Children drunk on glue wander the filthy core of Bangui in broken flip-flops, begging for francs. Their T-shirts from Western aid agencies are often dotted with gummy clots; this is where they have smeared the glue to huff through the cloth. Shoe polish is another favorite intoxicantit is spread on bread like jelly and eaten for a high. Still others take a stolen audiotape and soak it in a jar of water for a week. The resulting home brew brings strange hallucinations. Some of the street children will grab their crotches when they approach new faces for coins. Trading sex for money is common here, despite a national rate of AIDS infection estimated at one in every seven persons. "Its not always for money," a French schoolteacher told me. "Children need affection, to be touched is instinctual, and this is the only way a lot of them can get it."
The borders have been sealed to foreigners ever since the latest in a long series of coups toppled the government in March 2003, so there is really only one legitimate way in or out. Thats the once-weekly Air France flight from Paris, which is inevitably crowded with a slice of the nations tiny ruling classthe only ones who can afford the fare. The Sunday morning arrival of Air France is a free-for-all in the northern part of the city of Bangui. Hundreds of taxi hustlers and freelance luggage porters cram close to the perimeter fence as they watch the passengers step from one world into another, out of the air-conditioned cabin with its fois gras and Bordeaux and copies of Paris Match and into the fecund obscurity.
In a waiting room nearby, with thick wire mesh and tattered curtains covering the windows, are the departing passengers. They are protected like dignitaries from the masses outside. I learned later that some of them were almost certainly carrying a highly portable fortune in the folds of their business suits and warm-up jackets. They were able to carry wealth that equaled the annual wages of more than two thousand people. And without showing a bulge.
This is because the Central African Republiccorrupt, destitute, and nearly forgotten by the rest of the worldhas been one of the best places on the continent to erase the history of a dirty diamond and smuggle it into the legitimate market.
I came because I wanted to see how it was done.
History has never been happy here. There have been people living in primitive agricultural settlements in this part of Africa at least five centuries before Christ, but today, the region is one of the most depopulated on the continent, a consequence of heavy slave-raiding activity in the seventeenth century. Arab bands from the north captured entire tribes and sold them to slave traders on the coast, and later on elevated blocks in Cairo. If any coherent records existed, it is likely that many American blacks could trace their ancestral lines to villages that disappeared centuries ago.
The French seized the region from an Egyptian sultan in the 1880s, named it Oubangui-Chari, and made it a department of a vast bloc of colonial real estate called French Equatorial Africa. They also built a plantation-style economy and set up the ramshackle capital of Bangui on a river port, positioned to move ivory and cotton out to the Atlantic. Export companies became the effective rulers of the colony. When André Gide visited the region in 1925, he called it "a country in ruins for the profit of a few." The adults were forced to harvest wild rubber while their children were taught to speak French and encouraged to forget their native language of Sango. The French also introduced their cooking, and in some of the farthest villages, it is possible to spend a few francs for a baguette, still gritty with black ash from the open fire it has been baked over.
Copyright © 2006 by Tom Zoellner
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