Recently, my work as an international civil servant brought me to the Central African Republic (CAR). A country unknown to most, having gained its independence from France during the 'fashionista independencia' era of the sixties, CAR remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with an average life expectancy of 50 years.
Half a century later, the over-arching failure of independence within the African continent stems from the fact that its notion was rooted in emotion rather than reality. When the dust settled it became 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 hedonistic independence fantasy revealed itself to be a farce.
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.
My travels remind and humble me that it is simply a stroke of fate that differentiates the stark reality of the other from mine.
Bouar, located in the eastern part of CAR, is the backdrop of this story. 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.
Upon arrival to this forlorn place, bumping along in 4WDs for the short journey from the airstrip to the field office, three things are glaringly apparent. 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 as we approached the main town – nothing more than a mélange of dilapidated buildings – there stood the desperate mark of globalization; the storefront for a globally recognizable money wiring service.
My distaste for what this 'service' represents stems from my experience of having to deal with them immediately following 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 only through capitalizing on the financial crisis of the poor. Their presence even in the most obscure places reinforces the dire straits of the impoverished and their perpetual urgency for survival.
Contemplation of the plight of the African continent is inescapable for anyone who chooses to be here extensively.
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.
Here in CAR, I've been given a unique chance to peek through a tiny window, behind which lies a morass of forbidden shame-filled secrets. As I pass Central Africans on the streets 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.
If Africa had a penny for each time the aspersion is made that Africa needs to get over itself and start taking care of itself, already it would have attained overall economic stability and sustainability. Despite the fact that the impact of Anglo-colonization vs. Franco-colonization on African countries and culture is starkly different, this malaise attitude towards the continent, in its wholeety, is exactly the same.
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.
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.
It is virtually impossible to get a grip on Africa; rather it pulls you in and binds you to it.
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 and relish in 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 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 our security measures, extra security lights were installed around work premises. Soon, we noticed children gathering beneath 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 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, 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 their inherent lives and ways of being.
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, nave.
While parts of Africa are economically poor, in its wholeety 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.