Sisters of Joy
The gâteau is pale sponge plastered in icing and cream: it actually tastes all right, though so sweet it makes my teeth ache. But as soon as I set down my fork, Tatiana brandishes the cake knife and plonks another thick slice on my plate.
‘No!’ I protest, ‘I can’t eat any more!’
Tatiana laughs her wonderful loud dirty laugh. ‘My sister – cake is good! You need to eat so you’ll have the energy to dance this evening!’
Tatiana is not really my sister – she’s a close friend, Central African collaborator, dance partner and veritable inspiration. She runs her own successful NGO – Femmes Action Plus (Women Action Plus) – which, in her words, exists to ‘give a voice to the voiceless in our country’.
Tatiana set up FAP back in 2011, which was also the beginning of the most recent crisis in the Central African Republic. ‘We started with a tiny office and just three people,’ she explains as I start munching my way through the second slab. ‘But now we have more than 200 people working with us, all over the country.’ One of her passions is promoting women’s rights, especially their right to education and to speak out about violence and violations in this traditionally patriarchal society. She has set up centres to train and educate women as well as supporting some of Bangui’s most vulnerable children.
Another passion is the plight of Central Africans from Haute Mbomou province in the remote southeast of this country, who have been kidnapped by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army. As Tatiana has previously explained to me, even when they do manage to escape their captors, ‘these victims face terrible stigmatization from their own communities; adults are suspected of being traitors, and children born in LRA captivity struggle to be accepted by anyone.’
A handful of international organizations are based in Haute Mbomou, but the support of national NGOs is incredibly important, especially those like FAP who really understand the local context and culture. Tatiana regularly travels to the city of Obo in southeastern CAR to support these escapees, and I’ve accompanied her there several times.
It was on one of these visits, last year, while we were staying at the Obo Catholic mission (which incidentally sits on top of a small hill, has no electricity and looks, and feels, like a haunted house) that Tatiana announced: ‘You and I are now sisters! You see the difficulties we face here in our country and you know what we are missing more than anything in our lives – joy! I’m telling you, we are now the Sisters of Joy!’
I laughed out loud and agreed it was a great idea – as did the local priest.
When she and I returned to the Central African Capital, Bangui, where we both live, we went out dancing to celebrate our sisterhood with a wonderful rowdy group of other Central African women, who all promptly joined our ‘sisterhood’. That night we all stayed out much later than usual, because we made each other laugh so much.
Women like Tatiana fill me with joy and inspiration. She is becoming one of the most important community leaders in her country, and is a powerful advocate for Central Africans to develop on their own terms, and to respect and cherish their own culture. Despite many professional and personal difficulties (her house has been burgled five times since 2013), she is insatiable in her quest for her NGO to remain ‘a voice for the voiceless’.
Recently she has been training at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and will soon begin collecting testimonies of LRA victims for the war crimes trial of a senior LRA commander who was recently arrested in CAR.
My Sister of Joy also recognizes that all organizations need to evolve in order to stay dynamic. She recently changed, or rather modified, the name of her NGO, which is now called Femmes et Hommes Action Plus, adding men to the title. Because, as she tells me while I am finally finishing off that second slab of cream-slathered sponge gâteau, ‘At times like these, my sister, we need our brothers to walk beside us on the road towards peace and development and justice.’