A few years ago I was teaching a course in church history in Bangui, and one of my students came to see me. He wanted to explain why he was studying at the seminary. He said to me in French, “Je fus militaire” (I was a soldier).
I remember this because of the simple past tense, which is literary and sounds funny in spoken French. He had been a rebel soldier and had spent years in the forest of Congo on the opposite side of the Ubangi river from Bangui; as a rebel, he could not return to Bangui until President Ange-Félix Patassé was deposed by François Bozizé, the current President. While in the forest, he said, they had little to eat and nothing to do. They started reading the Bible together and praying, and so the soldiers in this new church elected my student to come to seminary to become an army chaplain and to lead them as a pastor.
I was reminded of my student today because I was reading an archived article in the New York Times by Howard W. French, May, 1996. One major complaint I have a mainstream media news is their reports on foreign conflicts rarely give a good sense of what is actually happening. Sure there is a notion of something bad going on, that there is conflict and unhappy people, but you never have a full understanding. In reading Howard’s article, the picture that you get is of a kleptocratic leader, President Patassé, who is universally hated. The anonymous leaders of the rebellion were beloved by the people; the killing of the rebels by the French, therefore, caused all the people to hate the French; hatred of the French is true enough. But I wonder if the Times reporter, Howard W. French, has ever spent a significant period of time in CAR. Apparently he lived in Cote d’Ivoire for awhile, and he’s been a chief correspondent for West and Central Africa for the New York Times between 1994-98–thus, he is something of an expert on French-speaking Africa. But there are members of this blog who were actually in Bangui during that war and they can verify what I am about to say.
The war in 1996 and later in 2001 was part of an attempt by the former President André-Dieudonné Kolingba to regain power in the country. It is true that Patassé was corrupt and unpopular, but these sort of conflicts in Africa often divide along tribal lines. Kolingba is a Yakoma. I have other friends or acquaintances who are Yakoma. My student, who was a soldier, was a Yakoma. So yes, the French are hated–but in this case, they took the side of Patassé and attacked the Yakoma neighborhood where many Yakoma were killed.
Because my student was late registering for my course, I did a couple of catch-up sessions with him. We studied together all day that first Saturday, throughout the morning. I left him there to copy my notes when I went to lunch at 1:00 pm and he was still working when I returned. I had pity on the skinny fellow and so I offered him the leftovers that I had in my refrigerator; I warmed up some small fried fish and rice. And he happily ate it.
Looking at the remaining fish, he pointed at the heads and asked, “Do you eat those?”
I replied, “Not at all, do you want them?”
He nodded and so I broke off the remaining five fish heads and gave them to him. As he ate them–the brains, the eyes, the checks, and the skin, until only the skull remained; then he recounted, “I am a Yakoma. We are river people and so we eat a lot of fish. We prefer the head of the fish over the flesh. If a Yakoma woman prepares her husband a fish and does not offer him the head, he can send her away.”
A couple years later, my student was in the unfortunate situation of living with a woman while his first wife was still alive. I heard that the first wife had taken up with another man while my student was hiding in Congo. She protested when he was about to marry the second girl. The seminary decided they’d had enough of this kind of a moral farce and told him to get the whole thing sorted out before he returned to school in the new academic year, which apparently he was never able to do. I’ve learned that many other people in Central African Republic have similar marital problems.
My Sango teacher and housekeeper while I was in CAR is Yakoma. I know of other Yakoma who suffered over the years due to their tribal association with the rebels. I am not a journalist for the New York Times; but at least I know that the Yakoma were one of the major players in the 1996 conflict. That’s better than the article by French. I’m no journalist. I just teach theology, and I spent a few weeks in Central African Republic over an 8 year period. And I talk with people.