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!


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