“Welcome to the Country of Wars” was I told, by my taxi driver taking me from the International Airport to my Hotel downtown Bangui, Capital of Central African Republic. There was definitely something deep about what he said, as from my personal knowledge, this is all I knew about the country prior to coming! Probably this was a reason why I had taken so long to travel here, making it my 51st country visited in Africa, out of the 54 that make the African continent. He then gladly replied: “But finally peace is coming to us”! Among all the United Nations armoured Vehicles and soldiers I could see on the way to the hotel, this positive note was exactly what I needed to hear, as I was ready to begin exploring Bangui.
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At the time of writing, the government of Central African Republic had just signed, only a few weeks back, a very promising peace deal with the 14 different armed groups who have been terrorising the country for so many years, but most importantly since 2013 when an armed Muslim group took the capital and governed it for about 9 months. I friend was telling me how they were going house to house, stealing everything they could from the whole population and committing every unimaginable crime. The U.N. has also alarmed that there was a high risk of genocide in the country, where thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced… So when I read about the peace deal in the news, I knew it was my chance to finally come to Bangui in a safer way, and I started to research how I could make it happen, before the situation changes yet again…
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The difficult logistics to come to this part of the world
Planning a trip to come all the way to Bangui is pretty hard. I first had to get a visa from Paris and wait there a few days to get it sorted. Then there were the expensive flights, and then, finding a way to make it safe while there. Fortunately, I had the help of a friend from Central African Republic who is part of a travel community named Desire who proposed to show me around his city. That was really well received as this part of the world is one of the hardest to explore in the way I personally prefer: to wander on my own. I was especially worried about all the reports I had received of other travellers being arrested by the corrupt officials and put in Jail for several days, for no reasons. Actually, two Americans that were received by Desire a few months back had been thrown in Jail for no apparent reason and required help from the American ambassador in Bangui to get them out. Another story from him involved a Greek and an Argentinian Backpackers who spent 3 days in a filthy Bangui Jail accused to be Terrorists by the local police and required the help of the French Ambassador to get them out. So my plan was clear; avoid getting involved with the police, stay polite and have all my papers in order. Even so, we got stopped by the police 3 times during my stay, but fortunately, nothing serious happened.
One day, we decided to go by Motorbike to the famous Boali Waterfalls, about 100 km out of Bangui. The falls are probably one of the most iconic attractions of the county, which are actually higher than Niagara Falls! This required a long ride in the countryside, and obviously, several police and military roadblocks to cross. At about 30km from Bangui, one police stopped us and tried to extort us a heavy bribe to let us go through, inventing a story that we had not all the papers clear to continue our journey. As he saw all my documents were in order, he mentioned a missing document from the tourist office which was a complete invention and never existed. Just a reason to get some money straight in his boss’s pockets which was behind the desk all dressed up in a suit and shiny shoes. We refused to contribute to the corruption scheme, refused to pay and left back towards Bangui, missing out on an opportunity to divulge to the world some of the beauties of their country… a shame…
What to see in Bangui
There aren’t many sights in Bangui that are eye-catching. I think the interesting side of experiencing Bangui and Central African Republic is to interact with its people, experience its culture and to participate in daily activities. The nicest part of Bangui for me was probably the Riverside, where the Ubangi River flows and separates the country with the Democratic Republic of Congo on the other side. For a small fee of 300 Francs (less than a dollar), you can go to the Congo and continue your journey (if you have all the visas, which are difficult to get). But the views of the Ubangui river are amazing. The river has a lot of wildlife in some areas, such as Hippos and Crocodiles, as well as many species of Birds.
The best place to view the river is at Hotel Ubangui which has a little bridge going to a little island, converted into a cafe. The place is scenic and seems a highlight even for the local population, as I witnessed when I was there as a wedding photo shoot was taking place. There is also a Church a few kilometers north along the river, la Paroisse St-Paul where fishermen had left mountains of oyster shells fished out of the river. The most impressive church is definitely the Notre-Dame of Bangui Cathedral located downtown. Other than that, the city has converted several roundabouts in some nice monuments such as… There is also the Sign of “Bangui la Coquette” in the center of the city. If you intend to take pictures of the roundabouts, Remember to ask the police which are usually at a small kiosk, as they will make themselves a pleasure to catch you and accusing you of spying or whatever they can invent to extract a few dollars from you…
The Highlight of my Trip to Central African Republic
The highlight of my trip in Bangui was definitely the interaction with the locals who were so friendly and happy that there was finally a “wight guy” among them! I had a discussion with locals and figured that the problem in the country with the presence of tons and tons of U.N. Soldiers in the city is the lack of human factor. These soldiers are seen everywhere in their big armoured vehicles and expensive land rovers and never get in touch with the locals. In fact, in all my time in the country, I have never seen a white person outside of their trucks! How can the locals see them as helping them when they completely avoid contact with them? My favorite part of my time in Bangui was actually in a roadside bar next to the National Assembly on av. de l’independence, with a local band playing music and tons of people gathering from 5 pm! We came here and enjoyed drinking a delicious locally brewed beer called Mocaf, which has a slight taste of lemon, very refreshing during a hot afternoon of African sun with over 40 degrees! At one point, a comedian came and started his performance in the local language that I couldn’t understand, he even made a joke about me being the only white guy there, among the 200 or so people that were present. My friend Desire would tell me that rarely would other foreigners dare to come out of their secured compounds, viewed as too risky. I felt absolutely safe and comfortable and loved every part of it as the people of CAR are amazingly friendly!
We also went to a suburb of Bangui called Bimbo, in some random roadside hut to have some local “palm wine” with some friendly locals. They were quick to welcome me and congratulate me for going to them, as they had never really interacted before with other foreigners. At one point a U.N. Truck even passed by with a bunch of Soldiers in the back all looking at me curiously with a face of “what the heck is this guy doing there”? I waved at them and they all waved back as I could see their attention was caught. Hopefully, they also come on their free time to have some palm wine with the local population, that would increase the trust that these men have in the country!
Two problems to solve in the CAR ASAP
Hopefully, the Central African Republic will continue living with the well-deserved peace times after such disturbances during the past years. I think the country has a lot of potential, it has so many natural resources that it could elevate itself towards great prosperity if it can solve a few problems that are crucial to solve. The first is to clean up the police corruption mess that they have. I’ve been to over 50 countries in Africa and rarely have I been so worried about the biggest threat, being arrested by greedy corrupt police who prefer personal benefit to public service. It is not normal that foreigners are put in jail for any reason they can come up to. In Europe and in the United States, there are millions of people living without papers, yet in the Central African Republic, you are put to jail by police and accused of anything at their will even though you have the papers in order…
The other issue that is urgent to fix is the Malaria problem. Latin American countries have fixed the problem once and for all, even several countries in Africa have almost completely eradicated it. It is not normal that with all the investment from foreign NGO’s, all the money pouring in, even all these philanthropists like Bill Gates foundation putting Billions of dollars in Africa for aids, yet the single most deadly factor in the world, Malaria, is everywhere, even in the Capital. I don’t see how spraying the mosquitos dry isn’t a priority… How expensive can it be to at least spray the whole capital once a month… If there is any philanthropist wanting to make to difference in Africa, how about tackling this problem once and for all!?!?
On my departure day, I was shocked to learn that my taxi driver who had received me on arrival could come and say goodbye, as he had caught Malaria a day after we had met… Hopefully he recovers soon!
Top 10 Things to do in Bangui, Central African Republic
- Cathedral Notre-Dame of Bangui
- Ubangui River and little island at Ubangui Hotel
- Boali Waterfall
- Roundabout statues
- Paroisse St-Paul
- Try Mocaf Beer at the Open Air Bar on Av. de l’independence
- Musee de Boganda
- Big Mosque
- Marché Central
- Try Palm Wine
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