I could see the Bossangoa cathedral in the distance, and the Ouham river was at my back, so I was firmly oriented here. like Boston with the Pru and the Charles, or New York in midtown with the Empire State Building and the river (as long as you don’t get too far south so the Wall St high rises mess you up) you always know how to get home. And yet, taking this path instead of that one felt momentous: here is my world, expanding. The metaphor with Warcraft (the original, back in the 90s) and its Fog of War feature blacking out the parts of the map on which your characters haven’t walked feels dangerously apt. Here in Centrafrique, my movements are limited by daily updated security protocols and the personal dance I perform negotiating savvy safety measures and victim-blaming self-censure, between participation in the life around me and the knowledge of my difference as barrier to integration, as target. The list of possibilities is long enough to mar reasonable discussion about personal choices: harassment, mugging, stalking, kidnapping. It was aid workers same as me who were beheaded in Iraq this month. Were they just trying to find healthy expression of exercise, of peace in solitude, of independence, of embracing the community in which they lived by boldly stepping into it, and was that stupid? I don’t know the circumstances of their capture, but I know I should take sensible measures to avoid my own.
The weight of decision is heavy! To sit within walls and cars is offered to me as an option, perhaps recommended, occasionally enforced on pain of firing. I can and I have taken it. For weeks at different times in the last half-year, my steps were confined to the space between my room and my office, transported in between by white land cruiser. Twenty steps to the car, ten from car to work. I do workout videos in my concrete room each night to remind myself how little I move, to jump out the frustration of traveling across a globe only to reduce my vision of the world to rooms surrounded by walls, guarded, infiltrated only by elite people who speak the colonial language and showed the right credentials in terms of references, education, past job experience, and “right” motivation to be hired. A reminder to always distrust the so-called experts who wield their experience of “having been there” to mean anything. The phrase is empty, it’s the nature of their lives in the place that matters.
Both of these threats feel at once overblown and essential: to shelter in place is to not act, it is easy and small and sensible and safe. You can always create a good case for that decision. But to take independent steps down a grassy hill, cutting through a corn field and across a busy main road: that too is small. It is normal and sensible, it is a gentle easing of the tension between alien outsider encapsulated in enormous SUVs and the regular people in a place traveling at a reasonable scale: by foot. It is big because it is a peace offering, it is an act of refusal to fear and degrade and separate. The fear is easy to give into, but to acknowledge the presence of this limiting fear is to acknowledge racist and classist biases that slide easily behind reasonable fear in a war zone. It is not brave to walk, but it is in a small way kind.
The weight of the decision is exhausting! To walk is not to integrate! A walk, a struggle to keep face neutral, to create a friendly, open smile without creating open invitations (to touch, to follow, to expect), eyes guardedly down under the pressure of deciphering cat calls from friendly acknowledgments when they are all in an unknown language– this is not immersion! I always miss New York, where no one says hello, so there is no question of the intent of the person shouting Cherie! across a road. To participate in life is to open oneself to new errors of rudeness, perhaps more painful because the insults come at a more personal level. No one feels individually slighted by the turned-away face hidden behind a car window.
Regardless, to walk is the normal I want to manifest, a decision I want to make lighter. I want to be able to sleep in past my ride, I want to be able to go here or there when the moment is right, to feel like the space I take up is at human scale and I don’t need a driver and a metal box to meet my basic needs. I would like to be seen enough to become a normalized part of the morning commute, a munju not worth commenting on, normalized by enacting the normal of life in the place where I live. In Mali, in Ethiopia, in Allston, walking was how I met my neighbors and came to know the place, came to be known in small ways (the regular coffee order, the after work grilled corn, the hellos by name, these are threads of social fabric). In CAR, the intimate nature of civil war calls into question the value of these mutual pleasures and respect of regular neighborly contact: in a place where months ago neighbors killed neighbors stole from neighbors tortured neighbors, where is the value in walking? We know from past horrors of war and genocide and mass sexual violence that traumas stay with peoples intergenerationally. With the grave, lasting weight of trauma, what is the value of stepping into normalcy weeks later?
I don’t know.
As I come to a fork in the path, a woman calls my name. She’s sitting on a stool next to three little girls, stirring a big black pot balanced on three stones. She’s a secretary at an ngo in town, I know her. Her house has new thatch on the roof and scorch marks on the walls, but it’s a big one with a wide yard surrounded by tall, ripe corn. She introduces her girls and I see a young man, teenager, who is maybe her son sweeping corn husks across the yard. She lets me know the path straight ahead is flooded but I can go around a different way. This is the point, right? You can’t have mutual aid unless you allow yourself to be vulnerable. The decision rests large but it allows the decider to grow smaller. There’s healing value in that.