Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Blog from an alumnus - Michel Thill


I recently reconnected with Zoe, who was convening the Violence, Conflict and Development course the year I took it at SOAS in 2010-11. She asked me what I had been up to since then. Here it goes.

After I graduated from SOAS, I got an internship at the Rift Valley Institute (www.riftvalley.net), a non-profit research, education and publishing organization focusing on conflict and post-conflict countries in Eastern and Central Africa. I won’t lie: I was looking for a job, not yet another unpaid internship. But this was the only offer on the table and so I accepted the position. Three and a half years later, I can say with certainty that it was not the worst decision I have ever taken.

In my third month of internship, RVI offered me a full-time position. I started out supporting its first research project in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Usalama Project, which documented armed groups in the Kivus and Ituri. Today, I manage RVI’s Great Lakes programme from London.

 


Working for a small research NGO operating in an even smaller niche of the fabulous aid industry can be rewarding, but is not always easy. To wear multiple hats, several of which are guaranteed not to fit is a prerequisite. Proposal writing, project management, editing and publishing processes, as well as fundraising have become familiar terrain—even networking is not alien to me anymore.

Doing research in far-flung places of the Earth however—as I pictured my future a few years ago—is not part of my job. I do not regret this. After all, there are many kinds of valuable knowledge and I am very happy to know what it means to run a research project in countries affected by conflict. That said, I have never abandoned the thought of trying to engage with such a country and its people on my own terms—to some extent freed from the burden of professional obligations.

This month, and after a (very) long preparation time, I started a part-time PhD at Ghent University, while I continue to work for RVI in a more limited capacity. My studies will aim to investigate police and policing practices in Kisangani, DRC and its surroundings to shed a light on how public authority is constituted and maintained in urban and rural settings in Congo. And to my delight, this will involve fieldwork in an arguably far-flung place of the Earth.

In my email to Zoe, I asked her if she knew any Congolese Londoners who could teach me Lingala. She gave me good advice: try Okapi Restaurant at Seven Sisters and practice the language while savouring Congolese cuisine. I will certainly do so!

 

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Scholarships available


The School has just announced a scholarship scheme for Home/EU students who will be graduating this year and are applying for masters study. There are at least 39 £10,000 scholarships.


In order to qualify you must, as a minimum, meet all of the following 5 criteria:
1. be a UK or EU citizen
2. be classified as Home/EU fee status for your chosen Master’s degree at SOAS
3. be graduating in summer 2015 from an undergraduate degree at a UK university where you have been charged under the higher tuition fee regime since 2012 (usually £9,000 per year)
4. not already hold a master’s degree or higher level qualification
5. have applied for admission, and received an offer, to pursue a relevant Master’s degree by the SOAS Postgraduate Support Award application deadline.
  
 
Full details are available here:
http://www.soas.ac.uk/registry/scholarships/soas-postgraduate-support-scheme-2015.html

Friday, 20 February 2015

Art and violence (Ukraine diaries) and Somali remittances

It's been an inspiring week. Last night I was at the opening of Olha Pryymak's exhibition of 'Ukraine diaries', a series of paintings on the war in Ukraine. I was speaking on a panel with Svitlana Pyrkalo, a London-based Ukrainian writer and journalist and Natalia Antonova, a playwright and journalist, both of whom presented extremely thought-provoking personal reflections on the war. I gave an overview of the relationship between violence and art, something that has fascinated me for a long time. 

I based my talk around my observations of music in Congo and capoeira in Brazil, two art forms that have developed and persisted in contexts of violence and oppression. There is an intriguing contradiction that emerges from these two art forms and Olha Pryymak's paintings. It is that art is seldom strategic (and it is helpful to get away from an overly functional interpretation of its political mechanisms), but it can often be extremely effective nonetheless. How it is effective if it does not have a strategic function then becomes an engaging question. One of the answers is that it provides space that is simultaneously personal and political in which people can vest themselves emotionally and ideologically. Capoeira players create space for expressing historical continuity and Afro-Brazilian identity, Congolese musicians generate musical forms, tropes and styles that contribute to a positive national image. Last night the art exhibition last night a space for people to discuss the war and its human and political impact.


Ukraine Diaries by Olha Pryymak, Krilova Stelfox Gallery (at 5th Base)

23 Heneage Street (off Brick lane) London E1 5LJ

Ukraine Diaries by Olha Pryymak, Krilova Stelfox Gallery (at 5th Base)

23 Heneage Street (off Brick lane) London E1 5LJ


Meanwhile Laura Hammond has been publishing in the Guardian on Somali cash transfers. Read her article here.http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/feb/20/somalia-remittance-money-transfer-operators-american-banking-regulations-terrorism

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Never Again Ever - Holocaust Memorial

It was a real privilege to speak at Never Again Ever's Holocaust Memorial at the weekend. A tricky brief: detecting patterns from past genocides to inform lessons for preventing contemporary violence - and in a cabaret style. Referring to the Nazi holocaust and the genocide in Rwanda, I talked about processes of othering - how groups are seen as distinct - and how these groups become the subject of hatred or fear. I then reflected on how violence moves from the unthinkable to the inevitable through shifting norms and institutions.

The mass atrocities that have taken place in Congo in the last couple of decades manifest these patterns in a particular way: much of the population of Congo has been 'othered' for their lack of economic purpose within a globalised market; they are also - ironically - feared as their existence and way of life pose critical challenges to mainstream processes of development, which has been pursued largely through the sale of mineral assets and agricultural land. Through the narrative of 'rational violence' the deaths, particularly in eastern Congo, have come to be seen as inevitable, and my speech was about unpicking the apparent inevitability that groups of people will be killed.




Here are the props: the mask representing the othering, the umbrella the fear, and the £10 the apparent inevitability of the market and the deaths that it implies in this context.




It was great to meet a former VCD student there and current SOAS students!
Here's the whole caboodle: http://neveragainever.org/2015/02/02/14th-february-2015-4-to-7-pm-the-nazi-holocaust-is-history-right-a-unique-never-again-ever-memorial-activism-programme-of-speakers-and-performances-to-pass-on-the-legacy-of-survivors/

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Chris Cramer - postcard from Ethiopia

Chris Cramer has recently been working in Ethiopia, and has sent back a few photos.


At the official opening of Ethiopia's first wine export
Here's what he says:
"I was in Addis Ababa running some workshops on economic theory and policy and also developing a new research project on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which is being built on the Nile at a cost of some $5bn, to be funded entirely by Ethiopia, through diaspora bonds, lottery funds, a public sector payroll levy, and so on. Some 8,500 migrant workers are involved directly in building the dam. And there is intense national and international debate about whether the dam is a very good thing or whether it has seriously problematic consequences."


Monday, 12 January 2015

New BA Development Studies programme

Exciting happy new year news is that from September 2015 the department is offering a new BA Development Studies degree. Full details here: http://www.soas.ac.uk/development/programmes/badevstuds/

 

Friday, 12 December 2014

VCD student on Over to You programme on the BBC World Service

It's the last day of term and SOAS is engulfed in festive activities: we had mince pies and chocolate cake in our tutorials and there is music and partying all night. The BBC World Service contacted us this week to arrange for one of our VCD students to go on the Over to You show. It'll be aired tomorrow (Saturday 13 December) at 11.50 GMT and repeated over the weekend. There's a link to the programme here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p002vsn8

Meanwhile - happy end of term! :)