It sometimes feels like every blog post I’ve written for ExCiteS has come from a different fieldsite, and to a large extent that’s true. Over the past three years I’ve engaged with maybe seven or eight different organisations and project ideas across the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo with a view to assessing the potential for the kind of “extreme” grassroots participation our method and tools are designed to promote. However the ExCiteS method and tools are not sufficient in themselves to bring about truly bottom-up engagement, only to add to the conditions for its possibility – an enormous part of the outcome of any ExCiteS project depends on the **context** within which that project is applied. In the Congo cases I’ve worked on so far, individual and organisational agendas, the ephemeral nature of project funding, incompatibilities within technological ecosystems and a desperate need for capacity building among local support staff have foxed many ideas that sounded promising on paper but ultimately haven’t proven either participatory or sustainable.
So here I am again, now in the Central African Republic just across the border from where I was working in northern Congo, following-up on what will probably be the final project lead of my PhD. On the surface this project is much like the others – a logging company is about to begin cutting in the rainforest on which local BaAka communities depend, but has indicated it would be open to incorporating a participatory mapping programme within its management plan. The logging concession buffers on to two national parks run by WWF, a conservation organisation with a terrible reputation among anthropologists and indigenous rights activists, but who are making an effort to change their ways. WWF nominally co-manage the parks and the wider Dzanga-Sangha “Special Reserve” with government counterparts answerable to a state with one of the worst reputations for corruption in the world, and whose tenuous stability may well be disrupted by the elections whose results have just been announced. So far so familiar. But there’s something about this context that’s different – that’s intrigued me ever since I first heard about it, and that has brought me here just five weeks out of major lung surgery when I almost certainly already have enough research to write up my thesis. Something within the context that I think might just support, rather than confound, a citizen science process that could be truly “extreme”.
Ndima-Kali is a small group of BaAka and Sangha-Sangha youth who come together three times a year, in workshops facilitated by independent NGO OrigiNations and funded by WWF Germany, to discuss and act on issues that concern them – the loss of traditional culture, drugs, alcohol and prostitution, discrimination, education and employment. Ndima is the BaAka word for “forest” and Kali the Sangha-Sangha word for “river”, the name representing the most important cultural and livelihood foundations of each ethnic group. While the Sangha-Sangha are Bilo, a group that has become synonymous with discrimination against the BaAka particularly since the influx of outsiders to the region in search of work in logging and conservation activities, they also perceive their traditional ways of life to be under threat and so together the youth group works to understand the challenges they face and how they can be met while regaining pride in their heritage and without capitulating to a thoroughly modern lifestyle. OrigiNations are subtle in their approach – they have no set methodology, but rather seek to open a space that the youth can fill themselves with their ideas, concerns and actions. It’s a slow process that has come out of years of long-term engagement and it resonates a lot with the idea, key to my research, that it should be possible to create “third spaces” (Turnbull & Chambers, 2014) for different knowledge traditions to come together on equal terms.
Of course, even with the support of this group there are still individual and organisational agendas to navigate, ephemeral project funding regimes to negotiate, incompatibilities within technological ecosystems to overcome and capacity building needs that must be addressed. But for the first time in a long time, I feel that here I’ve found some allies who really get and support what ExCiteS is trying to do. My PhD research has taught me caution and it would be unwise to speak too soon or too much, so I’ll leave you with a song, courtesy of my new friends.
Turnbull, D., & Chambers, W. (2014). Assenbling Diverse Knowledges: Trails and Storied Spaces in Time. In J. Leach & L. Wilson (Eds.), Subversion, Conversion, Development: Cross-Cultural Knowledge Exchange and the Politics of Design (pp. 153–182). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.