[Centrafrique] Wandering Bossangoa

I took a few more photos during my meanderings around Bossangoa. I generally avoid taking photos of people without their consent (i.e. few candids) and I try not to whip my camera out in crowds, so these photos don’t capture the lively and bustling town with it’s multiple buzzing markets and reckless moto-taxi traffic. Bossangoa is a city without a center, made of diffuse neighborhoods spread over a wide distance along the Ouham River. Even in it’s busy state lately, and as these pictures reflect, it still looks empty, like a village, not the 2nd biggest city in CAR.

Bossangoa had at one point a population of over 40,000 people. The 5,000-strong Muslim community has been ethnically cleansed from Bossangoa– killed in the pogrom of December 2013 or, after months sheltering behind armed African Union troops in the 2-block radius École Liberté displaced people’s camp, evacuated by commercial truck to barren refugee camps in Chad.

The anti-Muslim pogrom was a (insane, grotesque) reaction to the Seleka occupation over mid- to late-2013. When the Seleka entered Bosangoa, guns and bayonets blazing, the town sought refuge at the Catholic Mission.

Compare this photo from September, 2013, when the Seleka were in control of Bossangoa with the Cathedral today:

Évêché1

And this one vs:

Évêché2

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[Centrafrique] Part II: Benzambe, building

The first thing we saw in Benzambe, the first sign of renewal, of the firm decision that We Live In Town Now and no longer sleeping nights under stars among mosquitoes out in the fields or forest, was a visual metaphor so perfect as to be surreal:

garden!

The foundations of burned, knocked down homes make for fertile garden beds, the refuse of daily life providing ample compost for new growth. I noticed the Amaranth, squash, and onion buds began poking up, gently tended, in the ruins sometime over the summer.

But it wasn’t until the rains finally stopped in November that the Benzambe construction boom got well under way. As the days shorten to equilibrium and the cool night wind picks up desiccating dust, gangs of young men in village after village sit on rooftops knotting reeds into rope to hold down thatch while others stand knee deep in square holes, mixing mud into clay, shaping bricks.

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The Need of Being Versed in Country Things

Robert Frost.

The house had gone to bring again
To the midnight sky a sunset glow.
Now the chimney was all of the house that stood,
Like a pistil after the petals go.
The barn opposed across the way,
That would have joined the house in flame
Had it been the will of the wind, was left
To bear forsaken the place’s name.
No more it opened with all one end
For teams that came by the stony road
To drum on the floor with scurrying hoofs
And brush the mow with the summer load.
The birds that came to it through the air
At broken windows flew out and in,
Their murmur more like the sigh we sigh
From too much dwelling on what has been.
Yet for them the lilac renewed its leaf,
And the aged elm, though touched with fire;
And the dry pump flung up an awkward arm;
And the fence post carried a strand of wire.
For them there was really nothing sad.
But though they rejoiced in the nest they kept,
One had to be versed in country things
Not to believe the phoebes wept.

[Centrafrique] Part I: Benzambe, beautiful

Benzambe is the name of the region northeast of Bossangoa, CAR. It’s “dense” for the area, with villages coming one after the other on narrow roads, though many of the villages don’t go further than a row or two of houses back into the forest, which is also denser here. Like hollows in West Virginia, the area is tight, bright, culturally significant, fitted into a tight, bright and dark forest.

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Church 3d

[Centrafrique] My favorite writing on CAR

It’s been awhile since I learned I was moving to the Central African Republic and tried to cram as much learning about the country, peoples, language, politics, and all aspects of crisis as possible, starting from essentially scratch. I described that process, with CAR-specific links but in a more general how-to “learn-as-much-as-possible-as-fast-as-possible” format in a post from February, Prepping for CAR: Studying Up.

That post had some great links in, but after a year of reading I can sift and sort out the best places to start or delve, in English, on the Central African Republic.

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[Centrafrique] On December 5th #BlackLivesMatter

Today is the one year anniversary of the day the Anti-Balaka marched into Bangui. They chased out the armed Seleka rebels, who, wanting only material gain and not to really control a state, mostly left without putting up a fight. Then the Anti-Balaka, a homegrown militia of people whose main suffering under the Seleka was watching family burned alive in their homes, went on a revenge- and trauma-fueled slaughtering rampage and lynched hundreds of Muslim people in Bangui, in Bossangoa, and across the Central African Republic. They chased people into their houses, knocked them down (the rubble is still all that stands in the Muslim quartiers of these cities), killed them with machetes, cut them to pieces and displayed their bodies. Over the next few months they continued to target all Muslim people until they had killed or chased out almost the entire community from the Western half of the country.

This is part of the story. The other part, the silent part, are people across all ethnic groups and religions who protected people from attackers. Who volunteered to run and organize camps of displaced people. Of whole villages who banded together to hide a single Muslim person from marauding killers. Who continue to work in the relief. Who set up their own NGOs so they could receive donations from the UN to bring food to hungry people whose crops were destroyed. Who teach tolerance to children or on the radio even though it makes them targets. Who paste signs on their squatted-building restaurants welcoming people of all faiths. Who went out day after day after day, 6 or 7 days a week, to do the heavy labor of seed delivery because the seeds arrived late but they all knew it was their labor that would make possible a harvest and avert a famine. They did avert a famine in CAR: reason to celebrate.

The CAR response– aid and peacekeepers to protect civilians– is one of the most underfunded responses now. In Syria, the World Food Program is halting or reducing it’s food aid to refugees, so I do not write this lightly– there are incredible needs across the world. But as we reflect on the extremes of racism in the US that allows police to kill Black people with impunity, remember too the colonial and neocolonial white supremacy that resulted in rich lands like Central Africa watching their riches extracted and their people enslaved and killed, resulting in horrific fucked up situations like this one where trauma and need create cycles of inhumane greed and cruelty. Black lives matter. To my white friends in the US, don’t be myopic about which Black lives matter– white supremacy is a global phenomenon.

TRAVEL ADVICE! for the traveler kid who doesn’t normally cross oceans

OK punk, you got your first humanitarian aid job? Well, me too! And I’m trying to document how I’m going about it, to refer to later when I almost forget again what to pack in my carryon to avoid what happened this time when my bags got lost (ok, the third time…) and cuz I like writing advice for people like me who didn’t grow up flitting about the world but instead are only now flitting as grown-ass Adults, whose airplane tickets are paid for by stuff like jobs and school, and who perpetually feel like we missed some kind of basic training for this sort of thing cuz everyone else in the airport is suddenly walking somewhere else really fast and shouldn’t I follow them…?

Rant:

International aid and development work is some elitest shit. In general, employers expect 2 years abroad experience for an entry-level NGO job (or unpaid internship!). Professional-level fluency in a foreign language and a masters degree are also basic entry requirements. Of course, this means that sons and daughters of rich people who sent them to European language summer schools and volunteer vacations have an unfair advantage over equally or better qualified but poorer peers. And that’s another ugly truth about this field, which is that besides the class gap between high-paid international staff and the national staff and people we work with/for, there is also a tendency for the intl staff to be of a wealthier class background than most people in the country they come from. There’s not a lot of ‘solidarity not charity’ in NGOs because it’s a wealthy-class field; few people link the poverty they see abroad with poverty and economic injustice at home. Writing about and linking to others’ writing on ways to get around some of these barriers to entry and thinking on how to change the dynamics and structures of this work are too much for this post and for my brain lately (see the post about living in a concrete box for details). What I can do is offer some experiences navigating what is.

End rant.

So here is my ongoing series of international travel and aid work how-to’s:

 

New posts will be added to the Resources page of this blog.

Self-Care in a Concrete Box

this is not the box i live inLiving by myself under strict, early curfew in a dark concrete room with electricity for about 3 hours each night for the last 8 months or so, I find myself able to practice the daily rituals that doctors and therapists and yoga teachers recommend, like flossing and deep breathing. It took effort to put good habits into place, but now that I’m an expert at the alone routine, I figured I would share some links in case you ever find yourself similarly forced to amuse yourself for the last 5 or 6 hours of every day. These ideas are of course a bit tailored to the particulars of low-resource, high stress, and poor sanitation of my current rural Central African Republic living sitch, but hopefully you can alter to your more well-lit, stable, and cleaner conditions. Because hopefully you live in those!

My normal evening is spent winding down after work and early dinner, sitting on the toilet reading news articles I downloaded to my phone during the last 5 minutes before they shut the generator (and therefore internet) off at work, washing my hands and then my feet in the sink, doing a 20-minute workout video followed by a 20-minute yoga podcast, then taking a shower while fending off the cockroaches that come up from the drain as they start to drown by bearing down on them with a waterproof headlamp held in my hand like a chair against a lion, then watching the OC or Friends on my computer while I play Spider Solitaire on my phone and/or flossing and moisturizing, dialing my partners’ phone number to receive the no service noise 10 or 11 times, until finally pulling down the mosquito net and reading in the dark til I fall asleep.

Not the most glamorous existence, but it makes the time pass, and more importantly, it ticks all the self-care boxes I need to practice regularly to build up resilience so that when I am woken to gunfire at midnight or a hospital run at 3am, or I go a month not taking weekends while we navigate delivering late deliveries of life-saving supplies held up by crummy roads and armed hold-ups, I got some structure and built up reserves in place to see me through to the next R&R vacation, when I eat whole blocks of cheese and tofurkey-veganaise sandwiches and go on hikes through the the woods to get back to normal.

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[Centrafrique] On walking

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.

[Centrafrique] LA got nothin on BANGUI.

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Let me refer all haterz to Knaan.