A brave Central African woman

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A brave Central African woman

Tatiana Vivienne is a very strong Central African woman. She helps the people in her country with the most problems. By Louisa Waugh.

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When Bangui was full of armed rebels, Tatiana helped girls and young women who had nowhere to go. © Conciliation Resources

The first time I saw Tatiana I remember her loud laugh. It was spring 2014. I had a new job in Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic (CAR).

Tatiana’s friends call her Tati. She is a strong Central African woman. She has her own NGO, Femmes Action Plus, in Bangui. She lives in Bangui close to her big family. Her organization helps some of the communities in CAR with the biggest problems. ‘We speak for people who cannot speak for themselves,’ she says.

There were armed robberies and once she had to close her office, and there is very little money. But Tati never stops speaking out. In the last three years, when Bangui’s streets were filled with armed rebels, she helped girls and young women with nowhere safe to go. She works in some of the most difficult places in Central Africa. She works with forgotten communities with terrible problems, including kidnapping and slavery and sometimes people force them to kill others.

Learning from problems

Tati was a good student, then a full-time carer, and then a humanitarian and war crimes activist. ‘I have many different lives already,’ says Tati. She is now in her mid-thirties. ‘When I was growing up outside the centre of this city we were ten children – four girls and six boys. But I was very lucky. My father believed in education, so we all had education.’

When she was about five, her father found a new job. The family left Bangui for Baboua in northwest CAR, where Tati studied at the local Catholic school. In rural CAR, literacy rates for girls are only 22 per cent. But Tati and her brothers and sisters did very well.

'I decided I must help people who have no-one to help them'

This was the late 1980s, quite a peaceful time. Tati’s family did very well at home too. But then their mother was suddenly very ill. ‘She was very sad, then depressed.’ Tati was only 11 but she began to spend time away from school to look after her mother. ‘But I learnt from this, too. I learnt to do difficult things, personal and professional ones.’

She passed her baccalaureate, her school exams. Her mother got better and Tati left CAR in 1999, to study first in Ghana, then Nigeria.

Being strong

She planned to stay in West Africa but a visit home in 2009 changed everything. Tati’s family were now back in Bangui. ‘My older brother had a terrible accident and my father was ill. I lost them both in three months. It was terrible for us all – it was terrible for my mother. I couldn’t leave her. I decided to stay in Central Africa to do something for my country to help people who have no-one to help them.’

There were changes in politics too. In 2003 President François Bozizé took power with the help of the military. CAR was full of violence and fear. They arrested or killed political opponents, and communities outside Bangui had to look after themselves. Most NGOs worked in the safest areas. International organizations did not really work in CAR because the people who gave money to help weren’t interested in this unknown, violent country with a terrible dictator. Tatiana started volunteering with a local NGO, JUPEDEC. It was one of the few NGOs helping poor communities.

In 2010, she went to Obo in Mbomou Haute in remote south-eastern CAR, to meet women and children who the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) attacked following their leader, Joseph Kony. LRA fighters have kidnapped at least 38,000 women, men, and especially children in the area. This left a generation in shock. And so people left the villages in Mbomou Haute.

‘Women who escaped from the LRA suffered terrible things you cannot believe. Some saw LRA men kill and eat their own husbands.’ The LRA raped children or made them slaves and made children kill other children. ‘I met girls of twelve with two children because of rape. And if they escaped, their communities often did not want them. So no-one fights for them.’ '

In 2011 she started Femmes Action Plus, with only two volunteers and the help of a British peacebuilding organization (Conciliation Resources). She often went to Haute Mbomou and she helped and trained the communities. ‘I remember a community meeting in Obo where there was a woman with five children. Her husband and her community did not want her. But her husband and her community accepted her again,’ she tells me. 'I've spent so much time with these communities. I do not blame them, but I understand them. And now I see them taking more people back.’

There are fewer LRA attacks on villages in Haute Mbomou now as Kony is very weak and possibly dead. Thousands of people had to move and are still in poor homes in and around Obo. For Tatiana this is a lifetime’s work with little or no recognition. But Tatiana never stops. Heads of international organizations do not know what to say and often cry when she talks about how people suffer and sometimes return to the LRA, because it is so hard when their community does not want them back.

Tati works with communities in Bangui, too. She started an education programme for some of the women and children with the most problems.

Armed robbers broke into her house three times. In 2015 she had to close her Bangui office because she was afraid people would break into it and she would lose everything she had worked for. There is still violence in Bangui and Tati does not feel safe enough to return to her family home in Bangui. She lives in a quiet part of the city.

There are some good moments. Because of her work with LRA victims the Hague invited her to train on documenting war crimes. She is helping international cases against LRA leaders. And her NGO is now Femmes Hommes Action Plus, because as she says, ‘We need our brothers to walk with us.’

I once asked if anyone has suggested she stops for her own good. ‘My family tell me to take a rest because they see I am very tired: but I ask who will do this work if I go? We have to help our own people.’

I left CAR last year, and Tati and I now talk on the phone. She said that finding money for her work is still a big problem. But she has wonderful news too.

‘I’m getting married!’ she said. Her new husband is a Central African human rights lawyer – and a presidential candidate.

‘Can you imagine – I could even be the First Lady?’ She laughs aloud on the phone.

Louisa Waugh is a writer and human rights lawyer who works for an international peacebuilding NGO in Mali. She blogs at the-waugh-zone.org

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: https://newint.org/features/2017/03/01/the-ambassador-of-joy/ (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed). .