PRONUNCIATION: SEN-truhl AFF-ri-kuhns
LOCATION: Central African Republic
POPULATION: 3.2 million
LANGUAGE: French and Sango (official languages); Ubangian group (Niger-Congo family of languages)
RELIGION: Christianity; Islam; Baha'ism, Jehovah's Witness; animism
The Central African Republic (CAR) is a landlocked country the size of Texas. It is located at the center of the African continent and became an independent country in 1960. Before the arrival of the French and Belgians in 1887, the peoples of the CAR were divided among numerous small kingdoms and sultanates. From 1899 to 1960, the CAR was known as Ubangi-Shari. The CAR is one of the least developed and least-known parts of Africa.
When the Europeans arrived in the late 1800s, they took large parcels of land and turned them over to private companies. All of the natural wealth of the land was considered the property of these companies. The people who inhabited these lands did not like being controlled by the Europeans. Led by Barthélemy Boganda, a former priest and schoolteacher, Central Africans were finally able to establish their own government and end French colonial rule in 1960. The CAR has a democratically elected president. In the late 1990s, the president was Ange Félix Patassé.
The CAR spans all three of Africa's major types of landscape. To the extreme south is the dense, equatorial, tropical rain forest. Over the middle portion of the country, where the bulk of the population lives, is savanna (grassland with scattered trees). To the extreme north of the country the savanna gives way to the Sahel, which is semi-desert. The terrain of the CAR consists primarily of gently rolling hills with a few small mountains in the northwest and the northeast. In the middle portion of the country, the savanna is occasionally broken up by rocky outcroppings called kagas.
The CAR is home to approximately forty different ethnic groups. With a population of only 3.2 million in an area of 240,535 square miles (622,986 square kilometers), the CAR is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world.
The forty ethnic groups of the CAR are unified by a single national language, Sango. When the French arrived in Ubangi-Shari, the people living in the region spoke a number of different languages. The French colonists adopted Sango, both for communicating with the local population and for speaking among themselves. They were responsible for spreading the use of this one language throughout the region.
Sango and French are both official languages of the CAR. About 98 percent of the population speaks Sango on a day-to-day basis, but French is the language of government and education.
Each of CAR's forty ethnic groups has its own mythical heroes. However, the central figure in the national folklore is Tere. He is a clever man of supernatural powers who uses tricks to outsmart his opponents.
Most Central Africans are Christians, with 35 percent of the population being Protestant and 18 percent Catholic. The remainder are either Muslim, Baha'i, or Jehovah's Witnesses.
Many Central Africans still observe the traditional religion of ancestor worship, or animism. Each person is assigned a totem. This is an animal spirit that is passed on from generation to generation. One may never eat the animal associated with one's totem. When people die they pass on their totems to young children, usually a son or grandson.
Central Africans consult traditional priests, or witch doctors, called nganga , who relay messages from their ancestors' spirits. Often the nganga will order a ritual sacrifice (usually a chicken) to placate the spirits.
There are two major holidays in the CAR: Independence Day (December 1), known as Premier Décembre , and Mother's Day (held on the last Sunday in May or the first Sunday in June). The first honors the day that Barthélemy Boganda declared the independence of the country. It is celebrated with parades and official ceremonies. School-children and members of many organizations parade before local and national dignitaries. Afterward people feast on special dishes, such as roasted goat, gazelle, or pork.
Mother's Day has grown into a celebration of all women. It serves to recognize the labor and sacrifice that all women make in CAR society. On this day, men do all the cooking and cleaning, while the women sit in the shade and are served by men. Some men add humor to the occasion by wearing women's clothing as they carry the duties normally assumed by women.
The most important rite of passage among Central Africans is circumcision. It serves as a symbol of initiation to both adulthood and the various ethnic groups. Many ethnic groups practice circumcision on both boys and girls when they enter puberty, around the age of thirteen. As part of the ritual, groups of up to thirty boys or girls are isolated from their villages. For three months they live in a secret camp in the forest or on the savanna. Here they receive intensive training and education in the spiritual beliefs and practices of their ethnic group. They also are taught about the responsibilities they will bear as full-fledged members of society. When the initiation period is over, they are marched back into the village where they are greeted with much celebration, dance, and fanfare. As the newest members of society, they are given presents, and special feasts are held in their honor. Once they have completed this rite of passage, they have the right to take a spouse.
In modern CAR society male circumcision increasingly takes place in a hospital and the practice of female circumcision is discouraged by the government. Even if circumcision does not actually take place, the removal from society for educational purposes and initiation does take place. However the period often is only a matter of a few weeks rather than months.
Honoring the deceased also plays a very important role in Central African society. Death is treated as the transition from the living to the spiritual world. Periods of mourning may last anywhere from a few days to years. In the first few hours after the death of a close relative, male family members are expected to display their grief by shaving their hair off. During this time, women are expected to abstain from any type of personal grooming and adornment. An all-night vigil around the corpse will be held the first night. There is much singing and dancing to help coax the spirit into the other world. The body is promptly buried at sunrise the next day, with the head pointing north for men and south for women. At the end of the mourning period, there is a celebration with dancing and festive food. The day after this celebration the family will symbolize the return to normal life by putting on a new set of clothing.
Central Africans begin each day by greeting the members of their families with a handshake. Each family member asks the others how they slept.
Whenever a new person enters a group of people, the newcomer is expected to first greet the most important person (for example, the oldest person or an honored guest) with a handshake. He or she then greets every person in the group in the same way. When leaving a group, a second handshake is required of each person. Close friends, especially men, may follow the handshake with a snap of the fingers, produced jointly by both parties. Women and men both shake hands, but increasingly women are adopting the French practice of kissing on both cheeks.
Sharing a meal, even if it is just a few boiled peanuts, is an important aspect of Central African culture. Even if one is not hungry, it is considered rude to refuse a meal when offered. Instead, one should eat at least a few bites to be polite.
The CAR is one of the poorest countries in sub-Saharan (southern) Africa. It is plagued with a low standard of living and high death rate from disease and malnutrition. Most Central Africans live in mud-brick huts with grass roofs, without running water and electricity. In large villages, each home or group of homes has a latrine (pit-style toilet). This helps ensure that the supply of drinking water will not be contaminated by human waste. However, it is not uncommon for the builder to make the mistake of constructing the latrines too close to the well or stream that supplies the drinking water.
For most couples, there is no formal marriage ceremony. However, the man's family must pay a bride-price to the family of the bride. Bride-price may range anywhere from a few goats and chickens to large sums of money. No marriage is considered official until a child has been born. If the marriage fails because there are no children or the wife is unfaithful, the family of the man can demand a return of the money.
Once children have been born, a younger sister or cousin of the wife will often come and live with the family to help out. The young assistant is in many respects an apprentice, learning how to keep house and to care for babies and children. Children of the husband's or wife's siblings often join the household. The children live together to make better education possible, or to share the same caregiver. Then other parents can spend more time working to make a living.
Most women today wear a pagne, a cotton cloth tied around the waste like a skirt and worn with a matching blouse made of the same fabric. Clothing is a powerful symbol of wealth, and fabrics from Europe are status symbols.
For casual wear, men may wear a matching shirt and pants made from colorful printed cloth. However, for important occasions they wear European-style clothing. Increasingly, men and women are wearing West African-style outfits known as shada. Made of colorful batik cloth and adorned with elaborate embroidery, shada may cost hundreds of dollars apiece. Less fortunate Central Africans wear secondhand European and American clothing bought for a few cents apiece at local markets.
The staple food of the Central African diet is cassava, which is a starchy root. After the plant is soaked in water for three days, the roots are peeled and broken into pieces to be dried in the sun. Just before eating, the dried cassava is ground into a fine flour used to make the mainstay of Central African cuisine, called gozo. This is a firm paste made by adding the cassava flour to boiling water.
Most Central African meals consist of gozo served with a sauce made with meat, fish, and vegetables. A typical meal consists of one bowl of sauce accompanied by one ball of gozo. A favorite everyday dish called ngunja is made with the dark green leaves of the cassava plant. Most sauces, including ngunja, are thickened with peanut butter, which gives them added protein and flavor.
Everyone eats with their fingers from a central common dish. Men and women who are not relatives do not ever eat together. Men and women relatives may eat together, but only in private and never in public. In public, men and women eat separately.
Usually only one meal is cooked per day and served at the noon hour. In the evening and for breakfast the next day, leftovers are eaten.
Parents are expected to pay a fee for every stage of education of their children, including primary school. Most Central Africans born since 1960 have at least attended primary school. Very few, however, have gone beyond that. To earn a high school diploma, students must take an exam called a baccalaureate. Very few Central Africans are able to pass this exam. All those who pass—and who have the money—are able to go on to the one university in the country, the Université de Bangui.
The official language in government-sponsored schools is French, but the earliest grades are taught in Sango and French. Young people begin their education in Sango and gradually make the transition to French. By the time they reach high school, classes are conducted entirely in French.
The CAR has a rich tradition in music and dance, which are part of every major holiday and event. The primary musical instrument is the conga drum. It is made by stretching a piece of wet leather over a hollowed-out length of log. These drums come in all shapes and sizes. Some stand up to a yard (meter) tall and can be heard several miles away. Xylophones made with wood and gourds are another common type of musical instrument.
By the late 1990s, electric guitars, keyboards, and snare drums were common in urban areas. Popular recorded music sung in Sango is heard all over the country. In buses, taxis, restaurants, and bars, there is almost always a radio or a cassette player providing background music.
The majority of Central Africans are subsistence farmers. They grow most of the food they consume, and just a bit more that they sell in order to pay for necessities such as soap and cloth. A limited number grow cash crops such as coffee or cotton. There is almost no manufacturing in the CAR.
Central Africans are avid sports enthusiasts. Soccer and basketball are among their greatest passions. Athletic clubs in almost every city and town sponsor soccer teams that compete for regional and national championships.
Basketball was introduced in the 1970s by American Peace Corps workers, who built courts at high schools throughout the country. In 1988 the CAR national team astounded the continent by winning the African championship.
In Bangui, the capital, there are television programs in Sango and French. In the evening those rare individuals who have both electricity and a television will place the set outside so that all the neighbors can watch. It is not unusual to find forty or fifty people gathered around a television in the evening watching storytellers, the local news, or an old French movie. Radio is a major source of entertainment for those lucky enough to have shortwave radios and batteries to operate them.
One of the most popular activities for Central Africans of all ages is dancing. In even the smallest towns there is at least one gathering place with a cement dance floor and a cassette player. In the evening such places are popular with young adults who come to listen to the latest music from the Central African Republic and its neighbor, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Visiting other people plays a prominent role in Central African society. Sunday afternoons and holidays are given over to this activity. On these days many Central Africans will put on their finest clothing and set out to call on friends or relatives either at home or in public places.
Traditional art in the CAR takes a variety of forms including ebony carvings, pottery, weaving, and hair braiding. Skilled artisans produce a host of ebony products that are popular with Central Africans and tourists alike. Statuettes, figurines, and animal carvings are the most common.
In the savanna region of the CAR, the weaving of mats and baskets is a common activity. Elaborate patterns may be woven into the mats and baskets by dyeing the grasses and reeds different colors.
Government corruption and AIDS are the two biggest social problem facing the CAR in the late 1990s. AIDS is wiping out a significant portion of the generation aged twenty to forty. This is putting a strain on older people, who are being forced to care for orphan children. Rapid population growth is contributing to declining living standards.
Successive Central African governments have claimed to respect human and civil rights, but have done very little to ensure that these rights are guaranteed.
O'Toole, Thomas. The Central African Republic in Pictures. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner Publications Co., 1989.
Strong, Polly. African Tales: Folklore of the Central African Republic. Mogadore, Ohio: Tel-craft, 1992.