Recently, my work as an international civil servant took me to the Central African Republic (CAR). A country unknown to most, which gained independence from France during the ‘fashionista independence’ era of the 1960s, CAR remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with an average life expectancy of 50 years.
Half a century later, the widespread failure of independence within the African continent is due to the fact that his notion was rooted in emotion rather than reality. When the dust settled, it became clear that after years of being dominated by others, these new nations were ill-equipped and ill-equipped to fend for themselves. In short, the hedonistic fantasy of independence was revealed as a sham.
Like Haiti, where I worked for six months after the January 2010 earthquake, the presence of aid agencies in the Central African Republic is commonplace, represented by young people (mainly women), between the ages of 20 and 20. thirty years, who for whatever reason, feel compelled to contribute to helping a population that is largely less fortunate than where they come from.
The fact that my demographics differ slightly from the typical humanitarian worker is something I often ponder. Jamaican by birth, African by descent, and universal in perspective, I view my work in this field as my unquestionable duty and service.
My travels remind and humble me that it is simply a blow of fate that differentiates the harsh reality of the other from mine.
Bouar, located in the eastern part of CAR, is the backdrop to this story. Its topography consists of lush green mountainous terrain. Here the land has an intense red color, a privileged land for agriculture. Pineapples, papayas and avocados abound in Bouar.
Arriving at this desolate place, riding in 4WD for the short drive from the airstrip to the field office, three things are self-evident. Amid this abject poverty, where a few structures made of red brick and adorned with thatched roofs supposedly serve as domiciles, we passed several young Africans with military weapons and weapons casually tied across them. There were a disproportionate number of churches in relation to the sparse population, and as we approached the main city, nothing but a jumble of dilapidated buildings, there was the desperate mark of globalization; the showcase for a globally recognizable money transfer service.
My dislike for what this ‘service’ represents comes from my experience of having to deal with them in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. With all financial institutions destroyed, it served as the only way to get funds quickly. While they pride themselves on providing instant access to cash, albeit at prohibitive service costs, this is achieved only by capitalizing on the financial crisis of the poor. Their presence, even in the darkest places, reinforces the dire plight of the impoverished and their perpetual urge to survive.
Contemplating the plight of the African continent is inescapable for anyone who chooses to be here for a long time.
The perpetual lack of understanding of Africa occurs when viewed through glasses filled with pity. Mercy, the dark side of compassion, is often sweetened with contempt.
Here at CAR, I have been given the unique opportunity to look through a small window, behind which lies a swamp of forbidden secrets filled with shame. When I pass Central Africans on the streets and look into their eyes, I am met with a blank, glassy gaze, a raging despair that is beyond any semblance of hope. This is a visage that is as terrifying as it is foreboding – the switch could be flipped at any moment and bloodshed would abound.
If Africa had a penny for every sprinkling that Africa needs to improve itself and start taking care of itself, it would have already achieved overall economic stability and sustainability. Although the impact of Anglo-colonization vs. Franco-colonization in African countries and culture is markedly different, this attitude of discomfort towards the continent, as a whole, is exactly the same.
How is it possible that someone can make such an unconscious judgment on a continent that they have not seen, much less experienced? Regardless of sharing a skin color, for me, someone whose travel and work experience spans every corner of the Earth, the African experience is by far the most conflictive, confusing, and paradoxical I have ever faced.
Nothing could have prepared me for what I found in the CAR. An avid writer and amateur photographer, the initial shock was so paralyzing that I was unable to participate in either activity. Friends and family kept asking “how come they posted photos on Facebook?” I couldn’t and didn’t. In this case, I felt that an image could barely echo one word, let alone a thousand.
It is practically impossible to control Africa; rather it attracts you and binds you to it.
Africa can’t be seen [w]holistically. Instead, it must be seen as a largely dysfunctional family comprised of more than 53 children who have been abominably treated by their respective adoptive parents; its former colonizers. It is the subsequent deep emotional and psychological scars of Africa that must first be addressed and healed. Only then can Africa really begin to explore its growth potential and enjoy the fruits of its labor.
The misperception of Africa is the danger of the single story. In the words of Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichi, “the danger of the single story is not that it is inaccurate, but that it is incomplete.”
Imagine yourself as an innocent child who has been ripped from the warmth and safety of your home that, despite the difficulties that may exist, at least is familiar to you. Suddenly, through a series of unforeseen disturbances that are incomprehensible to his childish mind, he is thrown into strangeness, traumatized beyond words. If you’re lucky, through your parents’ work, blood, sweat, and tears, assuming they’re alive and haven’t succumbed to war or disease, you might just get an education; this is, of course, more likely if you are a child – at Grade 5 level, which is the CAR average.
Not long ago I saw how coveted this education is. During CAR’s recent pre-election campaign, as part of our security measures, additional security lights were installed around work facilities. Soon, we noticed that children were gathering under them during the night hours. Finally, a boy approached the director of the organization and thanked her for putting up these lights, because now they had a place to come to do their homework at night. The lights gave them a ray of hope. Perhaps they could escape a future that took them no further than Bangui’s only main street, a red dirt road with some shops run by Middle Eastern merchants.
Perhaps one day, due to the availability of these security lights, he or she can become the leader of this nation and pave a path that will provide a better way forward for the people of the Central African Republic.
For now, that future remains largely unattainable. Today, foreigners, mainly white, come and go from their land with lofty promises of a better life and a better future. However, day after day, their reality remains the same. Not equipped to deal effectively with the 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 a lot to gain, is it any wonder that the temptation to become a child soldier, for example, with clothes, toys, and an unhealthy sense of power, becomes so seductive?
I remember a period, about a decade ago, when another political wave swept through Africa. It was fashionable then for first world Western leaders like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton to visit the continent and echo humble apologies for the evils their forefathers had done to Africa. While it is commendable and moving, [these] apologies without actions fall short. 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 outsiders are willing to understand and embrace the nuances of this continent. It is a continent made up of a large number of languages, cultures, and people. It is not contained within the 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 desire to help Africa transform and become economically viable and politically sustainable, the onus is on us to actively seek to understand their inherent lives and ways of being.
Africa and its people understand how Africa works. A sentiment often echoed by Africans – ‘that’s the way it is in Africa’ – comes from a place of acceptance rather than resignation. Great respect is given to the culture, forms, norms, beliefs and attitudes of each person. Spiritism and rites of passage permeate all levels of society unapologetically. With over 2,000 languages spoken, a Westernized approach to transforming Africa is ingenious at best.
While some parts of Africa are economically poor, as a whole the diversity of the continent’s spiritual wealth is the epitome of abundance. In fact, I firmly believe that without this spiritual surplus and resistance, the people of Africa would have been impossible to endure the continuing atrocities that have plagued them for centuries.
Maybe it’s us in the West [and elsewhere] that, by fighting for spiritual values and participating in what some call “new age” goals, they are lost, rather than the people of Africa.