Unconventional Wisdom

Unconventional Wisdom

Colby professors teach students to examine the complex forces that shape cultures—and conflicts

By Stephen Collins '74 | Photos by Jon Reinfurt (Illustrations)

As an anthropologist, Besteman views conflict and reconciliation through an enthnographic lens. She is interested in what ordinary citizens do and feel, how they act and react. She has a book under review about South Africans' views of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission ("quite ineffective,— according to most people she talked to) and how some South Africans are trying to reinvent a social world in the wake of apartheid.

But earlier in her career she got dragged into the conflict in Somalia, where she had been studying the effects of land reform imposed by privatization and other Western economic structures. As the political situation in Somalia unraveled in the late 1980s, she ended up trying to explain the incipient conflict there, even briefing the American ambassador as the situation devolved.

"It's a localized history, but it's also a very globalized history,— she said. During the Cold War, the U.S. propped up dictator Siad Barre with economic and massive military aid. Barre was a U.S. client in the Cold War balance, and Somalia was a strategic site for military bases if conflict were to erupt in the Middle East. The region was flooded with arms from both sides, but neither the U.S. nor the U.S.S.R. (which backed Ethiopia) had any accountability for their actions, she says. When the U.S. cut off aid to Barre, in 1989, he was finished, and civil society collapsed. "What's ironic [about U.S. goals] is that, by the time there was conflict in the Persian Gulf, we were out of Somalia because there was a civil war,— Besteman said.

Among the reasons for the collapse were efforts to convert Somalia to a capitalist democracy, she said. Neoclassical, neo-liberal economic policy pushed individualizing and privatizing everything, she says. Study teams like hers also were sent to Uganda, Senegal, Kenya, and other countries. "What we found was remarkably similar and devastating. Individualization was a highly corrupt process. The people who were grabbing up the land were bureaucrats and businessmen, and the farmers were uniformly being dispossessed of their land. This frenzy of privatization was enabled, facilitated, and supported, in the case of Somalia, by European and American aid forces.—

Whether it's Somalia or Rwanda or Darfur, "Anthropologists are interested in those [political] questions, but we're also interested in what happened at the village level,— she said. "How does that translate into homicidal mania? What are peoples' mind frames? What are the discourses that are operating? What are the kinds of emotional states that cause people to see murder as their best alternative in the immediacy of the situation?—

Racism, she said, often plays a huge role, and it certainly did in conflicts in Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda, and elsewhere in Africa. "It's all about race and the ways in which political language operates to demonize or marginalize sectors of the population who then become targets for reasons that may have absolutely nothing to do with them. But as people's frustrations play out—as people's life opportunities or their hopes go unrealized, and the world is collapsing around them, and avenues for a sustainable, fulfilling life are being cut off left and right—people look for somebody to blame. Often it is the stigmatized minority that's the easiest target. 'It's all their fault.'—

Besteman sees parallels in the current debate about immigration in the U.S., where people sow paranoia with lines like: "[They're] swarming over the border, taking our jobs, swamping our culture, our schools, our health systems, sticking people up in the alley.—

"It takes a lot to get people to kill each other,— Besteman said. "Most human beings do everything they can to avoid killing each other.— So, as an anthropologist she asks, "How do you get people to kill each other? It's a profoundly unnatural human tendency.—
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