A friend sends me a message online, wanting a chat. ‘Sorry,’ I text her back, ‘but am just on my way out for dinner.’
‘Ah, what do you have for dinner in Bangui?’ she wants to know.
‘Chicken and fish or fish and chicken!’ I type, reaching for my car keys.
The Central African Republic is not known for its cuisine; local food is based on gozo, boiled cassava root, which is filling, bland and starchy, but has no nutritional value at all. Usually, it’s served with sauces and often accompanied by fish or chicken – hence my quip. But these days in Bangui there are more choices, like pizza, pasta, Indian and Chinese food – if you can afford them. The city-centre restaurants mainly catering for ex-pats are too pricey for most Central Africans.
This evening I am meeting one of my favourite Central African friends in one of my favourite Bangui haunts. L’escale is a dimly lit riverside restaurant with dodgy décor and stained tablecloths. But the beer is cold, the food tasty and inexpensive, and they serve my all-time favourite local dish, maboke: fish steamed with coriander, tomatoes and onions and wrapped in banana leaves.
My dinner date, Quentin, likes maboke too. He’s late, as always, and turns up with his mobile phone clamped to his ear, as always, talking to someone in the Central African vernacular, Sango. ‘Barao!’ he greets me in Sango, kissing me on each cheek. Then, ‘Ça va?’
Quentin does many different things at the same time: he’s a storyteller, a musician, an advocacy trainer and an entrepreneur. He runs his own national NGO promoting inter-communal dialogue through the arts, acts as spokesperson for Central African civil society organizations, and is a member of the National Transitional Council, the Central African Parliament. He’s well connected, proud, nationalistic and restless.
We order our maboke and drinks, then sit back and smile at each other. We’ve been out of touch for more than a week, a long time for us.
‘We Central Africans are losing our way!’ he exclaims, shaking his head. ‘The government is irresponsible, people are disappointed, and there’s no-one to protect their rights. We need a revolution!’
‘What kind of revolution?’ I raise my eyebrows. I’m used to this.
‘We need to decide our own future and negotiate on our own terms. Internationals need to treat us as equals and respect the wishes of civil society and the people on the streets. Central Africans are ready to come onto the streets and protest until something changes for real!’ His eyes gleam with passion.
One of the objects of his ire is the UN mission here. MINUSCA (the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic) arrived here in September 2014, and has struggled to control violence and protect civilians. The first head of the mission was fired for concealing his knowledge of a Bangui child sexual abuse scandal implicating French troops. Quentin echoes many Central Africans when he says MINUSCA need to ‘apply their mandate or leave our country.’ Not many have the courage to say this so publicly.
Quentin has set up a nonviolent civil society platform to challenge the Transitional Government, the UN and the French, who all enjoy mass influence in CAR at the expense, he says, of the Central African people. Not everyone agrees with his stance: some civil-society activists do not support him, the government does not like what he’s doing, and neither do local thugs who’ve threatened him; all of which only drives him on.
Quentin’s outspokenness and charisma are, I think, both his strength and his weakness. He can alienate people when he rants, but I just rant back at him, then we both listen to each other.
As one of Central Africa’s best-known performers and well-established political figures, Quentin is among the elites of this country. He could afford to have a swanky house in one of the better Bangui neighbourhoods and eat in the ex-pat restaurants, but he stays in the midst of a local community, with its bad roads, daily power cuts and rising street crime. Likewise, he could leave CAR, and make a good life for himself in another Francophone country, but he chooses to stay here in Bangui. Because, he says, ‘I want to wake up my people so they start deciding their own future.’
I’m suddenly distracted by the scent of maboke spices. I glance towards the kitchen, then back at Quentin. I don’t agree with everything he says and does, but I really respect his refusal of fatalism, and his hunger for change.
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