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 entirety, is exactly the same.