Revelations about the hotel housekeeper who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault suggest that she embellished claims of abuse to receive asylum, fudged her tax returns, had ties to people with criminal backgrounds, had unexplained deposits in her bank account and changed the account of the encounter she gave investigators. Yet those who would rush to judge her should consider the context.
Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s accuser is from Guinea, also the home country of Amadou Diallo, the street peddler who was shot to death in the doorway of his Bronx apartment building by four New York City police officers in 1999. Guineans leave their country in large numbers, partly because of grinding poverty; 70 percent live on less than $1.25 a day , despite the fact that Guinea has almost half of the world’s bauxite (from which aluminum is made), as well as iron, gold, uranium, diamonds and offshore oil.
The same leaders whose theft and mismanagement have kept so many Guineans poor in the decades since independence from France, in 1958, have also been ferociously violent, massacring as many as 186 unarmed demonstrators calling for democratic reforms in 2007, and at least 157 demanding the same in 2009. After the latter massacre, members of the state security forces gang-raped dozens of women to punish them for protesting and to terrorize men and women into silence.
While the American government condemned the massacres, the bauxite kept shipping, supplying Americans with aluminum cookware and automobile parts. That’s no surprise; the biggest mining companies doing business in Guinea are based in the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia.
People fleeing state-sponsored violence and extreme poverty will do anything to leave. I receive requests every few weeks to write expert-witness affidavits for West African asylum claimants. As a personal matter of conscience, I will not write in support of an applicant whose testimony I believe contains inconsistencies.
Yet asylum claimants are often asked to perform an impossible task. They must prove they have been subject to the most crushing forms of oppression and violence — for this, bodies bearing the scars of past torture are a boon — while demonstrating their potential to become hard-working and well-adjusted citizens.
This is where the lies and embellishments creep into some asylum seekers’ narratives. Immigrants share tips and hunches about ways to outwit the system, even as immigration judges try to discover the claimants’ latest ruses. But I can say from experience that for every undeserving claimant who receives asylum, several deserving ones are turned down. So few Africans gain access to green cards through legal channels that the United States government grants about 25,000 spots annually to Africans selected at random through the diversity visa lottery.
Just as Mr. Diallo’s death resonated because it made the tribulations of many West African immigrants public, the case of Mr. Strauss-Kahn and his accuser has the aura of a parable. Many Africans feel the International Monetary Fund, which Mr. Strauss-Kahn led, and the World Bank have been more committed to the free flow of money and commodities like bauxite than to the free flow of people and the fulfillment of their aspirations.
Guinean press accounts, and recent conversations I’ve had with Guineans, suggest that they disapprove of the deceptions by Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s accuser. But given the poverty and systemic violence in their country, they understand the circumstances in which such deception could occur — and we should, too.
As the case against Mr. Strauss-Kahn seemingly disintegrates, he is enjoying a political renaissance at home, yet I keep asking myself: does a sexual encounter between a powerful and wealthy French politician and a West African hotel cleaning woman from a dollar-a-day background not in itself suggest a gross abuse of power?
Mike McGovern, an assistant professor of anthropology at Yale, the author of Making War in Côte d’Ivoire, and he’s writing a book on Guinea.