A Journey to the Central African Republic: Searching for the Stones
“Mais oú sont les gros pierres?” I asked in broken French, frustrated.
“Celles qui ont été emplacé par les hommes il y a plus de 5,000 ans!” I kept repeating as I rode around Bouar, a small town in the north west of the Central African Republic, searching in vain for the town’s megaliths and very own version of Britain’s Stonehenge.
Charlemagne, the driver for the charity I was visiting, was gallant enough to put up with my petulancy and drive me around town searching for what he most likely assumed to be mere rocks. This became obvious when he took me to a non-descript promontory in the outskirts of town, stopped the car, and with a supremely uninterested look on his face, pointed and said “Là-bas”.
I scanned the horizon to find enormous, rounded boulders as far as the eye can see. They were stacked side by side and on top of each other like pebbles dropped by giants.
“Well” I say to Charlemagne “ that’s very impressive, but I meant the stones humans erected on purpose!” I was not the most eloquent French speaker. We drove around some more, interrupted occasionally as Charlemagne stopped to talk and gesticulate in the local Sango language, presumably asking for directions. Then, he deposited me in front of a medium-sized, flat stone stuck in the ground upright, like an awkwardly shaped gravestone.
“At last, here we are?” I tentatively thought to myself.
When I decided to organize this trip to the Central African Republic I felt uneasy about the reasons behind it. There was no particular purpose for it, other than genuine interest in a country few people have heard of. For this, I faced awkward questions from friends and family:
One of the megaliths.“So, why are you going to…that country?”
“Because it’s interesting”
“Because I’m going to see a friend I met in Congo a few years back, but due a family emergency she won’t actually be there when I arrive.”
“Because they have these really cool megaliths, you know, like Stonehenge?”
“Ahhh! Sounds great. Have fun!”
Basically, I really needed to find these megaliths to justify my trip. I also had some vague ambition of being an off-the-beating-track traveler, one of very few Westerners, and a woman no less (!), to see these big, supposedly, spiritual rocks.
I thought I was well on my way to achieving both these goals when Charlemagne informed me that that was the only stone. There was the awkward one and there were no more. My zeppelin-sized expectations deflated.
I should have planned to spend more than just one day in Bouar. I knew the stones were there, I just needed to follow a grapevine of people to find them. That is something that takes time.
As I returned to the parish where I was staying, I felt slightly dejected and confused about why the people of Bouar did not seem to be acquainted with the cultural heritage brought to them by their ancestors.
A history of violence
But really, it’s easy to see why. They have far bigger problems to contend with than a Western woman’s ambition to see magical stones. In addition to the chronic underdevelopment, high unemployment, hunger and economic inequality that blights many parts of Africa, the Central African Republic suffers from periodic bouts of unrest – usually spurred on by yet another coup d’état.
Rat…it’s what’s for dinner.The CAR has in fact seen one of the highest rates of coups on the continent. The latest occurred in March this year, and the country has yet to find its feet after the Séléka coalition ousted former President François Bozizè and took up residence in the nation’s capital Bangui.
Fighting between Séléka members and Bozizé supporters continues to flare up in that capital Bangui and in the north of the country, while government troops pillage, loot and kill civilians in rural areas everywhere.
Séléka’s factionalism has ensured that no single person or entity has control over these wayward troops, who have now been disbanded but continue to wreck havoc.
Worse Before they get Better
The absence of effective state institutions, funds and almost everything else needed for the running of a functioning government means things are going to get worse before they get better.
My own trip pre-dated the coup and subsequent insecurity. But I knew at the time that violence wasn’t finished with the Central African Republic, and I wanted to get a glimpse of what it meant to be a Centrafricain during a period of relative stability. I was invited to Bouar by my friend Jackie, a Lutheran minister who I had met while working in eastern Congo a few years before.
Together we decided that the route from Cameroon would be safer and quicker, so I flew to Cameroon’s capital Yaoundé before boarding a bus to the border town of Garoua-Boulai, then crossed into CAR the next day.
I had set out to discover a country about which little is known. CAR doesn’t have a solid piece of literature to its name aside from a handful of misguided anthropological studies done in the 1950s and a biography of Jean-Bédel Bokassa, the country’s long gone and (probably) cannibalistic self-proclaimed emperor (his coronation ceremony in 1977 cost an estimated $20 million!).
However grateful I am for the informative news reports that trickle out of the country in times of crisis, they fail to depict the local flavor of life in CAR.
Beauty and the Beast
What I found was bleakness. In March, the Sub-Sahelian landscape was dry and dusty, cracking skin and penetrating into the cracks it created: the rainy season, which usually begins in February or March, was late that year. The dry wind carried more dust, helping it to reach all orifices exposed on the body and coating the trees in a thick orange matte, weighing down the leaves.
The trees drooped sadly and quietly, still. Pungent and sour smells would occasionally fill the air: burning garbage in small pits is a common practice in the area. On the one paved road leading from the Cameroonian border to Bouar rows of chalky, eye-splittingly bright cassava were lined up on the tarmac to dry. People sat still, reflecting – or perhaps reflected by – the same mood of the still trees.
A child in Baboua.Dynamism and vitality were glaring in their absence, making the prospect of motion and change – two key tenets of being – unimaginable here, removing the place from time and space. There was a feeling that there would be no businesses, no economy, no education, no joy – not now or ever. No such hope could occur under the careful watch of the terrible beast that is poverty.
But then I also found beauty. The mayor of Baboua, a small town near Bouar, insisted on giving me a tour of his village and its surroundings. I hopped on the back of his motorbike and we drove through dense trees to a waterfall. Along the way, cassava fields revealed themselves, and I began to see movement as Babouans worked the land.
It was not their movement – in toil – that was beautiful, but the way the considered and focused movement brought life to its surroundings. The trees suddenly stood tall and proud, confident in the knowledge that they served the higher purpose of protecting the cassava fields from the elements and of bringing comfort through their steadfastness. The air became sweeter: beauty begets beauty, and letting in the new and pleasant sights opened my nostrils to the scent of sweet leaves.
At the Waterfall
Finally we arrived at the waterfall. It was neither wide nor tall, but the force and volume of the water left no room for ambiguity: it was strong andGirl in Central Africa Republic. good, and so was the land from which it sprung. A few fishermen cast small nets into the pool at the bottom of the falls, but this was not a place for labor. The thick undergrowth and low-laying branches did not leave room for human toil.
Space was reserved instead for wilderness, and the loud noise of the gushing falls easily drowned out petty concerns. A quick glance at my by then deeply pensive guide told me that with a little persistence, more grave concerns of hunger and pain might also be drowned here, if only for a little while. In turn, this left space for peace.
Shortly thereafter I returned to Yaoundé. On the bus back, Cameroonians sang quietly to themselves as the sun set in oranges and yellows. The contrast of increased security, development and economic opportunities in Cameroon compared to CAR was sharp and was especially made evident when I crossed back into Cameroon at Garoua-Boulai.
The CAR side was quiet and still, while Cameroonians bustled around shopping, convening in restaurants and conducting trade. There, the feeling of quiet desperation that prevailed in CAR dissipated.
More vitality and hope for the future permeated the air in Cameroon, and the singing was part of that. For many of us travelers heading away from the border on the bus that day, CAR’s apparent bleakness was quickly left behind and forgotten, but I hope not for me, as it was also part of the beauty I saw.
In the end, I never found the elusive megaliths, but I no longer cared about justifying my travels, as I knew I had gained something far more valuable: I learned to see beauty in disguise, and that needs no justification.
Elettra Pauletto holds a BA in French and Psychology from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and an MA in International Conflict Studies from King’s College London. She is a political risk analyst and currently resides in London.
Read Elletra’s blog, Not Nail or Twine
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