By Nicole Owens
Central African Republic (CAR) is the least happy place on earth, at least according to the UN’s World Happiness Report. It ranks dead-last on the Human Development Index–188th out of 188 countries. But it’s also home to people God loves more than life itself, which is why we went.
It took a long time to get to Zemio. For our team leaders, the journey began in 2009. The rest of us first felt called to the Mbororo people between 2011-2014. But conflict in CAR led to one delay stacked on another, so we paced and prayed and quietly wondered if we’d ever set foot in Zemio. Finally, in November 2016, we were cleared for entry.
From the windows of a bush plane, we watched Uganda’s dry, bustling towns roll into the scrub and jungle of DRC. A few hours later, a vein of silver coiled into view–the Mbomou River, glinting in the midday sun. We were crossing into CAR.
When we climbed from the plane onto red Zemio earth, it felt like a miracle. Everything was bright and hot and hard to believe: all that color, the flash and reckless warmth of a hundred Zande smiles. It seemed like the whole town had trekked out to meet us, folding us into a cloud of handshakes and buoyant singing.
I felt bewildered, overwhelmed, but also a sharp relief: like we’d journeyed far and hard, and had finally come home.
Our task in Zemio was twofold. First: meet material and gospel needs of the Mbororo. Second: strengthen and mobilize the Zande church. Though the two tribes were neighbors, a canyon of distrust kept their worlds from overlapping in a meaningful way. We hoped to be a human bridge of sorts.
The Mbororo are targeted wherever they go, often viewed as primitive pastoralists. They wander backlands with their cattle for months at a time, following the rain. In Zemio, though, the Mbororo women and children lived in a permanent neighborhood just off the main road. Local authorities saw them as a vulnerable people, brooking ceaseless persecution, and gave a tract of land for their houses, schools, and small gardens.
Zemio has been home to the Zande longer than memory reaches. The gospel took root here in the mid-1900s, and the fledgling Zande church has sometimes flourished, sometimes eeked along through subsequent decades of strife. They’d been told for years that fellow believers would live and work amongst them again, galvanizing hearts and training Zande leaders. When we finally showed up, they took us in like family. They taught us to press oil, speak Sango, kindle cooking fires. They cut back trees so snakes would stop sneaking into our houses through the roof. They kept us alive. Our team began discipleship training, asking the Zande church to join us in outreach to the Mbororo.
So, funny thing.
We make our (brilliant, meticulously-researched) plans, and then God has His (other, better) plans. We thought the bulk of our family’s impact would lie with the Mbororo, but right away my husband Todd connected with the Arab shop guys in town. They were young, generous, funny, and with bottomless stomachs: no matter when Todd showed up, they were in the thick of tea or a snack. They’d grin and push a chair beneath him, place a cup of peppery ginger tea in his hands.
We were Christians and they were Muslims, and they didn’t even care. They helped us find tinned butter or tomato paste, and wheat flour (a rarity in the sea of corn and cassava flours, and they all look EXACTLY THE SAME). They’d sift out the weevils to save me at least an hour of work. They’d send chocolate sandwich cookies home with Todd because they knew I’d like them. I think what I’m trying to say is: they were our friends.
This had all the makings of a great beginning.
But poverty plus oppression can draw out a chilling side of humanity. Warlords glutted on power. Rebel militias well-versed in abduction and violence, roaming unchecked through the jungle. I’ve only ever known privilege: a stout education, nutrition, peace. Arriving in CAR meant stepping into a centuries-old narrative of horror and brutality. Zemio was a tiny haven in the midst of this, a spot of hope in an otherwise volatile region of the African continent. It’s a small town, of little consequence, housing aid workers and sheltering thousands of refugees. Surely here, we thought, peace would hold.
On Good Friday, gun and artillery fire split the night. The next morning, our team was evacuated by bush plane from CAR.
Today, Zemio is held by rebel forces. The local population has fled to other towns in CAR, or south across the river into DRC. Homes, churches, and hospitals are in ruins. I mourn the wreckage of our tin and brick house, the stilling of our neighborhood’s once-happy rumpus: kids up in mango trees, yelling goats, football games, the rhythm of stick against stone to mash gozo greens for dinner.
When the rebels attacked, people were caught between bullets, machetes, and fires blooming through the village. Our friends fled blindly, scattering in the smoke and desperation. A mother ends up in DR Congo, while perhaps her son follows a ragged stream of survivors to Obo. No one is sure where their family members are, or if they’re alive.
Most of the villages absorbing the Zemio survivors are bedraggled and hard-pressed themselves. Our displaced friends are in acute need of food and basic living supplies. They also need to know they’re not invisible. Not alone.
Three years ago, I asked for prayer for CAR, for “every unnamed refugee slipping scared between the fault lines.” I’ve sometimes wondered why God allowed us into Zemio just six months before the town shattered and dispersed. Maybe this is it: They have names now. He allowed us to meet each other, to get our lives and concerns tangled up together, right before our friends became refugees. I know them now, the angles and planes of their faces, their shy aspirations of learning English or computers.
And because I know them, I worry. If their kids are eating today. If my language teacher, who walked on swollen legs, made it to the safety of another village. Each time an unofficial manifest is passed along from a nearby town, I scan the list for her name. It’s never there, but I’m still looking.
In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.John 1:4-5
Will you pray with us for peace? For healing? Our friends want so much to go home and rebuild their lives. And while we wait for this miracle, please also pray that in a landscape of pain, they’ll trust the love of Jesus–who knows suffering like breath and skin, and who won’t let death have the last word. In spite of everything, our hope is immense.