The land that never was

by Blaise N'Djehoya

Poorest nation, richest nation (Issue III+IV/2018)

For a long time, one individual defined the history of the Central African Republic: Jean-Bédel Bokassa. In 1954, he returned home from the First Indochina War, having served as an officer in the French army as his homeland was under French control. Back then, the Central African Republic was called Ubangi-Shari. As an officer in what was then still a fairly rudimentary national army, meant that, along with David Dacko (who would later become the president), Bokassa was present when the country became independent in 1958. That was also the day when the nation was renamed the Central African Republic.

By 1960, the African country had rid themselves of the French and Bokassa was hungry for power. In 1966 he attempted a coup against Dacko, who was by then the first president of the country. After this, Bokassa made himself a general in the military, then a field marshal and then finally, he proclaimed himself an emperor in 1977. The latter incident is worthy of a Shakespearean tragi-comedy. The West – possibly even the whole world – came to see the absurd, baroque and tropical tale of Bokassa as a kind of metaphor for all of “black Africa”.

The first central African emperor was himself later dethroned by a coup in 1979. And after years in exile, Bokassa died in Bangui in 1996, leaving behind 17 wives and 36 children (that is, the ones he officially acknowledged).

But the history of the Central African Republic should not be reduced to Bokassa’s follies. Any one of the contemporary diarists of the Weimar Republic (1918-1933) – say Robert Musil or Elias Canetti  - would never have thought to reduce Germany’s history just to Hitler or the Nazi party, without also considering the role that Otto von Bismarck played, and the evolution of the German state after the Prussian kings, Wilhem I and Wilhem II.

In fact, anyone who wishes to understand an earlier part of the Central African Republic’s history would do well to look to Germany. The first German chancellor, Bismarck was at the table during the Congo Conference of 1884-1885 when the European powers decided how to carve up the African continent between themselves. The Germans would control a part of central Africa, which ran from the Atlantic coast to the far north, reaching what is modern Cameroon today. The area was so shaped that it was described as a “duck’s beak”.

The Germans named the area under their colonial control, Cameroon – first the capital, Kamerunstadt, or Kamerun city (today it is known as Douala), and then the whole country. This explains why some of the signatures on the very first contracts sealed by the German colonisers say “Germany – Duala”.

This is similar to how the French colonialists treated the country that was named Ubangi-Shari just a few years earlier. Articles of friendship between the explorer, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, and the Congolese king, Makoko, gave the new name more importance. The deals made by the two men allowed the French to take power over the newly established country in 1882, with the goal of managing and “civilising” the locals.

That same year, the geographic society in Paris arranged for de Brazza to meet Henry Morton Stanley, the official representative of the Belgian King, Leopold II, in the Congo; at the time, de Brazza was supposed to be securing the Congo river for the French. And so the two main actors in the history of the “Donau of Africa”, as Bismarck described the African river, would meet in the French capital. The other river in the story, the Ubangi, would play a supporting role as a border between the French and Belgian colonies in the region.

From then on it became possible to map the heart of Africa, which until then, had been the subject of various fantasies, preconceptions and imaginative stories. For example, some had mistaken the legendary Liba lake for a bleak desert, as Jules Verne did in his book, Five Weeks in a Balloon. Geographical societies spoke soberly of “terra incognita”. At the beginning and in the middle of the 19th century, Africa aficionados had to be content with making sense of the nonsense that the earlier geographers and Arab historians had left behind, between the 11th and 16th centuries.

For instance, they had theories contrasting bestial behaviours with human ones, or ones about how the latitudes and longitudes and the meridians and the climate were responsible for the supposed degeneration of the Sudanese people. It was the excessive heat, theorists suggested.

But now, during the 19th century, explorers from Germany, Greece, France and Russia made their way into the last “blank spot” on the African map. They were often adventurers without any set mission or colonial contract, and were driven mainly by the desire to experience the country and to explain away the differences between African reality and fantasy in this “Age of Reason”. 

One of these, a Frenchman named Guillaume Lejean wanted to clear up the long-standing assumption that there were black cannibals in the middle of Africa. He also refuted the myth that there was a different race of humans in this area who had tails – sightings that could have been apes, gorillas, chimpanzees or the mythical, half-dog humans known as the Niam Niam, who were supposedly related to the ethnic group, the Azande.

As an ethnographer, Lejean pursued this tale while also searching for the source of the Nile river in 1861 and he was eventually able to reveal the true nature of the Niam Niam’s tails: They had nothing to do with any monkey’s appendage. Rather it was a tail made out of cow leather. It was an aesthetic object, a mark of identity and a symbol, to a culture that could now finally be properly introduced to the French public.

“Carefully, hand-worked leather, decorated with small sticks and metal, with a concave bulge in the middle and a fan-shaped end (…) I hope to be able to present one of these pieces to the geographical society in Paris when I return,” Lejean wrote in a letter home.

During the 20th century in Ubangi-Shari, resistance to the colonial overlords grew and Barthélemy Boganda is acknowledged as the founder of the local independence movement. In 1940, the former priest founded the Mouvement d’évolution sociale de l’Afrique noire (in English, the Movement for the Social Evolution of Black Africa).  But Boganda didn’t adhere to a narrow-minded definition of nationalism. His credo was more along the lines of “zo kwe zo” in the local Sangho creole – or, “a human is a human”. His dream was to establish a federation that encompassed all the ethnicities and nations of central Africa.  

Boganda also found great inspiration in Barka Ngainoumbey, who is commonly known as Karnou (which means “he who can change the world" in Sangho). Karnou was seen as a prophetic figure by the Gbaya people. He advocated freedom from the French laws known as the Code de l'indigénat, at first in Algeria in 1875 and then two years later, in all the colonies where the French decrees made the indigenous peoples a second-class of citizen, gave French colonisers more rights and forced the locals into slave labour.

Karnou also fought for the return of various colonial concessions which gave foreigners exclusive rights to local resources and control over the production of latex, coffee, ivory, gold and diamonds. Between 1928 and 1931, Karnou’s followers were active and his message penetrated all the way to the eastern borders of the colony. After the global public, the press and the French Communist party heard about Karnou’s campaign, “the land that never was” suddenly existed on the global stage.

One finds Ubangi-Shari mentioned in the writing of the likes of Albert Londres, Joseph Kessel, André Gide (Travels in the Congo and Return from Chad) and Louis-Ferdinand Céline (Journey to the End of the Night). We can thank Romain Gary for an atmospheric description of the Ubangi-Shari resistance, as well as of visits to the Rock Hotel, an elegant meeting place for colonial society and the European upper crust.

As you can see, the last blank spot on the central African map was now delivering contemporary literature a range of settings and characters, something along the lines of “theme park Africa”.  French journalist Jean-Pierre Tuquoi noted that “the land that never was” had offered subject matter and scenery to no less than two winners of the French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt. First of all, there was the 1921 novel, Batouala, by René Maran, which depicted the hell caused by the concessions trade and the slave labour used to build the railways. Later there was the book, L’état sauvage (or The Savage State) by Georges Conchon which looked at the horrors and consequences of the regime of the self-proclaimed emperor, Bokassa I.

Translated from the French by Uta Goridis

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