CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Making Sense of the Central African Republic

Making Sense of the Central African Republic is a collection, edited by Tatiana Carayannis and Louisa Lombard, of shorlarly articles on CAR. It’s probably the most comprehensive book you’ll get on the country, though it was published in 2015 and so misses out more recent developments. There’s articles from a mix of experts, including Central African academics.

It captures both the macro an micro, with articles looking at the broad sweep of CAR’s history and it’s identity – how it is caught between the politics and identities of Sahel countries like Chad and Sudan in the north and the Congo Basin in the south. It also gets into the micro, examining the Pk5 neighbourhood, which has both flourished as a trade hub and been fought over.

The works also build up a larger picture of how a state like CAR ends up so fragile or even failed – the ineffectiveness of peacekeepers, rent-seeking from elites and outsiders, and how natural resources underpin most of the chaos.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Jospin Pendere-Yé, Aka Pygmy music, and a song for Putin

I know, there’s a lot going on in this title. Jospin Pendere-Yé is a Central African artist who focuses on traditional music. He’s an accomplished ngombi harpist, and was featured in Résistances Rythmiques.

Here’s a really cool song he did with Aka Pygmy singers – traditional Pygmy music has such complex polyphonies that it’s on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

However, there’s one song of Pendere-Yé’s that’s really caught my attention. I get that Russian influence is growing in the Central African Republic, and the use of a balalaika is a neat cross cultural blend, but Putin’s judo?

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Wagner Group and Russia

I keep on touching on France’s involvement in CAR – military, political, economic – but other countries are also competing for influence in the country and over its resources. Russia has a growing presence, as officially they’ve been invited by the Central African government to train troops to combat rebels and insurgents. This is some bold reporting from Al-Jazeera in 2019, including meeting with Russian military representatives in the same place where Russian journalists were killed investigating the same:

However, it’s not just military trainers. Russian mercenaries, particularly the Wagner Group, have been in active combat in CAR. There have been reports of violence and killing of civilians, and Russian mercenaries been taking hold of Central African resources, ostensibly to protect them from insurgents. Again, more bold journalism, this time Vice in 2021, including an interview with the insurgents themselves:

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Bokassa 1er, empereur de Françafrique (2011)

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.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Podcasts

Along the Chari River on the northern border with Chad – Source

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.

Reportage Afrique – Centrafrique : la course aux chenilles dans les forêts de la Lobaye – (Fr) A short trio of episodes through RFI’s Africa bureau on caterpillars as food in CAR – the first is on gathering them in-season, the second on the supply chains to get caterpillars to market and the risk of deforestation, and the third on cooking with caterpillars and their place as an effective and environmentally friendly source of protein – and a beloved one. I liked the smoky flavour of dried ones when I made yabanda, but I’d love to try them fresh!

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: What’s going on?

There’s over the last few decades in the Central African Republic there’s been fighting between Séléka (a coalition of northern Muslim rebels) and Anti-Balaka (mainly Christian anti-Séléka rebels). Things were starting to get a bit more stable in recent years, including holding elections and a major UN peacekeeping presence. However, as of 2021, former enemy rebel groups were forming alliances and actively fighting the government together. Here’s a short recap from the BBC last year on the rebel insurgencies in the Central African Republic:

The current situation is part of one larger story of instability. This history video below gives the best overall look at CAR’s history – France modelling the colony on Belgium’s Congo, WWII and decolonization, the optimism of first President Barthélemy Boganda‘s anti-racism and social policies, and his untimely death …which is where everything seems to really start to go wrong, including Bokassa’s Empire. Over the last 50 years, it’s been a confusing series of coups, crackdowns, French interventions, juntas, sectarian violence, UN interventions, and near-constant insurgencies.

There’s a ceasefire on right now that’s only partially successful, with the CAR government only having meaningful control over Bangui. The Central African Republic is an incredibly fragile state – poverty and colonialism gave the country a difficult start, and since then, it’s been grinding instability and violence.

There have been real efforts for peace and democracy, however, but it’s a slow, awkward process with many setbacks – not helped that CAR hasn’t captured the world’s attention the same way neighbours Sudan and DR Congo have.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Emperor Bokassa and the Central African Empire

I had heard about Jean-Bédel Bokassa‘s Napoleonic coronation in 1977 before, but it was always a vague “oh look at this crazy dictator”. But focusing on these extravagances in a vacuum makes takes away the human element – you can laugh at dictators claiming eleven holes in one, or renaming the months after their mother, but this overlooks the real people who had to live under these governments.

Bokassa had served as CAR’s President for about a decade before the coronation – he had fought for France in WWII, and was part of the crop of post-independence leaders supported by France across its former African colonies in the 60s (see La Françafrique).

However, Bokassa went down that well-trod path of dictatorial excess, to the point of declaring himself Emperor and blowing the equivalent of a quarter of CAR’s budget on the coronation to mimic Napoleon. It was partially bankrolled by the French, to keep their trade deals flowing. Here’s a good look from New Africa on Bokassa’s coronation – you can see why many African thinkers see the whole thing as an embarrassment:

The French, however, were not going to prop him up indefinitely – a few years after he declared himself Emperor, the French took part in Operation Barracuda, a coup to remove Bokassa and replace him with the government of David Dacko.

This, however, also kicked off the cycle of coups, rebel insurgencies, and instability that still plague the Central African Republic. This reporting below from France 24’s English channel looks at Bokassa’s rise and fall, and how he’s seen today in CAR. 50 years later, there’s a sense of nostalgia for Bokassa – including by his son, who is now a cabinet minister. Even more striking are Bokassa’s surviving opponents – while they’re still opposed to his rule, they too feel a nostalgia for strongman rule in the face of CAR’s current instability:

BANGLADESH: Streetviews

There’s really good streetview coverage on Bangladesh – I went down an absolute rabbit hole poking around, there’s religious and historic sites, weird borders, stunning natural beauty and massive urban sprawl. Here’s some neat ones I liked:

In Sylhet, up in the far northeast of Bangladesh, is the Tomb of Shah Jalal. Shah Jalal was a Sufi saint and leader involved in the both the Islamic conquest of Sylhet from Hindu rulers around 1300 and the spread of Islam to the population. Ibn Battutah sought him out on his travels, and found Shah Jalal in his later years living as an ascetic.

This Shaikh was one of the great saints and one of the unique personages. He had to his credit miracles (karamat) as well as great deeds, and he was a man of hoary age.He owned a cow with whose milk he broke his fast. He stood performing prayers throughout the night, and he was thin, tall and scanty-bearded. The inhabitants of these mountains had embraced Islam at his hands, and for this reason he stayed amidst them.

From Ibn Battutah’s Account of his Meeting with Shah Jalal of Sylhet

Much more recently, Bangladesh and India finally settled their really wonky borders, transferring dozens of enclaves (including second- and even third-order ones) in 2015. Only one enclave still exists, a community called Dahagram–Angarpota, that’s a small piece of Bangladesh surrounded by India. This enclave is in spitting distance of Bangladesh, and it connected by the Tin Bigha Corridor, stretch of road that’s less than 200 metres long. The land belongs to India, but is leased to Bangladesh – but there’s still border control, and it was only in 2011 that the corridor was opened for 24 hours a day. Previously, it was only open 12 hours a day, which caused understandable hardship on residents, since there were no hospitals in the enclave at the time.

On the other side of the country, down in Chittagong, there’s what looks like a possible standoff between the Google Car and security staff at the gates of a shipbreaking yard. Note the “no child labour” sign on the gate.

A dizzying drone shot of a hazy morning in Dhaka – look at that urban density!

And more serenely, a floating night market pier in the Meghna River delta. Look around behind you for a bonus beautiful sunset.

Our in the far east of Bangladesh is the Kaptai Lake – in contrast to the massive urban density, this area is remote, sparsely populated, and largely only accessible by boat. There’s stunning natural sites, including the Shuvolong waterfall.

Back in Dhaka, I was looking through the planes at the Bangladesh Air Force Museum, and this old DC-3 caught my eye – I love these old planes. They were introduced in the 1930s, and were built until the 50s, but they’re such successful planes that many are still in active use today (like for cargo flights in the Canadian Arctic). This specific DC-3 was a gift to Bangladesh from India. It had been used to drop paratroopers during the 1971 Independence War and is one of the founding planes of the Bangladesh Air Force.

And tucked away on a side street, the oldest surviving mosque in Dhaka – the Binat Bibi Mosque, built in 1454. It’s pre-Muhgal, erected during the Bengal Sultanate. There’s an inscription dedicating the mosque to Bakht Binat, the daughter of Marhamat – it’s unclear if she funded it or if it was dedicated in her memory, but it’s likely she was part of a local wealthy family.

The streetview is from 2013, and the mosque has been in pretty poor shape, despite it’s historic value. Since then there’s been some renovations and restorations, including a beautiful new minaret. It’s hard to see updated photos, but hopefully they’ve restored and kept the two starry domes.

BANGLADESH: The easternmost Indo-European language

Bengali is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. If you go by total speakers, it’s the 7th most spoken, and if you only look at native speakers, it’s the 5th most spoken language (and has way more native speakers than widespread languages like French). Speakers are almost all concentrated in Bengal, both on the Indian and Bangladeshi side, and the fight to make Bengali an official language beside Urdu was a big spur in that Bengali nationalism that led to the eventual breakup of the two Pakistans in 1971.

Bengali is the easternmost Indo-European language (or depending how you cut it, Assamese is, but the point stands). I love the evolution of languages, it’s like the evolution of species, and the spread of the Indo-European family always blows my mind. English and Bengali both descended the same Proto-Indo-European language spoken only about 5000 years ago in the Eurasian steppe – as well as almost every other language spoken between the North Sea and the Bay of Bengal.

It’s also hard to wrap my head around the fact that Bengali is more closely related to English than it is to Burmese, spoken right next door in Myanmar. (And likewise, that Swedish is more closely related to Bengali than it is to Finnish). Here’s a really interesting video on the Indo-European language family, and how people reconstruct Proto-Indo-European:

Bengali has a reputation as a poetic and “sweet” sounding language. There’s actually a lot of linguistic work that goes into why people perceive languages as sweet or harsh – it’s called sound symbolism – but this Indian video gives a good look at what about Bengali makes people perceive it as sounding sweet.

There’s also some fun slang in Bengali – this article on “The funky side of Bangla” from the Dhaka Tribune gives a primer on slang used in Bangladesh. I really like these ones:

  • Fatafati – awesome!
  • Toofan – lit. “tempest”, but means you’re totally supportive of something
  • Chokh palti – turncoat
  • Osthir – lit. “restless” but is used for positive things the same way “sick” is

BANGLADESH: 1971 by Anam Zakaria

1971 by Anam Zakaria is a book deeply connected to Bangladesh, but the author isn’t Bangladeshi – she’s Pakistani. And that doesn’t mean she’s a neutral observer – this book is about the Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan in 1971.

This isn’t a classic history book on the war, instead, 1971 is about unpicking the myths, propaganda, and national narratives around the war that have grown up in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India. All three countries have a piece of the truth and focus on what fits their side of the story the best, but together you can add up a much more chaotic and realistic picture of the war.

Partition not only split Hindus to India and Muslims to Pakistan, but divided Pakistan into two disparate wings – the Urdu-speaking West Pakistan, and the Bengali-speaking East Pakistan (which was already the product of an early partition of Bengal, solidified into Hindu Calcutta and Muslim Dhaka in 1947). Discrimination against Bengali people and language by the rest of Pakistan grew into discontent, then rebellion when the government in Islamabad refused to accept the election results that would but the Bengal-based Awami league into power. Military invention by West Pakistan into the East and the killing of Bengali nationalists and intellectuals in Operation Searchlight erupted into a brutal war, with targeted killings of civilians by both soldiers and neighbours. The war was only settled when India joined in on the side of East Pakistan, which then was able to declare victory and become Bangladesh.

Anam Zakaria travels through all three countries to interview witnesses, survivors, former soldiers, the families of victims, politicians and academics, and young students raised on each country’s narrative of the war. She gives her interviewees the space to tell their truths, but also tries to get under the easy (and contradictory) national histories and share the complex realities of this shared history and how it’s remembered.

In Bangladesh, the story of 1971 is the year of national liberation – Pakistan is the violent oppressor, and the mass killings by the Pakistani army remain as bitter memories. Travel is difficult between Pakistan and Bangladesh, and many Bangladeshis are antagonistic to Zakaria as a Pakistani when first interviewed. However, attitudes towards Pakistan and India aren’t set in stone – depending on the back-and-forth of political parties, sometimes Pakistan is the enemy, sometimes a fellow Muslim nation against India (especially in cricket).

In Pakistan, 1971 is seen as the “dismemberment” of the country, and blame is laid at India. The war is chalked up as an Indian plan to damage Pakistan by fulminating discontent and revolution in Bangladesh. In fact, it’s seen so much through the lens of India’s involvement, that it’s often described as the Third Indo-Pak War. Killings of Bengalis are downplayed, instead the focus is on the killing of Biharis (used as a generic term for pro-Pakistan non-Bengalis) by Bengalis during the war.

India as well sees 1971 as a continuation of its perpetual conflict with Pakistan, and one where India resoundingly defeated Pakistan. Bangladeshis themselves are largely seen as an afterthought, and this friendly but paternalistic attitude continues even today.

Complex histories become simplified for convenience and over the decades to match national narratives, but Zakaria lets her interviewees talk, and carefully draws out the nuance of personal experience. Tales of being saved by neighbours of the ethnic/religious group that was seeking to kill you are common on all sides, as well as the chaos of the fog of war.

It is a really illuminating book about the 1971 war and the massively different memories of it in the three countries. It’s also a really fascinating meta-study into the construction of narratives after a major event, both by people and groups. Humans are hardwired to create a coherent narrative about individual events, and to then defend that narrative, including selecting the pieces of truth that feel more “true” to the story.