Program Officer John Hanson served as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in Central African Republic (CAR) from April 1992 until May 1996. He lived and worked for the first two years in the small village of Pata Maraba, about 40 miles north of the capital, Bangui. Hanson served as an agriculture and agro-forestry volunteer, working with motivated farmers to introduce new planting techniques, crop varieties and soil conservation techniques using agro-forestry. This group of farmers then passed their knowledge on to other farmers using farmer-to-farmer training methods.
Upon completion of his initial two-year Peace Corps service, Hanson extended his service for an additional two years, this time working in Bayanga ('94-'96) in the extreme southwest of the country, nearly 400 miles from Bangui. He worked on a project supported by the World Wildlife Fund to assist farmers who lived and worked in and around the forest reserve and national park.
After a short visit in 1999, Hanson returned to CAR in June 2007 as part of a Mercy Corps emergency response team. He found a much different country than the one he'd experienced as a PCV.
Q: John, how has Central African Republic changed since your Peace Corps service there?
John Hanson: It has been a very emotional return to CAR for me.
I was evacuated from CAR with other Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) in 1996 during the first military mutiny that challenged the rule of the former President, Ange Felix Patasse. I returned in 1999 — to put some closure on my Peace Corps experience — and while three years' of fighting had taken its toll, the atmosphere and people's outlook were much the same.
My return to CAR in June 2007 has been quite different. Thanks to a new mayor, Bangui has never looked better: it's been cleaned up, the garbage is collected, some streets have been repaired, and there are now traffic lights at major intersections. Small parks with benches have been rehabilitated around the city.
However, despite these cosmetic changes, the mood here is very somber. People are tired and worn out from years of fighting, continued economic decline and the death of so many family members and friends to HIV/AIDS.
What did you feel when you returned to the village where you lived and worked?
I was devastated to return to Pata in early July to find that only three people from my network of 13 farmers and friends were alive — the majority of them had died of HIV/AIDS. My extended Centrafrican family in Pata has been wiped out, and those who remain do not appear to be in very good physical health. One hopeful sign is that people were no longer inhibited to say that someone died of AIDS; some are even taking blood tests to confirm what they suspect.
I honestly don't know how many of those I care about will be there during my next visit.
Even in the midst of all this, there is still joy and tremendous generosity among the folks in Pata. We laughed at past experiences and silly jokes, and I was given maize, honey and even two chickens as I left.
What is the general feeling and sentiment you gather from being in Bangui and talking with a variety of people there?
As I mentioned, the mood in Bangui is subdued, somber. There is still loud music blasting from bar speakers and people drinking in bars, but there is something missing - a spark that used to pass between folks as they interact.
The tenacity of Centrafricans to survive has been and remains amazing to me. They all lament that ‘e kiri na poko' — we have gone backwards — but they continue to try to move forward although now more weary and more unsure than before.
Why did Mercy Corps choose to look into HIV/AIDS and urban livelihoods?
At the same time we were looking to address the enormous needs in the north of the country, we also took a look at conflict-ravaged, economically marginalized areas of the country that were not receiving international attention and support. Peri-urban areas of Bangui are going through enormous changes. Some of the biggest challenges include an influx of migrants from Bangui seeking land to farm, death of family members often because of HIV/AIDS, and a lack of government services that's keeping children out of school and limiting access to doctors in the few hospitals that are still open.
I think given the number of stories we heard from my friends and people about town, the extent of the HIV/AIDS crisis in CAR was pretty evident. It's something we must address directly by creating programs — and establishing partnerships — that serve the critical needs of families affected by HIV/AIDS. The current health care system in CAR, as well as families' ability to cope with this added burden is nil. Something has to be done.