A broken promise

I arrived in Bangui—the capital of a country at war with itself. The people in the camp were internally displaced due to the violence that has been occurring throughout the country, and the World Vision team was on a mission to document their plight.The camp surrounding Notre Dame Fatima church in Central African Republic looked like a market, full of people selling local doughnuts, fruits, peanuts and soap among other items. Some children were playing, while most adults were organising their belongings, getting water from the temporary well or attending to the smaller children. The morning sun was offering a warm and yellow light as well as a sense of peace. It was the month of March. We were part of a small group of staff who had arrived from various parts of the Partnership to begin the response. The streets had been divided into narrow paths between the old mattresses, tarp and fabric covers and old suitcases holding what remained of the residents’ possessions. As we carefully walked along the paths, people invited us to hear their stories. Most of them wanted to do it anonymously or did not want to give their surnames. “We are too scared of being caught in revenge attacks,” one person explained. One woman, Henriette, started yelling at us to make sure we could hear her message: “We are unhappy – unhappy in our own country. Who is coming for us? Help us; it is a tragedy.Each family sheltering around the church has a tiny parcel of the street. Francis was quiet, surrounded by his family: his wife and two grandsons, and he waved at us. We approached him and he invited us to sit next to their mattress, “our most important possession at the moment. Francis explained that he was an electronics technician and that he had previously lived less than six kilometres from this camp where he now survived. His house had been destroyed during the violence and he had to run with his family away from death. “We are ‘refugees’ in our own city; I live so close but I am too scared to return.” Francis made clear that the only thing that he and the other people camping around the church wanted was to regain peace and a sense of normality. It was time to leave and we made a promise. The promise was to return several days later to attend the church’s Sunday service and to share with the people the photos and videos we had recorded of them. A few days later, we were informed that a fatal grenade attack had taken place near the church.Our security officer had to deny our request to return – we had to break our promise due to serious security concerns. A few days later, I had to return to regional office in Dakar, and I have lived with my broken promise ever since. I am finding comfort knowing that World Vision has a dedicated and expert team in place and we will be able to keep our promise to thousands of survivors. With a little bit of luck and strong faith, I might still be able to attend a church service with Henriette and Francis someday in their own neighbourhood. Yesterday, the 28th May 2014, at least 15 people have been killed and several others wounded during an attack in the camp. Gunmen hurled grenades and shot indiscriminately. I think of Henriette, Francis and his family… I hope they are still alive.


#dakarproject - Le vieux

#dakarproject – Le vieux

Photo 005 – Le vieux

I live in the street Felix Houphouet-Boigny in Dakar. The name was very familiar but I had to google it to appreciate the fact that I was residing under the good omen of a great African leader. He was “le vieux” (the old one) or papa Houphouet for the Ivorians. Like many interesting leader, he was not the product of a party system instead he was a doctor, an administrator, a unionist and ultimately, a politician…He was elected as a parliamentarian in France and became the principal enabler of the French decolonisation in Africa. He was a moderate leader who led the economical rise and influence of the Ivory Coast.

You cannot be an African leader without being part of few coups d’Etat and he was in 1966 and 1977 in Burkina Faso. He was a fervent anti-communist when Africa was seduced by Moscow and inspired by Cuba. The West liked him and his nickname was the “sage of Africa”. So wise, that the UNESCO created a Peace prize in his homage.

Africa has a rich history. The question is what the continuity of this history will look like at the dawn of the 21st century. I am wondering if during my chapter of life in this continent, I will witness the coming of a new generation of enlightened African leaders…

Mandela said during his inaugural address in 1994, “Our single most important challenge is therefore to help establish a social order in which the freedom of the individual will truly mean the freedom of the individual. We must construct that people-centred society of freedom in such a manner that it guarantees the political liberties and the human rights of all our citizens.

Where are the “papa Houphouet” and the Madiba of the future? I am sure that many Africans are asking themselves the same question.

Mustapha Bembe, Hairdresser

When I was a little boy I hated to go to the hairdresser. I was very proud of my long hair and curls and I couldn’t understand why my mother was so insistent to expose her son to the cruel ritual. I remember holding the sacrificed locks in my fists with the hope that I could glue them back. I can still see the face of my persecutor – damn you the Edward Scissor-hand of my childhood.

In the beginning of the nineties, I was the French version of Serpico or Cat Stevens, beard and curly hair roaming the streets of Paris, Toronto and London. Muslim men were greeting me like a brother as well as heavy metal fans. I was wild in appearance and young at heart. 

My first trip to Africa changed my relationship with my hair. In the Masai Mara, ticks and fleas adopted me almost immediately. I was there to film some wildlife without suspecting that my head was hosting bugs worth of a National Geographic documentary. It was unbearable… I resigned myself to go voluntarily to the local hairdresser. I was sitting in a hut while dozen of amused children and smiling adults were looking at me. The hairdresser didn’t show me magazines or hair style guides. He didn’t ask me what I wanted but instead it was “one cut fits all”. He shaved me completely. I was bold.

I was not upset or sad but instead I felt lighter and younger. I changed my opinion of a whole profession.

In Dakar, Mustapha Bembe is my hairdresser. He has his own salon, next to the mosque and few meters from my flat. Mustapha is a business man. He believes in diversification of activities. In his salon, he is a barber, a newsagent and a grocer. This is surreal and unique: Melons, bananas, passion fruits, mangoes, next to big bags of rice and onions, local newspapers and few magazines in French and of course two chairs and a massive mirror. 

The prices are clearly marked and I know already that it will cost me less than 10 dollars to be pampered African style. Mustapha is a good barber but I takes his time. Correction… his different activities are distracting him all the time. He stops every few minutes to serve fruits, to collect money for the newspapers and to accept deliveries. 

I was not surprised when he stopped one more time to conduct Salat (prayer)

“All service is for Allah and all acts of worship and good deeds are for Him. Peace and the mercy and blessings of Allah be upon you O Prophet…”

I looked at my head half shaved and the reflection of Mustapha praying outside the salon. I was the unwilling but thankful witness of his faith. I closed my eyes and allow myself to share the profound quality of his prayer. My barber is a peaceful man of God. I couldn’t ask for more.