Trudging through Africa

Alexandra Scacco grew up traveling the world. While she was always American her experience was international. Paris at age four, Tokyo at age 10, Brussels at 15. America was hardly spent time in until she was an undergrad at Princeton. Even then she left the country yet again to get her master’s degree at the London School of Economics.

Having a house and a yard and a dog was not something Scacco yearned for as a child. The traditional American way of life did not appeal to her. “I had a great time. I just kept thinking ‘I’m in Japan. This is so cool.’” Scacco’s father worked for IBM in their international public relations division. Scacco’s father left IBM for Dell and moved to Austin, Texas. “It’s funny because it’s a really big transition moving from Belgium to Texas. We were all a bit like, ‘Ok, what’s this going to be like?’ But I mean Austin couldn’t be better. I mean, if you’re going to move to Texas from New York and you come from kind of a Democrat family. That’s the place to go.”

Fluent in French and with some Japanese under her belt, Scacco found herself too busy in graduate school to study a new language. “In graduate school, in Political Science you have a lot of demands on your time. You have to learn a lot of quantitative skills if you want to do a survey and then there’s the question of languages. And the problem is that there’s so many languages spoken in each country that it’s a really hard choice and it can often be a very political choice.”

Scacco attended Columbia University for graduate school and almost immediately met the man that would become her husband. “We met in grad school. First year. He was in my cohort at Columbia. And I was like, ‘Oh, there’s kind of a nice looking German guy,” and then five years later we got married.’”

Originally, Scacco planned on studying nationalism in early modern Europe. “But then the first year on a whim I took an African politics class. It’s always been an interest of mine that I never pursued. It was totally sort of life changing.” Many Westerners who study Africa are drawn to it because of the cataclysmic way it is described. Scacco is no different. “You know, in the press it’s always floods and famines and civil war. So it seemed like a very exciting place for someone who wouldn’t know anything about it.”

Macartan Humphreys, an African specialist at Columbia, was Scacco’s advisor. “He just taught this class with all of this cutting edge methods and how you could go to field and actually do surveys and field experiments and I was completely hooked after one semester.”

Approaching Africa to study was an incredibly intimidating endeavor for Scacco. “It’s very hard to get to Africa for the first time to do a project when you don’t know anything.” Humphreys invited Scacco to come with him to be a research assistant on a project on ethnic diversity and public goods in Uganda. “It sounds very glamorous, going as a research assistant to Uganda.” With a flight paid for, it was the opportunity of a lifetime for Scacco. Measuring public goods in the capital, Kampala, after her second year in graduate school seemed like a dream. “But when they said you’re going to measure public goods in different neighborhoods, what it meant was I’m going to go to different parts of the biggest slum in Kampala and measure how high the trash piles were.”

The thesis Humphreys and his team went over to Kampala looking to prove was that more heterogeneous areas have more trouble coordinating to provide public goods, such as trash collection. However, in more heterogeneous areas it is expected that they can coordinate well enough to provide public goods for their population. “So, I would go into these neighborhoods and be like, ‘Hmm, how horrible and huge is the trash pile in this neighborhood?’

Trudging through piles of garbage in the slums of Kampala gave Scacco the courage and confidence to pursue her own project. With that, she set out for Nigeria. Conflicts between Christians and Muslims in Northern Nigeria have been breaking out since 2002. Scacco set out to discover what would motivate people to involve themselves in such risky behavior. “ One of the most fundamental questions that we try to understand in the social sciences is why people participate in violence. It seems so strange. It’s so risky. We sort of think of human beings as being averse to risk. And the question is why would you ever get involved in something that could get you killed?” However, what makes Scacco’s research different is that she chose to focus on the people involved in the riots rather than the people in the elite class instigating them. “The first project I was working on was why people participate in Christian-Muslim riots in northern Nigeria and it seems to be that poverty is the best predictor. So basically, like extremely poor people are much more likely to get pulled into a conflict.” Scacco’s argument goes on to say that the likelihood of the poor population being involved in conflict has nothing to do with their intelligence or an inherent violence they possess. “The argument that I’m building is they’re just really venerable to attack.”

While surveying people about the riots in the cities of Jos and Kaduna in 2002, Scacco lived in Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria. The city, in Northern Nigeria, is under Sharia law. “I had to figure out, do I cover my head? And it became very clear to me, no way. No body expects this of me. However, I still had to dress very modestly and wear long dresses, long sleeves, which was hard because it’s really hot. So, I was, like, sweating mess for months at a time in the field.”

Scacco would interview young men who took part in the riots about their experience and their motivation. “There’s this kind of subtle negotiation of how you conduct interviews with people who’ve experienced, like, incredible trauma.” One young man was from Jos. He was from a prominent Christian family who had a Muslim chauffeur. “A bunch of young thugs basically forces them to turn this guy over during the riots and then they massacred him, or killed him.” The chauffeur had known the young man since he was an infant. During the interview, he burst out crying. Scacco immediately stopped the interview and attempted to help the young man by giving him a reference for a counselor. “But he was fine in a few minutes and, actually, like insisted that we continue the interview because he really wanted to get the rest of the story out.”

She often had young men like this one come to her office for these surveys. One day, two men in suits and sunglasses came knocking at her door asking her what her business in Nigeria was. Even after she explained that she was simply a political scientist doing a study, they arrested her and took her into custody for questioning. After hours of “playing dumb,” they released her, knowing she wasn’t causing any harm to the government.

Last January, Sudan split into two countries, Sudan and South Sudan. Scacco has compiled a team to take advantage of the rare opportunity of witnessing a state split to gather data on the lives of individuals affected by the split. They sent out a survey to a random sample of 1,400 people in the North before the split. A year later after the referendum approving the secession, they sent out a survey to the same 1,400 people to see how their lives had changed. “It’s very costly and difficult to locate because a lot of these people are kind of living on the fringe of society.” What the team, which includes her husband, is zeroing in on is the South Sudanese who live in the North. “The problem is now there’s a lot of resentment in the North that the South decided to go its own way. And, so, Southerners in the North are being exposed to intimidation, violence, and all kinds of abuses of their rights.” The process of partisan has never been documented to this minute level before in history. Scacco and her team are gathering material that could give weight to mere theory and speculation of similar past situations. “All of a sudden the choice to stick around here and be harassed or go back to the South, which is in some ways moving back to the Stone Age. There’s no electricity. There’s no public services. So, it’s kind of a trade between security and prosperity. And that’s a very moving topic to me.”


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