Central African Republic: tales of yore

I knew this was going to be tricky when Catherine Teya, president of the Central African Republic Association of Europe (SEWA Europe), struggled to suggest a book from CAR that I could read in English. However, it wasn’t until I did a bit more detailed research into the state that I began to understand quite what the challenges were.

Riddled with unrest and pockets of lawlessness since it gained independence from France in 1960, CAR is one of the planet’s least developed and most isolated countries. Indeed, as award-winning photojournalist Spencer Platt explains in his 2008 dispatch from the country, it has to all intents and purposes been abandoned and forgotten by the rest of the world. With frequent coups and attempted coups forcing crisis after crisis on its impoverished citizens, most of whom will not live to see their 45th birthdays,  it’s small wonder that very few books by writers in the country have made it into print in recent decades, let alone been translated into English.

However, although she was unable to recommend anything directly, Catherine Teya was nothing if not helpful. She sent me a number of links that might assist me in my quest, among them the website of Solidarité Franco Africaine, which features an overview of Central African writers. Perhaps one of these might have been translated in to English, she suggested.

As luck would have it, sloshing about in Amazon’s dankest recesses, I stumbled on a 1970 translation of a novel by Pierre Makombo Bamboté, one of the writers on Solidarité Franco Africaine’s list. There was no information, no summary and no picture. The book was in an ‘unknown binding’ and I could tell nothing about it beyond the date the English version was published, its title and the number of pages it had. Still, given the lack of anything else to go on, it had to be worth a shot.

First published in French in 1966, Les Randonnées de Daba (or Daba’s Travels from Ouadda to Bangui as the English version has it) follows young Daba as he leaves his parents’ village to visit friends and relatives around CAR and further his education. Moving between the Westernised milieu of his French boarding school and the rich rural traditions of the communities he stays with during his holidays, Daba develops a love for his country, as well as a desire to explore the rest of the world – and has some gripping adventures along the way.

Daba’s is a culture where storytelling is part of the furniture. From the very opening lines, in which Daba’s mother tells the tale of the will-o’-the-wisp bird, fielding her son’s comments and chiding him for questioning her skill as a narrator, the power of the oral tradition is clear. This comes across in the novel too: the text is frequently interspersed with stories told by adults the boy meets and the narrative itself has an organic feel, as though Bamboté is sitting just across from us, developing the story as he goes along.

This instinct for storytelling also manifests itself in the evocative descriptions that fill the book. Whether he is describing the ‘sparkling white wings of insects, looking like thousands of stars, [that] glittered in the headlights’ on a drive through the jungle, the way a crocodile’s tail ‘would suddenly spank the water and send a great sheet of white spray up into the air’, or Daba’s eerie sense of being followed when returning home from a day spent tracking lions with his friends, Bamboté is a master of transporting his readers into the midst of the places he describes.

Indeed, for all its exotic crocodile hunts and days off school because of prowling panthers, the book has a profoundly nostalgic feel. This is partly down to the author’s skill, which makes us yearn for a place we have probably never been (the presence of Daba’s French penfriend Guy throughout much of the book suggests that it was probably aimed at a European rather than a CAR readership), but it is also because of the look and feel of the book. With its illustrations sprawling over the pages like jungle creepers and the smell of its old pages, it reminded me of the books my mother gave me from her own childhood.

Now, 42 years after it was published, Daba’s Travels from Ouadda to Bangui and the handful of Bamboté’s other translated novels offer a rare window on a much-neglected and surely now much-changed corner of the globe. I wonder how long it will be before English-language readers get a chance to take another look.

Daba’s Travels from Ouadda to Bangui (Les Randonnées de Daba) by Pierre Makombo Bamboté, translated from the French by John Buchanan-Brown (Pantheon, 1970)

15 responses

  1. I like how your struggles to find something to choose sharply contrasts with posts in which you’ve struggled to choose from so many options. It says a lot about how Western/English-speaking countries ‘apportion’ global social and cultural capital, especially when dealing with Africa. Bravo.

  2. We lived in CAR for much of the last 12 years, and have gathered up a bit of a library about it, but, as you have discovered, all in French! I read Antoine Bangui’s ‘Les Ombres de Koh’ before we even knew we would be moving there, and it was weird to find myself actually living in the town where that book was set, having read it as part of my French language course! Beautiful and fascinating – but suffering – country.

    • Thanks Judith. Wow, what an amazing place to live. I would love to read the Bangui. I can read French so perhaps after this project is over I’ll give it a try – or perhaps by then an English language publisher will have picked it up…

  3. You could also check out “Le Silence de la Foret” by Etienne Goyemide (in French), but also Stuart Stevens’ “Malaria Dreams” and Samuel Decalo’s “Psychoses of Power” and Alex Shoumatoff “African Madness”, these last three have portraits of CAR from the end of the last century.

    • Thanks – they sound interesting, although I was trying to find books by writers ‘from’ each country rather than about it. It sounds as though many of these writers aren’t CAR nationals. Thanks for stopping by.

      • Hi there,
        It’s going to be tough to find many writers from CAR, but Etienne Goyemide, who wrote “Le Silence de la Foret”, was a CAR national. I met him when he was Minister of Scientific research in 1994. He passed away in the late 90s, but my understanding is that he is one of the more noted writers from the CAR who wrote about CAR. Someone doing African Lit at a university in France would no doubt have a comprehensive list.
        Best of luck to you.

  4. And another – the Catholic Church in Bangui collected and published folk tales from the CAR and sold them for years. Would be worth picking up if you can track one down.

  5. Pingback: Travelling in books: English, French, French translations and Lingala books | CACEAfrica

  6. Pingback: Reading the World – The List – Scott's Blog

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