May 1996, chaos broke out in Bangui. We knew tensions were running high. The teachers hadn't been paid in months. When I arrived in the Central African Republic in 1994, a several year long teacher strike had only recently ended. Again, they were on and off strike. Strange things happened everyday. The Director would bound into the classroom without warning and scold a thirteen-year-old girl that her baby is crying, making fun of her leaky breasts and messy hair, getting the whole room of eighty students to laugh at her until she ran from the room in shame. Often, people gossiped about what students the teachers were sleeping with. The Director had two wives, sisters, who he kept in the same house that he built with supplies bought with school fees.
I woke in the middle of the night to my neighbor battling her husband in their mud hut, the light of the kerosene lamp throwing long shadows across the faces of their two alert boys. The youngest had been close to death when I watched Big Mama make a concoction of spider's nest and leaves, a milky green liquid she squeezed into his eyes because he had seeing monkey disease. Within an hour, the boy was cured.
The teacher who was closest to me in age, I gave money to host a party for all the teachers at his newest business venture, a bar on the river. The party kept getting postponed because there was never the proper bush meat available. Then, the capital was taken over by the army whose pay, along with the teachers', was long past due. We gathered around the CB radio at the diamond dealer's house. We learned there was constant gun fire in the capital streets. Everyone was scared and trying to act real cool. We were going to be evacuated in two days. The party never happened. I couldn't bear saying goodbye. I spent the last night at the Lebanese house in town with the two other volunteers. The next morning while waiting for the plane, my neighbor came to tell me that in the night, my house was robbed of all the things I was going to give to her. She accused the neighbor across the way. And even though he was my friend, she probably was right. I don't blame him. Everything had already gone to Pauline. He wanted a little payment too for watching out for me the last two years.
Even though we could bring up to twenty-five pounds, there was unspoken competition among the volunteers to see who could bring the least. I left books I still regret not having and handwritten letters from my parents and many friends, a fact that still pains me. Andrew's though I carried with me, even though I couldn't have known. Funny how even back then he had career aspirations for me.