Managing an unusual conflict in the Caribbean - Intercultural Insights
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Managing an unusual conflict in the Caribbean
September 20, 2016
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As part of the Akteos games, Jean-Luc Martin shared an anecdote which is both humorous yet serious at the same time concerning the management of a conflict in the Caribbean.

He highlighted the need to always consider local cultures including ancestral beliefs in the power of supernatural forces.

The correct use of quimbois when managing a conflict in the Caribbean

A few years ago, when I was serving as a commanding officer in a national service regiment stationed in Martinique, I was faced with a rather “peculiar” management situation.

An unusual personal conflict

AntillesOne morning, my assistant called me in to settle what he described as a “little problem”. In reality, there were no shortage of problems as our role as a military unit assigned to the French ministry for the overseas territories was to assist young adults from the French overseas departments and collectivities who were facing social exclusion. Usually originating from deprived areas in Fort de France, these youths were often likeable but sometimes difficult to manage.

When I entered my assistant’s office, on one side of the room I saw a trainee in uniform with a large sticking plaster on her cheek, accompanied by her clearly upset mother. On the other side of the room a second female trainee taking refuge behind my assistant and clearly terrified of the mother’s fulminations.

Following an argument over a boy, one of the girls had slashed her rival’s face with a carpet knife to punish her for “stealing” her boyfriend. Unable to defend herself physically, the injured girl had turned for help to her mother, a Saint-Lucian, considered locally as a powerful witch. This explained the very real terror expressed by the aggressor: “Colonel, she’s a witch! Punish me but prevent her from putting a spell on me, she’ll kill me!”

Special situations require special solutions

Faced with a situation which was definitely not covered in the management manuals, I had two options open to me :

  • Remain rational (and act in line with the law) by sending the protagonists away and tell the injured girl to make a complaint. The problem here was that this would lead to further social exclusion for the guilty party and could be seen as ridiculing beliefs which are taken very seriously locally.
  • To handle the case “unofficially” by not sticking to the rules, although this could land me in trouble later.

Trying to remain as serious as possible, I chose the second option. Keeping a straight face, I therefore asked the sorcerer not to use occult powers for such a trivial matter. I also complained loudly about the irresponsible attitude of young men who “flit” from one girl to another, leading them to commit misdeeds, even if excusable ones, through passion, while adding that the medical costs will be covered if we could reach an “amicable settlement”.

Persuaded by my arguments, the protagonists agreed to leave things there as, all things being said and done, a knife fight between girls was not considered serious enough to justify the involvement of a “quimboiseur” (witch). The perpetrator and the plaintiffs left the office satisfied. Before leaving, the witch stopped to thank me for settling the matter fairly while also giving me a series of recommendations to help me stay on the right side of occult forces, spoken in the pidgin English widely used throughout the Caribbean. This was my reward for having “publicly recognised” her powers, giving her “extra credibility” which the local rumour chain would quickly add to her “CV” as a quimboiseuse… because in the Caribbean nothing stays secret for long.

A non-negligible “return on investment”

By going along with the witch and putting rationality aside for a moment, I had certainly gained in terms of popularity. On the one hand, I hadn’t ridiculed local beliefs which are certainly seen as sometimes quite shameful, but which are deeply rooted socially. Additionally, I had shrewdly settled a conflict which encapsulated all the ambiguity of this matriarchal Caribbean society, in which women in what are frequently single parent households often wield power despite lacking any official recognition for their role.

I had defused a personal conflict by ensuring that no one lost face. By encouraging everyone involved to act prudently when dealing with the uncontrollable and irrational mysteries of the occult, I had become “the man the quimboiseurs listen to” which is absolutely priceless because few people can earn their obedience! If the colonel himself, a “zoreille” from mainland France talks this way in public about quimbois (witchcraft), then it must be a serious subject deserving careful attention.

This popularity boost ensured that over the coming months the atmosphere was calmer than before. This is how things work out sometimes.

The French Antilles: départements with a unique cultural identity

While being French départements in their own right administratively, over the centuries the French Antilles have maintained a number of specific socio-cultural characteristics which also make them départements with a very distinct cultural identity. These characteristics resulted both from the slave trade and the survival of the above-mentioned occult beliefs, with slavery influencing the highly particular attitudes to work, particularly manual work or the attitude to authority, which ensures that orders are always given in a ‘contractual’ way with the legendary “Fais ça pour moi !” (“Do that for me”) which reverses the obligations of the “master-slave”. The incorporation of these highly specific cultural factors within daily life and work is therefore vital to understanding behaviour and to managing human resources. Without getting bogged down by the whole “victimisation of local populations by European slavers” argument, one which even today considerably hampers the way society and economic life operates locally, ignoring them or refusing to take account of them can leave you open to serious problems. To understand them, the best solution remains reading a handful of good books written by local authors, observing people and being attentive to them, and even taking the time to go and drink a “feu” (a glass of rum) with a few “kindred spirits” to learn more about the many sayings and beliefs which thrive here, putting aside conventional management methods generally applied in the world of Descartes…

Jean-Luc Martin

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Jean-Luc Martin

Following a military career which included spending many years overseas, Jean Luc Martin teaches intercultural management at a business school and works on problems related to managing expatriation. A graduate of Saint-Cyr and of the French National War College, he also holds a post-graduate qualification in organisational sociology from the IEP in Paris and a Master’s in human resources management from the IAE in Paris.

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