Not safe for work

Being an aid worker in the world's most dangerous country

30th December 2017

It’s becoming difficult to track how many people have lost their lives in the Central African Republic this year. Human Rights Watch has documented the killings by armed groups of at least 249 civilians since May in the south and southeastern parts of the country. Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes since May – around 600,300 people in total. In the growing figures and looming uncertainty of where conflict in the country will break out next, there is another number – 13 – the number of aid workers who have lost their lives in the country in 2017.

Jade Beakhouse, 28, is an aid worker in Central African Republic (CAR), and has been working in the country’s capital city, Bangui, for the past four months. When she first decided to trade in her office job at an NGO to be placed in the field, her family and friends were concerned and confused.

I think everyone else thought I was a bit mad

“I think everyone else thought I was a bit mad, but for me, it was exactly where I wanted to be,” says Jade.

Deciding to leave her life in Wimbledon behind, Jade wanted to commit to helping empower communities in CAR, a nation which has been voted the worst place to be a young person in the world.

“CAR is somewhere where a lot of stuff happens, but you don’t see it frequently on the news. It’s not somewhere where people talk about – half the country is in desperate need of humanitarian assistance and no-one says anything about it,” she adds.

Poisoned legacy

In the UK, where African history is othered and rarely discussed in history, startlingly few people are aware of where CAR is, or how it ended up the site of such deep-rooted conflict. And when we step away from our history lessons where Britain was painted as a nation of heroes that defeated Nazi Germany, or an Empirical force of wealth and status, rather than a country responsible for death of 35 million Indian people, we reach a frustrating impasse when it comes to acknowledging the living and breathing results of our atrocities.

In the case of CAR, its hardship is no different. Although the nation may have achieved its independence from France in 1960, the country has shouldered violence and poverty ever since. The poisoned legacy of the Europeans which sought to dominate it has seen a half-century that survived five coups. Under the tyranny of a self-declared emperor whose lavish coronation was inspired by Napoleon, Muslim population of Bangui also dropped from up to 145,000 to just 900 people.

Jade and a friend
Jade has already spent months in CAR, the world’s most dangerous place

“The media tends to portray it as a religious or ethnic conflict, but in fact it’s mainly political and economic – people who feel neglected or marginalised who want to get hold of some of the resources and power for grabs,” says Jade.

“CAR has been faced with insecurity and violence for years, which peaked in the coup in 2012. Since then, there’s just been consistent violence and conflict taking place between armed groups. Every year and every month, there’s different groups emerging, so it’s difficult to keep track of what people are fighting for – a lot of people wonder what these groups actually want to achieve,” she adds.

Although France may have attempted to undo some of the devastation it placed on the country, its intervention programmes appear to only add insult to injury. In its last attempt in March 2013, French soldiers were accused of abusing children, as well as adding to civilian deaths and unable to stop yet another coup that led to further instability in the country.

Jade is familiar with this history. She first visited CAR when she was four years old and was raised in neighbouring countries the Democratic Republic of Congo and Chad. But life as a child protected by her parents is a lot different to the realities of being an aid worker in CAR.

“Nothing prepares you for when you step on the plane and you’re hit by this heat. There’s no Love Actually Heathrow vibe,” she says.

“In CAR, your passport gets taken away from you and you have to collect it several days later,” she adds.

While she spends the next two years living in Bangui, Jade will be living in a shared house alongside seven other aid workers, while four live out in the field itself.

“We work as a team, so we see an awful lot of each other. I don’t know how many people can say they bump into their boss in the kitchen every morning. But we commute together, we have lunch together, we spend an awful lot of time together,” she says.

Although she takes a 3-6 hour drive each day to visit her colleagues out in the field, they face additional differences that are far removed from a conventional British twenty-something lifestyle.

“For us, there’s a lot of power cuts, and wifi is scarce. We all have to stick to a curfew and we can’t go out on our own, and if we want to go anywhere, we have to get someone to drive us,” she says.

“Out in the field, they’ve tried to make the best they can out of it. They don’t have running water, so there’s a lot of bucket showers, and there’s no mains power supply. They’re reliant on a generator, so they can’t do 24 hours a day. They have grown accustomed to it,” she says.

Although Jade now feels that she is increasingly accustomed to her lifestyle, the potential threat of violence means that she can never fully relax.

All of a sudden, there were several attacks. The atmosphere was tense

“Bangui surprisingly is peaceful, but you’re aware that it’s fragile and can break at any moment. You’re never quite totally relaxed,” she says.

“Last weekend, there was a peace conference in the city, and someone threw a grenade into the crowd, and claimed several lives. All of a sudden, there were several attacks. The atmosphere was tense. Things can just happen overnight. You have to be on your guard,” she adds.

In her four-month stint in the country, Jade has also managed to catch malaria, the infection spread by mosquitoes that can be fatal.

Poverty porn

In a time of voluntourism, aid work can often appear to go wrong. Reams of websites such as Humanitarians of Tinder see white-saviour types post pictures with struggling adults and children in developing countries, and the likes of celebrities flying into countries like CAR have resulted in a display of “poverty porn” which places the white Briton as the pragmatist in an unfortunate story.

We can’t come in pretending we have all of the answers – of course, we don’t

Jade is quick to point out that real aid work that works with, rather than on behalf of communities is key.

“I’m under no illusions that maybe aid workers are idealistic do-gooders who spend their time hugging kids and handing things out, but when you are in this context, our lives as aid workers don’t look exciting,” says Jade.

“It’s definitely something where if I post a picture of me in the field, I wonder how that can be interpreted, or what will people think. We can’t come in pretending we have all of the answers – of course, we don’t,” she says.

“We want to empower communities to be the solution to their problems, and we just want to come along and support them in that.”

In spite of the risks, Jade says that she knows that she made the right decision to come to CAR.

“CAR, I’ll be honest, is not an easy place to be. There’s a lot of sacrifice, long days and you don’t have your home comforts or securities around you. But I think feeling like you’ve been here for a long time lets us see if what we’re doing is working.”

30th December 2017