Central African Republic — History and Culture
The Central African Republic has a bad reputation largely because of political instability, but travelers who are adventurous enough quickly find out that it is generally safe, and that it offers plenty of unique things to see, explore and discover.
Before the French colonized most of central Africa in the 1880’s, many tribes had already fled to the Central African Republic to avoid the slave trade. These people lived outside the growing Islamic frontier of Africa’s Sudanic zone, and had very little contact with others. In the early 19th century, Muslim traders gradually arrived to forge special relations with leaders for settlement and trade. It was generally a peaceful process, until slave traders arrived in the 1850’s with armed soldiers.
Around 1910, the Ubangi-chari area became part of French Equatorial Africa, but it was given its own assembly after WWII. By 1958, the country had its own self-governing body. Barthelemy Boganda, a nationalist politician, served as the prime minister. He died the next year, leaving his nephew David Dacko to take over. In 1960, Dacko led the Central African Republic to independence.
The country was facing political problems and bankruptcy by 1965, which was when Jean-Bedel Bokassa, an army chief, overthrew Dacko. Bokassa was notorious for his iron-fist ruling. Throughout his reign, the country was referred to as the “Central African Empire.” Bokassa even arranged a coronation ceremony for himself in 1977, depleting the nation’s annual income by over a quarter for its lavish celebration. His reign ended in 1979 when Dacko exiled him to France and eventually peaceful relations were restored.
Dacko was eventually ousted in 1981 by a military coup led by the former army commander, André Kolingba. The Central African Republic was left in a transitional period until the May 2005 parliamentary and presidential elections. Patassé was then replaced by François Bozizé.
The people of the Central African Republic are composed of several groups, mainly the Bwaka, Madjia, Baya, and Banda. The majority are farmers who grow export crops like coffee and cotton, plus local items like peppers, bananas, sweet potatoes, corn, yams, tobacco, peanuts, and rice. Though the area was overtaken by Muslims at some point in history, only 15 percent of the population is Muslim. About 25 percent of the population is Roman Catholic and 25 percent is Protestant. The remaining 35 have retained their indigenous religions.
People are generally family-oriented and hospitable. Most locals dress informally, but people living in Muslim areas dress modestly. Visitors are expected to respect local culture. Women are still segregated in some regions, especially in small towns and villages where they are limited to domestic chores like cooking and housekeeping.
Shaking hands is customary in the Central African Republic. Locals eat using their hands, so travelers are advised to eat with their hands out of respect. Just be sure to eat with the right, because the left is often used for the bathroom.
Music is a hodgepodge of influences, with sanza being the popular instrument. Genres like soukous, Afrobeat, pop music, and Western rock are all favorites, but the Pygmies have their own folk traditions.