Friday, March 29, 2013

Coup d'etat in the Central African Republic

I have delayed writing a blog entry because there is not much good news.  We have been evacuated again to Cameroon: first to Garoua Boulai just over the border from CAR and then to N’gaoundéré, further north where there is a large US/Norwegian mission station.

There have been a lot of articles in the press and on the Internet about what is happening and why.  Basically, the rebels who took control of towns in December then agreed to a peace accord January 11.  They took more towns last week and then invaded and took control of Bangui, the capital. 

Seleka is a coalition of rebel groups, so once they ousted the now-former President Bozizé, they achieved their common goal.  But, do they have other common objectives?  One man named himself president and that seems to be holding although there are rumors that other groups of the coalition are not happy with his action. 

Then, Tuesday, the New York Times reported, “The leader of the rebel group that seized power in the Central African Republic, Michel Djotodia, announced Monday that he was suspending his country’s Constitution, dissolving its Parliament and initiating a three-year “consensual transition.” (  He plans to rule by decree – just as Bozizé did when he took power after the 2003 coup. 

At the same time, I have heard that the new government will respect the peace accord signed in Libreville in January.  We will have to see how it goes!

Meanwhile, on the border between the towns of Cantonnier (CAR) and Garoua Boulai (Cameroon), things became tense.  Although there are conflicting reports, it seems that some Central African soldiers wanted to enter Cameroon.  The Cameroonians (rightly, in my opinion!) insisted that they turn in their arms at the border and be processed as political refugees.  Some soldiers wanted to lay down arms and others didn’t.  Some of the later started shooting at some of the former – their own colleagues.  Some soldiers abandoned their arms (and probably their uniforms) to cross the border.  Local people found them and started shooting – rifles and some mortar rounds as well.  Even though all guns and shooting were on the Central African side of the border, stray bullets didn’t respect the invisible line and injured by-standers in both CAR and Cameroon.  Some people were also killed.  I am told that all has been quiet since Thursday night. 

OK.  Those are the basics.  You can find more online.  I am now thinking a lot about the fact that this cycle of coup d’états, relative peace, increasingly smaller numbers of people involved in the government (generally part of the current ruler’s family or ethnic group), rebel discontent, leading to renewed fighting enriches a few and makes many suffer.  Subsistence farming is still the most common way to eke out a living. 

As rebels come back out of the bush – often supported by neighboring governments, unfortunately – villagers seek refuge in their fields or woods if there are any nearby.  I had the luxury of leaving the country in a well-maintained vehicle with many of my valuables.  I now live with more “luxuries” than in Baboua! 24-hour electricity and Internet, closer contact with more missionaries, access to more diversity of goods in the market and stores, etc.  And, we were fortunate before to be living and working in Baboua since it has been calm and trouble-free all along.

Meanwhile, many Central Africans are living with constant worry, if not fear.  Will rebels, soldiers or bandits come into town to loot?  When will peace and stability return?  Will they be able to plant crops at this the beginning of the rainy season? 

What do the rebels get from the coup?  Money, mostly.  Power for a few who can dole it and riches out to family and friends.  Control of who get the diamonds, uranium, gold, etc. Probably kick-backs from the “development” of these riches (in ways that benefit the exploiters and not the Central Africans – just as in colonial days).  Throughout CAR’s history since independence in 1960, there have been many similar situations.  Colonizers, through their actions, taught Central African leaders to take and give nothing in return.  Leaders since then have learned the lesson well!

School in Bondiba
main street in Bangui, the capital
kids in Bangui

paving the road - Bouar
more kids in Bangui
Getting water at a spring - Baboua

Bike transport in Bohong
Getting water at a well-Kella-Bokokpme
And, so, the country as a whole does not advance or develop.  The people have little access to education or health care as schools, hospitals, roads, infrastructures are not developed.  I am including a few pictures taken in November/December – pre-coup.  Even in poverty, people find ways to share joy!  Isn’t it amazing? Maybe even a source of hope…

How can this never-ending cycle be stopped??? 

I am here to work with the Village School Program and Christian Education to try – to support and accompany those who are working for change.  I have to believe that it can work in the long run – but in the short run my biggest contribution is phone calls to team members I work with.  Better than nothing – but just barely!

You can see why I have been reluctant to write a blog entry.  Reality is too “real” right now and it is discouraging.  But, while there is life and love, there is hope.  I am hopeful that some kind of peace returns soon to the Central African Republic.  I am hopeful to return soon to Baboua and my work there.  I am hopeful that the programs of the Église Évangélique Luthérienne de la République Centrafricaine will make a difference in the lives of Central Africans.  Please pray and hope with me.  Maybe we can reach a critical mass and bring change soon!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

In Baboua

view from my porch - Baboua!

I am happy to be back at home in Baboua. Lots of travel and other work, but finally I am back to the place where I have been called. 

The Biblical Storytelling Seminar was great (see the last blog entry) and I am now working on a summary in French so I can share the ideas with colleagues here.  The time in Yaoundé was fine although a bit hectic trying to get a lot of things done in a short time.  I actually drove for several kilometers in the city – not a big deal you’d think, but think again!  Taxis are everywhere and the drivers ignore the conventional rules of the road although they seem to have their own (not that I have figured them out yet).  Also, on this my third visit to the huge city, I recognize a few streets (not that I can really get around alone yet). 

Travel on the roads was fine – most routes we took are paved and we had no problems.  The trip from Mutengene (site of the storytelling conference along the Atlantic coast north of Douala) to Yaoundé took about six hours.  Yaoundé to Baboua took about 9.  No wonder I am glad to be in one place again.

We arrived in Baboua to find a continuing problem with the generator.  Normally we have electricity from 6 to 10 p.m. and the generator pumps water into cisterns so we have running water in the houses.  Although a new part was ordered from N’gaoundéré, they couldn’t find the exact one because our generator is too old.  People here couldn’t figure out how to get the new piece to fit.  Fortunately, we were able to borrow a small generator to pump water, but this week I have been living mostly by candle light at night. 

We are lucky that the missionary family next door have solar panels so I could have internet and a place to charge my computer and phone.  Living in both the early 20th and 21st centuries at one time! 

A man came from N’gaoundéré yesterday to make the new generator part work.  He had trouble leaving Cameroon because he doesn’t have a passport.  It used to be that Africans could get some temporary paperwork at the border, but the officials there said that is no longer possible.  After much discussion and pleading, our station manager, Luc, was able to get Fredrick into CAR.  After several hours and some difficulty, he got the generator working again about 7 p.m..  Hurray!  It meant, though, that he had to stay overnight and leave this morning since custom and police offices at the border close at 6 p.m. just before it gets dark and reopen about 8 in the morning.

So, what am I doing at work this week?  The letter from ELCA has arrived with the amounts of the 2013 grants for the various programs so the directors of Christian Education (ECB – Education Chrétienne de Base) and the Village School Program OS – Oeuvre Scolaire) and I are working to review and revise budgets.  All of us are relatively new so it takes longer than it otherwise might as we don’t have easy access to information from past years (we’re working on better filing systems already!) and estimating costs takes thought and discussion with others.  We still have questions which we hope to have answered by the EEL’s central administrators next week.

I am also catching up on work that has been done while I was away and planning next steps.  There is much to be done.  In addition, I am researching Performance Criticism (biblical storytelling) and translating the information.  At the same time, I am thinking of ways we might be able to use storytelling in ECB and OS.  It is right up my alley as I used a lot of storytelling in my classes as a teacher in the US (and it was the basis of my Ph.D.).

Monday and Tuesday the Village School Program Director and I will go to Bouar for meetings.  Yes, I thought I was home for some time, but duty calls!  Bouar is about two hours north on a paved road (in CAR); it is the seat of the national church.  There is a meeting for program directors to share projects and planned next steps.  We also plan to take advantage of the time to meet with others in Bouar. 

peanut plant
While I was gone from Baboua, my gardener was hard a work!  (I had originally hoped to work on a garden myself with friends, but the first person to come to my door looking for a work was Lambert – a highly recommended gardener looking for work.  Since I am still getting used to work and have little time – and then spent a lot of time in Cameroon! – I am glad I hired him.)  Here are some pictures of the big garden that he is creating.  Under the shelter are pepper plants that don’t like the direct, strong sun. We (because it is me who pays for seeds and salary and he who works!) have planted carrots, lettuce, peanuts, watermelon, peppers, basil, parsley, and some other things, too, I think.  I should be eating at least lettuce soon!  We will also soon be putting up some kind of fence.  We don't usually have wandering goats or pigs, but the local path goes right past the garden and we don’t want “help” harvesting veggies once they are almost ripe (since people here often pick things too soon).  I’d rather let them get ripe and then give away part of the crop as I am sure I will have too much!

I am trying out a new solar battery charger that I got for Christmas (arriving with visitors in February). It is currently on a table in my office.  On the desk you can see the papers to be sorted – from all the different places I have been recently – maybe you can understand why I am currently working on the table…  Organization is one of my Saturday jobs – after finishing this blog, of course. 

Insecurity Update:  The western part of CAR where I am continues to be calm.  The rebels still occupy some towns in the north, central, and southeastern parts of the country.  Although a coalition government has been formed by rebels, opposition parties, and government, some rebels are still saying that the current president is not upholding his part of the peace accord signed in Libreville in January 2013.  Of course, neither are they respecting all parts of the accord as there is some looting/disturbances in towns were they are still entrenched.  In all of this, it is the local people are the ones who suffer.  Many are displaced – to the countryside, other towns, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  I am pleased to know that the Lutheran Church is working with some displaced people in this area to provide some food security.  Please pray for true peace in the Central African Republic and for all of the people who are suffering because of the recent troubles. 

Friday, March 8, 2013

International Women's Day, Storytelling, and Retreat

Today is International Women's Day.  It was created to promote equality for women and men.  Here in Cameroon a special material is created each year to commemorate the occasion.  In the picture are one woman wearing one types of this special cloth made into a dress of her own design.  My dress is African, but not from that material. 

(This is a group of participants from our Biblical Storytelling Seminar.  Deborah Troester is in the back row – with a dress made from International Women’s Day material, but you can’t see it here.)

Some places here people organize meetings or seminars to look at problems women face to try to improve the situations. 

What is happening in your town???

We are currently in Mutengené for a seminar organized by the Network of Biblical Storytellers (NBS).  About 25 people attended this three-day institute including three of us from CAR: Rev. Deborah Troester who teaches at the Lutheran Theological School in Baboua, Rev. Jackie Griffin who works with the women’s group in Bouar, and me; three from Cameroon: Dr. Joely Rakotoarivelo from Madagascar who works at the hospital in Garaou Boulai, Dr. Elisabeth Johnson who is studying French in N’gaoundéré to be able to teach at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Meiganga, and Gashuhun Nemonsa from Ethiopia who studied French in N’gaoundéré and who will be going to Mali to work in August.

So, we read or hear scriptures read in church each Sunday, but have you ever thought about hearing the word in Biblical times?  Most people couldn’t read or write – those abilities were for the scribes.  Even when Hebrew texts were “read” in the synagogue, the reader had to be well prepared because written texts included no vowels or spaces between words.  The texts were a guide to help readers remember the stories, but the stories were told.  Do you remember that the Bible as we know it was not written down in Jesus’ life time?  People passed the stories along by word of mouth.  Some people were good at it and became storytellers.

NBS is revising the telling of biblical stories in many places and ways.  For example, a pastor might tell the story of the gospel lesson instead of reading it.  One leader here (from Chicago) has been doing that for nine years.  Others use them for Sunday school, meeting, groups of friends, etc.  It involves studying the texts and learning them by heart; then practicing and finally performing them for an audience (or 3). 
We have learned some techniques, talked about why it is important to do, discussed ways to incorporate storytelling in church activities, and learned some stories ourselves.  We now have a certificate to show that we have completed the seminar.  It is too bad that capturing storytelling with a still camera is so difficult. It has been fun and instructive to be a part of this group. And, we got a certificate for three days' participation.

Weaver birds have made MANY nests in a few trees near the cafeteria.  Some are a beautiful yellow color (males) and others are black (females).  Males weave these nests to attract a female, but if she doesn’t like it, he tears it apart and starts again!  I made her picture bigger than his because it is International Women’s Day after all…  (And, you can see the nests in the picture with the male.)
Falls near Kribi

Retreat session
Lizards of Kribi - colorful!
On the way here ELCA missionaries had a three-day retreat (including travel) at Kribi.  This is a town on the Atlantic Coast so we were on the beach!  It is much more humid both there and in Mutengené.  We were able to get to each other better, discuss some policy questions, reflect on our lives and work, and swim in the ocean!  Enjoyable. 

Tomorrow the six of us at the Storytelling Conference are going to Limbé, another coastal town 17 km. from Mutengené.  They have dark sand from past volcanic eruptions.  Should be fun. 

Sunday we head back to Yaoundé. Some people will head north Monday and some Tuesday or Wednesday.  All of us who work in CAR are headed back there.  Hurray!