Nomadic minds


Reflections of Mirjam

Didier Lalaye and I have now, in November 2016, reached the conclusion of an ever-continuing anthropological journey—a journey which started purely by chance. I quote Didier: ‘You know, we could just as well not have met. When you called at the beginning of March 2014, I did not remember your face, but I remembered the interview we had at your apartment in Moursal in N’Djaména with Béral Mbaïkoubou (a famous artists and critical thinker in Chad) and the others. It was a good event, and you were a kind person. So I thought, why not meet her again? I was on my way to the studio and in fact had no time, but we met and that is how it all began.’ [free interpretation of a discussion in the plane from Casablanca to Amsterdam, 2 November 2016]

Croquemort came with a friend to the meeting: Tonton le Blanc. As I discovered later, he would rarely do this kind of thing alone. I was together with Sjoerd Sijsma, a filmmaker who would become part of the team, a supporter, and a critical commentator. We were in Chad to explore the possibilities for making a documentary about artists and their struggle to overcome a history of recurrent civil war and oppression. This later became one of our pamphlets.

First Encounters

The first interview to which Didier refers was in November 2013, mediated by a Chadian colleague anthropologist, Remadji Hoinathy, who knows the artistic scene in Chad well. I was in N’Djaména for a meeting with the Centre for Research in Anthropology and Human Sciences (CRASH) and in a phase of deeply reorienting my research. I had been conducting ethnographic and historical research in Chad since 2001. Delving into the everyday experience of living in conditions of oppression and war, in 2005 I became exhausted from the daily confrontation with poverty, difficult political circumstances, and so on, and I decided to leave Chad as a research site. This decision led me to work in Cameroon. However, I continued travelling to Chad, though I kept some distance, by taking up the role of supervisor of PhD and MA projects. I also searched for alternative subjects that could give me access to a different Chad. One such topic was the appearance of mobile phones (Seli 2014). In 2012, having received a grant for a research project in which I developed Chad as a field site, I decided to return and continue ethnographic fieldwork in this difficult environment. This time, I was searching for alternatives to the classical way of doing fieldwork. Since 2005 many things had changed—and, amongst them, new Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). Mobile phones, and at a later stage smartphones, were big news. The new ICTs brought new possibilities for citizens and researchers alike, changing the practice of fieldwork deeply (Pelckmans 2009; Coleman 2010; Kozinets 2010; Modan 2016). These perspectives in technology and communication provided a new focus for societal change through voices from the ground, and they opened a world full of moments of unexpected encounters, of adaptability to new realities—in a word, of serendipity. I discovered my nomadic mind.

Nomadic minds

Is the anthropological mind a nomadic mind? The search for the balance between objectivity and subjectivity is one of the fundamental questions for an anthropologist, and this search requires flexibility. It is likely that this flexibility, which is also ‘travel of mind and mindsets’, is even more necessary when it comes to simply grasping the realities and complexities of everyday life. For people living in Chad, this reality is a struggle with oppression, poverty, and the whims of an unreliable state. An anthropologist has to be able to change his or her paths constantly, juggling between people, problems, joys, festive moments, and so on, dwelling in his or her nomadic mind, a mind similar to the patterns of life of the people who are in fact the subjects of study. The nomadic turn in anthropology as coined by Hazan and Hertzog (2011) is right in tune with my own experiences in the field—as is the concept of serendipity (Rivoal & Salazar 2013), which characterizes the nomadic journey when unexpected and fantastic or dramatic things happen.

These ‘unexpected’ things do not happen as exceptional situations but are simply part of what society is. A nomadic mind includes the art of understanding the unpredictable and amazing moments as much as the ordinary, as the building blocks of society, which is to be considered a dynamic creation. This is also how social/critical theory is built, adapted, and forged in relation to these experiences, and how it is transformed into text, film, and photographs. Such a theory is constructed in exchange and co-creation by both the so-called subjects and the researcher. The adaptability and the flexibility that the ‘field’ forces us as researchers to embrace—so central to the quest to understand the realities of our world—is best grasped by a nomadic mind.

Scenario

The field as such is a complex concept. The field is not outside the ethnographer; it is not, so to say, just a landscape to be described. Since the discussions in the 1990s (Gupta & Ferguson 1992; Clifford 1997), we no longer demarcate a field by its geography. In fact, I prefer the term scenario instead of field—a scenario like in a film, of which we are all the screenwriters and the actors. In the scenario we find landscapes, backgrounds, people who interact as brokers, informants, researchers, and so on. All these elements co-create the research as the story of this scenario, a story that can be based not only on academic premises but also on other forms of narration. As such, the field as scenario and research as co-creation relate to our present-day life of increasing possibilities to connect and communicate. ICTs have reshaped our world of communications, of experiencing social relations, of distance and directness. They have also added tools to the practice of research that go far beyond face-to-face communication and embrace new working spaces: virtual environments, virtual relationships. Without these technologies, our research environment and discussions would not be the same.

ICTs and changing scenarios

It is the advancement of ICTs that inspired the research on biographies and changing dynamics in Africa from which this project arose. The question was how ICTs change political agency, and in what ways. Instead of starting with a tightly-woven theoretical model, I literally embraced my nomadic mind and immersed myself in the ‘scene’. I decided to humbly enter the world of ICTs and youth in N’Djaména and see where ‘going with the flow’ would lead me. In doing so, I also embraced the nomadic mind of the people who constitute this scene in different ways—as citizens, musicians, members of ethnic groups, and so on. I played my role as an academic, a friend, at times almost a family member.

The first discovery was that ICTs had firmly established themselves in the artistic scene—which, embracing this change, was quickly entering a new phase. In Chad, although the music scene was not that advanced and most productions at the time were undertaken in Cameroon, music studios were beginning to blossom. I decided to enter the youth scene by connecting with engaged or protest artists—a deliberate choice, inspired by my search for changes in political agency in relation to the new practices of ICT-use, a quest that came to me as a research subject while immersing myself in the music scene.

The perspective of technology and society opened a new itinerary in my research, shifting my focus to possibilities and voices for change. Among my leading research questions were these: How do change-makers living in oppressive environments build their careers and use opportunities to develop a future? How do they shape their political imaginations of past and future? Unavoidably, taking into account the nomadic mind of these people and of myself, this research was to be a pathway full of serendipity.

Didier Lalaye / Croquemort: One or two counterplayers and co-creators in this story?

This is how Croquemort, the artist name used by Didier Lalaye, came into this story. During the first interview in November 2013, we discussed people’s drive to be musicians and their ways of expressing themselves in conditions of oppression. In March 2014 we picked up on these discussions, and Croquemort facilitated my access to the music scene, the scene of political protest and youth movements in Chad. I also experienced other sides of his life besides his music activity. As a medical doctor, Didier allowed me into the scene of his life as a medical social entrepreneur, to meet his family and friends. I also exchanged with Didier Lalaye the writer. Didier alias Croquemort’s comments on the texts and the discussions that followed have influenced their presentation enormously. In fact, the choices for the topics in this cloud presentation were agreed with him. We concentrated on his different professional careers.

mirjam and croque

Interview with a journalist of the NRC, Utrecht, August 2015

When Didier agreed to engage in this itinerary, I visited Chad many times to follow the music scene and to discuss the many different aspects of his life. In so doing, I came to know many facets of his life, which is not only about music and text. He is also a doctor, a political activist, a youth leader, a social entrepreneur, a father, a friend …. He agreed to disclose these aspects to me, and he allowed me to share them as insights into the social fields (Sally-Falk Moore 1977) in which he participates. This itinerary became an exploration of crucial moments of his life as connected to the context—both personal and socio-political—that influenced them. A veritable biography-in-context was formed. Step by step, reasoning on these moments that Johnson-Hanks (2002) termed ‘vital conjunctures’, a complex and fascinating scenario took shape—that of the art and music in N’Djaména, of the possibilities for people to emerge through businesses and technologies, of Chadian youth and the relations they have with other countries in and outside the region. It was also a scenario in which the roles of Didier Lalaye alias Croquemort were shaped and reshaped as people in the three years that followed.

Didier Lalaye/Croquemort also has a nomadic mind—literally, in the sense of geographical mobility, he has been mobile since his youth, following his father’s job itinerary and soon his own curiosity to discover the world. He is also ICT-minded, showing brilliance with this technology already from his childhood. He is curious and analyses the world around him constantly, allowing serendipity to play a part in his life. I hesitate to say this so unequivocally, because he often exclaimed that the insecurity of the itinerary in front of him made him feel insecure. However, at the same time he never took a decision to settle his life, leaving it open instead to any new opportunity that arose, which he would then embrace eagerly.

Friends

A trajectory of mutual understanding goes with friendships, with conflicts, even with dealing with misunderstandings that cross our path in the process. It goes with unexpected turns in lives, and it is a trajectory of mutual influencing. Didier and I did not know where it would go when we started the filming and the experience of sharing. But we created the scenario of a film, which is our life. It became more than a research project. Instead, we started to develop projects together and have become friends. This is of course the consequence of tracing a biography in the sense of reconstructing a nomadic mind, through the continuous encounter with the nomadic mind of the researcher/co-creator. When this itinerary began, I had not planned to continue to follow Didier for three years. Nevertheless, it happened that way. I was in Chad in September and December 2014, in January, February, May, and October 2015, and in March 2016. In November 2014, Didier visited the Netherlands, and then again in June 2015 and in June and autumn 2016. Through his eyes I have gained a new way of understanding the politics and history of Chad, music and slam poetry, and the world and relations among Chad–Cameroon–France–the Netherlands, thus inspiring new ideas for new research and projects.

Co-creation

The input of Didier to this project has been enormous. He has not been an author in the sense that he took up his pen to write his own biography, but he actively took part in this process, giving Sjoerd and myself the insights needed to be able to write and film and create. In the course of many discussions in which we exchanged views on the format, the narrative, and the main themes, Didier/Croquemort’s scenario increasingly became our scenario and together we traced it into the broader film of our lives.

Along this itinerary, Didier played many roles. In the more classical approach, he was the subject of the research, the one who shared information about his life experience. But he was so much more: he was a co-creator of this biography-in-context. An actor of this itinerary. And a friend.

Didier/Croquemort walked an itinerary that was very individual, but at the same time interconnected with his networks. And I became part of his networks, just like the crew of the V4T and CTD projects did. Networks have a real effect in shaping the opportunities and choices of people, as this was the case of these research projects for both his life as Didier, the medical doctor and his life as Croquemort, the artist. As he admits in the short interview shot on the Oudegracht in Utrecht, and in the paper he presented with Mirjam at the ECAS conference in 2015, internationalization is very important for an artist in Chad. Not only because the national context is not very stimulating because of its lacking artist infrastructure, but also because being international gives one an increased recognition also in the national scene. ‘The adventure that started in March 2014 has helped to further my internationalisation’, is a summary of the comments Croquemort would make. The network he used to have before that time started to extend to friends and friends of friends, and among them the Dutch urologist Tom de Jong, who became his supervisor and promotor for his PhD project at Utrecht University. Mirjam and Tom supported Didier in this endeavor, that is now funded by the Julius centre at the University and the Foundation of colleagues of Tom. These are all very concrete ‘results’ of the long encounters, how it influenced the mindset of Croquemort/Didier will become clear in his future songs!

eefje and croque

Eefje Gilbert and Didier Lalaye, University of Leiden, June 2016

Other people joined us in this film scenario, writing parts of it with us. Next to Didier/Croquemort, Sjoerd Sijsma and myself, Eefje Gilbert, Abel Maina, Emma Cailleau and Lucia Ragazzi all contributed in their own ways. Eefje became Croquemort’s ‘coach’. She not only helped out in practical matters but also helped in orienting and facilitating his life in the Netherlands and Belgium. Eefje’s comments on the texts and also her work in building the presentation of the biography show her nomadic mind. Maina entered the scene through our visits to Paris. He has a special role as a diaspora activist. His enthusiasm and comments on Chadian politics, and the discussions we had while in Utrecht and on Facebook Messenger—together formed a meta-commentary on the interpretations of the context of this biographical project. Emma is an old friend of Croquemort. She did not want to be part of this film scenario, but it was unavoidable. During the two festivals of Voice4Thought that we organized in the Netherlands, she was present, and on each of our visits to Paris she helped us get around. Her comments and unobtrusive nods and winks helped us to understand better. Lucia entered the scene only at the end of this episode, but she has pushed Mirjam to write and finalize the project. She built further on the web-structure developed by Eefje. Her comments on the texts and her compilation of the context texts have not only furthered this project but also helped her to become part of the scenario and immerse herself in the history and context of Chad and of Didier/Croquemort’s life. We have created this scenario of the film together. And this scenario is just the beginning.

With this reflexive text, I hope to have disclosed a new approach to a way to immerse oneself with others in a scenario. The nomadic mind enables one to be open to a process of co-creation—and, above all, to embrace the serendipity of the anthropological journey!