Close your heart, open your heart
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.’