Monday, April 9, 2007

Ô Centrafrique, Reprends ton droit au respect!

The Central African Republic gets no respect.

Its founding president Barthélemy Boganda (a Catholic priest) attempted to unite the newly dissolved colony of French Equatorial Africa into a post-colonial state, but had to settle for the smallest and poorest part in 1958 after the the other parts of the former FEA refused to take part.

The CAR has since been all but forgotten about by the rest of the world. It is written about so rarely (even in African publications such as Jeune Afrique) that almost no American even knows where it is (though its very name describes the location!) It is the hidden jewel north of Congo (formerly Zaire), south of Chad, west of Sudan (sharing a border with the Darfur region), and east of Cameroon, a beautiful and well-kept secret of a country of over 100 tribes living more or less peacefully together, albeit under the strong neocolonial influence of the French.

Having been so long ignored, it is sad that the first major article about the CAR in the New York Times, titled “Wedged Amid African Crises, a Neglected Nation Suffers”, describes the almost inevitable decline of law and order long seen elsewhere in Africa. It would not be absurd to see this as the logical consequence of the slow decline of French interest (and money) in the region. Every crisis in Central Africa has started with the same common trigger: soldiers not getting paid.

I was fortunate enough to spend two years there teaching secondary mathematics in the U.S. Peace Corps. At the time, everyone but the French decried the none-too-subtle hand of French neocolonialism, and we all believed that once they left, the CAR would “retake its right to respect”, as the national anthem urges. It was in hindsight perhaps a bit naive. I guess we will find out whether Camus was right that it is better to die on one's feet than live on one's knees, though in fairness I did not see anyone on their knees literally or figuratively while the French were there.

The strangest part of all this is that the most salient feature of (southern) CAR culture was laughter. They were constantly telling (and retelling) the same jokes, snapping their fingers, boasting in crescendoing hyperbole. If some wali [woman] gave me lip over something I was supposedly doing wrong, I would just smile and say, "Mama" like a mischievous child, and her anger would melt and we would both burst out laughing and follow up with the obligatory and ubiquitous slapping handshake, each contributing one half of a snap with the middle finger (harder than it sounds). The louder the snap, the better the bond. I never got it before, but you just can't stay mad at someone whose hand you have just clasped, rubbed, and snapped in one graceful motion. The snap just hangs in the air like a moment of clarity.

Being from German stock, I wasn't raised with excessive laughter, and never felt authentic in this ritual (which I dutifully participated in anyway to ease my stay there), but now I miss it. When I tell the same joke more than once to the same person here, I get a groan instead of a laugh. I think I like the Central African way better.

I hope when the turmoil stops, Central Africans will still be able to laugh. It is after all one of their greatest strengths. I am glad I was there to hear it firsthand.


Thanks to Brendan Keefe for sending me the NY Times link above.