March 12, 2011

Conspiring against a continent

The heart of Bangui starts here

In November 2010, my work as an international civil servant brought me to the Central African Republic (CAR). A country unknown to most, myself included up until my appointment here, having gained its independence from France in the 1960s – clearly independence was en vogue around this time – today, some almost 50 years later, CAR remains one of the poorest countries in the world. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Central_African_Republic

In the developed world, where life expectancy continues to grow, here in CAR the average lifespan is 50 years old.

The over-arching failure of independence within the African continent stems from the fact that its notion was rooted in emotion rather than reality. Without any fundamental strategy or foresight, this wave swept nations along hedonistically. When the dust settled it became immediately apparent that after years of being dominated by others, these new nations were ill-equipped and ill-prepared to fend for themselves.  In short, the independence fantasy revealed itself to be a farce.

Elections and democracy seem to be the current fashion statement. This is particularly true in marginally developing countries formerly ruled by dictators, such as Bokassa in the case of CAR; as well as those countries fortunate enough to be ranked as developed.

CAR held elections on 23 January of this year; not surprisingly, the ruling party, led by François Bozizé Yangouvonda, remains in force. This absence of viable oppositions is the norm more than the exception in African politics.

Like Haiti where I  worked for six months following the January 2010 earthquake, the presence of aid agencies in CAR is common-place, represented by young (primarily female) people, ranging in ages from mid-twenties to late thirties, who for whatever reason, feel prompted to contribute to helping a population that is largely less fortunate than from whence they came.

The fact that my demographics differ slightly from that of the typical aid worker is something I often reflect upon. Jamaican by birth, African by ancestry and universal in outlook, I see my work in this field as my unquestionable duty and service.

As I travel this planet and bear witness to the suffering of fellow beings, I am haunted and humbled by the notion that it is simply a stroke of fate that differentiates the stark reality of the other from mine.

A recent visit to one of the regions covered by the mandate of my work here has prompted this intimate discourse.

Bouar is located in the eastern part of CAR. Its topography consists of a lush, green hilly terrain. Here the earth boasts a deep red color – prime ground for agriculture. In Bouar yams, pineapples, papayas and avocados abound.

However, three other things immediately struck me upon my arrival to this forlorn place, bumping along in 4WDs for the short journey from the airstrip to the field office. Amidst this abject poverty, where a few structures made of red brick and adorned with thatched roofs supposedly serve as domiciles, we passed several young African males with military attire and guns casually strapped across them. There were a disproportionate number of churches in relation to the sparse population, and, alas as we approached the main town – nothing more than a mélange of dilapidated buildings – lo and behold, there stood a Western Union office.

Personally, I have an aversion to Western Union. This is based on my own experience of dealing with them during the early days of the post earthquake crisis in Haiti. With all financial institutions destroyed, and therefore closed, Western Union was the only way to get funds into Haiti quickly. Western Union capitalizes on the financial crisis of the poor. Yes, they provide access to cash at a moment’s notice, but, only by adding prohibitive service charges. It must be good business, as in most poverty stricken corners of the world, you are sure to find a Western Union office. The presence of Western Union reinforces the dire straits of the impoverished and their perpetual urgency for survival.

This scene, as it played out before me, brought me back to a similar one in a different time and place a few years earlier. In my minds eye, I found myself revisiting Wau pronounced like wow; another lost, desolate place, this one in Sudan. Wow Indeed!  There, as in Bouar, the Catholic Church served as the only respite.  In Bouar our colleagues reside on church premises and, through their mission, are provided with enough decent food to keep their bodies strong. For this, they are deeply grateful; it is a necessity for survival when living in such brutal conditions – particularly for those who are not used to this as a daily living experience.

In Bouar, the church is run by a Polish community, which brings us together around the table for the mid-day meal. It is a healthy combination of meat, avocado salad, pasta, plantains, yam chips, sweet potatoes. Of course the proverbial baguette, sold all over Bangui, the nation’s capital is also present – even in these desperate parts – a legacy of the former French colonials remains entrenched.

Though I join them at the table, I am in the midst of a fast – a personal ritual I engage in at least once yearly – I do not partake the meal.  Instead I gain sustenance from the myriad of thoughts that flow through my mind.

The first thought that strikes me is how, even though we are gathered in a holy and sacred place, there is neither communal acknowledgement nor gratitude voiced for the feast that lies before us.

Today’s journey has brought me front and centre with a thought that I’ve often considered. It is, in fact, part of the reason why I accepted the offer to return to Africa at this juncture of my journey:  I refer to the plight of the African continent.

By and large, the perpetual mis-understanding of Africa occurs when viewed through lenses that are laced with pity. Pity, the dark side of compassion, is often sweetened with contempt.

Through my presence in Africa, I’ve been given a unique chance to peek through a tiny window, behind which lies a morass of forbidden secrets. Here in CAR, it seems that these secrets are filled with shame. As I pass Central Africans on the street and look into their eyes, I meet a glazed, blank stare, an angry desperation, which is beyond any semblance of hope. This is a countenance which is as frightening as it is foreboding – the switch could flip at any moment and bloodshed would abound.

While waiting for lunch to be served, I sat with our South African aircrew beneath an Acacia tree which are scattered throughout the continent. The raw beauty of this fertile land served as the ideal backdrop for our heartfelt exchange.

How many times had we heard the following expressed: Africa needs to get over itself and start taking care of itself?! Despite the fact that the impact of Anglo-colonization vs. Franco-colonization on African countries and culture is starkly different, this general attitude towards the continent, in its entirety, is exactly the same.

In fact, nothing could have prepared me for what I encountered in the CAR. An avid writer and amateur photographer, so paralyzing was the initial impact, I was incapable of engaging in either activity. Friends and family kept asking “how come you have posted any photos on Facebook?” I couldn’t and I didn’t.  In this instance, I felt that a picture could hardly echo one word, let alone a thousand.

One Ethiopian colleague had tried to warn me of this polarity and its potential effect upon me. However, I had to experience it first-hand to get a glimmer of understanding. The complexities of this difference are saved for another discourse.

My response then and now remains: how could anyone possibly cast such an unconscious judgment upon a continent that they have not seen, let alone experienced?  Irrespective of sharing a skin color for me someone whose travel and work experience spans all corners of the Earth, the African experience is by far the most confronting, confusing and paradoxical one I’ve ever faced.

It is virtually impossible to get a grip on Africa; rather it pulls you in and binds you to it.  Perhaps for those who make such flippant comments, is their inability or unwillingness to evoke empathy – which naturally gives rise to compassion.

Africa cannot be viewed [w]holistically. Instead, it must be seen as a largely dysfunctional family comprised of 53+ children who have been abominably treated by their respective foster parents; their former colonizers. It is Africa’s subsequent deep emotional and psychological scars that must first be addressed and healed. Only then can Africa truly begin to explore its growth potential.

Africa suffers from the dangers of a single story. In the words of Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichi “the danger of the single story is not that it is inaccurate but the fact that it is incomplete.”

Imagine yourself as an innocent child who has been ripped from the warmth and safety of your home which, in spite of whatever hardships may exist, is at least familiar. Suddenly, through a series of unforeseen disturbances that are incomprehensible to your infant mind, you are cast off to foreign-ness, traumatized beyond words. If you’re lucky, through the toil, blood, sweat and tears of your parents assuming that they are alive and have not succumbed to war or disease, you may just get an education – this is of course, more likely if you’re a boy – to the level of Grade 5, which is the average in CAR.

Not long ago I saw how sought after this education is. During the recent CAR pre-election campaign, as part of the UN’s security measures, extra security lights were installed around the UN compound. Soon after, we noticed children gathering around them during the evening hours. Finally, one child approached the head of the organization and thanked her for putting up these lights – because now they had a place to come to do their homework in the evening. The lights gave them a glimmer of hope. Perhaps they might escape a future which led them no further than the sole main street of Bangui – a red dirt road with a few shops run by merchants from the Middle East.

Perhaps one day, because of the availability of these security lights, he or she may become leader of this nation and pave a road which will provide a better way forward for the people of CAR.

For now that future remains largely unattainable. Today, foreigners – mainly white ones – come and go from their land with lofty promises of a better life and a better future. Yet, day in and day out, their reality stays the same. Unequipped to deal effectively with emotions that oscillate between hope and despair at some point a threshold is crossed and, suddenly, instead of hope there is anger. With nothing to lose and seemingly much to gain, is it any wonder that the lure to become a child soldier for example – with clothes, toys and a sick sense of power – becomes so seductive?

I recall a period, approximately a decade ago, when another political wave swept across Africa.  Then it was fashionable for Western, first world leaders such as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton to pay visits to the continent and echo humble apologies for the woes that their forefathers had bestowed upon Africa. While a commendable step in the right direction, apologies without actions serve only to add salt to wounds. Truth and reconciliation go together – South Africa showed the world this.

In the words of David Bowden in his book Africa:  Altered States, Ordinary Miracles “in Africa, we need to change the reality, not the image.”  This is possible only when we, the outsiders are willing to understand and embrace the nuances of this continent. It is a continent comprised of an abundance of language, culture, and people. It is not contained within borders instilled by the ignorance of strangers who sat huddled in cold, dark countries, with more than oceans keeping them apart.

If we, the progeny of these strangers, are sincere in our desires to help Africa transform and become economically viable and politically sustainable, the onus rests on us to actively seek to understand life from their vantage point.

When we are willing to learn more about their ways of being rather than trying to blind their visions with ours then we are truly engaging. In bearing witness to Africa, we enable Her with the possibility to mend her deep ancestral wounds.  While Africans may want to wear blue jeans, listen to Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé and SMS their friends like the rest of the world, they also want to maintain their own inherent cultures.

Africa and its people understand how Africa works.  A sentiment often echoed by Africans – this is how things are in Africa – stems from a place of acceptance rather than resignation.  Great respect is given to each person’s culture, ways, norms, beliefs and attitudes. Spiritualism and rites of passage permeate all levels of society unapologetically.  With over 2000 languages spoken, a Westernized cookie cutter approach to transforming Africa is, at best, naïve.

While parts of Africa are economically poor, in its entirety the diversity of the continent’s spiritual wealth is the epitome of abundance. In fact, I firmly believe that without this spiritual surplus and resilience it would have been impossible for Africa’s people to endure the continued atrocities that have beset them for centuries.

Perhaps it is us in the West [and elsewhere] who, in striving for spiritual values and engaging in what some term as ‘new age’ pursuits, are lost, rather than the people of Africa.

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