Letter from Bangui: The guardian

Health
Central African Republic

Sarah John

I never wanted guards at my house: chez moi is nestled into the hillside just above Bangui’s small city centre, and it feels discreet and safe. But armed burglaries are sadly an everyday crime here, and when I first rented this house the owner asked whether I wanted to keep on Robert, the guardian who had looked after the place for years.

Robert is a tall, thin Central African. I still don’t know his age, though he must be in his late forties – the average life expectancy for Central African men is still just 46. I liked Robert from the start: he was reliable, honest and straightforward. The only problem was that any time I tried to speak with him he put his head down and stared at the ground, refusing to meet my eyes for even a second. I asked if something was wrong and he just shook his head. I began to worry that he didn’t like me!

I asked one of my Central African friends, Flora, to come over and speak with Robert in Sango, the local vernacular, to find out what was going on. Flora took him to one side and they talked for a while.

‘It’s all fine,’ she told me afterwards. ‘Sometimes he just struggles to understand your French as he’s more comfortable speaking Sango. And he doesn’t look at you when you’re talking to him because you’re his boss! You know, for us, making eye contact when the boss is speaking is rude – he is just listening to your every word.’

I told Flora how important eye contact is in my culture, we laughed at our differences, and it made me appreciate how much I still have to unravel about living in Central Africa.

Over the months Robert and I got used to each other. I practised my fledgling Sango on him; he taught me about the plants and trees in my garden, including the spiny little pepper bush that produces tiny, red, delicious chilli peppers. He showed me how to cut the citronella grass and make a tea from the blades that helps you sleep like a child, while also repelling mosquitoes with its lemony perfume. He suggested I could hire someone to shimmy up the palm trees and ‘bleed’ the sap for palm wine. I did so, and we toasted the first liquid ‘harvest’ together. He calls me Maman Ruby which is honorific in Central Africa, and I refer to him as Papa Robert in return.

Gradually I learnt something about his life with his grown-up daughter, his disabled wife and her blind brother, all of them sharing a house a few miles away on the edge of Bangui. Robert never told me he was the only family breadwinner, but I am sure he is.

A couple of weeks ago I noticed Robert limping, and asked what had happened. He had fallen on his way to work, he said. But he was shuffling, looking weary, thinner, older, as if all the years of work were suddenly taking their toll. My driver, Cedric, spoke with me privately, asking if I could give Robert a few days off work as he was suffering serious diarrhoea. I told Robert to stay at home and rest for a week.

The day before he was due to return to work, a man appeared at my gate. He was Robert’s neighbour, and had come to tell me Robert was still sick and needed a few more days off work, if possible. That afternoon Cedric and I drove to Robert’s house for the first time – and I realized he’d been walking miles to and from my house every day. But Robert wasn’t there: he had gone to hospital. I left some money for medicine with his blind brother-in-law, and said Robert’s job would be waiting whenever he was well again. I was sad not to see him.

This week I have to leave Bangui for some days. I’ve just called to see Flora again, and given her some money. ‘Just in case anything happens while I’m away, this is for Robert’s family,’ I said to her, blinking hard and staring at the floor. In Central African terms Robert is a sick old man now, and I hope he will be here when I get back.

Ruby Diamonde is a pseudonym.