I keep on coming back to la Françafrique, France’s direct selection of African leaders post-independence and ongoing involvement to this day in the politics and economies of former French African countries, but Bokassa 1er, empereur de Françafrique is a great study of it.
It’s a short documentary in French, using archival footage and interviews, on France’s support for Bokassa, the context of his much-mocked coronation, and France pulling the plug and removing him in Operation Barracuda.
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.
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.
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.
Most focus on Bwiti seems to be a little superficial – a lot of media characterizes it as a “religion” and there’s a lot of attention from Western lenses on the fact that practices often include the psychedelic iboga root. But Bwiti is really more of a spiritual discipline focused on healing than a standalone religion – it’s flexible and syncretic and incorporates traditional elements of African spirituality, local medicinal plants, plus occasional elements from Christianity. If you speak French, here’s an interesting clip from a larger doc on Bwiti:
And in English, an interview with Moughenda, a Bwiti spiritual leader about the importance of self-knowledge and connection to nature, history, and culture, and why many people turn to Bwiti for healing.
Bwiti isn’t a practice that’s closed off, and there are many videos of initiations and healing ceremonies online. A lot of these vids try to play up the “exotic” lens, but this one below is pretty solid, including comments from practitioners themselves about what’s taking place and why:
Music is a big part of Bwiti ceremonies as well, and often features the ngombi harp and the ngongo mouth bow, plus percussion and singing. Here’s a couple good examples with beautiful complex polyrhythms and use of both male and female voices.
The Talking Point: African Perspectives – Gabon (En) – If you’re looking to get your head around just the basics of Gabon, this South African podcast has a good interview with the head of a Gabonese ex-pat organization in the country. The interviewee wants to get more into the meat of the political struggles, but also wants to show Gabon well and promote the lovely things about it.
Sky News ClimateCast: How do you put a price on nature? (En) – Gabon is one of the most forested countries and has some of the lowest levels of deforestation, making it not just a home for incredible biodiversity, but as a vital carbon sink. This makes Gabon is one of the few carbon-negative countries, taking in through its forests more carbon than it emits – even with an oil industry. However the podcast looks into Gabon’s economic choice over its forests as its oil reserves begin to run low – it could log the forests, or it could solicit investments from other countries to keep its forests intact. The question is if other countries will pay to stop Gabon from logging, and would this model work elsewhere?
RFI Couleurs tropicales – Sémaine Speciale Gabon Ep 1 (Fr) – The first episode of a multi-part series on RFI’s African music show focusing exclusively on music from Gabon and its diaspora. It’s more of a DJ set with a bit of interview clips and artist details mixed in (all the artist names are listed in the description). Really high energy and fun, with a host with a lot of national pride about Gabon’s music scene.
Mami Wata, la mystère d’Iveza is a 8-part Gabonese tv series that debuted just a few months ago on Canal+ Afrique, directed by Franco-Gabonese director Samantha Biffot. It’s a drama-horror series, following Oliwina, a journalist working in Burkina Faso who returns to her hometown in Gabon after her teen brother’s disappearance. While she is there, the bodies of five children surface in a nearby mangrove – somehow connected. But Oliwina’s unhappy family history comes back up on her arrival; the first episode only gives hints into her break with her parents and deeper trauma. There’s also some connection to the spirit Mami Wata, a mermaid-like water diety that, like a rusalka or siren, lures people to their doom.
The whole first episode is available on Canal+ Afrique’s Facebook page (only in French, no subtitles, however), but I can’t seem to find anywhere to watch the rest! Most of it seems both paywalled and region-locked to Africa, which is a shame, because it’s super high quality production value and I was totally hooked from the first episode. I want to figure out what happens!
Chicken nyembwé is the classic Gabonese dish – there’s a million variations, but at it’s base it’s smoked chicken in sauce graine, a thick palm nut sauce. I’m building off this recipe from Popo Loves Cooking; she brings together everything I saw in other recipes (and the recipe is bilingual!)
Whole smoked chicken was surprisingly hard to find, but my local African grocery had them – they’re easy to defrost and work with because the smoking means they’re partially cooked already. This recipe also includes garlic and onion, hot pepper, sorrel leaves (similar to spinach), bay leaves, and a couple rondelles chucked in whole. Rondelles are also called olum, bobimbi, or country onions/garlic – they look like a hazelnut but have a pungent garlic and onion aroma that really oomphs up a dish.
I also picked up chikwangue for a side dish – these are batons of grated fermented cassava, wrapped in banana leaves. You can buy them frozen and steam them – they’re a versatile accompaniment to Central African dishes, or you could swap for fufu or rice.
There was a fair bit of splatter as the sauce cooked down, but it turned out really tasty. The smokiness of the chicken comes through the strongest, and goes really well with the earthiness from the palm nuts. It’s got the richness and consistency of a thick curry (and stains like one too – don’t wear a light shirt!). There’s a bit of heat from the pepper, and all the onion, garlic, and rondelles add lots of flavour. The tang from the fermented cassava balances the creaminess of the sauce. Yum!
I’m also totally sold on smoked chicken itself, it’s absolutely delicious. I’m saving the carcass to use for broth – I’m thinking a smoked chicken noodle soup. I’m also glad I had much more success than my other Gabonese chicken dish.
Building on the last post about la Françafrique, another element of France’s neo-colonial influence on Africa remains the CFA franc. The franc is actually two interchangeable currencies, one for West Africa (XOF) and one for Central Africa (XAF).
While a single currency does help trade between the 14 countries using it, and it is pegged to the Euro for stability, it is a deeply unfair deal. Each country must put 50-70% of their foreign currency reserves into France’s treasury, and to use their own money, France will loan it back to them at fixed commercial rates. I’d suggest the below video for an excellent look at the CFA franc and how it continues to disadvantage these countries:
There has been movement from West African countries to ditch their side of the CFA franc and start their own monetary union with a currency called the Eco, but the countries of the Central African half of the CFA, including Gabon, have not signed on. An African monetary union is definitely a point of discussion, and definitely seems like the CFA franc it can’t continue on in its current form. There’s differing viewpoints – I read an article by Gabonese economist Mays Mouissi calling to keep the franc, but reform it so France is not controlling access to funds and to un-peg it from the Euro: “Gabon: monnaie unique, non, évolution du CFA, oui“. I’d also suggest the interview with Togolese activist Farida Nabourema about France’s influence and the CFA franc.