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6. Children of Exile

Bruce Whitehouse Indiana University Press ePub

6

CHILDREN OF EXILE

Although some of the circumstances surrounding the incident are uncertain, this much is clear: on a Sunday afternoon in mid-December 2005 Papa Doucouré was shot. He was driving a friend’s car in a northern district of Brazzaville and allegedly failed to stop at an intersection when a policeman signaled him to do so. A pickup truck full of heavily armed paramilitary police sped after him and made him pull over a few hundred meters down the road. After he had stopped, sitting behind the wheel of the motionless car, he was hit by three bullets from a policeman’s Kalashnikov rifle—once in the arm, once in the leg, and once in the stomach. The police put him into the bed of their truck and brought him to the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire, the city’s largest public hospital. That is where Papa Doucouré, lying on a hospital gurney, was pronounced dead a short time later. He was one day short of his nineteenth birthday.

This young man’s killing symbolized different things to different people in Brazzaville. To most ordinary Congolese, if they knew of the incident at all, it was yet another tragic display of heavy-handed police tactics, further proof of their government’s failure to respect basic human rights, and evidence that the forces de l’ordre (the security forces) were in fact the greatest local threat to public safety. “Recurring incidents of blunders and holdups [braquages] by elements of the security forces are becoming more and more troubling,” one online magazine commented a few weeks later, “yet it is they who ought to be assuring the safety of people and their property” (Afriqu’Echos 2005).

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2. Enterprising Strangers

Bruce Whitehouse Indiana University Press ePub

2

ENTERPRISING STRANGERS

From the beginning of my Brazzaville research, I tried to understand why West Africans went there at such expense and often physical risk. What was the city's attraction to them? Answers were unsatisfying, and migrants’ life histories rarely seemed to indicate a compelling reason for them to have come to that particular place. My elderly friend and informant, Vieux Diallo, for example, who had left Mali upon independence in 1960, never could or would explain to me precisely what had brought him to Brazzaville in the first place. If socialism was truly the reason why he left Mali, as he claimed, why come to Congo, which, at the time Diallo arrived there, was officially known as the People's Republic of Congo, with a government espousing a stricter approach to socialism than Mali had ever known? Why not stay in Abidjan? Why not go to Gabon?

To listen to Diallo and most other West African informants narrate their life histories, their presence in Brazzaville appeared to be the outcome of a series of random encounters, not carefully planned strategies. They knew little about the place before arriving there. Some knew of friends or relatives in the city with whom they might seek employment, but many others did not. Brazzaville was somewhere they had simply ended up, and their specific destination was less important than the fact of l'aventure—a term literally meaning “adventure” but used in French-speaking Africa for the experience of going abroad to seek one's fortune. For aventuriers (young men undertaking l'aventure) the crucial thing was to leave home; the destination was secondary. A term that regularly cropped up in their parlance was yaala, which, in Bamanan, roughly means “wandering about.”1 I once asked a Malian aventurier making a living pushing a handcart on Poto-Poto's rutted streets why he had not stayed in his home country to do that kind of work. “Yaala tè?” he replied with nonchalance. “Isn't it for wandering?”

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5. Transnational Kinship

Bruce Whitehouse Indiana University Press ePub

5

TRANSNATIONAL KINSHIP

“Any West African who marries a Congolese is not one of us,” Vieux Diallo declared to me bluntly one day during a conversation at his tailor shop. Congolese women, he went on to say, were interested only in money and would abandon their foreign husbands and their children without warning. You could not trust them.

The supposed shortcomings of Congolese constituted a recurring theme in the old man's statements to me, and the question of intermarriage was a particularly sensitive subject. His wife Hawa was Malian and hailed from the same town as he did. One of their sons, however, had married a Congolese woman. Without knowing many details, I could clearly see that Diallo's relations with his son were troubled, and he did not care for his daughter-in-law. Diallo's children were mostly in their teens and twenties by then, and he was concerned about their future. They had never been to Mali, and the best way for them to maintain some connection to their ancestral homeland was through marriage to Malians who had some exposure to it. At least two of his daughters had married Malians, but that his son had chosen differently was a source of concern for the old man.

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1. The Avenue of Sergeant Malamine

Bruce Whitehouse Indiana University Press ePub

1

THE AVENUE OF SERGEANT MALAMINE

Quite little is known about the life of Malamine Camara. He was born in Senegal around the mid-nineteenth century, served as a soldier for France, and died young, probably in his thirties. His brief career in colonial service, however, made a tremendous mark on what became France's Congo colony. Like his white commanding officer who orchestrated France's claim to the region in the 1880s, Malamine Camara was present at the creation of the Congo colony and was instrumental in safeguarding it against encroachments by rival powers. And, like his commanding officer, he was esteemed by his fellow explorers, celebrated by the French press, and decorated by the French government. Unlike his commanding officer, however, within a few decades of his death he was virtually forgotten: all that bears his name in the Congolese capital today is a narrow, unpaved street running through the Poto-Poto market. During my Brazzaville fieldwork in 2005, no sign indicated its official designation known by a few of my informants: l’Avenue du Sergent Malamine. The story of this street's namesake reveals the extent to which, over more than seven decades of European colonial rule, the origins of France's Congo colony were intertwined with West African migration to the region.

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4. The Stranger's Code

Bruce Whitehouse Indiana University Press ePub

4

THE STRANGER'S CODE

On the morning of Christmas eve, in 2005, I was conversing with a friend in his shop when three Congolese men in civilian clothes suddenly entered. One rapped loudly on the counter and bellowed, “Séjours et recensements, s'il vous plait.” They were apparently policemen who had come to conduct a contrôle, a spot-check of individuals’ official documents, in this case residence permits (permis de séjour) and recensements de police, forms showing that the bearer had registered with the local police station. There was no formal requirement in Congo to have a recensement, but many of my West African friends had had to pay modest fees to obtain the document after policemen had discovered them without one. As always, I was carrying my passport with a valid one-year Congolese visa, but I had never gotten a recensement, and though the men had taken no notice of me up to that point, given their brusque entry and aggressive demeanor I thought they might choose to make an issue of this. In any case my friend behind the counter, a Malian in his forties named Balla, quickly launched into a verbal counteroffensive at maximum volume, matching bluster with bluster. Balla's cousin, who also worked in the shop and had good relations with the local police chief, hurriedly came in from the street upon hearing the commotion. He took one of the three visitors aside and began speaking to him in a low voice. Concerned that my presence might be attracting unwanted attention for Balla and his business, I sneaked out the door and went home while Balla and one of the Congolese continued talking loudly past each other.

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