Saturday, January 5, 2008

Alex de Waal

Alex de Waal is a researcher, writer and activist on African issues. He is a fellow of the Global Equity Initiative, Harvard; director of the Social Science Research Council program on AIDS and social transformation; and a director of Justice Africa in London.

He is most recently author of AIDS and Power: Why There is No Political Crisis Yet and, with Julie Flint, Darfur: A Short History of a Long War.

Last month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I’m reading Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (Bloomsbury 2007). My wife bought if for me for Christmas and — as to be expected from the title — the whole book is an extended joke. But it also has a serious point. Inevitably, when we talk about books, we talk about our recollections of them, rearranged in light of our current circumstances. Bayard compels the reader to reflect on how he (sic: the text is resolutely non-PC) sifts and interprets books. For the writer, he conjures up that bittersweet experience of meeting a reader of one’s own work, whose laudatory description doesn’t at all match the writer’s own recollection of what one has written. The writer even becomes a stranger to his own earlier writing — surprised (pleasantly or otherwise) by what he had forgotten he had written years before.

(Incidentally the publishers have done the author a disservice with a blurb that implies it’s an upmarket bluffer’s guide to the classics — it’s nothing of the sort.)

I am also reading the third part of an ethnographic trilogy on the Uduk people of southern Blue Nile, a frontier area of northern Sudan that abuts both southern Sudan and Ethiopia. This is Wendy James’s War and Survival in Sudan’s Frontierlands: Voices from the Blue Nile (Oxford 2007). In the interests of full disclosure, Prof. James was my supervisor when I was writing my doctoral thesis on Darfur twenty years ago. Her first two books on the Uduk were classic anthropology in the tradition of Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard, one of the founders of the discipline in Britain. This third and (one assumes) final volume recounts in vivid depth the ordeals undergone by a remote community that found itself in the frontline of Sudan’s civil war, whose members were scattered north, south and east (to Ethiopia), in some cases displaced violently multiple times, and who fought in several different armies — at some points, on opposing sides in the same battles (an opposition that didn’t prevent them communicating).

It’s both a personal account of what it means to live and die during such trauma, and a historically and sociologically informed ‘thick description’ too. Some of the incidents sound as though they could have come from the days of turmoil and enslavement of the 19th century, such as the story of one Uduk boy who with his younger sister, rolled down an escarpment while his family was fleeing a gunbattle. The two children were presumed dead and abandoned, but in fact the boy survived and was brought up as an adopted son by a family from the Bertha ethnic group. Years later, he was determined to discover his real — but wholly unknown — identity, with the sole clue to his origin consisting in a wooden back-board (like a rucksack) which Uduk children use to carry their infant siblings. James’s account breaks off just before he was reunited with his mother.

War and Survival is a treasure trove for those wanting to understand what wars in Sudan (such as in Darfur) really mean. One of the themes that emerges strongly is that the Uduk people tend not to assess an individual by which side he took in the war, but by his personal behavior — decency or cruelty when he had the power of life or death over people in his charge.

On my recent trip in Darfur I took along a copy of Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA. (The sunset curfew means there are plenty of hours for reading.) What a compelling and disturbing chronicle of blunders and crimes, of unfettered power deployed so wantonly! This isn’t the place to review it — but let me mention of an episode that Weiner references only in passing. This was Reagan’s Saharan contras — a parallel to the much better known support for the Afghan Mujahideen — namely the joint CIA-French effort to expel Libya from Chad and humble Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. In the 1980s this was America’s biggest covert operation in Africa, supplying Chadian militias and Libyan dissidents with weapons, training and intelligence. They won. The culmination was a battle at the aptly-named Wadi Doum in 1987 when nimble Chadian warriors sped across the desert in their Toyota landcruisers and defeated a vast army of Libyan tanks. This formed the prelude to Darfur’s war — but in this case it was Gaddafi’s defeated proxies that retreated across the open border to Sudan and went on to create the infamous Janjawiid militia. (Which should remind us that the CIA’s adversaries have sown mayhem around the world as well.) In the spirit of Bayard — and perhaps in the best tradition of the CIA itself — my chosen recollection of Weiner’s remarkable book is what isn’t in it.

I regularly review books relevant to Darfur on my blog.
De Waal's books include: Famine that Kills: Darfur, Sudan, 1984-5 (Oxford University Press, 1989), and Facing Genocide: The Nuba of Sudan (African Rights, 1995). He is the editor and lead author of Islam and Its Enemies in the Horn of Africa (Indiana, 2004), and most recently author, with Julie Flint, of Darfur: A Short History of a Long War, 2d ed (Zed, 2008) and AIDS and Power: Why There is No Political Crisis Yet (Zed, 2006). De Waal earned his doctorate in social anthropology from Oxford University.

--Marshal Zeringue