Life is hard, the people are strong
MSF anthropologist Dale Koninckx writes about hardship and resilience in Bangassou, in the Central African Republic
In my last post, I described how the population of Bangassou plunged back into a climate of terror and extreme precariousness following the clashes between the Central African army and the coalition of non-state armed groups, and the capture of the city by the latter. Since then, four months have passed and the rebel forces have left Bangassou.
Churches are vibrant again and markets are open, as are schools where hundreds of students learn French by singing and writing in chalk on black tiles. However, as people resume their daily lives, the difficulties have increased in the country.
The resurgence of clashes over most of the territory has shattered several humanitarian corridors and caused food prices to skyrocket, worsening the already very difficult living conditions of the population in a country where nearly three quarters of the inhabitants live below the poverty line.
Difficult and strong
In Sango, "a yeke ngangu" is an expression which means both "it is difficult" and "it is strong". So we use the same word to say that a person is strong, and that a situation is difficult to overcome. It's also a way of showing compassion for someone who is in pain or telling you a difficult story. During my assignment, I have used this expression very often, in light of the difficulties that people go through.
Three days ago, the return of the rainy season was clearly felt. It rained all night and this morning my team is trickling in. While the international team lives in the hospital, ready to work at 7:30 am sharp, we sometimes forget that some Central African colleagues live further away and sometimes face complex situations to get to work – even tragedies.
Antoine arrived an hour late and said, "Papa Dale, sorry for the delay, I came to tell you that all night the rain fell on my house, which collapsed. Under the rubble, my daughter did not survive."
After such a tragic event, Antoine returned home to his relatives for a few days off. A yeke ngangu.
A snake story
Another example, Gérard, my surgeon colleague, tells me about this guy who arrived in the emergency room with his hand half cut off.
The patient said a large snake bit him and, as it strangled him and gripped his hand, his hunting companion was forced to kill it with a machete, severing its head but also injuring the hand of his friend.
With no road or hospital nearby, and no food, the two hunters walked two days through the forest to reach the hospital. The patient’s hand eventually had to be amputated. A yeke ngangu.
You won't believe me, but I literally just had to take a break from writing to avoid a snake.
It seems that when you write a paragraph about snakes for an MSF blog, on an MSF assignment, a snake must appear.
Just 20 minutes ago I saw this five-foot-long animal squirm quickly towards me. I was sitting alone in the hut, a colleague came in and I shouted "Stay there! Snake!".
She screamed, the guards came running up with three-metre sticks, I jumped out of my seat and after 15 minutes the snake was dead and buried. It must be said that here, one in two snakes are poisonous.
This story sounds like a bit of a joke, but in real life it reminds me of my colleague who told me how he lost his wife in two hours to a snakebite.
He was far away, in the bush, she was at home. He didn't even have time to get home, there was no accessible care. A yeke ngangu.
The children. For them, it is also ngangu mingi (very difficult).
They work in the fields, in fishing or on construction sites. Many do not eat every day because it they have to share what food there is with brothers and sisters. Some of them live on the street.
Some are armed, like the young boy posted at a roadblock, carrying a machine gun, a few grenades and a machete, whom I met the day when we were doing an exploration following cases of measles west of Mbomou. He remained totally impassive as we passed, his eyes dark and frightening.
I asked my colleague, "How old do you think this guy is?".
He replied, "We don't ask them how old they are. If you hold a weapon, you are already a man.”
Examples, I have plenty.
This morning, a colleague called me around 6:40 am, I was having breakfast. She told me that a child was crying outside the gate to the base, which is inside the hospital compound.
I got up, went to see, and I did meet a child, about ten years old, sitting there crying.
He spoke in Sango and the caretaker nearby translated for me: "Both his parents died last month, he lives with his uncle who, today, is accompanying a patient to the hospital. The child followed him but the uncle told him to go home. The child is crying because he lives very far away, at least two hours on a motorbike. He doesn’t want to do the road alone in the rain.”
A yeke ngangu.
I also used the phrase a few days ago, speaking to a guy in a village. Imagine, I’m doing a survey, sitting in a homemade chair, next to a health promoter and facing a mom and daughter cooking on their plot.
The mom and daughter are seated too, the sun is starting to set and its golden rays flirt with the smoke from the noisy pot in which the water is boiling. We are waiting for the dad who must come back from his field when, suddenly, "Bara ala kwè!", we hear in the distance.
It's him. An old man with gray hair, who arrives awkwardly on his bicycle. He has one buttock in his saddle, one hand on the handlebars, his second hand is gripping a long cane. As he rides up to us and dismounts, I see that only one of his feet hits the ground. His right leg is shortened, bent and bandaged. He smiles, greets us and, grimacing, he sits hard but skillfully in his seat.
His daughter hands him a glass of water and as he drinks I say "a yeke ngangu papa". He replies "singuila" (thank you), with a broad smile that contrasts with his suffering.
Another story. On the way to Nzacko, north of Mbomou, we meet two men standing in the mud, in the middle of a dirty, stagnant river full of mosquitoes.
We stopped near them because we were fixing one of our broken motorcycles. It's hot, there is no shade. One of them looks very young, and at his age I must have been playing Pokémon on my Game Boy. He lifts kilos of white soil with great shovelfulls and throws them into a large sieve made of wood and fabric.
Sounds clever, it takes me a while to figure out the system. One of the men explains to me, "he digs the earth, I spread it in the sieve so that it filters. Then I pour the water on too. It comes out there, it goes down this little fabric staircase. If there’s any gold in the soil it gets filtered out and we take it. But often you can't find anything. We looked all over the river there. Without eating or drinking.”
As he speaks to me, he energetically plunges a bucket into the water and carries it at arm's length to the sieve. With the other hand, he spreads the mud. He does it again and again. He's sweating, he's soaked, he's in direct sunlight. I tell myself that I would already have 20 cases of tendonitis if I did the same.
I wonder how they're holding up. My colleague tells me, “They don't earn anything, the gold is not for them. They just have a small salary, barely to buy food that evening. Then you start again the next day”.
A yeke ngangu mingi.
There is also this driver that I met in the middle of the jungle. He left with his huge truck a month ago from Bangui, through the red dust, to reach Bangassou.
He has 50 km left but he's broken down. There is no village within 20 km and he is waiting for a motorbike to pass to send the info that he needs a new half-shaft.
I have no idea how he's going to fix this half-mired monster that we had to get around by chopping down trees, or how he's going to eat and drink. He's afraid, too, because at any time he could be looted by armed men. My colleagues tell me "it's routine" and the driver, smiling but visibly strained, adds: "It's difficult papa, but we're already used to it".
Resourcefulness and struggles
Life is hard and it shows, you feel it.
People are incredibly resourceful and that impresses me a lot. They walked barefoot all their childhood in the mud, embers, brambles and ants. They repaired bikes with lianas (a kind of vine), secured their loads with inner tubes, carved canoes by hand from whole tree trunks buried in the jungle, next to the spiders.
It makes me want to write another article just about the inventiveness, creativity and resourcefulness of the people here, so much is it worth documenting.
The people are strong. They carry tonnes a week but barely eat. They sweat gallons in the field, but have no drinking water. They cook every day on braziers that are fed with wood that they have to cut every day in the middle of a forest with poisonous snakes. Every morning, for breakfast.
I see these mothers walking for miles with tens of litres of water on their heads, one child on their back, another under their arm. I think of those little ones who play with old bicycle rims or who reproduce United Nations peacekeeping tanks with pieces of wood glued together with mango tree sap. I meet these brushcutters working by hand to redo an interminable path under oppressive heat.
I see these 95 high school kids singing in one classroom, trying to stand out from each other, hunger in the stomach. I hear their teacher striving to pass on a bit of knowledge, hoping that the troupe can make use of it in a context where the only university in the country is in the capital, inaccessible to the majority.
There is also this young mother whom I see again approaching me in a village, worried about her five-month-old child who is no longer able to breastfeed. He looks to be two-weeks-old, he is severely malnourished. She has been to the nearby hospital several times but there is no maternity ward, no health workers, no medicine, and the price of food has sky-rocketed in the area. This is a region where some people earn 15,000 CFA (20 euros) a month, when a chicken costs 3,000 CFA (5 euros).
A yeke ngangu.
Ngangu Koli, the strong man. Ngangu mingi, the great suffering.
I'm going to make the least original conclusion in blogging history, but it's obvious how precious in such a context, the little things seem to me.
Mostly those smiles and greetings, that look when you stop for a minute to ask people how they're doing. It's almost permanent. I love to greet people here, say hello to them, it's so human and it's worth gold, it's a little exchange that moves me every time, no matter the age, the place, the nobody.
My colleagues tell me, "If you don't say hello to someone, they think you're a bad guy." If you pass a village without greeting, it’s like you see them as animals. And if you have an accident at the exit, they will not come for you because you did not greet them”.
Some will say "that's just the countryside", but I believe that greeting also gives strength in suffering. By the way, say "hello" to someone here and they won't say it back to you – they'll literally say "thank you".