I try not to spend very much time looking at traffic statistics on this blog. I don’t sell ads, so frankly it doesn’t matter how many people are reading so long as I continue getting good comments. But I do occasionally check in on my ClustrMap, a graphic visualization of where readers are downloading content from. Because it’s been running for almost two years, there are a lot of little red dots on the map. And it makes me happy that people are logging on from every corner of the world.
You won’t be surprised to discover that I watch the Africa map more closely than others. A few months ago, I noticed that there were only a handful of African nations where I’ve never recorded a visitor: Chad, Central African Republic and Western Sahara. Someone visited from N’Djamena a few months back, shortening the list to two, and in the last couple of weeks, someone logged on from Bangui in the Central African Republic. Bienvenue, mon ami Centrafricaine!
(I realize that it’s possible that people in Bangui have been reading for some time and that their location wasn’t correctly parsed by ClustrMaps’s geolocation service. But I’m celebrating the appearance of a small red dot nevertheless.)
Time to get with the program, Western Sahara. And past time for me to write something about the Central African Republic. The trick, of course, is that I know very little about CAR. In fact, the one personal story I have about CAR basically reinforces how little I knew about African geography before I came to Ghana for the first time in 1993.
The Fulbright program invited all scholars travelling to sub-Saharan Africa to an orientation meeting in Washington DC. One of the scholars at the meeting was a brilliant and attractive young woman studying primates in CAR, and I briefly nursed the idea that perhaps I’d take a road trip and go visit her, since Ghana and CAR looked pretty close to one another on my desktop globe. I realized, oh, 48 hours after arriving in Accra that any trip that involves 1300 miles overland and five border crossings, including several hundred miles through Nigeria (which was convulsing with conflict after Sani Abacha had seized power) wasn’t the sort of thing one did casually to visit a woman who you’d barely met.
Most people (myself included) don’t visit CAR at all – there are very few flights into Bangui, and relations with neighbors can be tense. CAR has had terrible luck with governance, suffering through one of Africa’s most notorious dictators, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, whose flamboyance, arrogance, corruption, and alleged cannibalism make him one of the continent’s most spectacularly awful figures. Ange-Félix Patassé, democratically elected in 1993, was only able to hold power against François Bozizé through the help of rebel troops led by Jean-Pierre Bemba, now on trial for war crimes committed in CAR. Bozizé now holds power and has held elections… just not ones that have permitted Patassé to compete.
Many of the problems CAR now faces have to do with the weakness of the government, not with questions about its legitimacy. Northern parts of the country, where the government and army have little influence, have been plagued by bandits, and by soldiers of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Joseph Kony’s violent and strange rebel group, nominally at war with the government of Uganda.
According to some analysts, France isn’t helping matters either. Vincent Munié, the head of Survie-France, an organization that takes a critical look at French involvement in Africa, points out that the French government has traditionally provided military support to leaders of CAR (including ones it later deposed), whether or not CAR’s military is behaving responsibily. In 2006, French aircraft and troops helped put down a rebellion in Birao, a city in the north-west of the country. In the process, CAR troops are accused of numerous human rights abuses, and critics accuse French forces of turning a blind eye to brutality by CAR troops.
It’s hard to know what a nation like CAR will be able to do to turn itself around economically. CAR is cursed with the four major traps that economist Paul Collier believes plague the “bottom billion” nations – it’s landlocked, conflict-ridden, corrupt and blessed with enough mineral wealth to finance insurgencies. Collier himself visited the country on behalf of the World Bank, attempting to find solutions, and was shocked to hear that the nation’s ambition was to reach the economic status of Burkina Faso within twenty years. (Burkina Faso is one of the world’s poorest countries, but it’s light years ahead of CAR.)
Ba-banzele men in the forest in northern Congo. Photo by Michael Nichols, from his gallery “Ndoki: the Last Place on Earth”.
In the spirit of David Weinberger’s “Ninja Gap“, I offer a cultural reason “hook” for those who want to learn more about the CAR: the music of the Ba-Banjalle (also “Bayaka” or “Ba-Banzele”) people. Hunter-gatherers in the rain forest, the Ba-Banjalle have a rich set of songs and polyrythyms associated with everyday activities as well as with the stories members of the tribe tell one another. Louis Sarno, an idealistic graduate student from New Jersey, moved to CAR in the late 1980s, married a Ba-Banjalle woman and dedicated himself to documenting their music and culture. His book and CD, Song From the Forest, is an amazing work. A little easier to find is this release from the Anthology of World Music. The track below – Ngoma – comes from that album. It’s a sung invocation to animal spirits offered before a hunt. (And it’s as beautiful as a hundred ninja.)