Everywhere you go, the smell of woodfire reminds you that you’re deep in Africa. But signs of progress are slowly emerging in the Central African Republic, as this writer found.
By Paula Slier
It never ceases to amaze me when I travel abroad and tell people I’m from South Africa that there is always someone who asks: “Where is that?” I can’t help, slightly arrogantly, thinking to myself that if there’s one country in the world with a clue in its name, surely it’s South Africa?
Turns out no. I was left red-faced after I was informed I’d be going to the Central African Republic for a work trip and my exclamation of “I’d love to” was followed with a frantic googling of where CAR, as it’s affectionately known, is. This country of almost six million people is landlocked by Chad, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Cameroon in…. the center of Africa!
Despite – or perhaps because of – its significant mineral wealth, it’s among the 10 poorest countries in the world with the lowest GDP per capita. For generations, foreign powers have fought over its natural reserves. France ruled the country as a colony from the late 19th century until its independence in 1960. Today Russia is a significant player after helping government forces repel rebels from the capital, Bangui, in 2019. There’s a statue in the middle of the city showing Russian soldiers standing guard while women and children cower behind them. It’s not uncommon to hear the Russian word “sbasiba” (thank you) on the streets, so much so that Russia has been declared the third official language and will soon be taught in schools.
I quickly learned that I’m not the only one who’d never heard of this country. After asking my travel agent to organize a trip to CAR from South Africa, she sent me details of border control hours, car registration licences, visas and a warning of how long it would take to travel by road.
But that was just the beginning. Flying to CAR can be a frustrating experience of luggage getting lost somewhere between Kenya and Cameroon – both on the way there and back – and it seemingly happens more often than not. There aren’t many hotels in the country and so most visitors find themselves staying at the Ledger Plaza Bangui where the porter, thrilled to see a foreigner, sprinted his baggage trolley towards me, only to do a complete turnaround without missing a step when he saw the expression on my face. A knowing glance crossed between us.
Passport control is much the same. I handed in my little green book at the airport arrivals so my visa could be checked – and received it back the day before departing. If I hadn’t called on a little brick-faced building in a muddy side street every single day of my stay, it’s likely my passport would still be there buried in a pile of papers.
From the airport to the Central Business District, which is a patchwork of flooded dirt roads crisscrossing a bustling marketplace, you can buy anything from plastic buckets to dry worms or a fake Louis Vuitton T-shirt. Everywhere, the smell of woodfire reminds you that you’re deep in Africa.
A never-ending row of trucks carrying one of the country’s most valuable resources, iroko and sapelli trees, rumble their way to the border, destined for western markets.
So much of the country is still recovering from years of civil war and unrest but signs of progress are slowly emerging. In a dilapidated building, a five-star restaurant offers everything from select cuts of beef to seafood paired with French champagne. The capital’s top grocery store, which can be reached after dodging potholes and erratic motorcycle drivers, sells shampoos and deodorants from Dubai and snacks from South Africa. Bangui has a charm all of its own.
CAR is the first African country to introduce crypto-currency as an official trading platform. Despite many parts of the country suffering from poor connectivity, the government has prioritized boosting internet signals that also help children in rural areas to learn online. It’s a testament to the optimism and tenacity of a population that, well aware of the challenges, is facing them head on.