Sango, alongside with French, is the official language of the Central African Republic. This is unusual in sub-Saharan Africa, as many countries only have an European colonial language as their official language (like Togo, Gabon, or Mozambique) since it’s an effective lingua franca and prevents favouring one local language over another.
But in CAR, Sango has official status on the same level as French – mainly because almost the entire population speaks it, and it doesn’t “belong” to any one ethnic group. Sango is a creole, based originally off Ngbandi, but had been used as a trade language along the Ubangi river long before French colonization.
When the French founded Bangui as a trading hub on the Ubangi, Sango became the de facto language of the city, leading to a growing population that spoke it as their first language. While census data is spotty today, it remains a common first language in Bangui, and around 90% of CAR’s population can speak Sango as either a first or second language.
French still remains a prestige language and the language of higher education (as it is in the rest of former French Africa, including north Africa), and that also affects spoken Sango – the more formal the situation, the more French loanwords people use.
Elephant Path: Njaia Njoku (2018) is a documentary that is beautifully done, takes a turn you don’t expect, and has some serious “how on earth did they get this footage” moments. It follows conservation staff at an endangered forest elephant preserve in southern CAR as they deal with poachers and the day to day work of elephant conservation, and then face armed Séléka rebels taking over the preserve and the town.
The setup at first makes you think it’s going to focus on the white American researcher, but she is reluctantly evacuated to snowy New York when the rebels arrive, and instead she is peripheral to the story, helplessly worried for the elephants and her colleagues in CAR and using her audio research to document the slaughter.
Instead, the documentary focuses primarily on her research partner, Sessely Bernard, who is a forest tracker, and how he works with both the sanctuary and his own Bayaka (pygmy) community to protect the elephants. The documentary also spotlights Zephirine Mbele, who is the head of an “eco-guard” armed unit that targets ivory poachers.
When the Séléka arrive, many of Sessely’s community retreats into the forest to survive, and the eco-guards are hopelessly outgunned, and unable to save many of the elephants from organized ivory raids by the insurgents. It’s a heartbreaking film, but with glimmers of hope, and the footage is incredible.
There’s footage of a show-trial of local poachers (a literal witchhunt), which is then mirrored by the astounding footage of the newly arrived Séléka commander laying down the law to community leaders and the eco-guards. I have no idea how anyone was able to get that footage without being shot – it’s almost surreal to have film-quality footage of actual armed insurgents taking over your community.
A mix of podcasts I’ve been listening to this month on the Central African Republic – some English and some French. There’s a lot of reporting on conflict in CAR, but there’s also some good podcasts and interviews out there by Central Africans.
The Talking Point: Looking at Central African Republic (CAR) – (En) A South African podcast from 2019 that gives a good overview of CAR’s history that sets it in the larger regional context, looks at la Françafrique, the competition between French and Chinese interests in CAR’s natural resources, and current political dynamics. So much of CAR’s post-independence political history is a process of balancing outside interests – France, Russia, China, South Africa, Chad, and more – and this podcast helps make sense of it.
Elo Africa: Au coeur des conflits en République Centrafricaine – (Fr) A Gabonese podcast interviewing Bernice, a young man who fled as a child from CAR in the early 2000s because of ethnic violence. Bernice is Yakoma, a small ethnic group from the south of the country. The previous president, André-Dieudonné Kolingba, was Yakoma and had heavily favoured his own ethnic group for government patronage – when he was removed from power, the Yakoma faced attacks and persecution. Bernice speaks about his experience as a refugee, his education in Cameroon, his return to Bangui as a young man, and the current political situation there.
Smart Peace: Central African Republic – (En) CAR has been called the “world champion of peacekeeping” as it has had a non-stop revolving presence of French, UN, African Union, and EU peacekeeping missions. NGOs and peace organizations are trying various tactics to build stability – Smart Peace is a project by Conciliation Resources that looks at facilitating local solutions to peace. This podcast adds further detail to the reasons of CAR’s instability – instead of looking at big leaders or movements, they look at communities and how individuals navigate instability and build their own networks in the absence of institutions.
Juridiquement Vôtre: L’année 1236, la Charte de Kurukan Fuga – (Fr) Dr. Jean-François Akandji-Kombé is a Central African law professor, currently teaching at the Sorbonne in Paris. He has a series of podcasts, some on law and citizen engagement, some on Central African current events, and some on African legal history. This really fascinating podcast is on the Kurukan Fuga, the 1236 constitution establishing the Empire of Mali. It’s one of the oldest charter of rights, from the same era as the Magna Carta, and is noteable for setting out women’s rights (including political participation), laws on sustainable hunting, and inheritance and status rights. Dr. Akandji-Kombé frames it as an reclamation of African history and using this history to build a more stable legal tradition for African countries, and as a counter-argument to a narrative that constitutionality is a foreign import.
Résistances Rythmiques is a short documentary on Central African musicians and how they’re using music careers as an alternative and as a tonic to the violence in CAR. Many of these artists describe themselves as “anti-political”, but really, they’re quite political. It’s only that “politics” in this context means violence, insurgencies, and ethno-religious divides, while music is a way to bring communities together, support CAR’s culture, and promote peace.
Some speak about friends or brothers who have joined the anti-Balaka insurgents and who have died in the fighting, and most just want peace and stability. The older artists are very clear eyed that the recent hate between Muslim and Christian communities is new and driven by the various insurgent groups – CAR had been comfortable with being multi-ethnic and multi-religious until very recently.
It’s also a great primer on Central African music and musicians – rap, rumba, traditional music (including ngombi harps) and the tradi-moderne music of Montenguéné.
It’s available on Youtube here (can’t be embedded), though only in French.
It’s also notable for addressing the racism Pygmy people face in Africa, and is a interesting twist on the “white saviour” movie trope from a black African angle – think of an African Dances with Wolves.
Gonaba, a government official, returns to CAR from France full of idealism and hoping to make real change in his home country. The luxury and corruption of the political class he belongs to quickly disillusions him. After seeing their mistreatment, he begins to advocate for the Aka pygmies, who, like many indigenous Pygmy people, face racism, marginalization, and dehumanization from other Africans.
In his naive enthusiasm of the “enlightened saviour”, he goes to live with an Aka tribe deep in the forest – his half-baked plan to educate them to better deal with modern African society eventually going out the window as he instead learns their way of life and culture. And yet, he still cannot totally shake his saviour mentality, leading to serious consequences.
Some great upbeat jams by Majora, a Central African singer who focuses on Montenguéné – folk music from Lobaye, in the south part of CAR along the border with the Republic of Congo. Majora incorporates traditional dance, music, and dress into his music, as well as afro-pop and hip hop dance styles – and he’s a hell of a dancer:
There’s also a fair but of the political in his works, including the plea for peace in “Garder Moral”.
Didier Kassaï’s Tempête sur Bangui(Storm over Bangui) is a shocking graphic novel on several levels. It’s an autobiography of his experiences of the 2013 civil war in the Central African Republic, as Séléka rebels overran the capital and toppled the government. Kassaï recounts the chaos, the violence, and the confusion on the ground through the eyes of Bangui’s residents. It truly is a graphic novel.
However, what is particularly shocking is how Kassaï draws Africans. While non-black characters are drawn in a realistic style, all the black characters – including Kassaï himself – are drawn like old “sambo” racial stereotypes.
Kassaï explains his artistic choice as a stylistic one, and connects it to the deeper ligne-claire cartoon tradition from France and Belgium. (He draws Africans in a realistic way in his other works).
“I believed this war had no face. I couldn’t recognize any of my countrymen and women back then because everybody was spreading messages of hatred, so I gave them only eyes and mouths.”
But there’s something more to this – it’s a style that is instantly shocking to Western eyes, and hearkens back to Tintin in the Congo. That’s not without reason – CAR was treated by France the same way the Congo was by Belgium – divvied up as personal property for Europeans to exploit. France and Belgium left such deep lasting damage to central Africa that countries like CAR and the DRC have struggled with chronic instability and violence since then.
If you wanted to read even further into Kassaï’s artistic choice, you could make an argument that drawing Africans as a faceless stereotype shocks Western readers because it exposes that many people do see Africa as a faceless victims, rather than real individuals with their own autonomy and lives. The whole continent is often treated as an amorphous whole, and the essential humanity of the people living through events like CAR’s civil war are overlooked in a way that they aren’t for conflicts in other parts of the world (say, Ukraine).
Tempête sur Bangui is meant to shake you up, and it does.
There is a really rich vein of literature that centres around women and their responses to polygamy across Africa, especially it’s power dynamics and how traditional practices are interpreted today. For some, polygamy is a confining and threatening loss of autonomy, like in Angèle Rawiri’s The Fury and Cries of Women, and others, the structure and responsibilities of traditional polygamy are a way of flipping the script on a philandering husband, like in Paulina Chiziane’s The First Wife.
Adrienne Yabouza takes a different angle in Co-Wives, Co-Widows – the first Central African novel translated to English. Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou face the sudden death of their beloved husband, Lidou, and the upturning of their everyday lives. The shock of his death is just the beginning, as they have to face Lidou’s cousin, who is bent on using all the tools at his disposal – violence, courts, bribes – to force the wives and their children off of their inheritance and take control of Lidou’s property.
It’s a story of female friendship, as the two women go from being only connected by a man, to partners (sisters, really) who rely on each other as they fight a system stacked against them. It’s a short, sharp, funny novella about resourceful women.
Going to try a dish that uses two ingredients that are totally new to me. Yabanda is a Central African dish that’s simple, rustic, and uses local ingredients – specifically koko leaves. Koko is a vine leaf that’s also called ukazi or afang, especially in Nigeria. The leaves are shredded and used for soups and stews.
Oh, and yabanda also uses caterpillars.
I know a lot of people, especially in the West, get really squeamish about eating insects – it’s a cultural thing. However, insects are eaten all over the world – they’re quick protein and easy to either raise or forage (they’re also much more environmentally friendly than livestock). This isn’t my first time eating bugs – I’ve had some really good roast cicadas when I was working in China, and the cheesy mealworms at gift shops are actually kinda nice!
Caterpillars are a common meat across equatorial Africa, but these aren’t tiny inchworms. These are great big suckers – I think they’re shea caterpillars, and they’re 2-3 inches long. These ones are dried, so they need a good boil to get them tender – so do the koko leaves.
I’m using this recipe from DW (in French), which uses meat, but you can basically pick your protein. The recipe itself is very simple – sautée up some onions in red palm oil, add a hot pepper, Maggi cube, the koko and caterpillars and a bit of water and cook it up together, serve with a side of fufu. You could also use with a side of chikwangue, or gozo (either another term for ugali/pap or closely related). And if you’re not feeling caterpillars, the recipe is just as easily made with meat or smoked fish.
So how does it taste? The caterpillars have a lovely smokey scent, though not much flavour, since they’re been hollowed out and dried to safely ship around the world. The Maggi and the onions infused some flavour back into them, as do the hot peppers. The koko leaves are slightly bitter, and take a bit of time to soften (kind of like cassava leaves) but also soak up the flavour.