The first thing I notice on the puddle jumpers that fly from the capital city to my for-now hometown in northwest Central African Republic is the amount of uninterrupted forest cover. I am from the USA East Coast where all the woods are well-surrounded by roads and none of the trees save a few story-riddled exceptions are older than, oh, about 80 or 90 years. Woods where I grew up are criss-crossed by rock walls that were hand built by farmers when the woods were cornfields. I remember when I made it to the West Coast after a big cross-country hitchhiking adventure, and this Earth Firster walked with me down a narrow logging road through an enormous series of dense, tree-covered mountains. On the west coast of the US the mountains are sharp and pointy, and they rise steeply one after the other after the next. This place was a small range, maybe considered hills in that land of snowy peaks, and from our drive in to the campsite we had the chance to cross a long ridge looking down at tree-covered valley followed by narrow, tree-covered valley. I was awed by the quantity of forest without end. If you got lost, walking straight till you came to a road wouldn’t save you. It was incredible.
My friend, of course, was heartbroken. He was talking about experiences in forest like this and forest different than this. He was looking at the path we walked on– the narrow dirt roadway that wound its way up and along the ridge for slow miles– and in his eyes the ecosystem was already lost. Not just because the whole area was set to be logged in the next few years (come on, why the hell else was I in a deep woods with an Earth First kid?) but because it was already turning into an edge community. He pointed to the road and explained how the small gap in underbrush is an impassable void for deep woods species of animals and plants. At edges, new, invasive species thrive, diving in to soak up sun and space, creating walls of hardy, weedy, first-line succession plants that block the movements of stable, late-succession ones. The animals that evolve in uncut forest adapt to niches within the stable abundance of very specific resources, abundant from the spaciousness of the habitat not necessarily from the richness of the soil or the sun. Cuts into old growth forest interrupt this delicate balance of a whole body, allowing new species to infect the wound.
Holding close my friend’s heartbreak and my East Coast awe of that Cascadian temperate rainforest, I fly from Bangui la Coquette to Bossangoa. Behold the grand motherfucking Congo basin, one of the Earth’s great lungs, a carbon sink of untold magnitude, a tropical rainforest so precious that god scattered the earth upon which it walks with gold and diamonds.
From Bangui to Bossangoa we cross the barely noticeable divide between the upper edge of the Congo tropical rainforest and into the very bottom edge of the dry Sahel. By car, you can see the change in trees types and spacing. By living in each place you feel the change in humidity, in rain, in access to fruit.
If we must have a metaphor for this flight across CAR, let it be one of edge ecosystems. It’s been years since I studied natural ecosystems and I was, honestly, shocked at my friend’s description of edges as a form of violence as we walked together in the Cascades. In agro-ecology, we seek and create edges. Edges are a basic Permaculture Principle. Edges are efficient, edges are diverse, edges are productive. Edges support more types of species and a greater quantity of plants in a smaller space than any other kind of ecosystem. They are fertile and fluctuating, and for that reason edge species are resilient and hardy, thriving amidst competition by making the most of available resources. Humans are an edge species– we live along rivers and in clearings, we create paths wherever we go.
The violence that runs now across CAR is one of edges, a country cut by imposed borders and by competing livelihoods that evolved in the depth of uncut forest to the south and unending desert to the north. Yet agriculture produces most at the edge of forest, not within it, and the cattle herds of the north seek grassy, fertile edge ecosystems in which to pasture. Both of these ways of life thrive most at this frontier. Here in Centrafrique we see the violence and the fertile strength of edges. Here we see the resilience of communities and people who survive despite and because of the clash of ecosystems upon which they live.
I believe the CAR crisis is at base a land use crisis (pastoralists vs farmers), fueled by climate change (desertification pushing pasturelands further south, across borders), meddled in because of uranium (France’s oil), funded by minerals though fought over trauma (there’s no incentive for anyone, at any level, to stop). I’m trying to figure out how to explain all that. Here’s one try:
One of the Central African Republic phenomena that doesn’t get reported or talked about, and that gets a little deeper into the complexity of how this is not a religious conflict at its root, is that the Lebanese and Arab merchant class, the owners of Bangui’s big supermarkets and nicer restaurants– who speak Arabic and wear head scarves or boubous, who decorate their stores with paintings in Arabic script and have prayer rugs folded in the corners– are still around, still owning and selling and walking in downtown Bangui, still speaking Arabic to each other, still practicing Islam in public. It’s simplistic (though at times expedient) to say that Muslims are being ethnically cleansed (lynched, murdered, ghettoized, bombed, chased out of) in CAR. The violence is more specific than that.
I asked a Central African (Christian) driver about it today and he said, of course no one targeted the Lebanese merchants. According to the driver, people only targeted the black Muslims in CAR for reprisals because they saw the Central African Muslims as collaborators with the Seleka. To the extent that partial truths are true, what he said is true: some Central African Muslims did welcome the Seleka victory last year (after all, while some Seleka are Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries, many are Central Africans, from neglected and marginalized parts of CAR; otherss joined later to partake in the spoils and power), and still others benefited from the massive Seleka looting that methodically pillaged and burned villages across the Christian and non-Muslim parts of the country, which were comparatively better developed than the barren eastern dryland from where the Seleka first organized. Others still were implicated when Seleka forced Muslims in towns across the country to house Seleka troops while they went on their pillaging. Certainly, in Bossangoa for example, the rumor was that even the Muslims trapped in the École Liberté camp were hoarding the belongings of Christians seeking refuge in the camp at the Évêché. When the last Muslims evacuated École Liberté, their former neighbors were already looting (or “reclaiming,” depending on your perspective) the scraps left behind before the last Muslim person had boarded the last truck.
So, a partial truth: some Muslim Central Africans collaborated with the Seleka. But not the whole truth. The whole truth is the collective punishment, the collective revenge, being exacted upon all CAR’s Muslims starting with the pogram in Bangui in December 2013 when the Christian self-defense militia pushed the Seleka out of Bangui and turned their violence against the civilian Muslim population.
But not all of them. What you ended up with is that during the mass of anti-Muslim mob violence in December, January, and February, some non-Muslim Black Central Africans were ‘accidentally’ attacked and lynched for looking “foreign” and “Muslim” while the publicly practicing, Muslim, Arab expatriate merchants continued to live and work in the country. No one was really safe in CAR at that time, but this group, despite their public Islamic practice and actual immigrant status, were and are generally excepted from the anti-Muslim violence that is driving Central African Muslims from the country they were born in.
And that leads to the other mindfuck in all this. The language that is used to justify the ethnic cleansing of Muslims from CAR (the language of the driver I talked to, even as he explained how expatriate, Arab Muslims are not implicated in the crisis) is that “Muslims are foreign.” Muslims come from Chad. The mothers of Muslims come from Chad. Muslims are nomads. For those whose grandfathers were born here, their families are foreign, are nomads. It’s not foreign-ness per se that is targeted. It is the ‘foreign-ness’ of pastoralists, the association of settled Muslim communities in CAR with pastoralist Peulh and other Sahelian peoples whose herds may range from Chad, Niger, and Mali through Cameroun, CAR, and into the DR Congo.
In CAR, you can talk about conflict over diamonds and gold, which are funding the powerful and political of the militias, and you can talk about the Muslim Seleka and the Christian Anti-Balaka, each targeting the others’ religious group. But to get at the heart of the anger and the violence, you have to look past what glitters, whether mineral or faith. The crisis in CAR is about how you use the land.
I don’t know why I felt compelled to read my first animal rights book in almost a decade after, first, the self-care decision made while getting a degree in agriculture that since I was totally on-board with, convinced by, and actively practicing an animal rights-guided philosophy I do not need to continue to expose myself to paralyzingly violent images of slaughterhouse suffering, and second, while I am working amidst atrocity as an aid worker in the Central African Republic, where I’ve been trying to limit my violent media exposure to that which is directly relevant to my job.
I read this in a day while in bed with malaria, feeling a little miserable about genocidal atrocities and the constant violences of poverty, colonial-aftermaths, and malnutrition. Amidst this human horror, there is no room in my being and certainly not in my words and outward action to give any fucks about animals. I tell myself this, but still I’m staying vegetarian. I told myself I’d learn to eat animals again, but even on a rice-and-boiled-greens diet, I just don’t. (no qualms about eggs though; a girl’s gotta survive).
Animals here in CAR are raised free-range; there is no industrial animal agriculture. Pastoral cattle herds are a key cause of conflict and a key towards the restoration of livelihoods and dignity of the Muslim people being ethnically cleansed from the country. Eating animals hunted in the forest or fished from rivers is one of the few reliable sources of protein for a settled population whose crops were destroyed last year and may not make it to harvest this year, a people facing famine. On an individual level though struggling goats are tied down straddling motorcycle handlebars, chickens are grabbed up by the legs and swung like bags, pigs are slaughtered in long, screaming ordeals. Though this book is certainly ripe with the descriptive violence from which I’m trying to media-fast, it felt really good to read an affirmation of kindness extended beyond humanity. Love is not a limited resource and doesn’t have to be cut short just because there isn’t enough in practice in a current time and place.
I read this book; I didn’t talk about it, and I won’t. But it felt good to commune with a favorite author on the complexity and importance of animal-based agro-ecoystems while also making a conscious, conscience choice to refuse all of it, to believe there could be something better, even in this world.
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Food is not so much a symbol of freedom as the first requirement of freedom.
(Jonathon Safron Foer, Eating Animals)
Maybe sometimes we don’t do the right thing because the wrong ting looks more dangerous, and we don’t want to look scared, so we go and do the wrong thing just because it’s dangerous. We’re more concerned with not looking scared than with judging right.
(Philip Pullmas, The Amber Spyglass)
Let none admire
That riches grow in Hell; that soil may best
Deserve the precious bane.
(John Milton, Paradise Lost, on the resource curse and blood diamonds)
The land may vary more
But wherever the truth my be–
The water comes ashore
And the people look at the sea.
They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?
Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
I brought this book with me to the Central African Republic, and read it by headlamp in a dark room after they shut the generator off for the night each night over about a week. I started the book about 3 weeks after I arrived in this northwestern town comprised of burned and knocked down houses, empty quartiers, and, at the time, two crowded tent cities, one surrounding the main church and its many outbuildings, the Christian camp, at one point some 40,000 strong when the vast majority of the town cowered under Seleka control, and the other the square block of muddied grass surrounding a primary school in the center of town, where the Muslims were confined behind armed guards after a pogrom five months ago following the Seleka departure drove them out of their homes and storefronts. Within this context of tired, displaced people my work took me outside the city limits on rural roads that hadn’t been traversed by cars since the last Seleka pickup gunned it down the dirt paths, stopping to loot and burn and rape and burn, last fall. It’s spring now, and I work with people who are offering meager help in the face of incomprehensible terror and hard times– besides the violence there is the lack (of food, of seed, of tilled land, of tools, of clothes, of bedding, of anything one could have in a house that could go up in flames) to contend with, and it is just as hard.
The book is now in the hands of a 20-something Central African coworker who daily leads teams to rural villages, taking responsibility for their wellbeing in the face of constant roadblocks and hassling from armed men, who I think will be the friend I take away from this place in my heart in some many months from now when it’s time for me to leave the people who were born here and will stay.
I’m writing this from a peaceful place in Bangui, the capital city where gunshots ring out across the night but there’s fuel and food and places to go at night before curfew, to see other people and speak English, which is delicious. There are flowers and birds and a view of the Oubangui river and the Congo rainforest in the distance in front of me as I type. When I got to Bangui for a few days of rest, I felt urgent and sad and anrgy, at a loss for how to negotiate (a) people who didn’t realize how bad it is in the northwest, (b) people who knew and also were able to set it aside and enjoy life and beer and each other, and (c) trying to sleep in a quiet, comfortable bed with AC instead of a hot, no-fan concrete box with a thin mattress and the constant sounds of animals and people sleeping in tents around my little enclosed private room all night. But comfort and happy, relaxed people are not the enemy and they are not causing the pain of the people I work with and for. These other aid workers are here to devote their lives too to help and cope with limits of resources and time and energy and everything, too. The anger I felt, unasked for, welling up at their ease was both erasing their own trauma and so misdirected. It was my first vision of how hard it is to do this work, when I was able to see that part of me in others that at this moment I can’t access, that I have shut down: ease. Lipsky warned of ‘persecution complexes,’ and I felt one manifest. I was glad to have read about it so I could identify the feelings, sit with them, and move on.
I’ve read a lot of books and trauma and practiced care of secondary trauma. I’ve survived PTSD from sexual assault and worked/volunteered/practiced advocacy and support for other survivors; I’ve lived abroad where I spent isolated months immersed in malnutrition and agriculture where it is hard to grow food– from these previous experiences and primary/secondary exposures, I’ve learned tools, techniques, practices, and sources of strength. I am implementing them here in CAR, I prepared. Some of what I got from this book was a feeling of strength and resilience, because I know and do already much of what Lipsky teaches.
Some of what I got from Lipsky was frustration. She directs much of the book to burnout and compassion fatigue, and so many of the stories and advice are about how to gently pry oneself loose from the work at hand. But what if this work is– at the same time it is so, so harsh and hard– giving me life and vibrant energy and the most deep satisfaction in action I have ever found? I had an Owen Meany moment when I felt the 10 years of study and research and lesser but related jobs finally come out in responsibilities into which I was able now to step. Lipsky, I needed more joy and embracing of the work itself, I needed more love and advice for how to continue the work through the trauma, not how to shy away from traumatic, traumatizing work. I am fresh, of course. I can tolerate a book that doesn’t always speak to me.
In general, I think this is not the end of books for caring for trauma. I like some other books with more practical step-by-step guides. I like the lessons I’ve gotten from years of yoga classes with teachers, from a couple periods of time with therapists. I like the lists I’ve prepared for myself of herbal tinctures and writing and people to contact and small rituals and fantasy novels and a stock of yoga and high-intensity workout videos. This book is a very good introduction to self-care while giving care and it is good for those who have burned through their candle. I’ll guard the burnout advice in my heart and try to cultivate ease.
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this is a crimethinc. thought:
i am finally living at the full pace and urgency that the world has always felt like it deserved. i feel alive and real. no regrets; clichés exist for a reason.
p>A go-bag is the backpack you keep ready so that if you have to evacuate someplace as quickly as possible, you don’t have to waste any time packing or worrying about what to bring. After a few close-enough false alarms to have been firmly out the door at 2am, if always returned and asleep again by 3, I’ve perfected my personal packing list— at least, that is, until I get to field test the contents over a matter of days of uncomfortable travel. Then I promise I will update this to reflect those insights.
For now, my main lessons-learned from late-night wake-n-runs are in regards to getting out the door presentably & comfortably in a conservative culture despite the clothes I (don’t) sleep in:
As always with lists like this, adapt as necessary to your preferences and your (worst case but potential) circumstances. For me, I’m packing for late-night rushed evac by foot and most likely airplane with a 17kg weight limit. My bag has to be portable and light (I’m using a hiking backpack). It also needs room for the materials from work that I’m responsible for, papers, my laptop, and the like. Finally, I need to pack with the assumption that I won’t ever get back to get the rest of my stuff, so essential documents and keepsakes and all get stored in this bag in case of this worst-case scenario.
What I keep in my go-bag:
Anthropologist Louisa Lombard on Anti-Balaka and their gris-gris (note that she doesn’t even address the translation found in every English-language newspaper article that anti-balaka = anti-machete):
Nearly every article about the recent crisis in CAR includes photos of fighters decked out in gris-gris that will, their wearers say, keep bullets from hitting them. One of the origin stories about the name of one of the main agglomerations of fighters, the Anti-Balaka, has it that it stems from the initiations members go through, which render them impervious even to “balles-AK,” or “Balaka” (Kalashnikov bullets). When I was interviewing CAR rebels in 2009 and 2010, they said their gris-gris knowledge had swelled as a result of collaborations with Chadian men-in-arms, who are “très forts” in that kind of thing.
Today, while revising a chapter on French colonial administration in Oubangui-Chari, as the CAR was then known, I was reminded of another origin for these bulletproofing practices. The French, always short on cash, figured they could impose a head tax on their subjects in order to raise revenue. Colonial subjects generally had no colonial monies, though, so the tax would be collected in labor — literally backbreaking (or head-breaking) labor, such as carrying 65kg for days, with no provision for food or shelter along the way. Oubangui-Chari was the poorest of all the French colonies, and so it had the highest head tax. How else would administrators get anything done? This policy proved disastrous. It caused tens of thousands of deaths due to overwork, illness, disruption of agricultural production, and the brutal violence that was necessary to coerce people to do their bidding, and so further de-populated an area that already had a very low human population thanks to decades of slave raiding. People resisted however they could. Many fled to less repressive places like the Belgian Congo (yes, even the notorious Belgians were seen as more lenient, at least in certain respects). Many others revolted. And those who rebelled made sure to take medicine given to them by a “sorcerer” that made them impervious to bullets. Some of those rebels were quite successful. One group managed to hold Europeans at bay for a full six months.
In my current travels in northwestern CAR, I meet a lot of Anti-Balaka, mostly just wandering around, poking around, or blocking the road. This is a low-resource rag-tag home-defense militia cum homicidal mob; there is no cloth available for matching uniforms. Instead the Anti-Balaka cultivate style that makes them easily identifiable from a ‘civilian’ of the same age group, even as their clothes vary person to person. They wear mostly western (vs. traditional cloth) pants or jeans, and t-shirts or tanks. Their hair is amazing. It’s braided into tight knobs like liberty spikes or shaved down into hawks. They layer necklaces of handsewn gris gris in colorful 3x3inch pouches made of tarp or leather or cloth in all kinds of colors, sometimes necklace on necklace, inches thick across their chests. I have no idea what’s inside. They are these teenage men and sometimes women in tight dark ragged clothes arranged with care to project this tough, intimidating, handcrafted aura. It’s so diy punk I cannot even.
It would be wildly inappropriate to take photographs in the moments I meet them, so google image search will have to try to do justice (I swear I will take photos of things that aren’t food or craft projects, one day). This photo post and maybe this capture some of what I’m trying to describe. Smarter theory people than I could write something good about how aesthetics can play a powerful role in unifying a group or military force, serve as a cultural identifier, and project a (invincible, terrifying) message to outsiders; could question multidirectional influences of youth culture and the fashion of rebellion in a globalized but also isolated world; could sift out the practical vs artistic aspects of Anti-Balaka dress without disrespecting the significance of either; could prod the impact of western media & blogger & the occasional daydreaming aid worker on long car rides’ romanticization of revolutionary chic style on beautiful young men in the midst of ugly carnage.
CAR writings disclaimer: I want to direct new readers to these two posts about CAR crisis background & why I’m writing what I’m writing, and add the reminder that the advocacy & technical writings are reserved for work; here is just me & my experience, carefully sifted to spare the experiences of others.
(written weeks ago, notebook)
It is 1:15 am and the dog outside my window barks, growls, pauses. Somewhere else another dog barks. Further out one howls. It has continued like this for so many long minutes. Why does no woman or young tough boy shut the dog up with a cry or a slap or a threatening jerky movement? Is everyone else afraid, too? Perhaps tolerant?
I am afraid. This is so long to go on, and no one in the camp moves. They cannot sleep through this. They are never so still and yet: the dogs bark and the camp is silent. Waiting?
If it’s a horror taking place (here, elsewhere, in one of the dogs’ dreams) I am not ready. Sleepy. Barefoot. Boxers. Eyes unable to see in the dark.
Thinking of how my coworkers are most of them displaced people themselves, constantly re-exposing to the worst of burned houses in these familiar villages but also healing with empowered action, perhaps. Thinking of the displaced people sleeping in the courtyard, on the porch, beneath my back window, around all the corners of the Bossangoa Church and grade schools and soccer fields. I rent a room in the middle of a displaced people’s camp, because the people fled here, to the relative safety of this sacred enclosed space and its environs.
Still these dogs here. It is 1:24 am, no relenting of bark, growl, listen. No stirring in the courtyard full of people.
Thinking of the scary and politically questionable Chadian MISCA who frighten the Christian population, who are perhaps or not connected to the Seleka who are burning humans alive north of us in Kouki and Bowaye. If the Chadian MISCA leave, what will happen to the 500 Muslim people, children and women waiting for news from their husbands and fathers who fled ahead of them to see if their was a life in Chad or on the border? Oh my god, if these people leave their camp, or if the MISCA leave their post, will they die grotesque deaths? There’s no doubt amongst the young men who fled families burned alive that there are some who have or would take up arms or revenge. The Anti-Balaka are community self-defense seeking, it feels, only revenge.
It is 1:31 and I hear the first muffled noise besides awful, continuing dog bark and grow. A muffled child’s whimper. A light bang on wood somewhere. A light child’s cry. Why is there no reaction? Is there something happening? Where is that other distant dog? Do dogs have night terrors?
Horrible dog whine, almost like a cow. Growling, no more barking. Two voices whisper. The dogs in the distance unabated. Ours barks again. It is 1:35.
I am surrounded by people but I have no way to get news. I can hear the hoarseness in this dog’s voice. My world is so small. A circle of light contained by mosquito netting. Light kills night vision but my heart is calmer to have light though I know it makes it harder to see out there if I need to.
It is not a bloodthirsty bark. It is a bark of warning, fear, communication.
It may be over. Our dog stopped. The distant dog continues. It is 1:42 am.
Profoundly silent humanity throughout this whole ordeal.
A child coughed– my dog barks again.
(also, weeks ago)
On the way to Kouki, burned in March, words painted in big white letters on a house:
LA VIE PROGRESSE
Night noises. Prayer, incomprehensible, male and female voices saying different words at the same time in nonstop fastpaced monotone.
Amina Amina Amina.
(other nights they sing)
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