated in an LSE WPS Centre-sponsored workshop and hope to more in the future, but that is not censoring my thoughts here. I am also not addressing the lack of uproar over relative qualifications of former UK foreign secretary William Hague, a gendered response for sure.) These sorts of appointments happen often, especially from people who have been involved in policy practice. And it could have been worse:
My problems with her appointment come more from what work her celebrity activist position does in the WPS agenda, how it distorts priorities and politics already in the WPS resolutions.
Celebrities reinforce stratification and hierarchy that was present before. When UN Security Council Resolution 2106, which focused on sexual violence, was passed in June 2013, Jolie addressed the Security Council in the debate preceding the resolution. By contrast, the speaker who addressed the Security Council for Resolution 2122—which focuses on including women at all phases of conflict prevention, conflict resolution, and peacebuilding—in October 2013 was Brigitte Balipou, a lawyer and member of the Constitutional Court of Central African Republic. Balipou is prominent in international legal circles but is certainly no celebrity. In October 2015, Resolution 2242 was passed, also a broader discussion of gender in peace and security as well as countering violent extremism; the prior debate saw remarks from high-level policymakers and advocates but no celebrity activists.
The effect of using celebrity activism in urging the Security Council to pass a resolution addressing sexualized violence lends legitimacy to this resolution and its focus on sexualized violence as an issue that those who might not otherwise pay attention to the United Nations should care about, the “fetishization of sexual violence,” as Sara Meger has written. The discrepancy in the advocacy between these resolutions illustrates that enlisting a celebrity for policy work lends legitimacy as well as spurs donors, casual observers who might become involved in advocacy work, and governments to devote attention to the issue. In essence, because of Jolie’s advocacy, there is likely an unintended consequence of attempting to address sexual violence in conflict without addressing the underlying political and economic factors that contribute to it, both during conflict and before and after.
While there is, perhaps, some “academic snobbery” in criticizing Jolie’s new appointment, neither is her presence an unalloyed good. As Lauren Wolfe points out in a defense of Jolie from two years ago, “the attention economy for truly caring about suffering is tiny.” Yet it is this, allowing suffering to become part of an “economy” – making it a political problem to be debated, toward which to allocate resources that can be taken away in the next moment, that addressing suffering of any type is vulnerable to market forces is what is the problem with her attention.
Wolfe goes on: “Now we just need governments to take on the complex problems that lead to rape in war and the needs of survivors after the fact.” Herein lies the problem. This sentence is essentially an afterthought in her post, but it is the crux of remedying gender inequality and gender-based violence in both conflict and peacetime. Having policies on women’s issues (and broader gender issues) rest on activism, whether that is celebrity or grassroots, instead of spurring government action means that these issues will never receive sustained attention.
As one of my research participants told me recently, “Activism is exhausting, but we must keep doing it, or people will stop paying attention.” With policies for women relying on women’s activism, governments and policymakers can continue to use women as a tool when it is politically expedient.
Truly, Jolie’s attention to the rights of women, especially to combatting sexual violence in conflict, is genuine. But universities, especially centers devoted to the WPS agenda (and the career academics that are part of this center, who I know to be invested in women’s security and rights as a holistic endeavor), should be cautious about involving celebrities, even when it brings much-needed attention.
Though I had flown on a UNHAS flight from Conakry to Freetown, I returned by road, about a 5-hour drive. When we crossed the border, I expected to pull out my passport, but we just honked our way until a series of ropes dropped across the road. I barely paid attention when my French-speaking driver for the first half said, “Okay, now we’re in Guinea,” because I expected that someone would ask for our identification, even if we weren’t interrogated. When I turned to him a minute later and said, “Wait, now it’s Guinea? Why didn’t I have to show my passport?” he replied, “It’s because we’re in a diplomatic vehicle.” This was true – my driver was from another West African country’s mission based in Freetown, but I’m not a diplomat, especially one from West Africa, and it didn’t look like the border control was any stronger for any of the other cars going through.
Just over the border, I switched cars to make the trip through Guinea. This driver was one I had met before in Conakry, and he was a military officer who does something like diplomatic security. Because fuel prices are so much less expensive in Sierra Leone than in Guinea, we drove back across the border – where he had to surrender his gun that he had stowed in the center console of the car – got gas, then drove back across the border, where he retrieved his weapon, and we were on our way.
Funnily enough, neither driver spoke English, though they were both able to cope in Sierra Leone enough to get gas. I actually don’t think there was much of a shared language at all, even a local one, but this is more about the attitudes of West Africans to help facilitate basic communication, a big contrast with many Americans and Western Europeans, who are much more rigid about the level of language skill. There was a problem with payment, and I considered offering to translate, but it was quickly cleared up and we were on our way.
On the Sierra Leone side, this highway was fairly newly paved, with occasional signs that it was by the assistance of the European Union. Once into Guinea, however, the road was full of potholes and our journey was much slower. The better to see the landscape and villages and find a clean cooking pot from which we could have our lunch!
The night before I left Freetown, I had dinner with another friend of a friend who works in justice promotion as part of the larger development industry in Sierra Leone. We had a long discussion about whether development money is good for a country. I noted that there was public education for social issues, that Ebola had been at least acknowledged by the government, that there were paved roads with minimal potholes and about a quarter of the amount of trash on the streets as there is in Conakry. His point was that despite these modest improvements, there was still no economy to speak of and that all the development money was making people dependent on it so that when the money starts to go away (which it perhaps is nearly 15 years after the end of the civil war and about a year after the end of Ebola), the country will be in big, big trouble. The corrupt government can barely function on its own.
I don’t know what I think. Certainly I want the economies to grow on their own in their own way; however, smooth roads facilitate trade, even within a country or region. A population’s or government’s dependency on foreign skills and money will likely not contribute to any lasting “progress” or “development”; however, when basic services are nonexistent, it seems that it’s necessary to provide for them in some way.
This weekend I took a break from nonstop interviewing and did a bit of tourism with friends of friends.
Saturday, I went with a group to a chimpanzee park just outside of Freetown. In a national park with an incredibly beautiful virgin forest, the park protects rescued, orphaned, and abandoned chimpanzees and rehabilitates them to live in a chimpanzee society (though not outside the sanctuary because of their history of abuse and human contact). With my fear of the uncanny valley between animals and humans where monkeys and chimpanzees reside (and yes, I know they’re not the same thing), I was wary of the rock-throwing primates, though it was super interesting to see them play on the ropes and poles and with tires and doing their chimp thing.
Later that day, we hunted for a good beach and ended up at Bureh Beach, in the far east of the peninsula. It was breathtakingly gorgeous, with rain forest mountains that seem to come just to the beach. When swimming, instead of watching the waves that were coming in, I instead stared at the landscape, getting bowled over several times.
The following day I went with another group to River Number 2 Beach and then Sussex Beach. The former was somewhat more popular, but by no means crowded, and there was a current that was insistent on sweeping me away. Sussex Beach had an interesting sandbar formation, where low tide meant 500 meters of “dry” river before you got to the actual beach, and high tide meant that the water came up to the concrete edge of the restaurant where we were eating. I lost most of my photos from Sunday because of a technology malfunction, but this was my first time seeing mangrove forests in person, which was just thrilling.
Yes, it seems as if I go to the beach a good bit in West Africa, but there’s not a whole lot to do otherwise in the tourist or cultural sense in many of the cities where I work.
One of my interviewees in Guinea offered me an opportunity to travel to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to conduct research there; she said that the women’s activism there was quite strong compared to Guinea and that I might be interested in seeing what they had to say. So with her facilitation, I left Conakry for a week to Freetown.
What a difference in the two capital cities. While certainly poor, Freetown is swarming with development money – signs for NGOs big and small, international and local are everywhere, and so many white 4x4wd vehicles roam the streets. This is in stark contrast to Conakry, which has a few evident foreigners but not the mass of NGO-as-a-business as Freetown (or business-as-business like Abidjan).
Also remarkable was the number of public-service signs around the city – old billboards and murals educating about Ebola prevention and access to treatment, new posters urging girls to wait until they’re older to have babies, alongside others that calls violence against women a crime against state security. I have never seen such an amount of educational advertising as I did in the one week there. I’m supposing this is a positive thing, but it is just another sign of the amount of money pouring into projects there and makes me wonder to what extent it is having an effect.
I feel like I have so much more to say about Freetown than I do about Conakry, but I think it’s because I’m putting Guinea in context. So many people dislike Conakry that I’m disposed to like the place just to be contrary. But Freetown is seducing me with its cleanliness – not to mention its widespread English.
Travel and research notes
Fieldwork and travel in Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Mali, as well as Burkina Faso, Morocco, Tanzania, South Africa, and wherever else I end up. Plus occasional research-related thoughts.