I didn’t know what to expect but I remember that once upon a time I had told myself that if I were to be asked to work in this country, I would politely turn it down. I had heard such horror stories from refugees in 2016 while I worked in Cameroon, who lived through the worst things. At the time, I was offered a job in Bamabari (one of the hot spots in C.A.R) and I turned it down. I worked in a town called Bertoua close to the border of C.A.R so I worked with refugees from here.You can read about my time out there from this link
3 years later I found myself on my way to C.A.R despite my once upon a time resolve. A few people have asked me where the country is so this map should give an idea. You can also see where Bouar is on the map.
I expected to be in the capital but was told last minute at HQ that that would not be the case. I was already on my way! I had tried to prepare myself but after that news, I was quite disoriented.
On arrival in Bangui, I was smashed after such a long trip. I flew to Geneva from Abuja on Sunday through Istanbul. By Tuesday I was on my way to Bangui via Amsterdam and Nairobi. When I landed on Wednesday morning, all I wanted was a bed to sleep in.
On the drive from the airport, wading through a busy market a few meters from the airport, all I could see was bustling people. As we drove further into Bangui, there was something about the place that reminded me of Togo where I lived for 9 months in 2005. I wasn’t sure how I was feeling but I wasn’t ready to process anything just yet.
On Thursday morning I was welcomed warmly at work and ran into about 3 familiar faces which made me feel good about things. As I gradually made my way around the office, a few people stood out and I knew they would be part of my hanging out crowd. Colleagues offered to show me around and take me out to dinner for the few days I was in Bangui. I didn’t lack what to do. On the other hand, many sold Bouar (my duty post) to me. They said it was a small town.
On Friday night we went dancing. As we walked into the bar, I was struck by the number of expatriates and the extremely weird dynamic which made me uncomfortable. It was an open air bar with a dance floor right in the middle. Maybe my mind played with things but barely an hour on the dance floor, the speakers went bad. We took the party to one of our colleague’s. He was such fun to be around and it ended up being much more fun than I could have anticipated. We were going strong till after midnight when we all had to rush home in respect of our curfew.
By Saturday I was dwelling on how no locals were in any of the places we went to. One of my colleagues asked what my impressions were and I told him that I wasn’t getting any vibes, none, especially if there were no locals to talk to or mingle with. We are restricted to a very small part of Bangui for security reasons but still… He made me brunch and showed me around then I ended up at a pizza party with other colleagues.
On Sunday morning one of my house mates took me swimming then I lay in, I simply needed to slow down and rest. I allowed my busy mind take over. I processed all the briefings I had got and blended it with what I had seen, read and heard. My thoughts took me down a dark hole, worry took over. Although my feelings were valid, I had to keep my head space sane. A group of us were expressing our thoughts on the country, a European asked me why I was so affected by the state of the country. I was tempted to ask him why Brexit affects him but I mumbled something which he bought. It may not be obvious to some but our countries are all interconnected and what happens affects us all.
The functioning stores are owned by Lebanese, the country seems to be controlled by foreigners, even the presidential palace is guarded by UN, there is no army here! UN has such a big presence even in the most remote places. I have seen very little but even between shrubs and trees, UN vehicles are present. The French, Russians, Chinese, then I noticed Libyans and even Yemenis have investments in the economy. Everything seems so fractured and out of the grasp of locals.
Arriving my ‘little town’ which is in fact a village , I was welcomed by sand. It is so sandy in Bouar. The cool weather I was told about doesn’t exist, at least for now. It’s been sunny! Sunny and sandy Bouar.
The residence is still undergoing some work so we’ve been living in a place run by Catholic missionaries. It’s the best in town…only I was in for a major shocker!
Apart from offices, there is no electricity. Most places put generators on in the night. It’s not different where we are staying. The generator comes on at 6pm and goes off at 9pm. Food is served at particular times…I don’t know when breakfast stops but bread is on the menu everyday. I skip this for the most part as I am not big on bread and without a toaster, I would rather find something else or skip breakfast entirely which has mostly been the case. Lunch is served at 12:30pm and dinner at 7pm, they ring a bell when it’s time for food.
Guess what! The bell wakes us up at 5:20am daily! I guess the missionaries go to pray at 5:30am. Being the light sleeper I am, once the bell starts, I’m up for the day. It doesn’t take long after that for the sun to rise. The sun starts to rise at 5:40am and by 6am, it’s fully morning. The sun goes down from 6pm, by 6:30pm, it’s dark already.
The rooms are basic, with a bed, a mosquito net, a wardrobe, sink, chair and table. Bathrooms and toilets are shared, there are two blocks of them. The good thing is that they are always clean and there is running water. I’ve had cold showers since I got here but it’s been ok as the weather is hot. There is supposedly one shower with hot water but I’m yet to find it.
Having worked in the diplomatic circle where everything is about class and finesse, the reality in the humanitarian world is a shift. For some reason, I remembered the luxuries of that time but I won’t change my now. This is where I want to be. I’ve started going on field trips and I am reminded of my time in Cameroon as I’m not very far from the town where I worked back in 2016. I already see some similarities with food and accommodation. There are no tarred roads, all bumpy dirt roads so far.
I am just beginning and haven’t seen very much so I will definitely have so much more to write in the coming weeks. This is going to be an interesting year.