Thursday, January 28, 2010


(The abysmally slow connection here has kept me from posting in a few days.)

Father Yves extended a place mat-sized black-and-white photo toward me and said, “Find me.” The photo showed a young, not-yet-emperor, Bokassa standing next to a silky-haired, large-nosed woman in a wedding dress and veil. The stood indoors inside Bangui's main cathedral. Father Yves pointed to part of a book, visible at the left-hand side: “That's me – I was holding that book!” The next photo showed Bokassa's coronation. Father Yves gestured just to the left of the scene captured in the frame: “I was sitting there!”

Father Yves, a missionary with the Spiritin order of the Catholic church, left France for Oubangui-Chari in 1952 and has lived here ever since. In contrast to the aid workers and diplomats and Lebanese businesspeople (and me, more often than I'd care to admit) who bemoan this country's crushing torpor and imperceptible progress, Yves emphasized with wonder how quickly, how unimaginably, the place has changed in the 58 years he has been here.

When he arrived, no Central African held any position of authority. A few years later, a Central African was named to a responsible position with the postal service and “Everyone thought it was a mistake! No one would have guessed that in 1958 they would have more autonomy and in 1960 independence!” At that point, if you went to PK5 (5km from the center of town), the people would be dressed in nothing but a small piece of hide.

Father Yves was also a friend of CAR's only founding father, Barthelemy Boganda. Boganda was a priest like Yves but was defrocked for failure to maintain his vow of celibacy. Yves went to Boganda's house for a reconciliatory coffee with Boganda and his wife and kids, and then a short time later (1958) he was part of the team that went out to the site of Boganda's crashed plane and recuperated his remains.

For someone no doubt expecting the quiet life of a missionary, Father Yves has somehow had a front seat at all of CAR's most famous – or infamous – moments.

He took a trip to the United States once, and he stayed with his fellow Spiritin at their mission in what he described as a “quartier populaire” in New York City. He rode the subway – “under the ground! All by myself!” He was living in a quartier populaire in CAR then, a neighborhood so packed that if you stretched out your arm inside your house you'd hit your neighbor's. He lived simply. In New York, what struck him about the missionaries' life was that they too lived simply, but that made them have about the same socioeconomic level as those around them, or perhaps a bit below. In CAR, even living as simply as they did, they were still the whites – they were still the rich ones. And so the expectations they have for each other are entirely different, as are the dynamics of their relationships. In CAR, missionaries are important personalities, on a local and sometimes a national scale. In New York, I'm guessing they're known only to their congregants. Same title, but how different the job.

Father Yves seemed happy he had ended up in Central Africa.

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