As I mentioned previously, I’ve been to plenty of African countries, to both capital cities and remote corners. Having a certain number of people look at you, out of pure curiosity of seeing white face, is par for the course in remote African villages. However, for it to happen in a capital city, with a majority of people stopping what they are doing and looking at you as you walk by, is quite something. Clearly, there are a) not very many white faces in Bangui and b) they are normally in UN cars.
Judging whether a place is “safe” or “dangerous” is not straight-forward. There are many sources of official information: the news, government warnings, reports etc. I always wonder who makes the decision to report whether a place is safe or not. I am not always convinced that they’ve sent someone there to find out first hand?
There are two sources of information I always find most compelling. Firstly, before I get out into the area I want to know about, I speak to local people and ask them whether it is safe or not. They know their community and are the best people to ask. Secondly, I just look at the people around me and make a judgement. Does it look edgy? Is there an atmosphere? Is it tense? Are there children or women walking around on their own? Do people smile? Do they greet you?
From what I’ve seen this morning, much of Bangui is not the war-zone you might think it is from the news, but it is one of the most edgy places I’ve ever been. People are going about their business, there are kids and women walking alone (always a good sign) but there is definitely an atmosphere. Much, much less smiling than an average African capital. People look strained and alert. There is a prickly, defensive look in their eyes. When you’ve been through what they have, who can blame them.
There are some other clues too. Every fourth car is from UN. Armoured personel carriers roll up and down the streets. Heavily armed police walk the pavements.
This is a long-winded way of explaining why I found it really difficult to take photos today! Pulling out a camera did not feel like the best idea. So, below are a couple of shots, just to give you a flavour of what it is like here. Apologies they are not better or more evocative:
I can imagine that if it was cleaned up, Bangui could be quite a pleasant city. Most of the streets are wide, tree-lined boulevards. The architecture is not overly bad. The traffic is not too chaotic. The surrounding hills are wooded. There are plenty of little independent cafes, bars and restaurants.
An old French nickname for the city was “Bangui: La Coquette”. Bangui, The Flirt. I can imagine that in happier times past, and hopefully in those to come, this nickname could be true.
A rock and a hard place
I am sat in a cafe in Bangui. “Le Grande Cafe” in fact. It is one of those colonial hangovers you always find in African capitals. A tiny slice of Europe, where they try to emulate the culture (and just miss the mark). However, I have to say, it has been fun to have a proper coffee, a (reasonably good) pain au chocolat and a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice.
Despite being right next to the UN Headquarters, there are no other white people here. The place is full of “well-to-do” Central Africans. It looks like most of them are government people. There are a lot of people who look like the stereotypical “big African man”, drunk on their perceived power and status.
The standards of behaviour are shocking.
I’ve just seen a smart, arrogant looking man in a suit, who could well be a minister or someone important, throw a sugar dispenser at a waiter’s head because it was not filled when he sat down at his table and tried to add sugar to his coffee. He then proceeded to have a tantrum because he did not like the way his cake was presented to him. The guy to my left has just raised his arm and repeatedly clicked his fingers until someone came over to serve him. He does not look the server in the eye, or say please or thank you, they are just treat like a sub-human annoyance. To my right, three very fat, smartly dressed, self-important looking men are laughing haughtily with each other at some in-joke, I think it is to do with a couple of attractive women sat at a table over in the corner.
I know that there are cultural differences and that there are plenty of arrogant, unpleasant people in my own culture, but when I consider that these people around me notionally control this country, and I compare their behaviour to the desperation that I saw in the eyes of of the stick-thin, desperately poor people that I drove past for 14 hours on my journey up here, I do despair a little.
The chasm between these two groups (the people in power and the people who need them) really makes me wonder how this country can heal itself and move forward.
Even sat here in the urban heart of the country, it is of course, for me, the fate of the wildlife that concerns me most. The wildlife and natural resources of this beautiful country are stuck between the rock of these jumped-up, power-drunk bureaucrats, whose only interest is making themselves richer by exploiting the forests; and the hard place of the poverty of the man in the street, who just wants to feed his family, so will not hesitate head into the forest and shoot animals and cut down trees to support himself.
While, I have a lot more sympathy with the man in the street, both groups need to find alternatives if wild places are going to survive. It needs to start with proper rule of law, then by giving the people the education, the economic opportunities and the democratic mechanisms the need, they can control those in power over them.
Easier said than done.
A tank has just rolled past the window. It is followed by a dozen heavily armed UN soldiers in blue helmets. A timely reminder that there are so many human challenges that need to be overcome in places like this, if we want to improve the lives of both the people, and the wildlife.