There’s a story here. You have to look carefully though. This is very much a happenstance shot, taken by Graham from a moving overland truck many years ago. In the truck, alongside him, were a bunch of young Australians and New Zealanders. You may picture a row of enquiring, youthful, fair-skinned faces looking out on this scene. It is hard to imagine what the locals made of this passing vision of alien hobo humanity. The Central African Republic (CAR) has never been a common tourist destination. It certainly is not these days.
In the late nineteenth century occupying French colonisers apparently tried to turn the country into a cotton plantation. It did not work. Ever since independence in 1960, all has been shaky. For the past decade the people of CAR have been caught up in bloody bush wars, these apparently ethnic based and factional: Christian versus Muslim. Neighbouring Chad to the north is implicated. As in the Democratic Republic of Congo, CAR’s neighbour to the south, this is a beautiful land stuffed with riches: uranium, crude oil, gold, diamonds, and valuable hardwoods. There is also good farm land and hydro-power potential. Yet its people are also among the world’s poorest. As in DRC, it is necessary to ask the question ‘Who benefits?’ to find out exactly why this state of things persists in the 21st century.
…forest either side the red dirt road, rolling hills, coffee bushes, pawpaw tees, kapok trees, bananas, innumerable mangoes and desolate villages…people waving and smiling, but also some half-heartedly thrown stones and raised fists from the kids…
from G’s Overland Diary
You can make a guess that a good part of the answer will involve a chain of traded commodities that reaches us in the industrialized nations, for we are the end-users and buyers. By some means or other, arms will be going the other way. For this is the nature of the rich world’s (largely unseen) relationship with African territories. In the past it was the cropping of humans for slaves, and the cropping of elephants for tusks to make drawing-room piano keys, and balls for the billiard table games of civilized gentlemen. Today, it is the minerals that are craved, and at any cost. The trade keeps unscrupulous African potentates in power. They pillage resources from neighbouring countries to sell to the so-called developed world (is this us?). And so we have the carnage.
Until 1997 France maintained a military force in CAR; senior French politicians are said to have acquired diamond and gold interests in the country during the ‘80s and ‘90s. Thereafter, fearing a power vacuum, Paris funded French-speaking African nations to provide a peacekeeping force there (BBC news page). Today, French forces are back as part of the UN peacekeeping mission. Their fellow peacekeepers are Rwandans, and these two forces do not see eye to eye either (The New Republic). However you look at it, the country is a bloody mess. Once the Pandora’s Box of vested interest by multiple players has been opened, it is hard work to restore any vestige of order. We see this in the Middle East too.
And so back to this photograph. The girl’s wave is wistful as she looks directly at us. Frozen in the moment is her wondering about life elsewhere. The mother, though, knows better. She looks steadfastly away, eyes focused on some other reality. Her stance suggests proud forbearance, feet planted firmly on the earth, her piece of earth, weight evenly distributed. The arms that encircle the baby are sure, composed, protecting, not clinging. She is doing what women do in Africa – endure. Perhaps she is enduring still. Most likely not.
copyright 2014 Tish Farrell