My petit African politics class
February 7, 2019
My Modern African Politics class this fall semester had only four students, and I think one of the students was "incentivized" to be there so that the class didn't get canceled. I figured that instead of doing my same old scaffolded research project, we could try something a little different.
The students and I agreed at the beginning of the semester that they would all commit to working hard and no free-riding. In return, they would help design the final group project, and we could do activities together that larger classes couldn’t. After discussion, the class decided to write a blog on the politics of food in Africa, a topic that encompasses many class themes like identity and statehood, colonialism, international debt, foreign investment, agriculture, the environment, migration, hunger, and globalization.
The result: The Politics of Food in Africa
What's even better than that? We took two informal field trips to Washington, DC, to sample Senegalese and Ethiopian cuisines. Yum!
How West African Women Reclaim International Discourses
January 21, 2019
(This post was originally posted at "The Gender and War Project")
Initiated in the year 2000, the UN Security Council’s Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda calls for women’s participation in security governance and protection of women from security threats around the world. Despite its grand plans, the agenda’s implementation has been spotty, with greater attention to women’s participation in security solutions than to the structures of violence that have threatened them.
Furthermore, though the WPS agenda was initially driven by women’s organizations around the world and its intent acclaimed by many more, the UN Security Council resolutions and other policy documents that comprise the agenda do not always reflect the needs of the women who are the object of these policies, particularly women in the Global South. Instead, international discourses about women in the Global South stereotype them and reify them simultaneously as passive victims and as inherently peaceful. This characterization positions women solely as targets of the WPS policies rather than as powerful actors in their own right.
In a 2017 article in Global Affairs, “Pragmatic scepticism in implementing the Women, Peace, and Security agenda,” I outline two ways in which women and their work in local women’s security and peacebuilding organizations challenge international discourses at the same time that they reclaim them for their needs. This challenging is the “pragmatic scepticism” of the title – a way for women to be wary about certain essentializing stories told about them while simultaneously realizing that some stories can be useful as forms of organization and fundraising. Drawing on interview and participant observation research conducted among local women’s security and peacebuilding organizations in Côte dʼIvoire in 2014–2015, this article identifies two such stories that frame women’s activism around their own security: vulnerability and motherhood.
Vulnerability as a strength
Discourses around wartime sexualized violence tend to create binaries between victims and saviors, between the vulnerable and the strong. This has been echoed in the WPS agenda, which was not designed to reduce vulnerability by fundamentally remaking the system of gender relations. And though the first resolution of the WPS agenda, 1325, incorporated perspectives of anti-militarism, later resolutions and other aspects of the policy agenda have comprised this intent. Instead, the WPS agenda now highlights women’s vulnerability, and its programs are intended deal with, not question this vulnerability.
Many women in Côte dʼIvoire expressed frustration about how their day-to-day peacebuilding work was overlooked by the WPS agenda, which emphasizes external interventions rather than support of pre-existing grassroots organizations. Côte dʼIvoire, in fact, has a long history of women’s peace activism, during both the colonial period and more recent civil conflicts.
These women did acknowledge that they were vulnerable to particular forms of violence in conflict and in their daily lives – economic, political, and physical. However, they did not want this vulnerability to define them; they did not want a sense of victimhood to permeate women in the country. They reconfigured the vulnerability from being based on fear to being a place of strength from which they can organize.
Photo courtesy of Organization of Active Women in Côte dʼIvoire (OFACI)
As part of my research, I attended trainings run by local women’s peacebuilding organizations that had the goal of teaching women about their rights or empowerment opportunities. I watched the trainings shift from the morning’s formality to a relaxed camaraderie in the afternoon. Women told stories about their experiences of vulnerability and used that vulnerability to develop a solidarity on which, the training leaders hoped, they could build peace in their communities going forward. In the words of one participant, “Women need to help women because it is only us who know what each other is experiencing.”
But vulnerability can be used instrumentally by these women’s organizations, as well. These organizations use the language of vulnerability stemming from sexualized violence in the WPS resolutions to ask for increased funding for their work. Vulnerability is a pathway to access funding for some of these organizations, and women allow themselves to be vulnerable to establish their credentials as at-risk and open to the intervention of the international community.
Motherhood as an identity
Another frame produced by international discourses that women in Côte d’Ivoire adapt and work from is motherhood. This identity is often collapsed with ideas of vulnerability because of women’s specific health needs and mother-only caring responsibilities for very young children. African feminists like Catherine Acholonu and Obioma Nnaemeka note that motherhood in many African societies is not just a biological role but also a social one. Even if a woman does not have children, familial roles such as “sister” or “aunt” are liberally given and come with nurturing duties.
Motherhood, then, is not only taken on by those who have birthed and raised children but is claimed by a majority of women in Côte dʼIvoire and is naturalized for all women. As with vulnerability, women are pragmatic about their mothering roles, noting that there are specific ways they can work with their identity as a mother, but also instrumental ways to sell motherhood as necessary to security.
At the core of the activism by the local women’s organizations was a commitment to security, peace, and anti-violence. In particular, it was the attachment to their children through birth and caretaking that provided women power in their communities and compelled them to act publicly. Especially for poor women, who have little formal power or access to resources, motherhood provides them with the capacity to act. The director of one women’s organization passionately claimed, “A woman, child, there is not a more horrible pain than giving birth. Do you think she can give birth to her child and then let her child die like this? Maybe he’s going to die because you can do nothing. If you can do something, you will snatch your child from death.”
Just as with the frame of vulnerability, women used motherhood instrumentally to attract attention and funding to their cause of peace and security. Women’s organizations often premised their programs on women’s roles in their families and their communities. Conflict management programs, in particular, relied on women’s domestic management and intimate knowledge of their families. Local justice officials sometimes depend on women to report if their adolescent sons or husbands are coming and going from the house at odd hours, if there are weapons or large amounts of cash in the house, and if there are new people in the community.
Implications of reclaiming the discourses
My goal is not to reify women in Africa and specifically in Côte d’Ivoire as motherly or “natural” but to note and understand their experiences in their work, as they operate in their own contexts, both as vulnerable and as actors in conflict and post-conflict. Because the WPS resolutions are based on assumptions of women, allowing Ivorian women to the space to push back against these assumptions can help them redefine security for themselves, through their own advocacy. Only by listening to African women can we open up space for their voices and analyze their words and actions vis-à-vis state structures and international discourses.
Be kind to yourself
December 26, 2018
I saw this on Twitter. I'm NOT posting it as a New Year's resolution but as a lesson learned from my first semester on the tenure track.
I love my job. I mean, it's a job, but I really like it. Basically, I think I've finally landed at a place that suits me well. I've been working on this kindness to other people for a couple years now, after a nasty run-in with a fellow researcher in Abidjan (buy me two beers to hear the story). But the kindness to myself is a bit more difficult – and I'm not talking about the "self care" that is all the rage, whether in its original definition or in its subsumption under capitalism.
No, this is about self-care as part of my job. The first year on the tenure track, Washington College protects its faculty from service to the college. So I'm not on any campus-wide committees and am not tapped to do anything important until I figure out where most of the buildings are. (Goal: find out where "The Egg" is.) Instead, first-year faculty are expected to teach their little hineys off, learn the ropes, and plan out the next few years.
All great. But I began pressuring myself to do the very best at teaching. If this was really my only job, especially that first semester, I needed to be so good and create such amazing, engaging lectures and projects and readings. I'm not a pollyanna and so could recognize that student success was partially on the students, but I would get frustrated when they seemed bored or confused. I wanted to know what was wrong with me that I couldn't get everything perfect.
What I finally learned was that I was new. Just like it took me a while to figure out what a dissertation was so that I could write one. Like learning a new skill. Some things in the classroom, I'm good at. Some things, I'm still figuring out. And this is being kind to myself. Not taking setbacks personally. Learning from other professors but not letting them overwhelm me with "you know what you should do ...". Allowing myself to be a bit of a beginner.
I'll get the hang of it. I don't have to incorporate every innovative teaching technique this semester. I can do a couple, and once I master those, I can work another one or two in. A skill, not a gift.
Establishing an annual tradition?
June 23. 2018
Like last year, I spent a few weeks jumping around a few places in Europe for conferences/workshops and a little bit of holiday. This time, I was in the Netherlands for work, Finland for a holiday with a dear friend, and Switzerland for work. It was an exhausting trip that coincided with midsummer in the Nordic countries, so my final overnight layover in Stockholm meant that most everything was closed.
One of my favorite things about traveling in general is when places are so fully realized versions of what they are. Almost fulfilling their stereotypes, but in a charming way rather than catering to tourists.
Utrecht, Netherlands, was one such place, as were Helsinki and Turku (and the archipelago) in Finland. Partially because the weather was so sunny and warm, which meant that everyone was eating and drinking at outdoor cafes with the late sunsets, but largely because the cities took pride in themselves and in their distinct culture and heritage.
While I also spent a short time in Zurich and Vienna (the visit to Geneva was not my first) and would of course return to explore more, they didn’t charm me as much as Utrecht, Helsinki, and Turku.
Teaching: being an expert of everything
June 6, 2018
The end of a semester, a year, a job. At the end of this month, I’ll be done with my visiting position at Pomona College.
As I’ve written before, teaching is fun but tiring – like putting on a performance. I also felt that I had to be an expert of everything, like taking a quiz every day. My intro to IR class this spring was so dynamic and curious, but that meant that I always had to be on. Nuclear physics one day, immigration law the next.
The Claremont Colleges have a great Center for Teaching and Learning, where I took advantage of a book club, a diversity discussion group, and a few other workshops. These were potentially my favorite part of the job – learning from novice and experienced professors from all kinds of disciplines how they deal with some of the classroom challenges that I thought only I had.
I had been worried throughout the fall semester, my first time teaching full-time, that injecting too much of my personality and particularly my motivations behind my political stances and teaching style would be inappropriate. But I realized (with the help of the reading group) that not only do students want to know their instructors’ feelings, my own teaching motivation is much stronger when I am a professional version of myself.
A quick version of this: in intro to IR, we were covering international security and shifts in weapons types and technologies after the end of the Cold War. This is not something I know well, and in fact, I am ethically opposed to the creation and use of weapons for national security purposes. Instead of declaring this to my class, however, I showed footage from the 1992 Gulf War, which was really the first time that video had been a part of the weapons themselves, broadcast immediately, and shown on television. I was in middle school at the time, and I believe that watching missiles, through the eyes of the missile itself, guide itself down a chimney and to other exact targets shocked me so much that it shaped my core beliefs and most likely my career.
I showed a few of these videos to my class and explained about how these weapons changed how modern war is fought, as well as how they have changed how Americans understand our own foreign policy. We also talked about how shocking these videos were at the time and how they still are, now that there are few images from guided missiles shown to the public any longer. Showing the class my own history and identity as it came out of a political event I think was one of the most effective lessons I’ve learned myself this year.
The dreaded question: Do you have a job yet?
February 4, 2018
Well, that’s a thing. A terrible, terrible thing. Everyone tells you how terrible it is, and you think you know, but you don’t know.
First, the numbers: This was my second year on the political science/international studies job market, and total, I applied to probably 100 positions overall (including postdocs), had eight or ten phone or skype interviews (including the one for my current visiting position at Pomona College), three campus interviews, and one job offer.
Now, I only know what it’s like for me, but when people say fit is important, they are so right, at least for those of us from non-elite institutions. Especially for me, researching a non-mainstream topic with a non-mainstream methodology, even though I applied to general IR positions, I probably didn’t get a second look from most of those hiring committees.
What I did get was a job, doing exactly what I want to do. Starting July 1, I’ll be an assistant professor of political science and international studies at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. It’s a liberal arts college with a cool history and is in an area I’m looking forward to moving back to. I even get to teach things I’m really excited about, like African politics, gender and conflict, and even IPE (as long as I can give it a development focus). And I’m certain I got this job on fit. Not only did I fit their requirements and they fit mine, but there’s a general sense of fitting in with the culture of the place and the personalities of the other faculty.
It’s a joy right now to be done with the dissertation and feeling secure that I should have employment for the next few years. I feel extremely fortunate that the right thing came up at the right time for me – it isn’t the case for a lot of people in my position – so I’m trying to honor it by working smart and hard.
Backdating blog posts: teaching edition
December 28, 2017
Because so much stuff has happened in the past year and the only time I’ve had to reflect on it all is during my 2-plus-hour-a-day commute or just before I’m falling asleep, I’ve decided to write and backdate some posts that I didn’t get a chance to write before. So here’s the first: a contemplation of my first semester of full-time teaching.
As I wrote over the summer, I enjoyed teaching more than I thought I would, not least because I kept learning things. But even though everyone tells you how hard the first year of teaching is and says that you should really finish your dissertation before you start, you don’t really absorb that lesson.
Heed my warning.
It wasn’t even so much the teaching – I taught three classes this fall, two undergraduate at my VAP position at Pomona College and one masters-level at Chapman University as an adjunct. They were all brand-new preps, and I particularly underestimated the students at Pomona, who are exceptionally well-prepared for college and expected a great deal out of me. When I knew the material really well, I was relaxed and things were fine. On other subjects, I was intimidated, which showed in my teaching. Overall, the students were great and generally kind to me, but I do feel pretty bad for them. Sorry, guys!
What I didn’t expect was how the last few months of dissertation writing, editing, and defending are all-consuming. I’ll go into this process in a later post, but my mind had next-to-zero space for anything else, including a bit of creativity in teaching. It was all I could do to write a lecture and ask questions in class.
Additionally, I was on the job market for the second time this fall (again, a later post), which was, of course, a bit smoother than last year, but my stress was still high while teaching and dissertating and driving.
The best thing about teaching this fall was that I couldn’t think about anything else during class. So even though teaching was stressful, I had to focus on it and not dwell on anxiety about my dissertation or the job market.
I guess I owe my students a giant thank you in addition to the apology!
Aaaaaaaannnnndddddd ... it's done.
December 10, 2917
Defended a couple of weeks ago, did some revisions, submitted the paperwork on Friday. What a relief.
Do feminist scholars need to be an expert in everything?
November 3, 2017
As a follow up to a workshop on feminist global “secureconomy,” I wrote a post on the Progress in Political Economy blog about the limits of expertise. Why not read the entire set of posts?
Summer teaching, having a bla-aast
July 8, 2017
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.
The writing-up stage
May 22, 2017
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 …
Found in the Reykjavik airport, along with lots of wool and sea salt.
November 18, 2026
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.
Sanaba et moi, just after explaining what a "selfie" is.
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!
Combining work and pleasure
November 3, 2016
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.
Mali so far
October 17, 1979
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.
Brownies on a boat
October 10, 2016
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 – a couple of fellow academic researchers.
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 a day that was supported by coolers of beer and a bowl of sangria, but below are photos from the trip. We also swam in the river (under the watchful eye of the boat pilot, who made sure there were no crocodiles or hippos around) and ate omelette sandwiches and brochettes and relaxed for a day out of the city.
I reckon these were the first brownies ever made while cruising down the Niger River.
Thoughts on Angelina Jolie and WPS
May 25, 2016
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.
— Laura J. Shepherd (@drljshepherd) May 24, 2016
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.
Border crossing and reflections on a week
May 19, 2016
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.
Beaches of Salone
May 16, 2016
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.
How Freetown surprised me
May 13, 2016
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.
La plaaaaaagggeeeee and the ride home
April 25, 2015
I am decidedly not a beach person – too much sun, too much sand, and too much ocean that I never learned how to swim in. But I was invited to visit the Los Islands yesterday, so I went. Islands! A boat ride! Out of the city!
You hop on a pirogue (a long, narrow boat) that has a small motor. The sea was choppy, and we got hit several times in the face by small waves, making my heavily applied sunscreen run into my eyes. I wish I could have taken more pictures from the boat, but I didn't want to lose my phone.
When there, there's some ruins, but we really just laid around (me in the shade mostly) and enjoyed the quiet and the cleanliness of the beaches. Boat ride and lunch together cost me about $20.
The trip home by taxi is a different story. I dropped off my friend and continued to a roundabout just outside of the city center. From there, it's down the same road about 12 miles (20 km), so I take a shared taxi to save money – and because otherwise would save very little time. There aren't technically any private taxis in Conakry; you just pay "déplacement," or buying out all of the seats of the taxi to make it private.
I didn't know the hand signal to stop a taxi headed in my direction, so a 20-ish-year-old guy showed me how to wag my index finger like I'm pointing outward. He said he was also going that way, so when the next taxi came by, we both shoved in the front passenger seat – four women and a baby were already in the back – and went on our way. After a minute, this guy pulled a tuber from his backpack and asked if I wanted to try the manioc, or cassava. No, thank you, I've already tried it. You could take it for later, he suggested. I prefer my manioc processed and fermented in attiéké, but thank you for the offer. The tuber was tucked away.
A few minutes later, a police officer on a motobike stopped the taxi in a large roundabout that has an informal market at the center. A woman in the back seat patted my shoulder and told me to stay calm, which I totally still was from my day at the beach. People stopped to both see what the argument was about and to wonder at the white woman in the shared taxi.
After a few minutes, I gathered that having two people in the front passenger seat is illegal, though many drivers do it on Sundays especially because police aren't working. So for the police to stop us means that he just wants money. He was telling the taxi driver, but in a way to make sure that I heard, that he knows people in Italy and in France, and they definitely don’t do things like this, that this is not European behavior. I said to the woman behind me that trying to get a bribe is also not European behavior, and everyone in the back, including the baby, just nodded wearily. The young man sitting next to me kept making sure I was okay, not scared.
Eventually, the taxi driver leaned in and pulled 10,000 Guinean francs (about $1.25) from his wad of bills, and after a little more yelling (and presumably an exchange of the money), we were on our way.
April 20, 2016
More than when I went to Senegal, my first time in West Africa, or when I went to Côte dʼIvoire, where I was to live for nearly a year, I felt like I more or less knew what to expect in Guinea. I was used to the food and regional culture, my language skills were far improved, and I had a place to stay for the first few days. This was all true.
Yet what really surprised me was how the level of development is so much lower than other countries I have visited in the region. Friends in Abidjan had warned me of the trash situation; I thought that was because they had been there for a week or so, only in the city center, while I would be staying in a somewhat well-off area on the outskirts. Oh no. Trash is everywhere.
A marsh behind the house where I am staying, about 1 km inland from the ocean.
A bit further down the wall is a trash heap, spilling into the marsh.
My water comes from a cistern that has been recently dug and then goes into a tank next to the house. I don't think we've had consistent electricity for 24 hours, often going out for hours during the middle of the day, though we do have a generator when necessary (mostly to watch the end of a Real Madrid match).
But aside from a real lack of infrastructure, Conakry and Guineans have been lovely. Because the city's on a peninsula, the hot afternoons are relieved by a decent breeze. West African good humor is evident, especially directed toward me, and people have been incredibly kind both personally and in my research work.
I guess I pride myself on finding fun or joy or interest in the little things when some of the big things (electricity, tacos) are lacking. Evidence:
Mural on a gym or torture chamber?
Track Changes: Countering a Limited Perspective on Mental Illness
April 4, 2016
This post was previously published on The CIHA Blog, where I am an editorial assistant.
In October 2015, The New York Times published an article titled “The Chains of Mental Illness in West Africa.” The author, Benedict Carey, provides insight into prayer camps in Togo, which were established for families with few other resources to house and ostensibly treat those with mental illness (and possibly intellectual or developmental disabilities).
While Carey does write that “Every society struggles to care for people with mental illness” and acknowledges that people with mental illness are bound in the United States and other places as well, he solely focuses on what he sees as the barbarity of the practice in West Africa. The article sets up a dichotomy between “real” approaches to alleviating or ameliorating mental illness and non-proven practices like prayer and traditional healing.
What is missing from his article is that both restraint and non-medical approaches to mental illness are also prevalent in the United States and that the differences in approach between Togo and the United States is one of magnitude, not of kind, likely attributable to the money allocated to mental illness in each country.
In the United States, patients with mental illness or other behavioral issues are not technically chained but are instead restrained – at times forcibly so with straps or sedating chemicals – in psychiatric institutions or in prisons, the latter of which was never intended to help those with mental illness. The U.S. criminal justice system has become the de facto method of dealing with mental illness in face of the lack of social structures to help. About 15 percent of state prisoners and 24 percent of jail inmates report symptoms that meet the criteria for a psychiatric disorder, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, and more than 10 times the number of mentally ill patients are in prisons and jails than in state psychiatric hospitals, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center.
Carey’s article reports that “most countries in Africa, if they have a dedicated budget for mental health care at all, devote an average of less than 1 percent of their health spending to the problem, compared with 6 to 12 percent in the wealthy countries of the West.” In fact, the United States is on the low end, spending about 5.6 percent of its national health-care budget on mental health treatment, more than a quarter of which goes toward prescription drugs.
In any culture, mental illness is difficult for families, with the tension between the dignity and autonomy of the individual while families attend to their medical care and protecting them from themselves and others. An article from IRIN News points out that victims, former combatants, and their families in the Democratic Republic of Congo are allocated few provisions for mental health in North Kivu but that private clinics are working together with NGOs and communities to train mental health professionals, as well as pastors and traditional healers. They spread messages on the radio, in churches, and among state authorities to educate about mental illness and the available treatments, even if those treatments remain limited.
By only focusing on one aspect of mental health treatment in a foreign place while neglecting to mention how the United States similarly treats much of its population or that many of the treatments described are part of a larger treatment effort, The New York Times piece sadly overlooks the holistic approach that is vital to treating mental health issues – including mental, physical, and spiritual aspects.
Liberia's public schools go private
April 1, 2016
This post was previously published on The CIHA Blog, where I am an editorial assistant.
For a number of years, reports of corruption in Liberia’s education system, reaching all the way to the Ministry of Education, have been numerous, and the country’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has called for a reform of the education system.
But now, the Liberian government has decided to outsource its entire primary and early childhood education programs to a private company, Bridge Academies, which has been backed by Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. As reported in The News of Liberia, Kishore Singh, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the right to education, stated, “This is unprecedented at the scale currently being proposed and violates Liberia’s legal and moral obligations."
The company already runs education projects in Kenya and Uganda, where lessons are provided on mobile phones, reports Front Page Africa, so that “the teacher does not have to be sophisticated to teach.” Following on previous posts on The CIHA Blog discussing “effective altruism,” paternalistic interventions in education, and attempts to innovate out of poverty, this is yet another example of how problems on the local and national levels in many African countries can set the stage for philanthrocapitalist innovations/interventions that do not address the root causes of the problems.
“Don’t Outsource Primary Education System”
The News of Liberia
“Education Minister Negotiates Public–Private Partnership Deal”
Front Page Africa
“An Africa first! Liberia outsources entire education system to a private American firm. Why all should pay attention”
by Christine Mungai for Mail & Guardian Africa
More fieldwork, coming up!
March 22, 2016
I've recently learned that I have been awarded a Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant from the National Science Foundation. What this means is that I get to do more fieldwork!
I'm headed to Conakry, Guinea, in about two weeks until mid-June and then Bamako, Mali, from September sometime to December sometime. This research will be focused on the same international agenda that I researched in Cote d'Ivoire, but I won't be doing strictly comparative research.
What I'm really excited about (in the research sense, not in the human citizen sense) is learning the differences in context with these three countries. Guinea has reported a number of new Ebola cases in the past week, and the security situation in Mali is somewhat unstable at the moment. My project is not explicitly focused on either of these threats/events, but they of course inform the context that my research partners operate in and impact the response of the international community (and lots of others), which in turn changes women's strategies and the attention given to women's issues in these countries.
I'm not certain I'm able to express how much I'm beginning to love West Africa as a sometime-resident and as a politics-art-society–watcher. But I'm so thrilled to be heading back.
Terrorist attack in Côte dʼIvoire
March 17, 2016
This past Sunday, 18 people were killed in the French colonial capital–turned beach resort of Grand-Bassam, about 25 miles outside Abidjan. Here's a reconstruction of the events by my friend Robbie Corey-Boulet, along with Carley Petesch.
Fellow Fulbrighter and UC political science grad student Justine Davis and I wrote an article for The Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog, "6 things you need to know about Côte d'Ivoire in the wake of Sunday's attack." It's almost a primer on current events there and integrates our preliminary research. You should read it.
Local Reclamation of Transnational Activism: Bettering Advocacy in Conflict
December 16, 2015
This post was previously published on The CIHA Blog, where I am an editorial assistant.
The CIHA Blog frequently draws on the concept of the “White Savior Industrial Complex,” articulated by Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole, in its critiques of the work that NGOs and celebrity activists often do in Africa: well-meaning but short-sighted, perhaps more about the doer than it is about the intended recipients. Advocacy in Conflict: Critical Perspectives on Transnational Activism, edited by Alex de Waal, extends this argument by demonstrating how it actually works in concrete cases in Africa, but also in Asia and Latin America. In each of these contexts, Western non-governmental involvement has been central to local advocacy campaigns.
Much of Advocacy in Conflict delves into how narratives from every actor involved in a political issue or event can both complement and contradict each other. In some cases—Burma, for example, described in chapter 3 by Maung Zarni and Trisha Taneja—local actors simplify their own narratives in order to draw Western attention (and funds). In the vast majority of cases selected for the book, however, Western celebrities and transnational NGOs eliminate nuance in order to advance their own line of advocacy, whether to boost a public profile, advocate for particular policy goals, or push for what they believe is “right.” These are tales of what can happen despite local involvement.
To situate the book within academic debates on humanitarianism and activism, de Waal’s chapter 2, “Genealogies of Transnational Activism,” explores the history of Western advocacy framed through three impulses: personal salvation or self-fulfillment of the activist, protection of the social order through charity, and solidarity in support of radical political change. These three impulses are often in tension, and he details three models of transnational activism that have developed historically to deal with this tension. The merry-go-round of policy attention in response to some transnational activism sustains the “white savior industrial complex,” and de Waal also points out that that this work “is not a phenomenon that easily lends itself to placement on a left–right political spectrum: it can be progressive at home and regressive abroad” (19).
Many of the most prominent cases of transnational activism, particularly in Africa—the KONY2012 campaign, conflict minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Sudan–South Sudan split—are covered in Advocacy in Conflict, not surprisingly, as it is the public attention to these issues and the policies that resulted (or didn’t result) from them that are being analyzed. These cases are considered alongside wider advocacy movements such as disability rights, the arms trade, and land grabs, though these issues are still contextualized within national and regional politics as well as Western intervention in Africa.
Several chapters focus on how the simplicity of the narrative is important to the uptake of the issue by external advocates yet simultaneously risks a simplistic solution put forth by the advocates and then by policymakers. Complexity does not make for an easy social media or celebrity campaign, but solutions that ignore it are nearly guaranteed to be inadequate and, at times, harmful.
An example of the creation of a tidy narrative is Laura Seay’s chapter on conflict minerals in the DRC, subtitled “The Consequences of Oversimplification.” She writes that through the rise of media campaigns linking sexualized violence and conflict minerals in the country, the drivers of violent behavior, the political roots of the violence, and the responsibility of the international actors for continuing the conflict were all but ignored in international advocacy. In what could be the theme for the entire volume, Seay asks, “How can advocates account for the need to make a message simple enough that anyone can understand but complex enough not to obfuscate the real challenges that need to be addressed to solve a crisis” (119)?
One of the greatest strengths of this book is the selection of a diverse range of advocacy campaigns that illustrates so many of the problems and that academics, practitioners, and policymakers can draw their own lessons from. The book shies away from prescription, not intending to be a “lessons learned project,” but each case study highlights successes and failures of the various advocacy campaigns.
For instance, the chapter on African disability rights activism by Chataika, Berghs, Mateta, and Shava argues that the intersectionality of (dis)abilism with other campaigns coming from the global South that combat neocolonialism, racism, and sexism challenge both these activists as well as disability activists from the global North who are pushing for disability rights globally. Because disability activism is lesser known than many of the other social justice campaigns, this exploration upends neocolonial and neoliberal approaches to human rights and development debates and pushes against “empowerment” narratives that come from all sides.
The book endeavors to show how international activism can compromise local efforts, though in many cases the international activism is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition to bring about a solution. Because the media attention does stimulate international political attention, it can also generate local and national political attention for an issue that might have otherwise been ignored. Most of the authors and editors acknowledge this and refrain from calling for an end to Western and/or celebrity advocacy. The conclusion puts forth four themes pulled from the chapters in service of “reclaiming activism,” pushing for “empowerment of the people as the basis for transformational change” (271) that can be adapted to a particular context: empowering local actors, recognizing complexity of issues, including a wide range of actors, and accepting diversity while rejecting a singular narrative.
Ultimately, this book highlights the need for legitimacy and accountability in international advocacy campaigns. As it stands for most internationally dominated advocacy programs, the accountability only operates in one direction, from the assisted population toward the donors; many large agencies require monitoring and evaluation processes as part of their donations. However, as Advocacy in Conflict argues, accountability should also, perhaps more importantly, point in the other direction, toward local advocates and local populations. Defining an issue locally and retaining ownership of the campaign with the help of international activists and, yes, media and celebrities, is key to tackling the issue and developing a solution.
Drumming and clay face paint
(all photos taken by my friend Eglantine)
November 11, 2015
This past weekend, I went with friends to Grand Bassam, Cote d'Ivoire's first capital, for Abissa, the cultural celebration of the people of that region (and the fishing village that's part of Bassam).
I'd been to Bassam a few times before for a day at the beach and to visit the run-down colonial-era buildings and the National Costume Museum, in need of a cash infusion.
Mostly, I wanted to share these photos my friend took of the festival. At the end, all of us had our faces painted with clay, but little evidence of this exists because we were grouchy from the day in the sun with no food.
More information on the festival and a video can be found here (in French):
October 28, 2015
Yes, I was in Abidjan for the elections on October 25. It was very, very quiet. An expat friend who had lived in Abidjan during the last election was a bit nervous about the outcome (unnecessarily, in my opinion) and asked a few of us to spend the weekend at her house for fun and because the city would be mostly shut down. So, because I'm not a journalist and had been told by the least-security-minded people that staying in Abidjan would be best rather than leaving to do work outside the city.
So I have absolutely nothing of my own to report, other than election rallies all over the city and outside that were only for the incumbent, Ouattara (ADO), and that had the huge balloons and tents so that they looked like American car dealerships on the weekends. I am advocating for the noodle men as campaigners in the next election in 2020.
I'm glad it was calm, as it was generally anticipated to be. Most of those who have any knowledge about Ivorian elections (all 15 of us) believe that the true results of Cote d'Ivoire's justice and peacebuilding efforts will be seen in 2020, when Ouattara will not be running.
Here's a roundup of mostly solid articles in English about the elections:
(update) Washington Post, 26 November
Parkour in Abidjan
September 27, 2015
To keep my sanity, I run in Abidjan a couple of times a week, usually just before dusk. It's warmer but less humid than the morning. But I always go during daylight – it's unsafe to run in the dark. Not because of the people but because of the risk of falling over or into something (or being hit by a car). A friend compared my style of running here to parkour because I have to jump over and around rocks, potholes, ditches, and chickens, not to mention keeping out of the way of cars and people walking on the sides of the street.
But I love it. I was in the U.S. for a few weeks in August and September and couldn't make myself run more than 10 minutes because I was so bored. The jumping, dodging, and bonsoir-ing at the strange looks keep me entertained when I'm bright red from the heat/humidity 2 minutes in.
There's not the running culture here that there is in Senegal, but there doesn't seem to be the same shock that comes with a white woman running – though I have only worn running shorts once, when my running pants were all in the laundry.
But I still get cheered along and encouraged by neighbors who see me regularly. And occasionally I see another woman jogging, though always with other women or with a male companion. And I love it. It's the best way to see get to know my neighborhood, to find the tiny maquis, to know where the new apartments are being built, to get used to the rhythm of others' lives, to see flocks of chickens grow. And when I stop to walk de temps en temps, red-faced and out of breath, and the kindly security guard inquires, "Ça va, madame?" to make sure this idiot running in 86/30-degree heat isn't going to pass out in front of him, I'm no longer embarrassed like am at home, now able to laugh at myself: "Oh oui, ça va!"
Dusk at an intersection so congested I just edge my way through the cars.
Track Changes: Reports of Sexual Abuse by Peacekeepers Meets “Romantic Rights”
August 13, 2015
This post was originally published on The CIHA Blog, where I am an editorial assistant.
(Just before this post went live, the UN envoy to the Central African Republic was forced to resign because of the sexual abuse allegations.)
Recent reports documenting sexual abuse committed by United Nations peacekeeping troops in Haiti, Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Mali and Central African Republic underscore the long history of sexual misconduct committed by peacekeepers around the world. With the recent spate of such reports and the UN peacekeepers’ obvious abuse of power, it becomes essential to examine critically the manner in which the UN responds to the accusations as well as the way the media presents these events.
In the recent article, “Could Peacekeeping Wives Deter Sexual Abuse in UN Overseas Operations?”, following reports documenting widespread abuses by peacekeepers, Thalif Deen asks, “As a preventive measure, would it help if peacekeepers and U.N. staffers are sent on overseas missions along with their wives, partners and families?” The article explores the notion of allowing spouses to join deployed peacekeepers, specifically male peacekeepers, as a viable solution to halt sexual abuse. Similarly, in a separate article, “Sexual exploitation by UN peacekeepers remains ‘significantly under-reported‘” the author quotes the new UN report, which states, “Staff with long mission experience state that was a ‘general view that people should have romantic rights’ and raised the issue of sexuality as a human right.”
These articles’ failure to mention the United Nations’ efforts to incorporate a gender perspective into all organizational policies – gender mainstreaming – as prevention of sexual abuse and exploitations in the UN’s peace operations highlights the ineffectiveness of UN efforts. Gender mainstreaming has resulted in women making up 13 percent of those deployed in UN peacekeeping missions; however, the first article’s proposed solution does not mention this, perhaps because women are not the ones committing sexual abuse.
Instead, the proposed solution perpetuates the idea that men, to some extent, lack the ability to control their sexual urges. Moreover, it deflects the blame from UN peacekeepers perpetrating these atrocious acts by suggesting the absence of a sexual partner drives men to sexually abuse and exploit the people they are sent to protect. Yet the age of many of the victims undermines the argument for “romantic rights,” with 36 percent of the victims reported to be minors and with evidence that minors were targeted for sexual assault even after previous reports drew public outrage. For the staffers claiming that peacekeepers should have better access to appropriate sexual partners in order to attain their romantic or sexual rights, this objective is at odds with addressing the power imbalances inherent in UN missions, which are tasked with ensuring the basic human right of physical security of the local population.
While certainly the majority of peacekeepers are law-abiding, acts of sexual abuse and exploitation continue to be reported, as peacekeeping troops continue to be deployed. Images of UN peacekeepers raping and abusing the very people they are sent to protect further complicate the neocolonial narrative put forward by opponents of peacekeeping forces, highlighting the UN’s work and response to the allegations as also gendered. Meanwhile, narratives that portray African men as violent and sexually aggressive persist.
A new narrative is needed, one that takes into account the intersecting power relations of sex, nationality and economic position, both in the UN’s work and in the media accounts that cover world affairs.
Gifts of the last day
July 28, 2015
My final months in Abidjan (for now) were busy and exhausting. On my very last day, however, Abidjan provided me with not one, but two gifts in the form of #AnimalAdvertising.
Near my home:
Good in the sauce! FOANI chicken is perfect for long cooking.
And on the route to the airport!
Good on the grill! FOANI chicken is perfect for grilling.
Seems fitting that ridiculous animal advertising (about chicken, no less) greeted me upon arrival to Abidjan and bid me farewell.
La fête de l'independance américaine
The three Fulbrighters throwing a rad 4th of July party (sans fireworks) – with our Senegalese and Haitian friends (guess who is who).
July 5, 2015
The three 2014–2015 Fulbrighters left in Cote d'Ivoire (one student – me – and two public policy fellows – Erica and Laura) threw a pretty great 4th of July party for all our non-American friends, complete with a poolside BBQ, hamburgers, hot dogs, potato salad, chips and guacamole, brownies, Coronas, and classic rock music. A bit expensive, considering all our food had to be purchased from the expensive supermarket because it was imported, but totally worth it.
I love living outside the U.S., but there are some traditions I miss. Next year, I'll see what I can do about the softball tournament and fireworks.
Seriously, what a great party.
Not in California
May 25, 2015
Cloudy holiday weekend with a book. The Gulf of Guinea knows what kind of beach day I like.
Empty streets, quiet capital ... and crocodiles
May 16, 2015
Lots of people told me how insanely quiet Yamoussoukro, Cote d'Ivoire's actual capital, is, with its wide paved boulevards and enormous cathedral. Compared to Abidjan, it is silent.
The Guardian recently published a piece about the basilica built there by the country's "founding father," Félix Houphouët-Boigny. Go read the article and see the amazing photos of the tallest basilica in the world – seriously bonkers.
I wasn't sure what was more fearsome, the amazing marble architecture, or the crocodiles inhabit the lake surrounding the presidential palace. Normally people can't approach the fence around the lake, but fortunately, a gendarme was standing by and let us take a few photos. Lots of small crocodiles were sunning themselves on sandbars, but when a huge one came out of the water, wow. Sadly, the crocodiles' caretaker was eaten by his charges (Fr) a few years ago.
Private Property, forbidden to: walk along the lake, sit by the lake, lean on the fence, fish in the lake. Under penalty of prosecution.
April 7, 2015
I've been spending a bit of time over the past few weeks at a couple of maquis because fellow PhD polisci student Marion is in town. She's the only other PhD student that I know here (and I'm making the distinction between PhD and master's student, of which there are a number – from SAIS, Geneva, Oxford – doing their international development fieldwork).
So we've been discussing our dissertation (and advisor) troubles over beers, poulet braisé, alloco, and frites, just like the maquis gods intended.
Wartime Hymns just posted a description and political context of Abidjan's maquis, though I admit to not really staying late enough to experience the dancing. Even without the music and dancing, I love the general culture of sitting outside, though not under the sun, drinking a bit with friends or colleagues, people watching, eating, more drinking, more eating, and more people watching – and on the cheap. I think maquis will be one of the things I miss the most when I leave Abidjan.
Marion pausing mid-rant about democratic peace "theory." Also the first time we had seen glass covers to protect from the flies.
All with an eye on October
April 5, 2015
Little by little, more is being written about Cote d'Ivoire's recent trials and its economic transformation, all viewed through a lens of the upcoming October elections (exact date TBD). French-language media is generally a better source, but English-language analysis is slowly catching up.
"Court decision deepens Ivory Coast opposition rift" for Reuters, by Joe Bavier
"Côte d’Ivoire’s victor’s Justice? ICC, the Gbagbos and the Mega-Trial" for African Arguments, by Giulia Piccolino (seriously excellent overview of the set of trials set in political context)
"Investigations against pro-Ouattara camp to begin mid-2015, says ICC chief prosecutor" for The Interview, France 24 (the first time the ICC has explicitly addressed the criticisms of both the Ivorian opposition and human rights observers that the national and international justice mechanisms have been one-sided)
"Deja vu: And if the cocoa price dropped?" by John James on his blog Drogba's Country (examination of the possible second round of CIV's "economic miracle" that could be based, once again, on high global cocoa prices; what could happen if prices plunge?)
April 3, 2015
Why yes, Morocco is beautiful. Why do you ask?
My friend and cohort-mate, Kelsey, has been conducting her own fieldwork in Morocco, and as Casablanca is a direct flight from Abidjan (and no travel visa needed), I spent a week with her, touring a bit of the country.
The photos above are from Chefchaouen, in the mountains south of Tangier. Many of the buildings in the media are painted blue, making it lovely and peaceful and cool. So lovely. Blue city, in the mountains – possible future writing retreat.
Between us, Kelsey and I spoke four languages, which was such an asset in Morocco, where the Moroccan version of Arabic is mixed with legacies of Spanish and French colonialism (and tourism), so we could communicate with just about anyone we came across.
We also visited Casablanca, where the Hassan II mosque (pictures below) is located, as well as Rabat and Tangier, taking the train and bus everywhere.
We also exercised our passport privilege by hopping on a boat to Spain, where we stayed in Granada for a few days, exploring the Arab/Moorish/Muslim influence on southern Spain and compiling a "best of" tapas restaurants in the city.
The Cure-all of Online Organizing
March 23, 2015
This post was originally published on The CIHA Blog, where I am an editorial assistant.
Organizing on social media for causes in Africa was popularized through the KONY 2012 campaign (see CIHA Blog articles on this subject here and here) and saw another big spike in 2014 with the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag after the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls by Boko Haram (read related CIHA Blog post here).
A new article from Paul Currion in IRIN News, “The Invisible Lesson of Invisible Children,” details the inability for social media campaigns to effect real change. And an article from November 2014 by Lauren Wolfe for Foreign Policy, “#BringBackOurJournalists,” decries the journalism profession’s shallow acceptance of the social media phenomenon of hashtag activism without delving into the causes or solutions of the problem.
These two articles brought to mind questions on whether hashtag activism is organized more around events in Africa than in other regions of the world. Because many Westerners have little knowledge of the continent, does simplistic organizing about Africa catch on more readily because it proposes a solution from a wealthier, more digitally connected audience?
In her article Wolfe quotes a tweet from Teju Cole (who also coined “the White Savior Industrial Complex”) from May 2014, just after the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag exploded outside of West Africa: “For four years, Nigerians have tried to understand these homicidal monsters. Your new interest (thanks) simplifies nothing, solves nothing.”
Both Currion and Wolfe note that because of journalists’ presence on social media, cause organizing that effectively uses social media can easily attract wider attention, which can lead to international attention and money and even governmental policy thrown at it. Currion writes that instead of connecting those affected by disasters and those who can help, humanitarian organizations mediate between the two, “and so contribute to keeping them separate,” thus echoing the knowledge gap that exists by any Westerners of Africa.
Policy leaders are acclaiming the powers of social media as well. The Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, a South African who has a PhD in mobile technology, said in a welcome speech just after her appointment in 2013 that social media would help to solve gender equality. She has repeated this claim publicly, especially in UN Women’s new HeForShe campaign, that social media and better data are crucial to improving women’s economic and social situation relative to men.
It is true that in many places in sub-Saharan Africa, mobile phone penetration rates near that of the United States and Europe, and young people especially are on social media to connect with friends and family and to learn about the rest of the world. And improved data collection and analysis about technology access as well as its use and capacity to disseminate information on political and social events is necessary.
But for Mlambo-Ngcuka to put the hopes of advances in gender equality on the powers of technology and social media in particular seems to, once again, place the responsibility for social change—as in the cases of Kony 2012 and #BringBackOurGirls—in the hands of well-meaning individuals rather than the governments or other political actors who can exert the power and resources for effective, lasting change.
In the case of the schoolgirls’ kidnapping, the Nigerian government has long had difficulties (both practical and motivational) battling Boko Haram. The hunt for Joseph Kony was thwarted by domestic and international politics as well as geography. The fight against gender inequality has stymied political leaders and activists for generations. In all of these cases, as with any complicated social and political problem, a complex solution is necessary.
As Currion writes, “This isn’t an argument against using social media.” The technology can be used for news, for entertainment, for organizing, for all kinds of social relations. Using social media and technology can be one aspect of a multi-level solution. The problem arises when it becomes a cure-all for the ills of the world, particularly when African problems are thought to be so simplistic and the solutions so evident as to be resolved just by activists banding together.
These claims—made by humanitarian organizations small and large, by journalists, and by policy-makers—that just connecting the world through technology can change political events and transform social relations rather than simply become a tool through which existing political events and social relations continue as before ultimately individualize social and political problems and let governments and other political actors off the hook.
Instead of—or in addition to—social media and mobile technology, policy change and structural change are both needed, in Western as well as African contexts, where histories of colonization, corruption, neoliberalism, conflict, and modernization all intersect to make elusive the solutions to problems like terrorism, child soldiers, and gender inequality. Online organizing is not a silver-bullet solution. It can be, rather, a space to press for the political and social change necessary to bring about the complex solutions outside as well as within Africa.
The Midwest of West Africa
March 9, 2015
I fell in love with Ouagadougou. It's West Africa, but the pace is slower than in Abidjan, the people are nicer, the streets are straighter, the weather is drier. I described it as the Midwest of West Africa, which means it felt like home.
The thing I REALLY wish I had gotten a photo of is the number of women on scooters. Old women, young women, women in both modern and traditional clothing, women going to work or market. My favorite was on my taxi ride from the airport I saw two women on a scooter, each of which had a baby strapped to their backs, West African-style. I loved it.
I don't know if it was the dry heat, the calm, the hours and hours of movies, the fact that there's fewer foreigners there so I got bothered less, but I would move there if I ever found a reason to.
Also, Burkinabés have a sense of humor, when it comes to their politics:
Blaise = Ebola, which cropped up around the city during the October 2014 uprising. I have no idea what 45|25 means.
March 3, 2015
On a whim, just hearing about FESPACO, the Pan-African Film Festival held in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, I decided to go if I could. There's a few direct flights from Abidjan, I had nothing concrete planned, and a friend was thinking of going as well, so I'd have a bit of company. So I bought the plane ticket a few weeks ago, got my Burkina visa last week, and hopped on the plane without knowing much about Ouaga or West African films.
Verdict so far? Amazing. I love Ouaga with its desert dry heat and its ladies of all stripes driving scooters; I love the film festival for being unapologetically African in its outlook and sentiments. There's been films that I've really enjoyed (Des Étoiles, Four Corners) and some I haven't (the series of shorts almost entirely about women's victimization/rape). But people's enthusiasm about films from their country or neighboring ones, their cheering for when the bad guy gets got, the big deal that is FESPACO, even if few others outside film or the African arts scene even knows it exists).
I was uncertain if I would be needlessly spending money for an excuse to visit another West African capital city when I'm not much of a film buff. But for both Ouaga itself and for the film festival, it's totally worth it. This bit of vacation is doing something for my psyche and my cultural and French-language expansion.
My fancy film pass. Stallion card!
I had just gotten out of the shower, and an elephant came over to drink from the tank that supplies the water. Good of him to wait until I was done.
February 25, 2015
Just a quick post on a vacation I took to Tanzania. Went on safari and then to Zanzibar for a few days. While there's politics in everyday life, and definitely politics in tourism, I checked out for a bit, just relaxing.
East Africa is like West Africa, yet so very unlike it. I can definitely tell the difference that tourism money brings, as well as the effects of being an anglophone as opposed to a francophone country. But the country was lovely, the people were friendly (though definitely more accustomed to tourism), and the challenges of daily communication were diminished – though not gone, as I did not know a word of Swahili before my arrival.
And a couple of images that I like from Zanzibar:
Bill paying in Abj
January 6, 2015
Today is a post on something I learned the hard way: bill paying.
We received our electricity bill about a month before it was due, but I didn't get around to paying it until the due date. I walked into the office nearest my house around 10 a.m., fully expecting to wait in a short line to pay in cash (as I don't have a local bank account and this is essentially a cash society). I took my ticket and was number 584 in line. The number being called upon my arrival was 107.
I sat for three hours, went out to run an errand and grab some lunch (around number 250), and returned to sit for 2 more hours before the office closed. Good thing I brought a book. And my electricity bill was now overdue.
That night at home, I read the fine print on my bill and the website and realized that I could pay it through Orange Money, a mobile money system (similar to M-Pesa in East Africa) where you deposit money into your mobile phone account essentially and can then pay bills, pay individuals, or purchase mobile credit.
The account is free, and for Westerners, the payment fees (100-200 FCFA/0.20-0.40 USD) are negligible. And I would have saved hours and lots of confusion. Do it.
December 16, 2014
I've heard of this Harmattan and that somehow it extends all the way to tropical Abidjan. It's not the dusty winds of northern Cote d'Ivoire (or the rest of the Sahel and Sahara); here, it's the haze.
The Harmattan has arrived. See you later sun. Was nice knowin' ya.— Joe Bavier (@JoeBavier) December 15, 2014
Will I really not see the sun for a while? After living in drought-stricken Southern California for so many years and then moving here, I can only hope. I can handle the heat if the sun isn't beating down on me. Let's see what will drive me the most crazy – this hazy Harmattan, the direct sun, or the late spring's incessant rains.
November 26, 2014
The most marked feature of my fieldwork, I think, will be my improving-but-not-fast-enough language skills. Unlike in Senegal, French (or an adapted form of it, called Nouchi) is the language that unifies a great number of ethnic groups in Cote d'Ivoire and is widely spoken across the country, especially in Abidjan. This is generally good for me, as I'm not having to guess whether I'm not understanding someone's French or whether they're not speaking French at all. But it also means that I'm quickly identified as a non-native French speaker, since the average level of the language is much higher than in Dakar.
But at times, it's such a shock when, after a brief conversation, people still misidentify me as French. The first time this happened was when I was buying a bed. After 5 minutes of discussion on the quality, the price, and whether they would deliver, the seller asked if I was French or Moroccan. Aside from the blue eyes that generally mark me as not-Moroccan, I was so surprised that he didn't register my lack of language facility and thought he was teasing me. Then he guessed Italian. Okay.
The second time was this week, when we had a plumber come back for a repeat visit. My French roommate had told him of the problem over the phone and arranged the visit, so I was just there to let him in. I spoke a few words with the plumber, and he communicated that he would have to return another day to do the whole job. When he returned, he asked for a few items and tried to explain what he was doing, but I couldn't understand him – I didn't learn home repair vocabulary in French class. Later, when he asked me another question and I asked him to speak "doucement" – slowly, gently – his assistant realized I wasn't French. Once they learned I was American, the plumber was much warmer toward me, and it dawned on me that he thought I was being rude to him with my miming, when I really didn't have the vocab for "drain" and "pail" ("canalisation" and "seau," for the curious).
It's troublesome that language and our use of it in in law and policy is central to my project but that I'm so tense about it in everyday life. Aside from the daily shopping and greetings, I read documents in French, I try to text my bilingual friends in French, I eavesdrop a bit on others' conversations, I have a French tutor, and I can talk about my project in French. But I am still so hesitant to not be able to explain myself fully, something I take such care about in English, selecting just the right word.
Apologizing up front for my French skills, explaining that I'm American, and being friendly seems to go a long way. I guess it's time that I just get over myself.
I don't know if I'm the only one who noticed, but oh, the irony that the title of this concert, "Only French" at l'Institut Français in Dakar, was written in English. (and yes, blurry photo)
Furniture without the internet
November 23, 2014
Always ask the locals. My roommate and I were uncertain about where to go buy a basic kitchen table and chairs and a shelf. We talked about Treichville, which is a bit far from where we live, so we decided to ask our security guard, who was chatting with the phone cabin guys in the shade across the street. A young guy there recommended a place near Pharmacie Azur in the neighborhood of Plateau Dokui and said that any decent taxi driver should know it. So off we went!
And it was perfect! We got a great price with only a bit of bargaining and will probably be back for a couple other small tables.
One of my favorite things here is how you can get recommendations for almost anything you want from anyone you ask. I'm so used to resorting to google when I'm looking for a particular item, but because of google's lack of relevance here, as well as no street names if you do find the shop, it's much easier to use your loose social ties to find something. Basically, anyone who you might know for at least a week – security guards (who are always polite to me and generally willing to cut me some slack with my language skills), women selling fruits and vegetables, phone cabin guys, even store clerks – will offer up assistance if you ask politely.
While I miss the ability to find anything I want on the internet (have great access here, just less relevant), using the people around me is unarguably better for my language skills and for forming social ties.
Home furnishing and research generalizability
Did buy the "kitchen thing" in a supermarket – and there were lots of types of kitchen things there. Chinese-made, of course.
November 19, 2014
Saturday I moved into my (hopefully) permanent apartment in Abidjan after moving around a bit. On Sunday, I went shopping at Adjamé market for a number of kitchen and household items. To buy lots of stuff, the trip was worth it. Supermarkets are quite expensive, but if you're willing to spend the time and brave the crowds, markets like Adjamé are wonderful.
My previous experience with African markets was in Dakar, where so many expats also go. There, you can't take a quick look at something without being harassed (and if you don't speak French, don't worry, many of the merchants speak enough English or German to tell you to look at their wares). But in Abidjan, my market day was completely different.
The most notable thing was that I was the only white person that I saw in the market, which is vast (both the market itself and the surrounding "black market"). One of the stores on the edge of the market, apparently some kind of restaurant supply store, was owned by a Lebanese couple, fairly common here, but I was surprised that it was frequented only by Africans.
I mentioned this later to a friend who has been here a couple of years, and she said that there were more expats before the crisis, so it was to be expected that there were few to none at this market especially, which is not in an expat neighborhood.
The other issue was that I was not overly harassed when walking by or when stopping to look at something. Certainly, I was asked quickly if I needed help or encouraged to buy another type of vegetable, but there was no pushiness behind it. If I responded no thanks, then that was taken as a given. I'm assuming this stems from a lack of recent tourism and that many of the markets in the city are geared toward actual local trade rather than tourist spots.
I don't write this to toot my horn about how "real" I am by shopping at a local market, just that my expectations from one country in the region didn't transfer directly to the reality in another country. And this is the core of my research, that a policy that might work in one place is sometimes inappropriate to the context of the place you are in because of history, politics, social relations, economics, and any other little thing you can think of. (Also relevant in humanitarianism and development aid.)
I love markets and am going back – if only for vegetables and to take photos of the giant land snails in buckets and tied-up chickens on the floor.
List of lists
November 3, 2014
Reconfiguring my master to-do list today. I'm feeling behind and not fully in grasp of the mountain of things I have to do in the next nine months. But I certainly don't want to look back in July and freak, so ...
Musical accompaniment by Doc Martin and Mark Farina, courtesy of Live@Focus, and by a friend of a friend, LephonQ.
Maybe I need some of this energy drink, manufactured by the company where my friend works in Dakar. This is NOT Mike Tyson's energy drink (seriously, he has his own "Black Energy" drink).
More health care – and the Embassy
October 30, 2014
Went to the U.S. embassy yesterday to meet some people, for my security briefing, and to get the badge that allows me to check for mail, use the gym, and hang out at general events. I'm officially a Fulbrighter now.
There was nothing too remarkable about it, just the usual multiple layers of security plus vast bureaucracy and promotion of certain forms of power. While the machinery and larger global politics is certainly ripe for criticism (and which has been done so many times before), everyone I met there, both the Americans and the Ivorian national staff, were all helpful and welcoming. My fellowship is paid for by the U.S. government for international cultural exchange, and I am quite aware of the privileges that I personally have and that I also am able to exercise because of my citizenship.
But again, though my research focus is not health care, it's that topic that seems to attract my attention. I was given a health packet from the embassy clinic, mostly so I could know the recommended local doctors and hospitals (and the French versions of medications was a bonus). Much of the packet is devoted toward preventative medicine, and the HIV & Sexually Transmitted Diseases section is a disaster – I don't know if it was developed locally or copied from similar packets in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, but the language is so problematic when talking about local populations.
"Cote d'Ivoire, like the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, is a hotbed of HIV infections; 3.9% adult HIV prevalence." Hotbed? While this rate is higher than the U.S., it's not anywhere close to the prevalence in a number of other countries in southern Africa. The date for this statistic is 2008, and the current UNAIDS estimate is lower, at 2.7%, both of which are down even further from 7% in 2003 and 13% prior to the first war. And the "hotbed" language simply serves to reinforce the "othering" of Africa as a diseased place.
"The HIV prevalence among local prostitutes, and presumably amongst promiscuous natives [emphasis mine] who frequent late-night clubs, is 50%. That means there is a 1 out of 2 chance that the person you 'pick-up' in a bar is infected with HIV!" Wut? Let's allow that the 50% figure is accurate for prostitution (I couldn't find a recent source but note previous stats), how on earth can it be extrapolated to "promiscuous natives"? So much sex-shaming and racial/national segregation and repeated othering language used in a public health message. And the cute little exclamation point at the end, that you really only have yourself to blame.
I would encourage a great deal more sensitivity and less fear-mongering toward the local populations. Give the stats, give the health precautions (as done for malaria and diarrhea), but keep the ugly, moralizing, whiff-of-superiority tone out of it.
More on Ebola
October 25, 2014
Here’s an image of my Ebola form when I arrived back in Cote d’Ivoire from Senegal. It’s in English. Super for me, but I’m going to assume that a number of people who got off that plane were not proficient. Why was it not available in French? (Because it’s a Kenya Airways flight, where the flight crew spoke only limited French?)
And again, the giant glob of hand sanitizer, which, seriously, I’m glad to have after germ planes. And there’s sanitizer in lots of public spaces around. I’m thinking about the politics of this versus clean water and hand-washing, but at least in airports, I’m glad for the glob.
CIV's birthday present to me
Boy, do I love animal puns.
October 17, 2014
Saw this on my way from hotel to the airport, after the taxi's overheated radiator and the fender-bender with a mini-bus. I also saw a motor-scooter with probably 30 live chickens strung up by their feet, looking wary but knowing about their futures, but I couldn't get a photo.
As a side note, Weebly is "banned" in Senegal and Cote d'Ivoire. Updating through a proxy server, but this is pretty irritating.
October 16, 2014
After walking off the plane in Abidjan, just after I got a whiff of West Africa (ocean, humidity, diesel, and who knows what else), we went through a quick Ebola test. Our skin temperature was quickly taken, and we were all given two generous pumps of hand sanitizer. The 50-ish French man ahead of me joked about having Ebola and coughed on the guy taking our temperature. I hope a malaria mosquito bit him.
We were not, however, given a card about our travels or asked if we have been in a place where Ebola has been found, maybe because we walked off a plane from France. Technically, my country does have Ebola cases …
I shared a ride from the airport with two USAID workers who were very nice, but one was saying that if Ebola cases are discovered in Cote d’Ivoire, they would probably start requesting that Americans leave. (Because the Fulbright is sponsored by the U.S. State Department, I’m involved a bit with the embassy, though I’m not a U.S. employee, and I pretty much am on my own.)
I explained about the clinics set up along the border with Liberia and Guinea and how I think the government is somewhat prepared to contain if an outbreak does cross the border. She thought that anyone with Ebola would be brought to the capital for treatment – but I just can’t think that’s true. For one, if the government has set up treatment clinics near the border, it’s as much to prevent spread of the virus as it is to treat the people with it. Also, someone showing symptoms of Ebola is probably too sick to be transported on back-country roads to the capital.
But then I realized I was lecturing again and just said that I didn’t really know, that maybe the embassy briefing would tell them differently. Because nobody likes a pedant.
A brief guide for women to survive grad school
September 22, 2014
As part of a UCI workshop for women in academia, couple of women in my program and I developed a guide to survive graduate school (mostly in political/social science), though it is fairly general. This will likely become part of an APSA Women's Caucus resource, but feel free to use for your own resources (with a link or credit).
When entering graduate school, women can face a number of challenges that might not be apparent to men. Many of the suggestions below can benefit grad students in general, both men and women, but they are particularly relevant for people in any number of underrepresented categories – women, LGBTQ, students of color, etc. The key is to recognize the strengths that you bring to your study, even if they are not traditionally valued by your discipline, and seek out avenues of support.
Perfect is the enemy of the good. You must send in work, even if you feel it is less than complete. Uncertainty and self-doubt are normal for everyone. Be confident in what you know. You’re here for a reason.
Learn about impostor syndrome: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/olivia-fox-cabane/self-doubt_b_1373542.html
Women often have to walk a fine line between being “too nice” and “sweet” on one hand and being “pushy” on the other. While this is unfortunate, and you are encouraged to be yourself, work on asserting yourself without being arrogant or a pushover.
Seek out a mentor
This person does not necessarily have to be your advisor (and it’s sometimes best if it’s not).
Even if you have a good relationship with your advisor, one person cannot be everything – find a junior faculty member, more advanced grad student, or peer. Seek these connections both within your department and outside of it (whether at your university or another university).
Joining women’s groups, both in the national discipline and on campus can be a means of formal support, a way to advance your own scholarship, and a sometimes friendlier place to interact in stressful times.
Women’s caucuses give awards, have established mentoring programs, and are often sites where senior scholars are eager to mentor.
Seek out women and also allied men as peers and mentors. Lots of people are friendly and supportive to graduate students. Be polite and professional but also have confidence in yourself.
There will be assumptions that you will or won’t have children. This scrutiny can feel relentless.
What about reproductive timing? When should you have children? Answer: Whenever you want. Many academics find that grad school is flexible enough to have children, while others want to wait until they’re more established in their careers. Some have to consider age or partners – but you need to decide what is best for you and your family.
Learn about the resources available to you as a grad student, TA, or graduate researcher. At some universities, unions have bargained for child care and time off benefits. Investigate state programs for low-income parents (which many grad students are).
A lot of TAs want to care for and nurture their students, which can be a double-edged sword. You should spend NO MORE than 20 hours/week on all TA duties combined (or whatever your contract says). Don’t let your job as a TA consume all of your energy – you are a student too.
Students will evaluate you on any number of characteristics having to do with your gender, including caring/nurturing, clothing, attractiveness, etc., and your perceived effectiveness may also depend on class size. Be attentive to the nuances but don’t let what you can’t change overtake your teaching or your scholarship.
Female instructors can be treated by students as a therapist or a mother figure, especially if personal reasons are overwhelming the student’s studies. Be kind, but consider referring the student to campus resources such as counseling services or the learning center. Not only is therapy not your job, but understand that you are not qualified to handle these situations.
Sexual harassment still happens
Unfortunately. If it does, not only is it illegal in the workplace, but it is also a Title IX violation because it impedes your access to equal education. (Check out this PDF from the U.S. Department of Education: http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/title-ix-rights-201104.pdf)
Report it. All universities have procedures to deal with harassment, and it can be handled in a way to make you most comfortable, protect your privacy, and deal with the problem.
Even if sexual harassment or discrimination is not overt (as in, subtle comments that still have the effect of making you uncomfortable), please report it both for your sake and because can be a part of an ongoing problem.
Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower
UCI’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity
UCI’s Childbirth Accommodation and Child Care Reimbursement
UC Student Association’s annual Students of Color Conference (SOCC)
UC Office of the President diversity policies and goals
Fieldwork in the time of Ebola
September 20, 2014
As I'm preparing for my fieldwork, number of people have asked me whether I'm scared of Ebola. My response is usually overly pedantic, explaining step by step why I'm not and how unlikely it is that I would be exposed to it. I'm compiling all my reasons here, so that instead of droning on and on, I can just say "no" and direct them to this post.
As of yet, there's no Ebola in Cote d'Ivoire. The country does share a border with Liberia and Guinea, which means that it is at high risk, but it has put a good deal of effort into both preparing for Ebola and keeping it out. If I were heading for extended fieldwork in Liberia, Sierra Leone, or Guinea, my calculations might be different.
I'm not a health care worker. Transmission of Ebola is through bodily fluids, but the infected person is only contagious when symptomatic. When symptomatic, the person generally feels so sick as not to move around in public. My likelihood of exposure is low.
Much of the transmission of the virus is through caring activities – bathing, feeding, cleaning, preparing for burial. Not only am I not an overly caring person, I don't have family to care for in the country.
I'm American. My Fulbright fellowship affords me some contact with the U.S. Embassy in Abidjan, which means that if necessary I could access high-quality health care and evacuation procedures.
All this, to me, is incredibly sad. I know that I am at an incredibly low risk of infection, and I also know that if there was even the chance I was infected, my government would do as much as it could to protect me. Yes, I would be thankful that my life was saved, and yes, I know that the U.S. government has (finally) committed resources to fight Ebola after the global health infrastructure dropped the ball, but I also know that no expense would be spared to save me.
So yes, my dear friends and family, I know that you care about me, but don't fret. If Ebola does move into Cote d'Ivoire, then I might write another post about why you still shouldn't worry.
September 5, 2014
Not so long before I leave for Côte d'Ivoire, and I'm working on ways to work through the anticipation insomnia. One way is checking out the few English-language blogs on living in Côte d'Ivoire (Abidjan especially). I know I can learn more in French, but it's not so conducive for late-night browsing.
I'll add more as/if I find them.
In preparation for more fieldwork
August 25, 2014
In an inauguration of my new site and blog and in preparation for the fieldwork to come, a few of my favorite photos from last summer in Dakar:
On (near?) the route to/from the airport a few days after Obama's visit in June 2013. I arrived two days later, thankfully.
The only Mexican restaurant I found in Dakar – inside the brand new Sea Plaza.
In preparation for Tabaski, using goats on billboards!
My morning walking commute was occasionally delayed by traffic.