Central African Republic

May 28, 2021

An upbeat moment (between my risks in CAR) with friendly students and museum directors at the small Boganda Museum in Bangui.  

Basics

Once on the eastern end of huge French West Africa, République Centrafricaine (its official name in French) is at or near the bottom of almost every ranking of the world's countries.

As if its extreme poverty were not bad enough, since 2012 the Central African Republic (CAR) has been plagued by a vicious civil war.

Two years ago, 14 (!) armed groups signed a peace agreement which has reduced but not ended bloodshed.

In January of this year, one rebel group launched an assault on Bangui the capital but was repelled. Rebels still control much of the countryside.

CAR has around five million people. Many of its other metrics are quite similar to those of its poor, also war-torn neighbor South Sudan, and both are nearly the same size (slightly smaller than Texas).

CAR was the last country on earth that I'd not visited — and here is why... 

Warnings

I never noticed a US State Department warning as extreme as the one posted for CAR the past few years. Here is the link and here are verbatim excerpts as of 6/1/21. 

DNA? Burial plans? Seriously?

But it did get my attention. So, I worked with a British expert to facilitate my local transportation and visa, along with getting an English-speaking guide.

Yet, the best laid plans turn out to be rocky on the ground.

Prequel

In the air before arriving, everything is smooth.

On Air France I have two charming flight attendants. I am excited to be flying to #196, my "last country," and share that news with them.

Beatrice and Fabrice seem surprised and genuinely happy for me. They write a sweet celebratory message on a card and give me a handsome little notebook.

All in all, it is a perfect and appropriately French journey to République Centrafricaine.


Airport Omen

Too risky to take an airport photo.
On the ground in CAR, things change quickly. The guy who is supposed to help with my visa-on-arrival does not show up for a couple of hours.

Fine. I can handle the humid 95° heat in the small, crowded entry room. I stop waiting for my guide and make progress by myself, although "je ne parle pas français."

The urgency is that I need to get a Covid-19 test on Day 1 to get the results on Day 2 to fly out early on Day 3!

The guide and driver finally arrive but too late. Now the clinics are closed.

Policy Custody

The next morning I do not take any photo without checking with my guide first... 

Ill-fated photo of the plain arch at the Place de la Republique

But soon after I take this innocent (guide-approved) photo of the arch, police on motorcycles direct us to a nearby station.  

My phone/camera is confiscated. Despite seeing that I had no police, military, or government photos, the gendarmes insist I was doing something nefarious.

My hunch is that a big "fine" is far better for them than jailing me, but they refuse to return my phone/camera. My guide seems ineffectual. I insist he call his boss. Good move because...

An excruciating hour later some local heavyweights arrive and start negotiating the terms of my release. They bargain down my "fine" from several hundred dollars to $60.

More importantly, my phone is returned and I'm set free. I get this photo with my successful advocates.

Alas, another potential calamity is still on the horizon.

Late Covid Results?

Will I get my negative Covid results in time to leave CAR as scheduled so that my intricate, onward, prepaid flights are not lost? Plus, no other flights depart Bangui for a few more days.

I get tested at 8:00 at the Institut Pasteur. This photo shows people waiting.

My guide assures me he can absolutely positively pull strings to get the results by 4:00 the same day. He was late to the airport and passive with the police, so I'm not confident.

That afternoon (following the city tour and police custody) he does not get the results at 4:00 as promised. "Don't worry," he always says.

Time passes slowly as I wait at the nice hotel.

Trapped in Elevator

Every poor capital city seems to have an over-priced, secure, luxury hotel. It's often worth the extra money in the absence of a clean, safe, mid-range option, In Bangui, the premium hotel is the very nice Ledger Plaza.

While waiting for my test results, fate now conspires to get me trapped in the elevator.

Hooray, yet another new experience of helplessness! And you do not know if you will be stuck for five minutes or five hours. I have my phone back but the hotel wi-fi is out. I ring the emergency buzzer. A lot.

Eventually, I'm freed yet again today. But will I get the certificate to be released from CAR tomorrow?

At last, hours after the original 4:00 deadline, my guide finally shows up with the negative certification.

City Highlights

The US State Dept. says: "Armed groups control large areas of the country and they regularly kidnap, injure, and/or kill civilians."

OK, got it. I'm sticking with a tour of the capital city and taking very few pics — none if police are in sight.


About two-thirds of the population are Christians and a majority of them are Catholics. This is Cathédrale Notre-Dame, the seat of the Catholic archdiocese.


Prettiest view I saw was the Oubangui River with the Congo (DRC, Kinshasa) on the opposite bank.


School kids on a morning break.


Downtown Bangui ("Banˊgee")


Most roundabouts in Bangui had monuments and sculptures but also police so I decided not to photograph any others.


Not much space at home for more travel mementos but this trip merited keepsakes. This man sold me a little malachite bowl and a small ebony carving.


Having traveled so much without any serious hassles, it was wild to suddenly have several in succession in my very last unvisited country!

● I'd never before been held by the police.

● I'd never had my phone potentially confiscated.

● I'd never been at risk of being denied exit from a country, in this case, due to last minute processing of my Covid test.

● And, as a bonus, I'd never before been trapped on an elevator for more than a moment.




Others have had far more dangerous experiences, and it's not like I was beaten up or kidnapped.

In retrospect, I can laugh about it all — but at the time, while trying to stay cool, it was hard to shake the awful feeling of helplessness.


What a way to conclude my quest to see all 196 countries — and to make me appreciate how smooth were my visits to the other 195!


Flying out of Bangui happy to have visited #196 — and happy to have left.