The Central African Republic: Its brighter face

Cover Photo © International Medical Corps

The Central African Republic (CAR) remains a relatively unknown republic for many. People who have never heard about the CAR often think the name refers to the region of Central Africa, going on to ask what the country is really called. Others are able to pinpoint the country geographically and historically, but in great part for its dark memories. Even the CAR’s national day celebrated on December 1st, goes by absolutely unnoticed by many, relegated to the back seat for the benefit of World AIDS Day observed on the same date.

All of this shows the trivial role of the CAR in international affairs, even in the sphere of France – despite the CAR’s common history with this European state. Little is known about the country’s diverse cultural and natural riches. Regrettably, the CAR is most famous for its endless political conflicts, civil wars, extreme economic poverty, or its “embarrassing” neighbors – Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sudan. The recent affair of Joseph Kony, the Ugandan war criminal, and the crimes committed by his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) on the civilian population in CAR, along with the recent political conflict between the current President of the Republic and the rebels, once again durably damaged the image of the country.

Some facts about the CAR

In an attempt to show a brighter side of the CAR, it is useful to introduce some general facts about this country. The CAR is a landlocked country in the region of Central Africa. Known under the name Oubangui-Chari during colonial times, the CAR proclaimed its independence from France on August 13th, 1960, after a long struggle lead by Barthélemy Boganda. Boganda was the Prime Minister of the CAR autonomous territory at the time of his suspicious disappearance in an aircraft accident in 1959, and he subsequently came to be regarded as the Founder of the Nation. At present, the CAR’s vast territory of 620 000 km² is nearly empty, populated by 4.5 million inhabitants only (as per 2011 World Bank estimation).

Even though the land is vast and uninhabited, the CAR accounts for an immense variety among its community. The population is composed of seven major ethnic groups, including the Gbayas, the Bandas, the Mandjias, the Saras, the Mboums, the Bingas, and the Yakomas – all unified by the country’s mother tongue, Sango. Today, Sango is one of the two official languages along with French. Despite its numerous natural resources (diamonds, uranium, water, gold, timber), the country remains heavily dependent on multilateral foreign aid and the presence of NGOs, which provide services that the government fails to run. The inefficient (re)distribution of resources, the lack of government policy structures, the quasi non-existence of healthcare and the absence of a good educational system are just a few of these missing components. As a result, the CAR keeps a high record of extreme poverty affecting about 62% of the population, while an estimate of 11% of its population aged between 15 and 49 is HIV positive. Despite all of its cultural and natural riches, the CAR is still miles away from offering a nation strong enough to ensure the well-being of its community.

Even though the land is vast and uninhabited, the CAR holds an immense variety among its community. The population is composed of seven major ethnic groups, including the Gbayas, the Bandas, the Mandjias, the Saras, the Mboums, the Bingas, and the Yakomas – all unified by the country’s mother tongue, Sango.

While the first years of the CAR’s independence seemed to be going right by focusing on the bettering of the structural conditions, especially so the educational system to ensure capacity building for the local population some things went differently than what many might have hoped for. The early educational initiative aimed to provide the country with highly educated local senior civil servants who were to occupy key functions of the government and contribute to the development of a new independent nation.

This political vision led to a particularly high flow of university student exchanges between the CAR and France in subsequent decades. From the 1960s until the 1990s, a large number of the CAR’s students migrated to France, settling mostly in big cities such as Paris, Bordeaux, Lyon, Toulouse or Besançon. Guided by the idea that the move was for educational purposes, the assumption was that once the students graduated they would return to the CAR. Nevertheless, the drastic political changes damaging the socioeconomic prospects of the country in the period between 1981 and 1993, forced many of them to establish durably in France – inopportunely leaving the CAR short of a good number of educated and formed citizens.

Common cultural denominator maintaining unity

More so, what went on in the CAR during that period left a lasting scar on the unity of its population. In September 1981, General André Kolingba came into power through a military coup, leading to a military dictatorship that considerably impoverished the country for years to come. Even worse, Kolingba managed to destroy the internal cultural unity and ethnic tolerance, creating a divide among the population by favoring an ethnic group he belonged to: the Yakomas, representing only about 4% of the population. This brought to the CAR a load of ethnic animosity that never existed before.

As mentioned earlier, the CAR fortunately possesses a priceless anti-ethnical-division weapon: Sango, a language that unified CAR’s diverse cultural communities across ethnic boundaries through a common cultural denominator.

The Sango as an element of unity helped the population face the social hardship which translated into the overthrow of Kolingba by Ange-Félix Patassé in October 1993, leading to the first multi-party democratic presidential elections. Patassé received a good amount of support from the international community but started losing popular support, remaining in power until May 2005, when he, in turn, was overthrown by the French-supported François Bozizé. Bozizé remains in power to the present day, still failing ensure the CAR’s prosperous growth due to internal party discords and mismanagement of public funds. The political changes in the CAR have failed to create living conditions that would ensure continued safety, quality healthcare, employment and education for its citizens. Meanwhile, a good number of highly-educated citizens of the CAR remains outside of the country, hoping to see change while upholding their cultural background.

Dance is culture, dance is heritage

The former students who settled in France constitute a big part of the CAR diaspora, bringing their family from the CAR to France or starting a family on the spot. While the African diaspora in France is strong, the situation of the CAR immigrants in France is radically different from the immigrants from countries such as Mali or Senegal. The CAR was and remains relatively unknown to a vast number of locals, except for its bad aspects. The CAR’s diaspora in France is comparably small, accounting for about 3.500 legal immigrants, according to the recent data of the French Ministry of the Interior. Still, the CAR diaspora tags along on the young generation of descendants, children of the first CAR immigrants raised and installed in part with the culture of their parents mother-country. The young generations of the CAR descendants  face many of the existing prejudices about the CAR’s culture, but many of them show the willingness to battle the “all negative” views and add to a new and positive way of showcasing their ancestry.

The CAR’s diverse and rich cultural heritage is an element that draws positive attention. The variety of ethnicities united by a cultural stronghold such as the Sango, offers an equally varied range of captivating cultural expressions, such as traditions, rituals, songs and dances – the latter being of particular appeal due to the playful array of corporal expression. The traditional dances in CAR are usually performed with musical instruments such as the tom-tom and the sanza (an instrument consisting of a number of metal or split cane tongues over a wood board or box resonato). Dances are performed both by men and women, and some of the steps are specific to each gender. The voice is a crucial element in the dancers’ performances. The soloist’s voice indicates to the dancers the moment to change step or choreography, unlike traditional dances from Western African countries (Burkina Faso, Guinea, Senegal), in which the signal to switch is given by a specific sound made by the tom-tom player.

Among some of the CAR’s best known traditional dances is the Loudou dance, similar to the caterpillar dance. It is performed by the population living in the forest areas, hailing from the region of Lobaye in the southwest of the country (largest city: Mbaïki). This dance is performed by the Mbaka and the Mbati, who belong to the ethnic group of Bantu, during the dry season to celebrate the harvest of the caterpillar. The band Zokela, icon of modern and traditional music in the CAR, popularized this dance throughout the whole country in the early 1980s.

The Ganza dance, another ritual dance, is performed during the circumcision ritual. This initiation ritual can last one year and marks a capital step in the life of young men before moving into adult life. Depending on the region, the group of initiated young men (at the age of 16) is taken to the forest or to the bush to receive their education. While circumcision is practiced by almost all of the CAR’s ethnic groups, this dance is typical of the Banda, the second largest ethnic group after the Gbaya (33% of the population), representing 27% of the population and located in the eastern part of the country.

The Bolélé is danced by the Pygmy Aka ethnic group, which also lives in the region of Lobaye, in the forest. This dance takes place on the occasion of weddings, as well as fruitful hunting and fishing. The Pygmy community gathers together around the ring, forming a circle and dancing in single file. This dance is accompanied by polyphonic songs which are classified by the UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage.

The Ngaragué consists of very fast and stunning shoulder movements. It is considered the dance of the strong men and practiced by the Gbaya living in the north. The dance imitates the movements of birds and is performed at the seed period.

The Gbadouma is performed by the ethnic group Yakoma, which lives along the river Oubangui in the region of Bangassou in the southeast. When young men and women announce successful fishing, the whole village celebrates this event by dancing the Gbadouma.


The CAR’s dances: Cultural treasure © WWF-Canon / Martin HARVEY

The CAR’s traditional dances have become a way of shedding a new light on the views about this country.

Despite the difficulties the CAR faces, the historical battering it  has taken, and the ongoing political conflict, the value of CAR’s cultural traditions is unquestionable. The variety of cultural heritage and dances still holds much room for exploration, offering an important chance to bring a new light to the image of this country. Culture has the power to bring knowledge, and dance is a marvelous way of giving a joyful and power-charged view of culture of the CAR, bringing an entirely new insight to what the CAR is to those willing to dance. One thing is certain – everyone must be encouraged to get a glimpse of the CAR’s culture and to have an opportunity to get to know the Central African Republic differently.

This is a not-for-profit explanation.

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