This article originally appeared in Anomaly Literary Journal, issue 4.
There are exactly two ATMs and no more than half a dozen banks in the Central African Republic and every single one of them is headquartered in the capital, Bangui. For the dozens of humanitarian organizations working in remote outposts across this deindustrialized sweep of land, what this means is that paying staff salaries and bankrolling our good deeds necessitates running money. Clutching suitcases behind tinted windows, everyone does it, so when I’m asked to fill the false bottom of a duffel bag with cash, I say yes.
I roll through the asphalt corridor of the Marché des Combatants. It’s the last stretch of road before the airport and perhaps the most dangerous, because the market hems both sides of the thoroughfare, spills into it, and chokes the traffic of slow rolling SUVs. Smaller roads run perpendicular from the main drag in perfect right angles, facilitating the potential, and all too common, hit-and-runs. I make paranoid calculations during a usual passage through the Marché and they’re magnified when transporting the equivalent of 25,000 dollars, tucked between my knees. Rubber-banded in fifteen bundles of one million francs, the cash takes up half a duffel bag. It’s as large as a year old baby and cries just as loud.
I regret carrying the money as I enter the airport foyer. I’m sweating. Not only because it’s hot and I’m nervous, but also because I’ve developed an addiction to generic over-the-counter painkillers in the past week. I know I’ve become addicted because, as I make a note on my phone about opiates while in the check-in line, spell check corrects the word “opiates.” I find it striking. My phone doesn’t correct the word “paranoiac”, or the spelling of the country’s infamous dictator in the 70’s, “Bokassa”, or the adjective “Orwellian”. I can’t swipe-write the sentence, “Mother should I trust the Central African Government?,” but the suggested spelling of the word “opiates” appears, because in the past week I’ve been trying to define the experience of painkillers, often on my phone with numbed fingers, to the point where the device finishes my sentences.
If only I had downed a handful of pills this morning, I think, I could’ve coasted through the absurdity of moving enough money to skip the country. My thoughts would’ve lollygagged behind the present moment—that’s exactly why opiates kill pain, they relieve the user of the discomfort of being. I imagine myself, instead of boarding a domestic flight, booking international, and waving farewell to the equator and the sixty hour work weeks that drove me to addiction in the first place.
Leaving the capital, I go cold turkey, as usual. Not because I’m bound together with limitless reserves of willpower, rather, with the millions in my bag, I don’t want to be stopped for carrying cash and then be discovered with the drugs, or vice versa. I leave seven days’ worth of pills in my medicine cabinet and perspire yesterday’s chemicals in an uneasy sweat while I flash my passport to the lady at check-in.
Clenching my jaws in an ambassadorial smile, my logic is this: the money will appear under the X-rays, I’ll be accompanied to a back room and interrogated, then, showing customs a document, written on company letterhead and signed by my director, I’ll declare that I’m moving funds for a humanitarian organization in the southeast. I’ll be freed. Since everybody knows somebody in this country, because it’s thinly populated and the social structures are not yet atomized, the customs agent will dial a brother or an uncle, anyone with a gun in the town where I’m landing. He will murmur over the phone the amount of money in a black duffel bag and which organization’s insignia to look for on the white four-wheel-drive leaving the landing strip. In line for the metal detector, I scribble in pencil on my ticket, “A story about being robbed in the center of Africa.”
The X-ray gives up nothing and I shuffle into the single gate of the Bangui M’poko International Airport. I erase the note about being robbed and write, “A story about kicking painkillers in the center of Africa”.
In the corner of the airport gate sits a bar where two UN Peacekeepers from Morocco posture over a couple of croissants. I saddle a barstool, place the bag between my feet, then call for the bartender. She’s wearing thick makeup that would send any drag queen into fits of jealousy. A staple of the airport, she calls everyone “Chéri”, and pours rounds of instant coffee for the diverse mix of clientele—soldiers, humanitarians, and business men. It’s a masculine space and she mothers the lot of us as she dabs up spills here and there. She imbues the corner of the airport—her corner—with a mood of insouciance, but it’s only her nonchalance towards the affairs of the world outside. I keep my boot on the duffel bag and wash down a stale croissant with gut-rot coffee, trying to stay alert because it’s eight a.m. and because of the opiates, last night I slept like a somnambulist. I add to the tip jar and board the twenty seat aircraft and the patchwork of emerald and lime colored forests blur together as we gain altitude.
Flying over the stretch of the Democratic Republic of the Congo that separates Bangui from Bangassou in the east, with the rubber-banded millions in the overhead compartment, my paranoia is exacerbated. I’m no longer sweating, I’m shivering, but not all too much. I’m exaggerating. The feeling is of being paper thin.
Remembering I’m flying into LRA territory, I consider the Lord’s Resistance Army. Scratching myself as a side effect of the pills, I speculate if their leader, Joseph Kony, isn’t only schizophrenic, but because Sub-Saharan African society understands mental illness in manners that make anthropologists publish theses, his followers figure him illuminated, as he takes children for soldiers and rapes minors. After all, in the Central African Republic, senile women are often accused of witchcraft. It takes a thesis to understand why they’re then buried alive, if ever one ever does.
In a bout of turbulence over the forest canopy and the laterite roads, I think of the Seleka, the alliance of Muslim rebel groups that took over the country, and the town I’m flying toward, following a coup d’état in the spring of 2013. Again, I’m embellishing. The place is safe, but with the money in the overhead and the drugs leaving my system and the turbulence, I get carried away. Imaginative, you could say.
I’m flying with a coworker in Human Resources, but he’s doesn’t know about the money. It’s on a need-to-know-basis. The filtering of information goes both ways, at least for a while, because he eventually informs me he’s traveling meet the Labor Inspector to ensure the collective firing of our staff is in line with national labor laws. The organization is laying off locals and closing the base due to, among other things, wide-scale corruption. The first staff let go a month prior made death threats to those that weren’t, the reason why I ask my coworker to hold-off until I leave Bangassou before he drops the letter, sanctioned by the Labor Inspector, stating that some dozen employees will be fired.
The propellered aircraft touches down on the packed dirt runway and I am, what is referred to as, in the field. The harsh light hits my pupils as I step onto the fold-out stairs.
After the plane touched down on the packed dirt runway, I moved toward the vehicle waiting for me, looking over my shoulder for figments of my imagination. In the rearview mirror, no car tails us from the airport, all the way to the office, where the bougainvillea grows though razor wire on the wall of the compound. A group crowds the shade under an acacia and I assume it’s their payday. Greeting me with knowing gestures, they thank me in advance. I am carrying their salaries. Inside, behind a locked door, I sign a document that testifies to the handover of 25 grand, then flip-flop through the town with a local project manager. The circular saw of the sun cuts through a knot of clouds overhead.
“The LRA are not that active,” he says, “but there’s a displaced persons camp on the outskirts of town. They come from ninety miles north where incursions actually happen.”
Jacques wipes his forehead of sweat with a handkerchief.
“The Seleka seized power following the coup d’état but they were chased from their homes and government buildings in the counter coup more than a year ago.” His gestures are out of sync with his words, and he points to the river instead of buildings.
“A Moroccan branch of the UN Peacekeepers is stationed in here, and makes occasional patrols.”
We circle the town center, occasionally mumbling “hello” to passers-by, then Jacques says he must leave. He pads his apology with a description of a training he has to organize.
Bangassou smells of abandoned houses—mold on cement and ash—because that is what it is. The government offices are also deserted and grown through by vines. It looks as if the place was crucified by the last decade—the metabolism of equatorial flora, which is only the metabolism of nature in overdrive, is determined to choke every inch of human endeavor in thorns.
The locals pedal rusty bikes and pigs tack hurriedly on toothpick legs across the gravel road, as do the polio survivors. Women carry everything on their head. It’s an image of Sub-Saharan Africa so universal that it’s generic and therefore mundane—as if it’s only Tuesday and not the mutinous country I imagine it to be.
In the field, I live in a house, although it might be considered a tent because it’s closer to camping. How I place my toothbrush on the lavatory is the difference between clean teeth and dysentery and boiling the water saves me from typhoid. There’s an intentionality to the most banal of activities. As there’s been no electricity since the state was sacked two years ago, the rumble of the generator lays down muzak. Inversely, in the morning, before the generator’s started, I wait for a passing motorcycle so the entire house won’t hear me in the bathroom. Sitting on the toilet, spell check corrects the word “diarrhea.”
Then there’s the food. For the past two days, I’ve gone out in the early morning to scour for a baguette or any flour based product to zero success. I don’t particularly care for eating—I despise the restaurant industry and am not interested in microbrews or superfoods. One of the greatest—albeit most selfish—aspects about residing in destroyed countries is that these are the last holdouts against the Western World, which, in culinary terms, can be summarized as an ever-changing array of condiments. I’ve never cared about flavor because I have no taste.
Yet here I am, the equivalent of two hundred dollars in my pocket I can’t spend, cursing under my breath, as I trudge through the southeast of the Central African Republic, begging locals for any pre-packaged food product. The bush meat in the market is swarming with flies. There are plenty of plantains, but I’ve eaten plantains every day for months. I find cassava, but cassava tastes like wallpaper and I’m not as adaptive as I thought.
It’s half past eight in the morning, which is already two hours after sunrise and in a town with no electricity, it might as well be midday.
“Le pain est déjà fini.”
“The bread is already finished,” a woman says. She looks left and right but nothing is moving, coming or going, except a herd of goats. I ask to be pointed in the direction of breakfast and she, and the next people I ask, look at me like I’m senseless. The question doesn’t register. Two young men string me along to the adjacent boutique—sachets of instant coffee, powdered milk, soap, but no breakfast. In the shop there’s upbeat music playing and it occurs to me that people in Sub-Saharan Africa rarely listen to gloomy music. It must be an evolutionary thing, I think, like how they burn less in the sun. Then I wonder why wigs are so popular in Africa, and then if there’s a pharmacy in town.
“You need any help?” the shopkeeper asks.
“No, thanks,” I say. I exit the shop.
Pairs of eyes follow me in my wanderings. One of a handful of white people in town, I’m practically a freak show on two legs. I pass teens selling watered down gasoline then corner a street vendor who hawks Chinese imports, and although I never wear sunglasses, I buy a pair of knock-off aviators. They afford me some cover.
A second shopkeeper shakes his head at my request for “Laughing Cow”, a processed cheese that keeps at any temperature and can be purchased in the remotest zones of equatorial Africa. Or so I thought. I continue, hungry, to my room, where, lit only by a slender window, I eat sardines out of a tin.
Then, on the second day of canvassing the town for any food product other than staple crops or bush meat, I score. A Lebanese merchant, in town since the nineteen nineties, owns a grimy shop stocked with luxury goods, like canned tuna and spaghetti. Just as I’m rummaging through his stock, praising the invisible hand of the market, he says:
But I’m in the corner of the shop, kneeling down to inspect the imports, having an epiphany: existence, in these latitudes, is decanted to its essence. The population—the majority who hold no more than an elementary level education—inch through short lives, their country in free fall. Here, near the equator, everything grows and yet human life is a miracle. Yet people live here. They eat here, not much, but enough. They fuck here and have kids here and those kids grow up and fuck, often too early, but what the hell, and then the metabolism of nature burps them all out. It makes me wish I were religious, like the remainder of the country, to give some sense to the narrative.
“Look,” says the Lebanese merchant, moving toward me. He blows dust off a military ration and pushes a camouflage box toward me. It has the word “halal” written across it, a Moroccan military ration! I waltz home, arms full with four of them. The eyes following me are no longer a nuisance. In my room, I lock the door and lay into a smorgasbord of packaged, fortified, food.
A Moroccan patrol rolls by, waving to anybody who isn’t black—me at my window, another NGO worker in the road, and the Lebanese merchant who I make out hunched over a calculator in the distance. I smile at the soldier with cheese in between my teeth.
After eating, I hop a motorcycle-taxi to the outskirts of town. We coast in neutral on downhills to save gas, under the dead power lines, to visit an education project.
Sitting on a school bench in a dimly lit building, I interview the school’s director. After asking me about my accent he switches from French to English and says he spent some time in England. I tell him I’m from Australia. He gives the token speech of gratitude toward my employer, the NGO, then translates for the nervous teacher by his side that I came to see the impact of the project. This is what I assume, because the local language escapes me.
“As you can see the school rooms are cross ventilated and comfortable,” he says. “We have the blackboard and the school supplies. Even the bathrooms are handicapped accessible. But the problem in the southeast is not out-of-school children, at least not in Bangassou. It’s that our schools are too crowded and we lack qualified staff.” The director tells me that half the teachers are parent-volunteers and then he asks for a piece of paper from a notepad I’m holding. He draws a map.
“We’re here. And the next closest school is here, five kilometers, and the next one, here. Also five kilometers.”
The schools are equally spread out. I imagine children traipsing in long straight lines on the shoulder of the road.
“But in this school here,” he pointed to the ceiling to denote the school we were sitting in, “there are 300 children per classroom, and this school here, too.” He drew an X across the piece of paper on the next school out of town. “Then there’s the forest, a half a kilometer, and on the other side of the forest is a school with approximately 100 children per class.”
He gazed at me to gauge my reaction. For a good deal of children, the third school was closer to their homes than the second one, with only a small forest separating them. And a road ran through the forest. There could be an equal amount of students in all schools. I lowered the sunglasses over my eyes, unsure if the director was staring at my pupils, and asked for an explanation.
“Children that attend the second school won’t cross the forest to attend the third school even though it’s two to three kilometers closer. There are spirits in these forests, meaning there might as well be a wall between these two villages.” He translates this to the teacher who concurs.
“Listen,” he sighs, “there’s a story of crocodile man that inhabits the local river, but I think it’s a way to scare people from swimming in the water, to stop river blindness. The same goes for the spirits in the forest. It was poor farm land and to make sure nobody planted there, a story was created decades ago. But it comes back to the same thing.” This he doesn’t translate into Zandé for the teacher.
While he is explaining this to me, I’m scratching.
“You should see a doctor,” he points at my nose.
“You believe this?” I ask, “I mean, do most people believe this?”
“Do people avoid walking under ladders in Australia?” He seems proud of this comparison and repeats it. I want to ask him about senile women being accused of witchcraft.
I thank the director and the teacher. Leaving the school room, it hits me. Even if, over time, the Central African Republic becomes familiar to me, and, with ethnological acuity, I succeed in drawing parallels between Western superstitions of broken mirrors or forests moved by spirits, regardless of the time I live here I’ll never understand these people. It’s not because they’re simple, but because I will never be a part of their complexity. The funerals, the births, the whispers in the markets. Self-conscious, the children will always come toward me or walk away from me, motivated by a crocodile man lying in wait to snatch their imaginations.
I take a picture of the director with the teacher. Their faces are lit with sunlight splintered by the lattice of the school room wall.
The following day, a man enters the office flustered and waving a piece a paper. In his anger, his body appears asymmetrical, like a child’s poorly drawn star. I share the workplace, so I guess he came to address the project manager, and am relieved when I see as much is true, and continue typing into a sprawling Excel sheet—I work on data collection tool for our Gender Based Violence program which captures information on the number of beneficiaries that visit our Listening Centers along the criteria of rape, forced marriage, psychological abuse, physical abuse, sexual aggression, and denial of resources, all disaggregated by gender.
Jacques interrupts me and asks me to meet the man. I save the spreadsheet then position myself in a chair facing him, because, in a culture where consensus is paramount, to lend a person your ear is considered respectful. In starts and fits he presents to me a convoluted story detailing a deal gone wrong. He and former employee of our organization—the employee that was fired for extortion and who later made death threats to the remaining staff—planned on cashing vouchers for money instead of using them for their intended purpose, to buy seeds and farming tools. Our former employee took all the money, instead of cutting the man his share. His is named is Fidel. I almost laugh, but don’t, because irony is rarely funny.
In a way, I pity him. He wasn’t even capable of stealing from an organization willing to give him something for free. While Fidel rants, I space out. I ponder the relationship between precarity, in this breadless place, and trust. People here are constantly ripping each other off to the point where solidarity seems to be a luxury. I picture the centerpiece of Hay Wain Triptych by Hieronymus Bosch and consider it my finest comparison to rural CAR. Fidel continues waving his sweaty letter, petitioning money.
“We’ll study your case,” I say, “but next time, it would be best if you go for the tools and seeds.” I didn’t tell him there wouldn’t be a next time because our organization was pulling out of town.
To escape the paperwork of the office and the demands for money, again, I fold my computer and ride a motorcycle into the countryside to visit fish farms, coffee fields, and the peanut harvests in the forest. I visit the camp of displaced persons and their plot of land. The organization gave them seeds and tools, through the abovementioned voucher program. Paris, the spokesperson of the group, confuses me with the distant donors whose money bought the land, and punctuates his sentences with terms of gratitude. He explains to me how my coworkers taught the group intercropping and seed selection. Paris says they’ve had three harvests.
“We eat twice a day now,” he says.
Before leaving, I shake his hand and thank him for the interview. I feel guilty for not telling him we are closing our operations in the southeast. Returning to town, we coast past the crumbling government buildings on a motorcycle taxi. We are three on the way back, the driver, Paris—whose his rib cage is visible through his sleeveless shirt—and me on back.
I almost fall off a turns, more than once, so far gone I’m not paying attention, cerebral: humanitarian work is an exercise in ambiguity. It demands an enormous amount of work to give away money that is not mine, to people who will only say “thank you” to soften the blow of “please.” Not the schools, nor the farmers, not even the thieves will be satisfied and I’ll never know if it’s because I, the freak show from out of country who is conflated with a foreign philanthropist, represent the possibility of money. Or is it that my work is indispensable? It’s probably both, but I’m never certain. On top of the ambiguity, there’s the reality of being held accountable by a distant headquarters and donors for a workload impossible to deliver on time.
As my white hand goes to pay the motorcycle taxi, I find my pockets empty. I return to my room and retrieve money from under the mattress.
Tonight, due to lack of gasoline, the generator is cut at eight. The lights fade an hour after the sunset. I turn into bed to abbreviate the solitude of evenings in rural Africa. Outside, the frogs sleepwalk through their instincts as they sing slow songs.
To confess, I didn’t leave the painkillers in the medicine cabinet. I lied, mostly to myself—about my ability to live on the equator, cornered on both sides of the day by curfews, amongst all this doom and razor wire. I lied about my willpower.
I walked across the airport tarmac to board the plane to Bangassou on four sheets of pills stuffed into my socks. I had calculated a week of sensible highs, but the time in between reaching into my pockets became shorter and shorter until, this morning, I washed down the last pill. I leaned my head back and stared at a sun severing the clouds through the counterfeit aviator sunglasses and dreaded the inevitable.
Coming down from a two week bender, I lie sweat soaked in my bed, with my limbs spread to stave off the heat, and listening to Chopin’s Nocturnes, because anything louder is thunder. I’ve experienced malaria and detoxed from opiates, the symptoms are comparable—the triple digit fever, the arthritic condition, the faces behind my eyelids—except I can blame nature for malaria. Dressed only in the wet rag on my forehead, I’ve only myself to fault. I’ve written myself into this, shivering under a mosquito net. I’m splayed out like the Vitruvian Man across a cheap Chinese mattress. My phone’s spell check corrects the word “Vitruvian Man”.