The tropical country of the Central African Republic doesn’t leave much to the imagination as to where it’s located. It’s in the central part of Africa. And it’s a republic. More or less. The geographic center of Africa is on the Central African Republic (CAR) and Cameroon border (technically, I think it’s in Cameroon). This landlocked country is surrounded by Cameroon, Chad, Sudan, the new country of South Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Condo (DRC) and Congo. Most of the country lies on rolling plains and vast savannas and is a little smaller than the state of Texas. The Ubangi River is one of the major river systems in the CAR, which is part of the southern border.
The area was originally inhabited by Ubangian-speaking peoples and Bantu-speaking peoples. In the mid-1800s, Arab slave traders bombarded their way into this area of Africa and “took what they needed” so to speak, leaving many regions of the CAR with much smaller populations. During the last 1800s, the French joined in the Great African Land Grabs and established a post on the Ubangi River, near the current capital city of Bangui. They called their newly acquired territory Oubangui-Chari. In 1958, it became an autonomous region and that’s when they changed their name to Central African Republic. However, it’s founding father, Barthélémy Boganda, died in a plane crash the next year, to which there’s still some mystery over the circumstances of the plane crash to this day. The CAR finally gained independence in 1960 – marking the beginning of a series of power struggles that will more or less go on until today.
The capital city is Bangui (pronounced “bahn-ghee”), located in the southwestern part of the country, on Ubangi River. Just across the river is the country of Democratic Republic of the Congo. The country has little urbanization, and this is the country’s largest city at around 734,000 people. Because of this, it’s the center of government, the center for the arts and business as well.
The Central African Republic uses French as its official language: the language of educational instruction and official business. However, most of the people speak and use the Sangho language at home and amongst themselves. Sangho is Ngbandi-based creole language. Some linguists dispute whether it’s actually a creole or not, based on its sentence structure and other factors. While there are many loan words from French, this language stands out – it’s a creole based on an African language rather than a European one like you find in so many other places where Europeans invaded and controlled at one time. It has the same sentence structure as in English (subject-verb-object) and puts adjectives directly in front of nouns like English does as well.
Because of the influence from the French, the Central African Republic has about half of its population who consider themselves followers of Christianity. And of that, it’s pretty much half Protestant and half Catholic. There is a small percentage of Muslims in the country as well. Around 35% participate in various indigenous beliefs, and I’m speculating that there are a number who follow more than one religion.
Statistics are, for the most part, pretty dismal. The CAR ranks 180th out of 187 countries in regards to the Human Development Index, mostly due to the constant instability in the government and economy. The country faces problems with deforestation and desertification. While they do have natural resources of diamonds, gold, oil, and uranium, the country still has problems with unemployment and underemployment (especially in the cities). Maternal mortality rate is fairly high as is the risk for major infectious diseases such as hepatitis A, typhoid fever, malaria, meningococcal meningitis, and rabies. Over 1/5 of kids age five and under are reported as underweight, and access to clean drinking water and sanitation are not readily available across the country, even in the urban settings. AIDS is a problem in the country, which is one of the factors (among others) why the life expectancy is only 50 years old. It’s really hard to think that I, at age 33, would be past middle age. Like many other struggling countries in this area, only the main roads are paved – most of the roads are red dirt roads that zig-zag its way through the land, following ancient herding paths. There are a few bright spots, though. Several years ago, the National Geographic magazine ranked the Central African Republic as the country least affected by light pollution, which is pollution created from the use of unnatural light.
The Central African Republic has one of the most diverse cuisines and cultural arts traditions – which makes it hard to pinpoint what’s truly indigenous to the CAR. Many of the people have emigrated from the country for one reason or another, mostly for refugee-related reasons. But some have left for other reasons, like Anicet Lavodrama (former basketball player, was drafted for the Los Angeles Clippers in the 1985 NBA draft as a 3rd round pick, also played for the Spanish Liga ACB for 13 years.) There have also been tennis players and soccer players and others who have made a name for themselves and have represented Central African Republic in the capacity of their field. For a country that has suffered a lot, much at the expense of its own people, the Central African Republic has much to offer as well, especially through its cultural arts. I think this will be another country that will surprise me as I venture into its arts traditions.
Up next: holidays and celebrations