All text and photos by the author, 2006 - 2007.
Please contact with any questions or comments -
louisa.lombard @ gmail.com.
The flying saucer, as I call it, is my favorite building in CAR, perhaps my favorite building in all of Africa. It was built to house the Ministry of Foreign Affairs but has long since been handed over to new tenants. For me, this crumbling modernist relic incarnates the hope of the post-independence period, when fanciful exhibitionism could drive construction. It puts out there a display of creativity and inspiration for the consumption and admiration of the world. In reality, its origins aren't as starry as I'd like to imagine. Emperor Bokassa built it as part of his megalomaniacal program. Now, the tarpaper roof is peeling apart and some of the windows seem broken. The paint has faded into muted hues. It remains in use, though, and likely always will.
The new football stadium arrived as a gift from China. Chinese laborers built it in 2005 – 2006. The old stadium was but a rusted skeleton. A friend who works as a radio journalist for the state station showed me photos of the state-of-the-art radio press box, with its rows and rows of buttons and knobs gleaming as if untouched. And perhaps they haven’t been: all the labels are in Chinese. The radio journalists delegated one among their ranks to learn the language and then return to teach the others so they can at least use the equipment.
N’délé lies far north and a bit east of Bangui. I visited it two weeks after armed men had briefly taken control of the town. French and Central African soldiers chased them out two days after their conquest. As locals described it, early one morning they’d heard rumors of the rebels’ imminent arrival, and sure enough, they soon drove in. Inhabitants fled, their race to the safety of the bush beaten only by the Central African troops and gendarmes who were supposed to be protecting the town. From their hiding places, people heard the armed men shooting into the air for hours on end. Everyone quaked with fear, not knowing what to expect from the attackers. They waited for hours, in the dense growth on the town’s outskirts. Some found refuge in the Catholic mission. In the end, though, no one was injured save a pregnant woman who’d had difficulty running. The armed men looted the material goods they found, however. One safari hunting guide I met in Bangui had just sent two new Land Cruisers to his base near N’délé. The rebels stole them, and French mirage fighter jets shot them into balls of flames. The guide now wondered the best tactic for making an insurance claim: stolen by rebels? Bombed by the French? In the end, I think he opted for plain old theft.
The vehicles pictured below belonged to the Central African armed forces and were destroyed by the rebels:
The armed men headed out of N’délé after two days and met a French and Central African soldier ambush on the road. By the time I arrived, with a humanitarian assessment mission, few traces of their stay remained. N’délé is the prefecture seat, and the official political leader is the prefet. He lives in Bangui, though, pending disbursal of his salary. In his place, the Sultan (or Sultan-Mayor, when locals describe his role to a Western audience) rules. The Sultan’s family has ruled the area for generations, despite technically being Sudanese. Local leaders took us on a tour of their facilities, showing where bullet holes had pierced cement walls. The rooms had never contained much; a desk, maybe, and if lucky a chair. On one desk, a donor’s meeting report from 1984, the thickness of a telephone book. Flipping to the frontspiece, I noted how it could easily have been written today: “After a decade of instability, the CAR faces deteriorating…”
Below, a Central African gendarme (left) and soldier (right - don't know what happened to his uniform) in central N'délé:
From N’délé I left the humanitarians and continued on to Sangba, five hours’ drive away on bumpy dirt tracks. A couple of Russians who run an anti-poaching program there hosted me. They have taken over the base of a European Union-funded conservation program that, despite a level of success, had lost its financing two years earlier. (You may have seen the March 2007 National Geographic cover article about elephant poaching in Chad, which described a mirror project just on the other side of the border. While the article averred that poaching is much worse on the Chadian side, that is patently false – the no man’s land of CAR territory makes for a much more tempting hunting ground. Chadian soldiers swarm on their side of the border, sent by their president, Déby, who fears rebel movements in that area.)
Broken axle en route to Sangba:
Below, me (back) with Christophe:
Coming in for a landing: