Thursday, December 20, 2007

Formalities with Local Officials

I have experience thanks to my Peace Corps days of conducting formalities with local officials. A good majority of the time officials are very preoccupied with other issues and introducing oneself and presenting one’s mission often goes smoother than expected. Still, doing this in a foreign language is not easy and there are surprises from time to time. The probability of having a bad first impression makes this process one of the most nerve-racking. Waiting in the lounge of a local official is a good chance to practice introductory remarks but at the same time it is also a moment of anxiety as often it is difficult to know which type of personality one is about to come face-to-face with.

Having approval from the agency that is responsible for your being in country is the first priority. To just show up without something from the capitol explaining your mission is not looked upon favorably and they will see your visit as a waste of their time. After that, dressing sharp and showing up early in the morning on Monday-Thursday (but not Friday!) is the best bet at having a successful introduction. If they speak your language and they make an effort to converse with you in it then do talk to them in your maternal tongue. And if they try to test your abilities in local languages be humble about it (even if you are proficient) but answer their questions in the local language as best as you can.

Do not be surprised if the official lives in the capitol or another country, like France, England or the United States. They may be living outside of their region to best represent and work for their community. The reverse is also possible unfortunately, where they may be living outside of their community because they have profited from their position and do little or nothing for their constituents. This of course varies from individual to individual. If the official is not there, it is not necessary to track the person down as often there is someone at the office to represent them and receive your introduction. They have the power to approve your mission and papers.

Despite these preventions things could still go disastrous. My very last effort at conducting formalities was the worst one ever and there was little I could do to prevent the outcome. The official simply did not like the idea of a researcher interviewing people in his region because there is a rebellion in the department of Arlit, Niger at present. The government of Niger has done its best to keep out foreign journalists and anyone who could possibly bring the events of the rebellion and the cause of the rebels to a larger audience. The official started my meeting by cajoling me. He argued that I should not to live and work in his region because of ‘security issues’ but I was able to argue through this facade by explaining the roots I had already made in Arlit. I had already had three visits, found a collaborator to work with, a potential landlord and interpreter, and made several friends in the marketplace. In truth, I was probably safer in his region then where I am right now (southern Niger).

Further into the formalities he admitted he did not like my research and living in his community and that he would do his best to terminate my mission. He did so as the very next day, I was ordered by the commissariat to return to the Governor in Agadez. I had already conducted formalities with the Governor three days earlier with no problems but upon my second return, the authority did an about-face and told me my research was suspended until I seek the approval of the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defense, both in Niamey. There is no chance of meeting with either of these until after the New Year as it is Tabaski right now and soon it will be the New Year. I will try once more but I have my doubts as to whether I will receive approval to conduct my research in the immediate future.

My collaborator, who had several visits from the police the day I met with the local official, said it best, “They are afraid of what people are going to tell you about the rebellion.” I have tried to remain independent and silent on the rebellion as it is not my mission to report on the troubles up north. People, however, have shared with me their opinions and observations regarding the clashes that have taken place between the military and rebels in Iferouâne, Arlit and other areas of the north. As tempted as I am to share this information (especially after my last meeting with the last local official in Arlit), I will refrain until after I confirm with the Ministry of Interior and Defense that I cannot conduct research in the north and I am out of Niger’s jurisdiction.

7 comments:

Brent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brent said...

Did I mention why I hated doing work in West Africa?I seem to recall a PhD student of mine not wanting to do work in Southern Africa...hmmm,who could that have been?

Brent said...

Did I mention why I hated doing work in West Africa?I seem to recall a PhD student of mine not wanting to do work in Southern Africa...hmmm,who could that have been?

barb michelen said...

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Brad C said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brad C said...

Hi Franklin,

Why didn't you ever mention before you had a blog about your work in Mali/Niger? Life in West Africa sounds as frustrating as ever to me. How can you deal with all the bureaucratic bull$%t?? Take care and I hope you had a nice Tabaski holiday.

Baz said...

Hi
Congratulations on the nice find of Francis Nicolas' drawings. Have you read his "Tamesna" yet? I'd be interested to be in touch with you and discuss things. You'll find my email on the web.
Baz Lecocq