HISTORY
From the seventh century C.E. on, overlapping empires inhabited what is now C.A.R. Initially they included the Kanem Bornou, Ouaddai, Baguirmi, and Dafour groups, who had their base in the upper Nile and Lake Chad. Other sultanates later took over, and slave trade became common. The traffic in slaves ran across the Sahara Desert and through to West Africa. Although Rabah, the Egyptian Sultan, controlled Oubangui in 1875, this changed when in 1885 the Germans, French, and Belgians arrived. A convention with the Congo Free State granted the French possession of the right bank of the Oubangui River, and in 1894 Oubangui became a French possession. The French, having defeated Sultan Rabah (d. 1900), had established control throughout the country by 1903. The Ubangi-Shari territory became part of neighboring Chad in 1906. In 1910 French Equatorial Africa took control of Ubangi-Shari, along with Chad, Congo, and Gabon. Minor revolts followed in the wake of that consolidation. Barthelemy Boganda (1910–59) led the assembly in C.A.R. A Catholic priest, he was well known for his fight for African emancipation in the assembly. The country declared its independence from France on August 13, 1960. From 1965 to 1969 the Central African Republic witnessed many coups under the self-declared emperor Jean Bedel Bokassa (1921–96). In 1993 Ange Felix Patasse (b. 1937) defeated David Dacko (1930–2003) and Kolingba (b. 1936), both former C.A.R. presidents, and ended 12 years of military rule. This government supported democratic reform, but another disastrous period of political and social unrest followed in 1996 and 1997. Still Patasse returned to power after the elections. There was another military coup in March 2003.
GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE
The Central African Republic lies on a plateau between the Congo and Chad basins. Geographically the region is marked with plateaus and some scattered hills in the southwest and the northeast parts of the country. The Oubangui River and the Bangos Mountains are the most striking physical features. The country has a tropical climate. Its two major seasons are a dry season and a rainy season. The rainy season starts in March and continues until October; the dry season begins in November and continues through February. The harvest rains fall from July to September. January and February are the driest months. Natural hazards occur in the form of floods and hot and dry winds. Natural resources are abundant; diamonds, oil, gold, uranium, timber, and hydropower are the country’s main resources. However Central Africa faces several problems including poaching, deforestation, and the encroaching desert.
ECONOMY
The majority of the country’s revenue comes from agriculture and forestry. Half the gross domestic product (GDP) is derived from the agricultural sector. Sixteen percent of earnings come from the timber industry, and diamonds contribute to 64 percent of export earnings. The main agricultural crops include cotton, coffee, tobacco, yams, millet, manioc (also called cassava or yucca), timber, and corn. Textiles, logging, diamond mining, and assembling bicycles and motorbikes are the country’s major industries. The Central African Republic faces certain endemic problems, such as the lack of a skilled workforce, its landlocked position, and poor transportation facilities. Coups, internal conflict, and confrontations between the government and dissidents also contribute to the unsteady economy. Unequal distribution of income is a major cause of worry. Though nations like France have come forward to help, they can only meet about half of the humanitarian needs. Since C.A.R. is also one of the poorest countries of the world, the health hazards are quite daunting. Malnutrition, AIDS, and other diseases are widespread.
CULTURE AND LIFESTYLE
In the Central African Republic, the Banda and the Gbaya of the southwestern region form the largest ethnic groups. The Zande live in the southeast, the Aka Pygmies in the southwestern forests, the Mbororo in the western plains, and the Sara live in the north. Groups such as the Mondjombo, Banziri, Bouraka, Sangho, Yakoma, Bangou, and Dendi live along the Ubangi River. There has been a great deal of intermarriage among different ethnic groups. French is the official language of the country, but Sangho (also spelled Sango) is spoken by people along the Oubangui River and is the national language of the Central African Republic. Christians, animists, and a minority of Muslims are the major religious groups. People in C.A.R. give great importance to clothing. For women loose tops are popular with a cloth wrapped around the hips as a skirt. Men’s clothes are also loose and are printed with colorful African designs. There are tie-dyed and batiked clothes and handmade fabrics decorated with woodblock prints. Most women dress conservatively, since the standards set for women are more inflexible than those set for men. In terms of literature the Central African Republic boasts a rich oral tradition. Stories, riddles, proverbs, and other inherited wisdom are the foundation. The legends of the Gbayas (also known as Bayas) have received special attention, and efforts are being made to translate their works into French. Musical instruments such as drums, ngombi (a bow harp with ten strings) or sanza (traditional guitar) accompany the songs and recitations. Among the country’s most inspiring landmarks are the enormous statues that stand at the Beforo Monument outside the town of Bouar. They are believed to have been carved by prehistoric people about whom very little is known. They are quite large and must have required significant ingenuity and strength to put in place.
CUISINE
Rice, foutou (mashed plantain and cassava), and fufu, fermented cassava (cassava is an annual crop with starchy tuberous roots), served with grilled meat and sauce form the staple diet of Central Africans. The Portuguese introduced cassava into Africa from Central and South America in the 16th century. It was widely planted in Africa in the 19th century, because it can tolerate both drought and insects, making it an ideal famine food. Cassava can also be left in the ground for up to two years without spoiling after it matures, without any attention from a farmer. Spinach stew, made with tomatoes, peppers, chilies, onions, and peanut butter, is a popular dish. Another popular stew is groundnut stew. It has okra, chicken, and ginger as the main ingredients. Gozo is a cassava paste that is fried. The local people also consume a cassava leaf salad. Bouiller is a favorite porridge made of rice. Capitaine fish is a delicacy. A great deal of ginger beer is consumed by the Central Africans. BIRTH
Celebrating the birth of a newborn is an elaborate affair in the Central African Republic and always includes a feast and singing. There is a call-andresponse song that is sung during birth ceremonies: “Ei-oh mama ti mbi, ti mbi aso mbi” (“Ei-Oh mother of mine, my belly hurts me.”) The response: “Kanda be ti MO!” (Literally, “Tie up your heart,” but meaning, “Tough it out.”) People of this country do not always give the child the father’s name. It is more important to give a meaningful name perhaps referring to an event, the place of birth, or a mark of affection or admiration. In urban areas today parents have started giving the child the father’s name, in addition to a special meaningful name.
COMING OF AGE
Although the practice of ritual female genital cutting (FGM) has raised serious human rights questions throughout the world, FGM is prevalent in approximately 10 of the C.A.R.’s 48 ethnic groups, and 50 percent of the women in C.A.R. have undergone FGM. There has been a law against the practice since 1966, and the government has taken a number of measures against the practice. Yet in spite of its cruelty and the danger of infection, it continues to be performed in the Central African Republic during infancy or adolescence. The procedure is usually carried out on girls between 4 and 12 years of age. The Central Africans celebrate the initiation ceremony with gifts in the form of money, jewelry, and clothes. Grand feasts are hosted for family members and friends. Cows, chickens, and goats are slaughtered for the feast. Male circumcision takes place at puberty and is of utmost importance, since it enables a boy to complete his transition from boyhood to manhood. Skilled and experienced elders of the community perform the circumcision ritual in the Central African Republic.