Monday, March 10, 2008

Lifestyles of the Young and Foolish

Bara, Central African Republic

In the morning after the mobile clinic, we break camp and head to Bara for another clinic. After some negotiation with the local secourists, we decide the easiest way for me to go 5km (or 3 miles) into the bush to meet up with some displaced families is by bicycle. African bicycles, as it turns out, do not have brakes anymore. Nor do they have decent saddles or pedals anymore. And there are no paved roads. So all in all, it was a bit of a risky adventure.

To the amusement of the children who had never seen a white woman on a bicycle before, I took off with my translators into the bush. The first bit was a challenge – the path was wide enough for two people to walk side by side but there were termite mounds, roots, lots of loose shifting sand, and branches everywhere. After a few minutes, I got into the stride on this brakeless bicycle and away we went. The women we passed carrying their babies to the MSF clinics seemed amazed to see me and laughed and called out Lalee (hello). About 10 minutes into the ride, we hear a motorcycle approaching us. It’s the rebel commander of the APRD coming out to personally greet me! He is driving, wearing a lovely Hawaiian shirt, with his body guard (?) behind him with a very menacing looking Kalishnakov. But both have huge smiles on their faces and great me enthusiastically in French. I explain that my French isn’t that great and we have a nice little conversation where he welcomes me to his village. After much effusive shaking of hands and smiling, we part ways, he turns around from the way he came and we follow him but in a good distance back.

After 15 more minutes of biking through the bush past some scraggly looking cotton plants about to be harvested, we come to a small clearing that has a hut built in it and two older women living there with some goats and chickens. We sit down to interview them. They seem fairly well to do since they have clean clothes on and lots of goats and chickens. In the other villages where people weren’t even displaced, the population is almost in rags with very few animals and only small amounts of food on display. After a few minutes talking with them it becomes clear that this is Captain Felix’s mother! We finish up the interview and head off to the next encampment – which turns out to be the rebel camp where the rebel captain and his men and about three motorcycles are all parked. They call us over again and demand that I come to inspect a man that is lying under a lean-to. We try to explain that I’m not a doctor but I guess my logod t-shirt was not convincing them. I go over to see what I can do – it’s an elderly man who is the rebel captains uncle. It turns out he’s been seen in our hospital but has an inoperable tumor in his chest and was sent home to die. I call the base and they explain again to the captain on my satellite telephone that there is nothing else they can do for him but if they want to bring him to the clinic, they’ll look at him again. I’m left in the awkward position of trying to portray comfort and compassion to this man lying in the heat and dust in the bush dying with his helpless family around him. Still, I would rather die with my family around me in my home than in a tent after a four hour truck ride.

We head on – after about another 30 minutes biking in the heat through increasingly difficult paths, we came to a little settlement of about 8 brand new huts. There about 10 women sitting in a shelter and they agree to talk to us. We discuss their problems – no soap, hard to keep clean, when the bandits come they have to run further into the bush and when they sleep without shelter, the babies get sick from malaria and get respiratory infections. I don’t feel comfortable asking them about any rebel abuses because I know the rebel chief knows I’m here and I don’t want to put them in any danger.

It seems hard to imagine the smiling man in the Hawaiian shirt fretting about his dying uncle as someone who would terrorize the population. Perhaps they don’t – but one thing about armed men in Africa that I’ve learned is that they can be ruthless and charming, you cant’ judge them by appearances. The women tell me that the bandits often kidnap women and take them far away. They can sometimes find their way back and they are often pregnant. Thankfully, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of stigma within the community. They also complained vociferously about the fact that our clinic ignores them when they want help with sexually transmitted infections. You only treat pregnant women and children! A spirited discussion with our translator ensues and he almost runs off a few times. It’s good to see girl power!

We pedal back to the mobile clnic to the general hilarity of all that witness me. Sadly, the photo that my translator took of me didn't turn out because it was too blurry.

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