Bangui the Terrible

by Adrienne Yabouza

Poorest nation, richest nation (Issue III+IV/2018)


I still remember Bangui before the war. I remember the city where I used to work as a hairdresser and only earned as much as my boss felt like paying – never enough. I remember the city where every day I struggled to get enough food for my children to eat and to make enough money to send them to school. I remember the days that I, a widow, spent refusing propositions by the "kota zo", the powerful men of the city. Like many others, I remember feeling trapped in Bangui. These were the good days.

The bad days began in 2013, when chaos erupted in Bangui. President François Bozizé was overthrown by the predominantly Muslim rebel alliance Séléka, the "coalition", and an army started marching towards the capital. They began when the coup turned into a conflict between religions and the Christian "Anti-Balaka" militia was formed. They began when people in Bangui were slaughtered with machetes and human flesh was eaten for pleasure, when mass executions were carried through and people were raped and tortured. It seemed as if the gods on both sides had no pity on this country and its people, as if even the Creator Nzapa  -- who was worshipped before the first missionaries arrived -- had forgotten Bangui.

"Pretty Bangui", this is what my home city, the capital of the Central African Republic, was called once upon a time. That was just after the country gained independence from French colonial rule, when hoping for a better future still seemed realistic. Had the people known how much suffering Bangui would face in the future, they would have thought of a different name.

And today, a wide-eyed traveller walking through Bangui will not see beauty. The war is officially over, but fear is still in the air. Hardly a week passes without riots. PK5 is the neighbourhood notorious for people becoming victims of violence. The acronym PK5 stands for "Point Kilométrique 5" because the neighbourhood lies five kilometres away from the city centre. The foreign press often euphemistically portrays Bangui as an island of peace in the midst of a country living in a constant state of emergency. But the militias, bandits and highwaymen also murder and plunder here – regardless of a UN peacekeeping force of 12,000 Blue Helmets. Bangui is not stable. But, the fact is, that the rest of the country is even less stable.

Whoever dares to leave the city either is crazy, desperate, or both. Beyond PK20, which marks Bangui's external border, people travel at their own risk. Ten years ago, going to the city of Mbaïki 100 km away amounted to a scenic trip. Today, it is an ordeal. Accidents and armed robberies are the order of the day. To travel north and reach Damara alive is almost impossible. The route between the Cameroonian seaport of Duala and Bangui, where most goods are transported, is only taken by convoys - out of fear of losing the expensive cargo. If they could, many people would flee from Bangui. But most of them do not even have enough money to feed themselves. Prices have soared in the course of the ongoing conflicts. The price for manioc, the national staple food, has increased fivefold in the past years. Many children in Bangui go to bed without dinner. Money rules everyday life, or rather the lack of money. If there is a basic need, such as treatment at a hospital or school for children, people have to pay a bribe. Unfortunately, these bribes can usually only be afforded by those with relatives in Europe or the USA send over a small monthly allowance. And so the wheel of corruption keeps on turning. Not everyone is as lucky as me. I am a hairdresser who writes short stories  in between shifts at the salon, and whose work was discovered unexpectedly by a publishing house. A widow who, out of the blue, was offered a deal for writing a book and who received an advance payment that anywhere else in the world would have been pocket money, but was close to a fortune in Bangui. Publishing my first novel allowed me to have electricity installed in my modest little hut. I even got some electronic devices, a TV and a fridge, because my children begged me to. When violence in Bangui was at its most extreme, I had the means to find a way out, to flee to Brazzaville in the Republic of the Congo first and then to France. Not everyone is as lucky as I am. Some of my relatives still live in Bangui. At night, there are still gun-fights, they say, and in the morning, the wildest rumours are circulated in the neighbourhood: Some say a new rebel group was formed, others claim that a patrol of the UN peacekeeping force was attacked. But maybe it was just a normal armed robbery?

"Normal" is a broad term in Bangui. Life is also normal when the power and water supply are not functioning. "La coupure", the power cut, is on everybody's lips. Everyone living in Bangui is prepared for it. In the more prosperous people's houses, there are generators and enough fuel to get by. Poor people store petroleum and water canisters, whatever they can find them.

Dreaming is the only thing that is free in Bangui. Envisioning a better future is the only thing everyone can afford. So we, the people of Bangui, dream – at home or in exile. We dream of the day when peace is restored in the country. When the inhabitants of the savannah, the river and the forest share their land with each other without waging war. When our country has a president who is not corruptible. We dream of the day when the sun shines benevolently on our city.

But these are only dreams. Those incorruptible politicians exist in our fantasies. In our capital, we look for them in vain. It is always the same bureaucrats who save themselves by jumping from one office to the next. The people of Bangui like to joke about politics, they have not lost their humour. One neighbour would say: "Look, but our ministers have achieved a lot in the past years, they have built up a lot." And when people look at him quizzically, he would add: "For themselves!"

Of course you can also see Bangui with other eyes, from a more optimistic perspective. Some wealthy families still host expensive weddings, in a few night clubs people still dance the night away. And by staring at second hand smartphones and reading news from all over the world, many pretend not to be part of this city, as if Bangui was none of their business. But the dark side of reality keeps breaking into everyday life. It cannot be danced or clicked away and it cannot be loved away. While I have been writing these lines, the Notre Dame de Fatima church in the third district was attacked: Already, there are 27 casualties and numerous injuries.

I spent most of my time in Bangui in the Lakouanga district, where my relatives still live – privileged, but not safe. The fear that reigns in Bangui does not care about status and money. It makes everyone equal because  death can hit anytime – at the market, in the church, in the mosque. People live from one day to the next, from one meal to the next. In the morning, they go to work, as if Bangui was a totally normal city. But the more fearful come back early and close the doors firmly behind themselves.

Most people in Bangui know that complaining about their fate doesn't change anything. So they pluck up their courage and try to live, to laugh, to dance, at least for a few hours a day. A friend tells me on the phone that despite the recent attacks, some neighbours are throwing a party this evening. Should I laugh or cry? I cry. But tears cannot wash away the blood that is shed in my home city.

Translated from French by Caroline Härdter



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