Each year, the president chooses a benighted corner of his country to inspire by visiting for World Food Day – la Journée mondiale de l'alimentation et la femme rurale. In December of this year Obo, a town in the far Southeast (several days' drive from the capital, even once the road was fixed up for JMA) plagued by the Lord's Resistance Army for nearly two years, received the (dubious) honor. JMA (pronounced “jema”) is supposed to be a spectacle of state power and beneficence. Will the president distribute food? I asked. No... JMA is about encouraging people to grow more, came the response.
It is fitting that in a country so thoroughly propped up by international donors, the only time when the state makes its presence felt in the hinterlands is on a holiday invented by the United Nations. Before leaving for fieldwork, one of my dissertation committee members posed the following provocation, “Would the CAR exist as a state if the international donors weren't there?” I stumbled in responding then. Now, I think it is indeed the international system's insistence on treating the rent-fee-spoils structure that is CAR politics as a state that makes it appear so. It's kind of amazing how the state category never loses its legitimacy in the international realm, regardless of wholly contradictory on-the-ground realities. Even “collapsed” Somalia is still generally assumed to hew to its post-independence borders, all evidence to the contrary. No wonder it seems like a magical entity.
JMA in Obo dawned hotter and sunnier than usual. By 8am the main road was baking and bustling. Many people were wearing t-shirts and baseball caps printed with “JMA Obo, 15-16 octobre 2009”, which were made before JMA was repeatedly postponed. A group of cowboy hat-clad pom pom girls waited at the front of the parade line. Clowns, their faces painted white and their shirts and pants stuffed to give the impression of potbellies and cushioned bottoms, butted into different crowds and pleaded for alcohol from the people selling and imbibing (mostly gendarmes and dress soldiers) along the periphery. A man played a giant marimba with beautifully clear sound, and a group of dancers (accompanied by a sign carrier: “Groupe des danseurs,” just to clarify) shook to the beat. The notables began taking their seats under awnings set up for them.
And then we waited. The pom pom girls eventually sat down on their puffs; the military brass band found the shade of the beer pavilions. I bought an orange and asked the price: 25 Francs. But it was three for 25 yesterday, I protested. “Today everything has changed,” the saleswoman shrugged. Happy World Food Day.
Two young men approached and introduced themselves as Liberian soccer players. They were en route to Sudan because they had heard of some Liberians who had gotten jobs playing there. But the military roadblocks along the road in CAR had been too expensive, so they got stuck, penniless, in Obo. (I tried to find them in subsequent days, but no luck. I hope they are scoring for Juba as we speak.)
Finally, some hours later, we heard the president's plane overhead, and fifteen minutes after that his motorcade blasted through, kicking up plumes of dust. He retreated to the residence prepared for him so he could rest before the festivities. So we all waited some more, in the beating sun.
Eventually the president arrived, clad in a banana-yellow shirt that made him easy to pick out. His late arrival meant the parade was truncated – only the military bands and a few others got to take their turn in front of the president's awning. An announcer then listed the name and title of every single dignitary who had come for the occasion. “So-and-so, Chauffeur, Office Nationale de Materiel,” he called out in a slow, ponderous voice. There were at least six ONM Chauffeurs. This roll call took an hour or more.
President Bozize gave two speeches, one in French and one in Sango. In the French speech, he read through every security/development tenet you would find in the most anodyne UN document: First, we must have security, then we will work on development; but we must have gender equality...and climate change... In the Sango version, the crowd got a bit more into it, applauding when he told them to “pika maboko” and calling out in response to his promises. Functionaries assigned here will no longer stay in Bangui – they will come to their post, he said. (Whoo-hoo, I thought.) And what about food, the ostensible reason for the holiday? “First, I am working on bringing security,” he said (in fact, his government's role in security is nil – any security in the area is due entirely to its saturation with Ugandan soldiers on the prowl for LRA), “and then I will negotiate with the World Food Programme about food distributions.” What? This is the best vision you can offer up? Distributions from WFP?
That night, a crew of waitstaff brought from Bangui set up not one but two giant banquets for the visiting dignitaries. I started bantering with the waiters in Sango and they insisted I attend. “With your white skin, you're an invité!” they encouraged, without a trace of rancor. (CAR has got to be the most racist place on earth; the mere whiff of foreignness brings vast privileges.) The second banquet, spread on tables arrayed around a well-lit concrete stage, was the more lavish. French red wine, sodas and beers from Bangui, and Cameroonian bottled water filled the tables to the point of clutter. At the buffet, waiters dished out chunks from a capitaine (CAR's prized river fish) the size of a five-year-old. (Once the dignitaries had served themselves, and taken seconds, the waiters served the assembled crowds of onlookers as well.)
Bozize and his wife (incidentally, they're technically no longer married – she had remarried and lived in France when he came to power; their kids urged her to go back and reap the rewards of the good years, such as a staff of five hairstylists) sat at the center table. Bozize wore a shirt covered with pictures of himself and slogans from KNK (Kua na kua – work, nothing but work), his political party. To the crowd's delight, the first couple danced repeatedly and even stuffed money on the forehead of the dancers they particularly liked, such as a young man who “ate” and regurgitated his cigarette while shaking his legs with an incredible elasticity, and a midget.
The next day, nary a trace remained of the previous day's festivities. The president stayed until early afternoon, and then blasted back to Bangui, sparking an exodus of dignitaries. I had the misfortune to be walking in the road then and quickly became caked with the dust of tens of speeding trucks. Even the mattresses brought from Bangui – ostensibly for the hospital in Obo – were packed up and returned to the capital, now likely gracing various functionaries' homes. Within a couple of days, the generator brought by ENERCA to provide night-time electricity had ceased functioning. Some problem with the battery. Potholes are already growing on the road to Bangui, which had been fixed up specially for JMA.
And food? The markets are sparse and food prices sky-high because people are scared to go to their fields for fear of being taken by LRA. But at least oranges are again three for 25 CFA.