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The most forgotten

Letter from Bangui illustration June

© Sarah John

It’s 5.45 am. I am on my terrace, overlooking the hill just above Bangui, sipping my first coffee. The soft early-morning mist is rising; the sun glitters and birds chatter as the city below awakens. The hill is so lush all I can see is forest and flowers. It all looks and feels especially radiant this morning, because I am actually thinking of leaving Bangui. For good.

There are professional and personal reasons propelling me towards leaving. But the Central African Republic (CAR) has been my home for two and a half years, so it’s a big decision. I can’t truly make up my mind until I take one more trip to the bush, to think it through without distractions from people close to me. So I’m flying out to Obo, a town on the eastern edge of CAR, close to the border with South Sudan.

I’ve been to Obo many times: I know its red dust streets, the small market selling fabrics, blankets and medicine. I know the two priests at the Catholic mission where I always stay, the Sudanese merchants and the (very) few aid workers stationed there. Obo is surrounded by vast, dense forest: it’s a beautiful place, but utterly neglected by the government and the international community (the US has a secret military base here, but that’s another story).

Obo’s location has blighted the lives of its residents: they live under the shadow of the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a violent militia set up by Joseph Kony from Uganda in the 1980s. LRA gunmen have previously targeted this town, kidnapping scores of children and adults, some of whom have never been seen again. These days the LRA is much weakened: Kony is old and sick and the remaining foot-soldiers are hungry feral men who’ve spent years roaming in the bush. But Obo is still vulnerable. Two months ago a hunter saw strange men in the forest 10 kilometres out of town and raised the alarm: three locals went to investigate, including an aid worker. They were all murdered. Communities have fled the villages surrounding Obo, leaving only the very poor eking a living from the forest. Locals call the LRA Tongo-Tongo (‘early morning’) as they always strike at first light.

‘We are the most forgotten Central Africans,’ says Matthieu, a local activist who has worked as a volunteer supporting LRA victims for years. He lives in a settlement beyond Obo, towards the Sudanese border, and is an expert on the long-term impact of the traumas haunting this remote region. I ask him to accompany me a few kilometres into the forest, to visit the scattered small communities still daring to live there. We rent a motorbike and head out down the rutted track that leads towards the Sudanese border.

I have motorbiked down this track before, in awe of the vivid rainforest where wild pineapples grow and chimpanzees swing; but today something feels wrong. My stomach starts aching with anxiety, and I feel overwhelming relief when we reach the first tiny settlement of two forest families. But they are nervous, too: ‘We don’t sleep here any more,’ the father tells me. ‘We walk back to Obo at dusk – after the killings we’re too frightened of Tongo-Tongo to stay.’

As he talks I watch his weary face, then catch myself looking around, jumpy as hell. I am really spooked, and abruptly tell Matthieu we need to get back.

I don’t relax until we reach the outskirts of Obo. I love CAR, but am mentally exhausted by its chronic conflicts.

The world has, meanwhile, lost interest in the LRA ‘story’. But Obo residents live in stasis, victims of this unreported violence that still festers. Courageous individuals like Matthieu have spent years supporting those who manage to escape the LRA, but like most of the young people here he can’t find a paid job and lives hand to mouth.

‘I want to stay to help my community but my wife just had a baby,’ he tells me. ‘I’ll have to move to Bangui soon to look for work.’ I completely understand, but worry what will happen when even dedicated activists like Matthieu are forced to leave.

He asks if I’ll be in Bangui when he arrives. I tell him that I’m not sure. But even as I say these words, I realize that I have made up my mind.

Ruby Diamonde is a pseudonym.

The language of peacekeeping

Miscommunication illustration

© Sarah John

Our small plane touches down on time at the small aerodrome in the town of Kaga-Bandoro. Aerodrome sounds rather grand for this dried-mud airstrip in the middle of the Central African bush. But this one-hour plane ride has just saved us a day’s driving, with the constant risk of road barriers erected by rebels who are heavily armed and have no qualms about shooting first. Plus this is the only aerodrome in the Central African Republic (CAR) with its own restaurant, selling the best curried chicken.

We’ve landed to refuel the plane, which takes about 45 minutes – and I desperately need the toilet. There’s a UN military base, with facilities, just beyond the airstrip. When I reach the entrance, two foreign UN peacekeepers (known locally as ‘Casques bleus’ or ‘blue helmets’) smile at me. I speak to them in French; they frown and shake their heads. Ah.

‘Do you speak English?’ I ask, squinting in the searing midday sun.

‘Yes, yes!’ one of them replies enthusiastically.

‘Can I please use the bathroom in the base?’

‘Yes, yes!’ He clearly doesn’t understand me.

I gesture towards the toilets just inside the base (I’ve been here many times before) and they wave me through.

On my way back, feeling much better, I greet a Central African security guard. ‘Madam, tell me something,’ he says, gesturing towards the two peacekeepers. ‘These men don’t speak our language – where are they from?’ I tell him I don’t know and will ask. With gestures and a few words of English the two peacekeepers tell me they are from Nepal. I explain this to the Central African, now standing beside me.

‘So they have come here to protect us: but how am I supposed to talk with them?’ He flicks his cigarette to the ground and mushes it with his boot.

This UN mission, MINUSCA (the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic), established in April 2014, is the eighth peacekeeping mission to be launched here since 1997. It began painfully. Pakistani casques bleus were deployed to Kaga-Bandoro while the town was under siege by Seleka rebels. The long-suffering civilian population presumed these new non-French speaking armed men were rebel reinforcements, and began violently demonstrating against them – because the UN had not taken the time to explain its peacekeeping mandate to the very people it had apparently come to protect. The Pakistanis could not speak up for themselves as they had no language in common with the Central Africans. It was a mess.

MINUSCA now has some 10,000 peacekeepers, plus 2,000 civilian staff, deployed across CAR. They’ve been recruited from more than 25 different European, Asian and African countries. The overwhelming majority of peacekeepers are men and two of the major troop-contributing countries are India and Pakistan. To put it crudely, peacekeepers are sourced from poorer countries with less international clout, while rich Western nations control overall UN operations and continue to wield an unhealthily heavy influence on CAR’s politics.

The context of conflict is complex here, but is in essence a chronic struggle over myths, money and trust. Communities have been manipulated against each other for years, and trust between them has been shattered for political gains. I know many Central Africans who are glad the casques bleus are here, because overall security has improved; but interactions between the UN and ordinary Central Africans have been stymied by mutual incomprehension and some horrific child-sexual-abuse scandals. Can there be a meeting place between the two?

This, somehow, brings me back to the airstrip restaurant. It’s small and local, run by a Pakistani called Ali, helped by a couple of Central Africans: a space where locals and internationals can sit together and eat good cheap food. I just have time to gobble down some curried chicken before my flight takes off again. Ali is sanguine about Kaga-Bandoro. ‘We know suffering in my country, so we can understand this place,’ he says. ‘We need to live with them during their struggle, and protect them.’

The UN forces are clearly going to be here for at least the next 10 years – and have realized they need to be talking with, and listening to, local people across CAR. The bush is where rebel groups have risen up in protest at the political marginalization and exclusion of their communities. Dialogue is the way forward – whatever language you say it in.

Ruby Diamonde is a pseudonym.

The freedom of the city

Yellow taxi illustration

© Sarah John

I am trying to drink my morning coffee in peace. But the taxi touts just outside the café are bellowing for trade. Yellow public taxis converge in front of Café Phoenicia here in Bangui’s small centre ville all day, and the touts compete to herd passengers into taxis as fast as possible. I tut and shake my head and gulp my coffee down quickly (at moments like these I realize how English I still am). As I rise to leave, one of the touts screeches out the name of a local destination that stops me in my tracks for a moment.

‘Cinq Kilo! The road to Cinq Kilo!’

If you were to ask Bangui-ois (as many residents here describe themselves) which was the most dangerous district in this capital city, I bet that 90 per cent would immediately say Cinq Kilo. Its name means ‘five kilometres’ which is, more or less, the distance from the Oubangui River to this concrete neighbourhood of traders built around Bangui’s biggest market. At Cinq Kilo you haggle over clothes, pans, mattresses, motorbikes, medicine and cheap, good quality fruit and vegetables – and until very recently hand grenades that cost just half a US dollar each. The Central African Republic (CAR) is saturated with small arms.

Cinq Kilo is home to the overwhelming majority of Muslim communities in Bangui, who used to make up some 15 per cent of the five-million-strong population of CAR. This densely packed urban ghetto of mud streets is also infamous for its local ‘self-defence committees’ – vigilante gangs of armed young men controlled by commanders who claim to defend residents from outside attacks, but have often committed their own appalling violence.

When Seleka rebels stormed Bangui and seized control of CAR three years ago, many (though not all) of Cinq Kilo’s Muslims supported them. Seleka were Muslim led and Central African Muslims say they had experienced years of institutionalized discrimination, mainly from Christians. As one local resident put it to me, ‘When Seleka first arrived, we thought it was our turn to have power.’ But Seleka’s indiscriminate violence repulsed communities across the country, and they were driven out of Bangui by another rebel movement, the anti-Balaka, led by men claiming they were ‘liberating’ CAR from Muslim extremism.

As these two movements fought it out, Cinq Kilo became a no-go zone of fire-bombed streets and shops. Rebels, the self-defence committees and other local criminal gangs retaliated against each other, leaving burnt-out bodies in the streets. Thousands of Muslims fled. Aid workers pulled out, other local residents stayed away, and drivers of the yellow public taxis refused to go there. I have long-standing friends in Cinq Kilo, Muslims and Christians, and I won’t ever forget driving there in my scruffy little grey car when, apart from UN Humvees and tanks, we were the only vehicle on the streets.

Throughout 2015, UN peacekeepers worked hard to secure Cinq Kilo, and gradually the market began to revive, though it was still volatile. Muslims told me they were frightened of leaving the enclave even for centre ville, for fear of being attacked, and did not dare wear traditional Islamic robes. When Pope Francis came to Bangui at the end of last year he paid a fleeting visit to Cinq Kilo, receiving a rapturous welcome. It galvanized the CAR government and UN to try to ensure that all Bangui-ois could move across their city safely. The yellow taxis now drive there during daylight hours and are usually packed.

But the real change that I’ve seen these past few months has been from the inside. I arranged some discreet meetings with youth from the anti-Balaka, where one said to me, ‘Madam, we have done many bad things, and we’ve gained nothing. We need to regain our Muslim brothers’ trust. This war between us has been for nothing.’ Meanwhile Cinq Kilo residents’ support for the self-defence committees has drained away as people see they have also been part of the problem. Muslims and Christians now mingle more.

Bangui is still a dangerous city and Cinq Kilo can still be edgy: I always call someone before driving there, just in case. But the road has stayed open.

I recently smoked a cigarette with a driver of one of the yellow taxis. ‘It was not the rebels, the Pope or our government who freed Cinq Kilo,’ he said to me. ‘It was us Bangui-ois. This city belongs to all of us, and you know we all lost too much before we realized that.’

Ruby Diamonde is a pseudonym.

Close your heart, open your heart

Letter from Bangui illustration

© Sarah John

It’s a pitiful sight: a woman sitting on the ground, filthy dress ripped wide open exposing her chest, staring ahead with blank eyes. She looks like she’s eating dirt. We are driving right past her in my car.

‘Isn’t there anything we can do?’ I ask my friend Barbara. It’s not the first time I’ve seen half-naked vagrant women on the streets, but she looks so very young, this road is isolated and she’s horribly vulnerable.

‘I’ve seen her before,’ says Barbara. ‘She’s crazy in the head, she just tears off clothes she’s been given. There’s nothing you can do. Kanga bé, close your heart. Try to forget about her.’

Kanga bé. The sentiment behind these two words fascinates and disturbs me in equal measure. Central Africans often say they have to close their hearts to the suffering and wrongs in their country in order to keep going, in order not just to give up and wither under the stress of daily violence, barricades on the roads, living under curfew and the embedded distrust between communities that frequently erupts into bloodshed. Kanga bé is not just a mantra, it’s a survival mechanism.

But is it? Closing your heart here in the Central African Republic also means supressing your humanity and looking the other way when people literally can’t look after themselves. It is not the poverty here that shocks me the most: there are poor people everywhere in the world – and I’ve seen worse physical deprivation in India. But here the most vulnerable Central Africans, the elderly, disabled people, abandoned children and those who are mentally ill or clearly traumatized, or both, are left to fend for themselves in the streets. I have never heard of a trauma centre or mental-health facility to support them. People just get by from one day to the next, any way they can.

A price that Central Africans pay for this collective and selective culture of denial is a sub-culture of vengeance. Scores are settled with fists, machetes and guns, by burning down houses and raping women and girls, by communities separating along ethnic or religious lines and seeing the ‘other’ as the enemy, maintaining distance and spreading rumours. By closing their hearts.

But amongst these grim realities, I also see bright evidence of the contrary. For instance, in a horrible recent spate of violence that has yet to be fully explained, Bangui Muslim and Christian communities fled from each other: yet at the end of one bloody day 65 Christian families found themselves seeking refuge in the Central Mosque at the heart of Bangui’s Muslim community. These Christian families had nothing – but their neighbours brought them food and water and blankets and looked after them and demanded nothing in return for weeks, until it was safe for the displaced to return to their homes. This does not fit the kanga bé narrative at all. But this too is a reality, of open hearts.

It is always easier to write about the exactions, the terrible things that Central Africans do to each other, and to despair about the future here, in one of the poorest and most deprived countries on earth. As a writer I do want to ask hard-headed questions about the chronic nature of violence here – but I am not prepared to write this country off. After more than two and a half years in the Central African Republic I know many different Central Africans, including people who close their hearts and those who refuse to do so.

I know my friend Barbara can be tough: but I’ve seen her bite her lip so as not to cry when faced with a gaunt sick child, to whose family she donated a portion of her wages so they could pay for medical treatment. ‘I was the only person they knew with money. They needed me,’ she tells me afterwards. ‘We have to stand together for our kids.’ I remember her shy smile when she admitted this, and I said nothing, but then understood that kindness here is often hidden, while violence shouts out loud.

Or, as another friend of mine here puts it: ‘We Central Africans are like onions; it takes time, and tears, to peel us apart and find what is really going on inside. So don’t judge us yet.’

Ruby Diamonde is a pseudonym.

Letter from Bangui: The guardian

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.

The revolutionary

Quentin from Bangui

© Sarah John

A friend sends me a message online, wanting a chat. ‘Sorry,’ I text her back, ‘but am just on my way out for dinner.’

‘Ah, what do you have for dinner in Bangui?’ she wants to know.

‘Chicken and fish or fish and chicken!’ I type, reaching for my car keys.

The Central African Republic is not known for its cuisine; local food is based on gozo, boiled cassava root, which is filling, bland and starchy, but has no nutritional value at all. Usually, it’s served with sauces and often accompanied by fish or chicken – hence my quip. But these days in Bangui there are more choices, like pizza, pasta, Indian and Chinese food – if you can afford them. The city-centre restaurants mainly catering for ex-pats are too pricey for most Central Africans.

This evening I am meeting one of my favourite Central African friends in one of my favourite Bangui haunts. L’escale is a dimly lit riverside restaurant with dodgy décor and stained tablecloths. But the beer is cold, the food tasty and inexpensive, and they serve my all-time favourite local dish, maboke: fish steamed with coriander, tomatoes and onions and wrapped in banana leaves.

My dinner date, Quentin, likes maboke too. He’s late, as always, and turns up with his mobile phone clamped to his ear, as always, talking to someone in the Central African vernacular, Sango. ‘Barao!’ he greets me in Sango, kissing me on each cheek. Then, ‘Ça va?

Quentin does many different things at the same time: he’s a storyteller, a musician, an advocacy trainer and an entrepreneur. He runs his own national NGO promoting inter-communal dialogue through the arts, acts as spokesperson for Central African civil society organizations, and is a member of the National Transitional Council, the Central African Parliament. He’s well connected, proud, nationalistic and restless.

We order our maboke and drinks, then sit back and smile at each other. We’ve been out of touch for more than a week, a long time for us.

‘We Central Africans are losing our way!’ he exclaims, shaking his head. ‘The government is irresponsible, people are disappointed, and there’s no-one to protect their rights. We need a revolution!’

‘What kind of revolution?’ I raise my eyebrows. I’m used to this.

‘We need to decide our own future and negotiate on our own terms. Internationals need to treat us as equals and respect the wishes of civil society and the people on the streets. Central Africans are ready to come onto the streets and protest until something changes for real!’ His eyes gleam with passion.

One of the objects of his ire is the UN mission here. MINUSCA (the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic) arrived here in September 2014, and has struggled to control violence and protect civilians. The first head of the mission was fired for concealing his knowledge of a Bangui child sexual abuse scandal implicating French troops. Quentin echoes many Central Africans when he says MINUSCA need to ‘apply their mandate or leave our country.’ Not many have the courage to say this so publicly.

Quentin has set up a nonviolent civil society platform to challenge the Transitional Government, the UN and the French, who all enjoy mass influence in CAR at the expense, he says, of the Central African people. Not everyone agrees with his stance: some civil-society activists do not support him, the government does not like what he’s doing, and neither do local thugs who’ve threatened him; all of which only drives him on.

Quentin’s outspokenness and charisma are, I think, both his strength and his weakness. He can alienate people when he rants, but I just rant back at him, then we both listen to each other.

As one of Central Africa’s best-known performers and well-established political figures, Quentin is among the elites of this country. He could afford to have a swanky house in one of the better Bangui neighbourhoods and eat in the ex-pat restaurants, but he stays in the midst of a local community, with its bad roads, daily power cuts and rising street crime. Likewise, he could leave CAR, and make a good life for himself in another Francophone country, but he chooses to stay here in Bangui. Because, he says, ‘I want to wake up my people so they start deciding their own future.’

I’m suddenly distracted by the scent of maboke spices. I glance towards the kitchen, then back at Quentin. I don’t agree with everything he says and does, but I really respect his refusal of fatalism, and his hunger for change.

Ruby Diamonde is a pseudonym.

Letter from Bangui: Penthouse and pavement

Man and barbed wire illustration

© Sarah John

We stop the car, and gaze upward. In front of us is a brand-new 12-floor tower block, all sharp angles and concrete slabs behind reels of razor wire. Like a high-rise prison. Though it does have a great view of the Oubangui River.

‘What a monster,’ I say to my driver.

Cedric shakes his head slowly, his eyes almost shining.

C’est super!

Bangui is being spruced up. Everywhere I walk or drive, roads are being repaired and buildings constructed, especially new residences for the ever-increasing ex-pat community. Plus new supermarkets, where we can spend our money on a growing range of luxury goods, from soft French cheeses to chandeliers and high-end mattresses.

The construction companies are also tearing down some of the old colonial-style houses (and cosy riverside bars), replacing them with hideous modern tower blocks of apartments, like this one in front of us, where each apartment costs several thousand dollars to rent per month. The visage of this small capital is beginning to change.

As a result of all this building, traffic across Bangui is getting worse too, as wagons and four-wheel drives battle for space in the overcrowded streets. Recently, the United Nations installed a series of what I can only call ‘human traffic lights’ at the city’s main junctions: individual men and women in uniform directing the traffic while standing on small stationary carousels built to protect them from the sun and the chaotic swarm of drivers.

Some of this construction is necessary – there’s a real lack of accommodation across the city. But the companies erecting these over-priced residences are not Central African, and local people are benefiting little from these lucrative business ventures being pushed forward, among other reasons, because legislative and Presidential elections are looming.

There are now several different parallel economies operating in the Central African Republic (CAR). First, there is the local economy, where many Central Africans survive by trading on the streets, growing their own food and quite literally living hand to mouth. Gross national income here is $470 per year. Outside Bangui, across 15 rural prefectures where the vast majority of Central Africans are small-scale peasant farmers, incomes are far lower and opportunities fewer.

Second, the ever-expanding presence of international NGOs and the United Nations is fuelling this burgeoning economy of luxury apartments and facilities in Bangui, utterly beyond the reach of most Central Africans. And third, armed rebel movements like the Seleka and Anti-Balaka have their own economies, based, among other illegal activities, on mining and selling CAR’s substantial natural reserves of gold and diamonds. The current international embargo on trading Central African ‘blood diamonds’ has ironically given them a lucrative niche market.

And with each of these economies come political agendas that will play out in the forthcoming elections.

The so-called ‘drivers’ of the chronic crisis in CAR are a combination of political, social and economic factors, including long-standing ethnic tensions, and stark and increasing economic inequalities. I am convinced one of the reasons street crime in Bangui has escalated is because so many foreigners drive around the city in expensive cars, flaunting their wealth whether they mean to or not. No-one has ever tried to steal my scruffy little grey car, nor burgle my house, because there are fancier cars to steal, and residences to target.

More than 80 people have put themselves forward as presidential candidates, including human rights lawyers, members of discredited former CAR governments and at least one fervent evangelist.

The best possible outcome of the elections is a new president with a long-term vision of building peace, reconciliation and the economy at all levels. And the courage to confront toxic foreign interference.

Cedric is adamant the tower block we are gawping at is elegant, and would love the chance to live there, so we agree to disagree.

A few days later I’m stuck in a traffic jam of noxious car fumes and agitated drivers. One of my friends is sitting on the back seat with his young daughter.

‘You know, we are all glad the roads are being repaired,’ my friend says, cuddling his little girl. ‘But my priority is security in my quartier [neighbourhood] and the safety of my family, especially my wife and little one. And I don’t see the same attention being paid to that.’

Ruby Diamonde is a pseudonym.

Sisters of Joy

Illustration woman eating cake

© Sarah John

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.’

Ruby Diamonde is a pseudonym.

Letter from Bangui - held hostage to violence

Sarah Illustration

©

Travelling around the Central African Republic (CAR) is a risky business. And so is travelling the few kilometres from Bangui city centre to the diminutive M’Poko international airport, just north of the capital.

The districts around M’Poko airport – such as Combattants, Galabadja and Fou – have seen some of the worst violence in Bangui these last months, with militias targeting either Christian or Muslim communities, and deliberately shattering trust between the two. Businesses and homes have been looted, sometimes burnt to the ground; families have endured lynchings and mob violence. As fear between Christians and Muslims has spread like a virus, churches and mosques have been attacked and desecrated.

Some 6,000 international troops, who arrived back in December from France and the African Union countries, have not been able to stem the erupting street violence. Up to another 12,000 United Nations ‘Blue Helmet’ peacekeepers are scheduled to arrive, but not until September. Hundreds of thousands of traumatized and terrified Central Africans have fled their Bangui homes this year to local monasteries, community centres, and to the fields surrounding M’Poko airport, where vast numbers of them have spent months existing in ragged camps alongside the main runway. A (very) rough recent estimate of the airport camp residents was between 80,000 and 100,000 people.

A few weeks ago, exhausted by my work and the daily bloodshed, and needing a respite from CAR, I booked a flight back to England. Getting to M’Poko airport that morning was, thankfully, relatively easy. At the airport checkpoint, young-looking French troops said ‘Bonjour’, briefly searched the taxi, then waved us through.

Forty-five minutes later I sat in the tiny airport departure lounge drinking a cool beer. Craning my neck I could see the camps backed up to the edge of the runway where my Air France plane was refuelling. I felt weird – gross in fact – to be drinking a beer here, especially knowing that I could leave, but most Central Africans cannot.

I drained the bottle, then joined the queue slowly walking across the tarmac towards our plane. Some people took photos of the camp as we were boarding, we passed that close to it.

Several weeks later, when my flight touched back down at M’Poko airport, the sprawl of camp residents was exactly where I had last seen them. Of course; where else could they possibly flee?

But this afternoon they were not the only people stuck there. There was heavy shooting, including grenade attacks, in the districts around the airport, and the main route into Bangui was blocked.

I was travelling with a woman called Zelda, an experienced aid worker, who has spent years in several different African conflict zones. As we stood in the airport car park surrounded by a huddle of other grim-faced aid workers, Zelda rolled her eyes.

‘What are all these troops doing here if they can’t even secure the route into town?’ she demanded, tossing her cigarette butt to the ground.

Her question, which no-one around us could answer, highlights something that I think everyone knows, but few seem willing to talk about: there is no military solution to the terrible violence here. This country is soaked in small arms; Central Africans, like their neighbours in Chad, North and South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, habitually use machetes for farming and guns for hunting. Plus, the borders around CAR are like a sieve, with no capacity to control any kind of arms trade. No matter how many UN peacekeepers arrive this year – and many are already saying it will be too late when they finally do – there is no way to strip this country of its weapons.

So, what else can be done to stem the inter-communal bloodshed that is traumatizing an entire generation?

Local civil-society initiatives set up by Central Africans, to kick-start community dialogues and local reconciliations, and to begin rebuilding trust between people living in fear of each other, might sound utterly idealistic amid these festering brutalities in Bangui and across CAR. But these initiatives are a vital seeding of something that can, and is, growing to challenge the violent status quo, and show that life beyond fear and political violence is possible here. As a young Central African activist and friend of mine puts it: ‘This terror is not about religion, but bad politics – and now our politics have to be about us listening and forgiving each other, for what we have all done to each other.’

Ruby Diamonde is a pseudonym.

Letter from Bangui - a visit to the Ba-aka forest people

My guide, Ekhsan, parked the motorbike, and showed me the small track threading between the trees. At the edge of the village we met a line of barefoot Ba-aka children, who fell silent and stared. The smallest one began to howl. ‘They’re not used to seeing munjus [white people]!’ laughed Ekhsan. A man strode down a slope towards us. The first thing I noticed was how short he was, and the second, as he drew close, was the wooden crucifix around his neck.

The vast majority of Central Africans (about 80 per cent) identify as Christians. They’re mainly Catholics, a direct legacy of the French who colonized the Central African Republic (CAR) at the end of the 19th century. Muslims make up 10-15 per cent of the population, though numbers have plunged these last few months as communities have fled spiralling political violence and anti-Muslim militias stalking central and northern CAR.

Sarah John

But not everyone in CAR is Christian or Muslim; hundreds of thousands of Central Africans are animists, who often combine strands of Christianity with indigenous worship and celebrations.

A hundred kilometres south of Bangui is a little-visited region called the Loubaye, a vast area of lush equatorial rainforest, where the Ba-aka forest people hunt, forage and venerate their forest god, Kombo.

Central Africans usually refer to the Ba-aka as ‘pygmies’ – another throwback to the French, whose missionaries were obsessed with converting and ‘civilizing’ the forest peoples. Even now, 55 years after the French left CAR, the Loubaye is swamped with foreign Catholic missions. Many missionaries fled the most recent violence, as even its remoteness has not spared the Loubaye from militia attacks.

Intrigued to meet the Ba-aka people, and see the impact of the missionaries for myself, I hitched a ride to the Loubaye on a logging truck, and hired Ekhsan to guide me around.

Back in the forest village, the Aka man (Ba-aka is the plural) with the wooden crucifix round his neck greets us. Ekhsan asks if we can speak to the Chef de village, or local chief.

A few minutes later the Chief appears in a red Hawaiian-style shirt. We introduce ourselves; his name is Al-Fons, and he says we’re welcome here.

I ask Al-Fons whether missionaries have ever come to this village.

‘They used to come here, the munjus missionaries; but we have not seen them for months now,’ he says, looking me straight in the eyes.

‘Did you and the other villagers like them coming?’

Al-Fons pauses, as more villagers settle themselves around us.

‘Some things were good; they brought medicine, and we need it because we have no clinic near here,’ he says. ‘They brought cooking pots, too. But we are a mixed village – you see not everyone here is Ba-aka – and the problem was the munjus only gave cooking pots to us Ba-aka. This created tensions between us and our neighbours.’ He says the missionaries also talked of building a chapel and a school in the village, but then they stopped coming, and no other outsiders visit now.

I’m about to ask Al-Fons whether the local Ba-aka are Christians, when suddenly the people around us all stand up. Young women and men begin to clap and step out a rhythm, an older man sits down on a wooden box and starts to drum upon it.

Al-Fons’ grave face breaks into a grin. ‘They want to show you our dance!’

Some of the dancers grab palm fronds for head-dresses, as others sing. I’m torn between delight at the music, and suddenly feeling very like a munju tourist, especially when Al-Fons shouts, ‘Take photos!’ Beside me, Ekhsan shrugs and lights up another cigarette.

The man with the crucifix around his neck sits beside me, and asks if I like the music.

I tell him I do, and take some photos. Then I ask what he thought of the missionaries, and his face lights up.

‘They were wonderful!’ he says. ‘They came to civilize us – you can see our lives here. It was good for us when they came with medicine, and cooking pots too.’

‘So, are you a Christian now?’

‘Oh no!’ he smiles. ‘We all worship the forest spirits, and this is our dance to our God, Kombo. But I hope the Christians come back with more medicine, and finish the school.’

Ruby Diamonde is a pseudonym.

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