This piece originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Matador Review
So there I was, committing a faux pas in business class, attempting to cut a slice of camembert from a tray offered to me by a dark-skinned flight attendant. “I’ll cut it for you, monsieur,” she said, rightly sizing me up as an amateur amidst all the comfort and luxury, then jerking the tray away. I glanced to the passenger to my right to gauge her reaction, but she was occupied reading a report issued by Amnesty International. I noticed the words Central African Republic and civil war in the same sentence. Below it was a photo of machetes.
I nodded to the flight attendant then looked out the window to a crescent moon, glittering over the Sahara, in northern Niger, to be precise. I turned back and thanked the flight attendant for the generous slice of cheese, swallowed it, reclined the seat, and used the window for a pillow.
I woke with the taste of camembert on my palate as the 737 dropped under the stratus clouds. A camp of thirty thousand internally displaced persons hemmed the landing strip beyond which squat brown shacks freckled the flat land. Puddles lined the streets of Bangui. Evaporating from the rain, they created a fog-filtered horizon. One part beauty, one part conflict—it resembled the Africa you read about in books, if that is the type of book you read. Personally, I did, because I came hired to mill about in the area in exchange for a paycheck signed by an international humanitarian organization.
This is what I knew: since its independence from France in 1960, the Central African Republic had experienced fraudulent elections, rebellions, ministerial mutinies, and civil wars. It had been transformed into an empire for three years by a suspected cannibal named Jean-Bédel Bokassa. Informed solely by a narrative of tragedy and exploitation, I was otherwise ignorant of the somnambulist aesthetic of the fog in the morning of the tropics. I knew it was a country whose appellation was so generic—denoting a landlocked position on the African continent and boasting a form of governance by popular vote—it seemed that the nation was waiting for history to properly name it. Every country’s hinterland, it was a place where diamonds were removed from the earth, the old-growth treetops from their trunks, and the tusks from elephants. A nation banished to anonymity. The latest coup d’état in the spring of 2013 degenerated into a civil war deemed by the United Nations as “the world’s forgotten conflict.”
At the airport below, military vehicles were being washed in hangars. A tiny head, crowned with the blue helmet of a UN Peacekeeper, protruded from the hull of a tank. Visible at a lower altitude, a lone woman with a tray of fruit balanced on her head, her shirt sliced like venetian blinds, stood some forty feet from the whistling plane and observed us touch ground. Immobile and thin as a mirror, she seemed focused on me behind the double-pane window, my back as hunched as a question mark. The plane rolled to a stop. I wanted to find her later and explain that I sat in business class only because it was the single empty seat on a last-minute flight, a mere coincidence, I would add. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d feel like a phony in the coming months. The seat belt sign beeped off, bringing me back to more pressing issues than guilt. I tied the laces of my boots, buttoned my shirt tight, and pushed the money deeper into my pockets.
I moved across the tarmac, against the humidity, trailing fellow passengers to a makeshift tent in the distance, past soldiers, their indexes on the triggers of automatic weapons I avoided eye contact, perhaps giving me the air of insouciance, which was certainly not what I felt. Further down the tarmac and inside the health-screening tent, a person motioned me forward—a man or a woman, I couldn’t discern because of the hazmat suit. He (or she) raised a thermometer in the shape of a pistol to my temple and squeezed. Of all the reactions I thought possible were a gun pointed at me, standing still wasn’t one of them. It emitted a beep, and I was freed. Down the line, a woman dressed in scrubs verified my vaccination card. With a disinterest that came across as dignity, she murmured the list: “Yellow fever, meningitis, hepatitis A and B, typhoid, malaria, diphtheria, tetanus, polio.” The nurse pointed me to baggage claim.
In the parking lot, I located an idling car with my employer’s name scrawled across the door. Shaking the driver’s hand, we exchanged names. “Simplice,” he said. I told him my name, then offered apologies for being late. I blamed it on the pilot.
“No problem,” he said in French and turned the key in the ignition. “We’re together.” I repeated his words back to him.
Together, we ripped out of the parking lot. The chaos of the market flitted by the dust-covered window—a merchant balancing a gross of eggs on his head, an auction of used T-shirts, the kaleidoscopic-colored dresses of women, and coming the opposite direction, a tank of French soldiers parting it all. There was the blank space, blank because I knew zero of it. There was the unknown country, with no map to highlight a possible trajectory back to my former life across the Atlantic. I felt no bond to the red dirt and couldn’t picture myself in any ceremony—birth, marriage, funeral—playing out under corrugated tin roofs across the slumping city.
Voilà my new existence, taxied by a private driver, the white flag on the hood of the Land Rover heralding my benevolent intents. The driver, appropriately named Simplice because he spoke in truncated affirmatives, told me that, yes, he was from Bangui, yes, this is a bad neighborhood, yes, I should roll up my window and lock the door. I used my white arm to do it.
Dented lemon-yellow taxis bounced on the road before us. As they sped along, I noticed the hand-painted maxims on their bumpers: “Glory be to God,” “Let His Will be Done,” “Take Suffering as Advice,” and one that intended to read “Life is Beautiful,” but the bumper had been ripped off where the adjective beautiful should have been. It read: “Life is.” It was fitting, given the circumstances—haggard motorcycles carried three or four people and struggled through turns versus four-wheel drives with but one person inside and the insignias of international organizations on their doors.
Three tanks, twenty busted taxis, ten Land Rovers, and five minutes later our car took a roundabout. “This is PK0, Kilometer Zero, the center of town,” Simplice said. I said the word zero out loud.
Yet in the streets, affairs appeared peaceful and bordering on hospitable, even life-giving, if that is the correct word. I saw the unconditional love of a mother, a dog for its owner, and a father lighting a cigarette for his son. I spotted a group of uniformed schoolgirls, no more than ten years old, wave to a passing jeep of UN Peacekeepers. As they skipped, their black braids jumped like the semi-automatic weapons on the laps of the soldiers, the jeep steamrolling over the potholed miles of the republic.
One day—a Friday, I recall, because I was exhausted and spaced-out—I crossed a foreigner on my worried way to work. It happened in front of the cathedral as the bells tolled eight and the fallen petals of a jacaranda made a purple rug across the dirt trail. I remember that it happened in front of the cathedral because I harbored opinions of our “Creator,” and the purple flowers during an armed conflict seemed like a cruel trick. Seeing another white person in the center of Africa was an existential dilemma, similar to meeting a stranger in a dark alley. I was hesitant as to whether or not to nod hello. After all, I didn’t nod to every local, and I certainly didn’t nod in the direction of god. But the foreigner was by default a homologue and no doubt did exactly what I did on the quotidian, which was be white in Africa and lord over a desk, sweating a deadline, in the luminescence of a computer screen. After an internal meeting with myself, I nodded, and he did the same. He headed toward the upper-class and well-guarded neighborhood from where I came and vanished at a corner. I shifted my vision to a sign in the forest above my house. Similar to the sign on the Hollywood Hills, it read “Bangui,” and directly below it, “The City of Peace” in giant white letters. It jutted out from the precipitous verdure at the angle of tombstones.
As the week came to a close, a coworker sent me an invitation to a party written by a foreigner in English:
Hi to everyone,
Small update on the Christmas PizzApArty. It will be Saturday, on the 24th of December at the guesthouse in front of the office of MdM and PU, not far from the Embassy of Libya.
The team will ensure good pizza in quantity as well as beers, good music, and happiness. To help you with your good energy there will be aperitifs, but also to digest the pizza and all you want to share. Besides if you want special ingredients on the pizza, for example foie gras for the French or pineapple for the Anglo-Saxons ;), talk to our cook, Narcisse.
We will be here from 14 o’clock to start the barbeque and organize the evening. If you want to join us from the afternoon on, you are welcome. Indeed, we have put in place a volleyball court in the garden for your practice.
Circulate the info to your colleagues. We wait for you many and happy!
See you Saturday!
I ducked my head as I stepped up and into the four wheel drive. I fastened the seat belt, locked the door, and signed the travel log that monitored our movements. So as to stay attuned to gunfire, I cracked the window in line with security protocol and simultaneously thanked the guard, who held open the steel gate. He gave me a military salute as the car pulled onto the road.
To assuage the guilt of calling my driver, Simplice, I attempted to befriend him to correct the asymmetry of our salaries, and thus, to treat him like a human being without the equation of class clouding our conversation. (Class consciousness really is boring, all the more so because it is relentless.) I did this by forgoing chit-chat, instead asking him, whom I suspected was Christian, how the country had changed since the Muslim rebellion, the Séléka, toppled president Bozizé in March of 2013 and instituted one of their own, Michel Djotodia. On my thirty-first birthday, I added.
He moved his hands from the bottom half of the steering wheel to ten and two. “It’s easier to overthrow a government than to govern.” We drove at ten miles an hour. “A week after gaining power, the alliance was already splintering, and Djotodia couldn’t reel in his own troops who went on a rampage.”
He speculated on foreign foul play in the coup d’état. “France supported the Séléka through its ally, Chad, because Bozizé promised concessions to China and South Africa for oil and uranium.” Simplice navigated the dimly-lit roads of a country with no history of sectarian violence up until two years ago, choking the steering wheel as he amalgamated the Séléka with all Muslims, who constituted 15 percent of the population. His voice spanned an octave, denoting frustration.
To my relief, we reached the party.
I had made a point to arrive after the volleyball tournament. It wouldn’t be right—in Bangui, we were far from white-sand beaches, and a volleyball tournament would’ve turned the house into an upscale resort. To a background of European pop music, I questioned a logistician working for Doctors Without Borders about his stint in Darfur, Sahara Occidental, and a number of war-torn provinces. His wrinkles ran trenches around his mouth as he detailed places I’d read about in humanitarian memos or saw on the nightly news and dreamed of visiting more than a Club Med getaway in Cancun. I listened with the poise of an apprentice to the particulars of supply chains to deliver medicine to refugee camps and food distribution programs in rebel-controlled territories.
Bending my ear to a discussion on travel, I moved toward a knot of five people. A man, black neck against white collar, referred to the country as CentrAf. He was from DRC to the south. I learned that an Ivory was someone from the Ivory Coast. Several of them had lighter skin than the locals’, but of course, not as light as the majority. I butted in with a detail about my arrival flight and said that my connection was also not in Paris, but in Casa, meaning Casablanca. There was enough shorthand in the nearby conversations that an outsider would have needed a pocket translator to keep pace with sixteen-hour work shifts crescendoing at expat parties flowing with overpriced drinks and located inconspicuously in well-guarded pockets of the capital.
Above the sound of bottles knocking together and a chorus of cheers in English was the confounded Babel of foreign languages. Knowing that beyond the fortified compound, the street was gloomy, vacant, and made of dirt, it gave me the impression of being everywhere and nowhere at once. In this cosmopolitan backwater, competing feelings of importance and anonymity, rival desires of presence and annihilation, pulled apart my mind. Presence, because I was anchored in the conversations as the names of foreign countries came to me with all the brio of travel agents. The world seemed to spin on an axis around the party. Annihilation, because being myself—the same self—stuffed in the parentheses between birth and death for the past thirty years, was such a fucking bore. And now, I was someone else with the inflated importance of being in a foreign country and on a mission.
Following a decent commiseration session with my newfound friend, the Italian two weeks fresh from Darfur, we agreed to hit the bathroom. In line for the head, chicken-winging a pilsner, I stood in front of a naive idealist on a whirlwind mission. He, with a baby face, stated that it was a moral imperative to listen to local music whenever abroad. He repeated this to an older UN worker who had a red face like a slapped ass. The latter sighed so condescendingly that he could have knocked the tapestries off the wall, and as such, betrayed his years on the continent.
In line for the bathroom was also a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, and I came into the story at the part where he hid in the forest for three months. It made my own equatorial attrition seem trivial. Inside the bathroom, I pissed while the festivities continued outside. I felt slightly provincial, especially because I understood only half the languages on the other side of the window that gave onto the courtyard—neither English nor Romance vernacular, but African language families. I knew it was Sango, the local language, because he said tomorrow, a word I’d heard so often in so little time. For whatever reason, while flushing the toilet, I decided to shave my head the next morning.
Minutes later, I met a diamond runner. He was a pilot who, in between shots of whisky, explained that since the region’s minerals were classed as illegal under the Kimberley Process, the potential tax revenue eluded the hands of a bankrupt state. The pilot was large, and his South African accent rendered his slurs incomprehensible. What came through was the accusation that the black market had taken the place of the state in trading precious stones. Diamond mining financed the rebels behind the last coup d’état that had set the country back a number of years, he said. He repeated, the formalization of the industry as if it were the lost cornerstone of the economy. When he made a sweeping gesture that seemed to encompass the country, the diamond runner resembled a fretful philanthropist.
In the foyer, I puffed on imported cigarettes from Morocco and was flanked by what must have been a dozen flustered careerists. I perceived the shuffling of the Rolodex as the crowds merged and got a crook in my neck from nodding during short-winded introductions of newcomers. To rest my wrist from so many handshakes, I reread the security alerts transmitted to my cell phone:
Yesterday. Near Damara. 3 convoys ambushed by Anti-Balaka militia. Avoid MSR 2 road.
13:30. Bangui, Béal camp. Muslim woman kidnapped by Anti-Balaka militia. Séléka militia threaten to attack Bangui. Stay in a safe place.
Sliding my phone into my jeans, I wondered what constituted a safe place. I noted the guard in the distance, nodding off, saw the naive idealist gesticulating, and noticed the UN worker sighing. I added up the inches of white flesh in the vicinity. My security concerns dissipated, similar to how when swimming in a crowded ocean, you convince yourself that sharks will bite others. Security in numbers, indeed. I remembered something an acquaintance said to me in California two weeks earlier: “You don’t think it’s fucked up that white people can go to Africa and land well-paid jobs in places where people struggle to find work?”
“Yes, and no,” I had said. “There is the constant remise en question.” I said this in French because it was most appropriate, and I might have well been talking to myself. “But then again, the majority of qualified people leave the Central African Republic for better salaries. Brain drain, right?” I was talking without stop to justify my future job. “But you know, there’s also been a change in humanitarian aid, in general. Aid used to be in the form of handouts. But now donors demand accountability after decades of failed attempts by well-intentioned amateurs to develop Africa, Asia, South America. They built schools to later find the tables had been dismantled to build pens for livestock. The wells they dug fell into ruin because repairmen weren’t trained for cave-ins. Local politicians hijacked projects for their own gain. Now, to get funding, checks and balances have been put in place, like audits and reports.”
“And locals can’t do the job? That’s where you come in?”
“Exactly. I had the chance to go to college to learn the trade. Others didn’t. That’s my defense.”
“That’s very black and white,” she said, lowering her eyes.
“I could say the same about your point of view.”
“I don’t know the context where you’re going.”
“Neither do I. But I can tell you that the majority of the employees of the organization are locals, if that’s a consolation.”
There was a pause. “You’re quite the humanitarian, huh?” she said.
“I suppose. Anyway, I realize the absurdity of traveling to conflict zones to do good.” I mimed quotation marks around the words do good to deflect any connotation of religious morality that would’ve provided her with material for debate. I wished only to have those religious conversations with myself, lying in bed at night and asking questions to the ceiling.
“You know there are people here in America that you could help, souls you could save,” she looked at me obliquely.
“People are just ideas when you talk about them that way. I get your point though, that foreigners have the Midas touch when it comes to places they don’t know, the prime example being Africa. But we will never know, like, completely, or have perfect knowledge. Besides, humanitarian aid will never save Africa. It’s not supposed to, and thinking it will is as stereotypical as African warlords or witchdoctors.”
She went upstairs and returned with a book. “Here’s a gift. I hate guidebooks because of their cookie-cutter itineraries. It’s all yours.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, “like travelers are only allowed to eat and sleep and look at things.”
“Anyway,” she said, “a friend passed it on to me before I went to Egypt. Now I’m doing the same. It’s a guide for all of Africa, imagine that.”
“Thanks,” I said under my breath, but was already flipping through it, looking for the letter C in the margins. I opened the slim chapter dedicated to the Central African Republic.
I read the opening sentence out loud: “This part of Africa has been pillaged for centuries.”
The section on contemporary history was a litany of coups d’état—Bokassa overthrows Dacko, Dacko overthrows Bokassa, Kolingba overthrows Dacko. Bozizé overthrows the elected Patassé, Djotodia overthrows Bozizé in 2013. And this, more often than not, with the help of the former colonial power, France. I read the end of the passage out loud: “If you’re searching for the real Africa, then rural CAR is what you’re looking for.” I shut the book and pulled my sweater over my fists.
“I hope that’s not what you’re looking for, some real Africa?” She stressed the word real.
“Not at all.”
“You know you don’t need to go to Africa.”
“Need is not the right word.”
“So that’s your…” She shifted her tall body and readjusted her tight jeans. “So that’s your burden?” She stood up and paced the fenced-in perimeter of a West Oakland yard. Police sirens whirled in the night.
Two weeks later, across the ocean and earlier in the day, I, notepad in hand, visited a project spearheaded by my organization. The visit would be a welcome change from the desk, I thought, where I had been hunkered down, caught in a cross fire of CC’d emails. The project, which had been detailed across sixty pages before it was approved for financing, could be summarized as such: Legal, psychosocial, and socioeconomic support for women who’ve experienced gender-based violence. What this translated to, concretely, was psychologists or paralegals consulting with survivors of rape in a listening center—a walled-in compound of two buildings where women strolled green lawns like in psych wards, except instead of grass, they kicked up sand from their flip-flops. I watched them move in pairs.
Inside the first building, I took notes for some eventual, inevitable, report while a volunteer paralegal gave a presentation to a delegation of foreign donors:
“Since the coup d’état two years ago, the number of cases of gender-based violence has skyrocketed. When the Séléka came into power, they pillaged and looted. The Christian protection groups, the Anti-Balaka—who were put into place to do just that—exacted revenge against the Muslim community. Rape was used as a weapon of war on both sides. Due to the lack of security forces and a justice system, there is now a culture of impunity. The penalty for rape is a ten-thousand-franc fine.” She converted this into a currency the delegation understood. “Twenty dollars,” and added, “that is, if it ever goes to the courts.”
I crossed my legs and took comfort in my clothing. I loathed the thing in between my legs and hated god, too, for creating us, humanity—capable of traveling to the moon or splitting the atom, but not more often than splitting women in half according to base urges.
I moved between the buildings of the listening center, attempting to operate with distance so as not to well up. From time to time, I scratched my face to hide a frown, particularly when passing women in the corridor. They barely moved faster than the two-dimensional numbers compiled week upon week on the reports that I had edited before visiting the listening center.
Moving through obscure hallways, notebook in hand, dick under thin garments, there was a sight that penetrated the armor of my clothing. She was a woman in a room so dark that nobody could see in, not even the sun. By extension, even the shadows were intruders. She was pushed into a corner, silent in the comings-and-goings about her—the coffees served and the papers being signed across the cracked floor tiles. The ripped-up chair held more form than she did. A shell of bones, she was covered in a tatty dress. The design on her clothes was the lone context because it was local, therefore full of colors, but also because all context had been stripped from her gaze. In the dark room, her pupils floated in her skull like distant ship signals or dead stars.
The scene came back to me later, while staring at the mosquito net above my bed, which moved in the flow of the fan as I tried to rid my head of images. I was less damaged when I had access to the abstract numbers on reports, when evil was distilled in two dimensions and stared back at me from a comfortable distance through double zeros on computer screens, and not the twin ciphers in the eyes of war-crime survivors. And yet there we were, tied together forever in memory. Just as pillows were made for dreams or nightmares, and just how black and white made gray, her eyes stared right through my sleep.
Two months later I was at the same party for the fourth time, on the sidelines of the volleyball court and sandwiched in another handshake orgy. The beer was again floating in a plastic garbage bin stocked with ice. The white arms, covered in DEET mosquito spray, reached deep to catch the sinkers.
I rocked in a white plastic chair on the terrace and raised a bottle to my boss. We drank to the day. Switching from French to English and back in three sentences, Emma elbowed me to give her details on possible funding for a project.
“What’s-her-name from the World Food Program called,” I said, “and asked us if we would work with them.”
To my right, I honed in on a conversation of a young man and woman. They looked to be courting, with the way she twisted a lock of hair around her index finger and he ringed a wine bottle with his. I overheard her story of an evacuation from the Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. There was the description of rising out of the jungle. The ripple of the forest canopy. She ducked her head as she said this, as if she were stepping into the helicopter and not standing on a volleyball court, doe-eyed. He offered his equivalent story from Syria and mimicked the stutter of gunfire. In the five minutes I had been listening, they hadn’t talked about their birth country, despite their marked but similar accents.
“Doing what?” my boss kicked my foot.
“About commercializing agricultural products from our project in the northeast for school lunches.” I finished the sentence under my breath because I was trying to make out what the two were saying.
He gave her an onboarding of the more spectacular aspects of the country, starting with the women accused of witchcraft and how they were buried alive. He transitioned to fetishes and talked of the amulets reputed by the Christian militia, the Anti-Balaka, to stop bullets, “except the silver ones,” he added, “which happen to be the bullets the French forces use.” He took a pull directly from the wine bottle, “Because their arms fire sharper than the forty-dollar Kalashnikovs or the one-dollar hand grenades.” He raised his eyebrows, as if having this knowledge lent him an air of danger, and by sharing it, they both became implicated in the mystery of violence.
“Check out these two,” I said to Emma. “What do you think?”
“He’s a journalist. Her, never seen her. She looks new.”
The girl turned off the walkie-talkie strapped to her belt. She had widened eyes.
“How does she look new?”
“Well, she still looks excited at his stories.”
“True,” I said, remembering how I felt months prior, when my proximity to conflict put a spring in my step. “I suppose that’s what it is about this country. It’s a reminder that world is still a very wild place. You ever read Conrad?”
“What do you think?”
“What does Conrad have to do with this place? Other than malaria?”
Training my gaze on Emma, I discerned the future wrinkles around her eyes.
“Is that why you’re pulling on and off your scarf?” She had malaria, or hypochondria, every other week, so I placated her.
Listening to the couple—they had pulled together two chairs and their knees now touched each other’s—their conversation was imbued with the anthropological tact of National Geographic and the political analysis of Al Jazeera, but this only hinted at their loneliness. The more intelligent their conversation, the more desperate they seemed.
As I watched them beat around the bush, I remembered how, weeks prior, I figured there to be some presence, an immediacy, to these parties. The dizzying languages tied together disparate worlds—worlds where coup d’états were conspired and rebellions fomented—and these hyperreal experiences were relayed through news cables back to a world in wait for us.
But there was only absence. The journalist and the woman lullabied one another with their respective nostalgias of instants when they thought their fingers were on the pulse of the world. If their descriptions of violence could carry enough cinematic flair, they would elope from their reality, which was sitting in plastic chairs staked in the sand of a volleyball court in the capital of backwaters.
“So back to the project,” my boss said, pitching the dregs of her beer into the bushes.
“I don’t know.”
The couple appeared to be looking for something to believe in, just for the night.
“Listen, I’ll draft a proposal first thing in the morning,” I said. Someone to my left gave specifics on the make of a Soviet-era aircraft. I decided to leave.
“Drunken promises.” She pulled on her scarf. “Wait. I’m going with you. Why are you leaving so soon, anyway? Not like you.”
“It’s boring. Going to go home and write.”
“Writing,” she said as she pulled her scarf off.
“Yeah, it makes this place bearable. Let me finish my drink.” I raised the bottle to show her a quarter of a beer. “You know what it is? Despite a reputation for the heroics of war correspondents, our missions are not dangerous. They’re depressing.” In between sips of a lukewarm beer, I told her about the taxi I saw on the first day with “Life is Beautiful” painted on the bumper. “That’s what this place is like,” I said. “Life is not beautiful here. Life is.”
“That’s what you write about?”
“Amongst other things. Can’t say there’s much action in what I write at the moment, what with the curfews and claustrophobia.”
In the crowd, the amount of beers upturned made the party look like a concert of buglers. By the way some of them looked to the sky while they drank, it made you think they were either religious or imprisoned—or that they had honed in on the collective epiphany that, though we had longed for adventure or escapism and it led us to the center of Africa, we had overestimated our ability to adapt. And that all of us needed, if only for several hours, to recreate the western world.
A cigarette later, Simplice drove Emma and me out of the eight-foot-high steel entry. Leaving, I thought of the Gates of Eden. The flag on our four-wheel drive nearly caught the ribbons of razor wire overhead.
There were exactly two ATMs and no more than half a dozen banks in the Central African Republic, and every single one was headquartered in the capital. For the dozens of NGOs with sub-bases freckling this deindustrialized sweep of land, what this meant was that paying staff salaries and good deeds of humanitarian interventions in remote outposts equaled running money. Everyone did it, but no one talked about it, so the first time I was asked to do it, I said yes.
I rode through the congested asphalt corridor of the Marché des Combatants. It was the last stretch of road en route to the airport, and the most dangerous. The market edged both sides of the road, spilling into it, and stationary taxi-motorcycles choked the traffic of slow rolling NGO vehicles. SUVs, once idling, were targeted in the all too common hit-and-runs facilitated by the smaller roads that ran perpendicular from the main drag in perfect right angles.
These were the thoughts I had on a usual passage through the marché, and they were magnified when I carried twenty-five thousand dollars tucked between my knees. Fifteen million francs, rubber-banded in increments of millions, took up half a duffle bag. It was the size of a year-old baby, and it cried just as loud.
I sweated through the formalities at the airport. It was hot, and I was nervous. My logic was this: the money would appear in the X-ray. Accompanied to a back room and interrogated, I would show customs the paper signed by the director, written on company letterhead, stating that I was transporting funds for a sub-base in the northwest, and I would be freed. Since everybody knows somebody in this country, because it is thinly populated and the social structures are not yet atomized, the customs agent would call a brother, an uncle, anyone with a gun in the town where I was landing, and whisper over the phone the amount of money in my bag and which NGO logo to look for on the white four-wheel-drive exiting the landing strip.
But the X-ray gave up nothing, and I shuffled into the one gate of the Bangui M’poko International Airport.
At the bar, UN Peacekeepers from Morocco postured over a couple of croissants. I kept my bag at my feet and called for the bartender. She wore skin whitener and thick makeup. She was a staple of the airport, called everyone chéri, and diligently poured rounds of instant coffee to soldiers, humanitarians, and well-dressed travelers. I kept my boot on the duffel bag and washed down a day-old croissant with bitter coffee, trying to stay alert because it was eight in the morning and, because of the lack of a functional fan due to a power cut, I had slept the night before splayed out like the Vitruvian Man across a cheap Chinese mattress.
Flying on a thirty-seat propeller plane over a sparsely settled country—four million people in a country the size of Texas—I was high enough to see the bend of the horizon and low enough to perceive swaths of green cut by red laterite roads. Village roads or logging roads, the lone roads spread like arteries across the geography.
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. Ten minutes later, in the office, I signed a document that testified to the handover of the cash. The crying baby was taken from my hands. Another ten minutes later I rushed two hours further into the country—because everything in the profession was urgent and already late—to draft a report due a week prior.
The project, financed by the UN and implemented by my employer, and in a roundabout way, by me, involved rebuilding homes in the village of Bozoum with mudbrick and corrugated tin roofing. I took photos of houses and interviewed beneficiaries with the help of a translator. The beneficiaries shook my hand thinking I was personally responsible for roofing the neighborhood.
Mariam had a cross as large as a fist hanging from her neck. “When the Séléka leader resigned less than a year after coming to power, Christians chased Muslims from the village in a counter-coup.” She shadowed me as I took photos.
“We were living in the Muslim neighborhood because ours was destroyed. By the Muslims.” An hour earlier, I had driven through an adjacent neighborhood where the driveways gave onto crumbling walls marked with soot. The project had rebuilt her house along with those of a hundred others to make room for the Muslims to return. What would happen then was mere speculation.
I put the camera to my eye. In the viewfinder, I saw her move into the frame. She picked up a child that was tottering across the dirt and smiled. The scene seemed rehearsed.
“Come,” she said.
In the backyard, she pointed to a lump. Two lumps. The first, she said, was her husband, who was killed by the Séléka. She motioned to the second, which was raised as high as a speed bump and ran the length of my outstretched arms. “And that is my daughter.” She urged me to take a photo, which I did, not knowing what else to do. I apologized as I focused on the mound. One is always taken aback at the size of a child’s grave.
Yet further outside Bozoum, miles swerving on the pockmarked road, I met up with a coworker. She stood beside a water pump where dozens of snotty-nosed children clung to her. The project provided latrines to vulnerable families and, through my coworker’s megaphone, taught good practices in hygiene to stop the jungle from creeping into every body. After photographing a puppet show about germs, I asked her if I could interview her on the car ride back to Bouar.
“See you in two hours then,” she said and went into a lesson about covering a cough.
I tied my boots tighter and joined a dirt foot path. Thinking about the thatch huts and banana trees seemingly tacked to a darkening horizon, I imagined my coordinates in this village, whose name had never graced a map. Because the project was financed by our donor, they paid for 15 percent of my salary as I embarked on these idle conjectures. The project, called “play therapy,” helped orphans, former child soldiers, and children who have experienced violence cope with the effects of the conflict.
I walked the footpath, imagining myself walking off the edge of a flat world. Toward me came a woman balancing a bucket on her head. She spared me a modest smile. A rotund pig mulled around a bush. It began drizzling, and goats formed a line under the thin overhang on the left. The homeowner, visibly suffering from polio, scissored across the dirt yard in haste. I continued and came across a bird on the footpath. It was like a picked flower, green and yellow and red with a black head, full of color, but dying nonetheless. I kneeled down beside it and searched for dented ribs. From behind me, a man stepped over the bird.
“We’re in Africa,” he said. “Either you kill it or you let it die.” When he looked back, I saw his face was screwed up by the sun.
“What does that have to do with Africa?”
“If you get caught up with a bird…” The man trailed off. He shook his head, which was outlined by the dark sky. He continued, and I waited until he was out of sight. I stood up and looked away. The banana trees waved like children in the ocean. With my boot, I put the bird in the ground. It was all I could do. It was, I thought, what I should do.
I tacked toward the play therapy activity and arrived at some two hundred children. Children with low-set ears and Leukoderma clamored around me. They sang a song that switched between French and Sango in which my name was repeated, followed by applause. The wind carved the soccer field, forcing the children to lean against it. Gloomy clouds extinguished the afternoon. Their jerseys, marked with the NGO’s logo, flew out behind them as they circled me, holding hands, as if I were Colonel Kurtz himself. Then the sky, clouded from end to end, opened up.
The song over, the children and I ran for cover in the downpour. I heard their footfalls filing into the schoolroom, their panting. The wind-snuffed candles gave me the impression of pioneering. I had penetrated the countryside with the zeal of settlers, not the first, nor the last, to conflate travel to pastoral Africa with alchemy. The village, with its naked children plodding around shallow graves, was my private Eureka—the possibility of humble living, off the map of reference points of my past—less my self and yet more alive in the immediacy of a short existence.
But this frontier closed when, routing the fault lines in the road back to Bouar, the driver slipped on a CD of Celine Dion. Through the potholes, as the villages moved by, the song skipped, repeating the chorus of “My Heart Will Go On.”
At the rain-streaked window, the locals forced rusty bikes through the mud while pigs dashed on toothpick legs across the road. The banana trees blew in gusts of wind. Women carried everything on their heads. It was an image of Sub-Saharan Africa so universal that it was common, familiar to the point that it was invisible and no longer recognizable as different—that it was Tuesday and not always the mutinous country I imagined it to be.
The first night back in Bangui, I sat with Simplice on my terrace. Recently dropped out of university due to lack of funds, he repeated the diamond runner’s words. “This place is like going back in time.” He bit his lip. “Even under dictators, the country was better off.” He gestured to my neighbor’s home where the widow of Jean-Bédel Bokassa, the country’s most renowned tyrant, slept.
I served Simplice a beer, then I pushed the record button on a Dictaphone in my pocket.
“In an ideal world,” he said, “the schools here would function, and people would graduate the third grade.”
I liked him all the more for using the word ideal.
“I went to university in Cameroon, but then ran low on money. My parents never supported my education.”
“How much do you need?” I asked him.
“Four hundred dollars a year,” he said, after a quick calculation, as if he had done it a hundred times before.
He said he studied law and then stared into the night. “But there is no justice system here. And no jobs for that matter, except driving cars back and forth. Going backwards.”
I remembered a report I submitted on a project for the survivors of gender-based violence. The woman with dead stars for eyes started a business. Through a proposal I wrote to a donor, she received a Singer pump-action sewing machine and returned to her previous profession, in which she’d had the same machine, prior to the coup d’état and its pillage. I was not allowed to take photos of her smiling behind the needle of the machine because it would compromise her anonymity, and therefore her safety.
I asked Simplice if he believed in god. He sucked his head back, as if to say of course. His faith cut short the discussion. I noticed the sound of the insects. In an ideal world, I wanted to say, god wouldn’t have created men, no better than animals in heat, that leave women shells of their former selves in gloomy rooms waiting for psychological and legal counseling. A sight that made it impossible to ever be young again.
At nightfall in the Central African Republic, the roar of a thousand sighs blanketed the capital.
The next day over a game of billiards in a four-star hotel, I spoke with a coworker who was on the tail end of a two-year mission. The hotel, where UN employees and French soldiers communed over predictions of the country’s future, was bankrolled by Muammar Gaddafi at a time before he’d been dragged through the streets of his hometown, a golden pistol his unique dying possession. My friend, on the other hand, was alive, if stir crazy. She told me she was losing her hair.
“We become emotionally dull here.” She chewed her fingernails. “By living in conflict, we lose our ability to think in anything but extremes, but the extremes cross each other out, rendering us indecisive and cynical, drunk.”
I agreed and told her about a piece I was writing, my attempt to map the emotional landscape of conflict zones and humanitarian work.
“Am I stripes or solids?” I asked.
“Interminable periods of boredom,” I said and hit the ball, “punctuated by sheer moments of bureaucracy.” I missed.
In the time it took to lose a game of billiards, I told her about a nightmare I’d had, as well as my theory about expats looking for love in warzones. I confided to her how sometimes when I closed my eyes, I saw insects.
I dialed Simplice from the hotel, and then he was there, car idling in the driveway, before we had paid the rounds of beers. I no longer apologized for calling him. By doing so, I had denigrated his work. He drove us home from the four-star hotel.
The guard opened the gate, and when I went to sign the travel log, I noticed for the first time that Simplice was happy. He was wearing the organization’s T-shirt, I also noticed for the first time. He referred to us as the team as I said good night with a local handshake that ended in our fingers snapping off each other’s. I was drunk, so I hugged him.
When I stepped into the compound I didn’t leave for two weeks except to go to the office. A number of kidnappings targeting foreigners shortened evenings to a six o’clock curfew. One of the Anti-Balaka’s generals was arrested, hence the headhunt for foreigners for negotiating power.
On the hilltop above my home, what could be considered a villa if it gave onto an accessible horizon, I saw that the Hollywood-esque Bangui sign had been defaced. “The City of Peace” had been blotted out with paint.
I whistled for the cat with the concern of a parent. “Coquette” I called, as I removed my dust-covered boots. Her name was a former epithet of the capital—the sign on the hill once read Bangui la Coquette. The city was later nicknamed Bangui la Roquette. It denoted a time when the coquettish and frivolous ambience changed to something more serious.
Coquette came across the moonlit terrace with her eyes fixed on a lizard. Her tail cavorted, and then she crouched. I scooped her up and felt the beating of her heart. Inside, I fed her, hoping she would still have the appetite to chase the mice into the corner of the night.
I flicked on the air conditioner in my room. It drowned out the sound of frogs searching for mates. It muffled the snap of gun fire and the sporadic thud of a distant hand grenade. The gardener, who preferred to work in the cool of night, weeded with a machete, and with the cadence of his cuts, I remembered a line of Baudelaire—an oasis of horror in a desert of boredom.
-Bangui, Central African Republic
 The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme was established in 2003 to prevent “conflict diamonds” from entering the mainstream rough diamond market by United Nations General Assembly Resolution 55/56.