Out here, [on the streets] kids don’t use real names. There’s “Captain.” “Cash Cash.” “Messi.” Mines Jack Bauer, Because I’m a survivor, A leader. — “Jack Bauer” interviewed by Didier Kassai
The Central African Republic (CAR) is one of the worst countries in the world to be a child. Sitting at the bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index, the children in the former French colony grow up within an infrastructure crippled by decades of misrule and corruption.
The country is beset by poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition, a shortage of qualified teachers, and poor access to water, sanitation and health services.
The ongoing armed conflict has exacerbated this situation as continued insecurity has hamstrung humanitarian efforts.
But as tragic as the situation is in the country, CAR has effectively become a house without windows. Media coverage of this crisis has been minimal, and the public’s interest fleeting. — Marc Ellison
‘House Without Windows’ is a groundbreaking interactive and fully responsive photo/graphic novel that follows Central African artist Didier Kassai, and freelance British photojournalist Marc Ellison, as they documented and corroborated the challenges facing youth in the country’s streets, classrooms, refugee camps, and hospitals in 2017.
In fact, “graphic novel” isn’t a broad enough to fully describe the totality of the genre defying experience I had absorbing this content.
The audience can – via embedded vignettes or a standalone 14-minute feature – stand beside child labourers working in a diamond mine, cycle around a refugee camp with an aid worker, or meet kids forced to live on the streets of Bangui.
This is ESSENTIAL. In gleaning just a fraction of what life is like for these children, It was a tough read.
As a father of school-aged children in these kids age range, I was stunned, angered, saddened. Yet, at the same time, the talented creative teams take in featuring the children was hopeful, I was charmed and thoroughly impressed by these kids, and challenged by what I thought I knew about the region and the conflict.
In retrospect, not only about CAR, but how my personal complacency is no different than the rest of the world’s in regard to the plight of kids left to fend for themselves. And that “victimized” isn’t the same as victim. They have agency.
The children are in desperate need of help, make no mistake, and adults in their lives, their society and the world have let them down, but importantly, they aren’t helpless. They have ambitions and dreams. They want what all kids, all people, want — stability, bare necessities, opportunities to go to school, live lives free of violence.
One unforgettable example of many is a child who calls himself “Jack Bauer” as he relates to Didier, “Yeah. Like on the TV show.” Out here, [on the streets] kids don’t use real names. There’s “Captain.” “Cash Cash.” “Messi.” Mines Jack Bauer, Because I’m a survivor, A leader.”
The format of the book is that of a traditional documentary, with Central African artist Didier’s depicting himself in his illustrations interviewing the kids who bravely and at times chillingly mater-of-factly, recount their harsh stories of abuse and neglect. Slaving in Diamond mines, housed in cramped refugee camps and bitter life on the mean streets of Bangui. Almost to a child, beatings and threats of violence were common at home.
A House Without Windows was made in partnership with Doctors Without Borders, is a part of Humannoids’ Life Drawn imprint which focuses on slice-of-life stories.
Illustrator Didier has a wonderfully organic style and deft eye honed as a political cartoonist and Satirist. He was recognized for his humorous watercolors and social activism as Press in CAR from 1994-1997.
Didier who is self-taught, is breathtakingly talented who’s delicate renderings thoughtful interview style and elegant compositions are paired magnificently with Ellison’s bold but respectfully shot video & pictures (activated by QR codes).
Marc’s long years of experience documenting sensitive subjects in dangerous conflict areas like the reintegration of girl soldiers in Uganda, child marriage in Tanzania and sex workers struggling with AIDS in Mozambique, imbued care and sensitivity for his subjects that shine through his photography.
His starkly composed photos interspersed with Diders’ sepia frames and the kids enlightened takes on their lives, weave a story that is unforgettably poignant and artistically satisfying. Capturing the children’s warmth and fierce pride amidst humble surroundings. The glimmers of hope through local charities and aid workers. The ever present specter of danger. The ingenuity and resourcefulness of the street kids to survive.
This collaborative effort works unflinchingly with an honesty that’s both heartbreaking and beautiful in it’s non-exploitive and sober snapshot of Central African life. You’ll want to look away, but you’ll be drawn in to continue. I both smiled and wept within a single sitting with A House Without Windows. If you don’t? Check your pulse.The intimate case studies featured in this remarkable work of powerful comic art and hard hitting photojournalism shines an indelible light on the human rights abuses these forgotten yet unforgettable children have endured, and showcase the incredible intelligence, resilience and inspirational courage of children on the brink, forced to fend for themselves in the face of unimaginable poverty.
This is the first must read book of the year for me and I highly recommend A House Without Windows.
A masterpiece of graphic novel journalism.
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Images: Didier Kassaï and Marc Ellison