Monday, December 9, 2013

My new favorite book

Every now and then someone will ask me for recommendations for books about the Central African Republic. There aren't a whole lot, but there are some good ones, particularly among the historical volumes (Zoctizoum, Cordell, Mollion...). Among the anthropological accounts, look out for Rebecca Hardin's books, which should be published soon.

But this is all just background for the real subject of this post: the book I can't stop talking about, the book that countless friends have had to endure hearing me rhapsodize about lately. It's called Bagara, and it's by Ed van der Elsken. Van der Elsken was a Dutch photographer probably best known for his work on jazz musicians. But he took one trip to Africa, to the colony of Oubangui-Chari in the mid-1950s, and Bagara is the result. The book is divided into two sections. The first covers a journey he took in the area around Bria, as he accompanied the local administrator on a tournée, walking from village to village, participating in funeral ceremonies and the colonial cotton-buying scheme. The second part covers safari hunting trips van der Elsken took together with guides' paying clients, also in the eastern part of the country. As you flip through the pages, you encounter not a single word -- only people in all the fullness of their varied personalities and the situations they find themselves in. Inside the back cover is a small booklet that flips out to reveal van der Elsken's narration of his travels and the stories behind each photograph. In this way, it's possible to sync your reading of the text with the viewing of the photos, without either distracting from the other. This format comes as close to hearing the author tell the stories of these people and animals, as close to being there with him, as is possible with a printed book. I read the book cover to cover the moment I opened it; the whole experience was incredibly powerful. The photos are arresting, of course, but it is also the mixture of self-awareness and naivete with which van der Elsken recounts his adventures that makes the book so compelling. He knows how little he knows. But he also has an openness toward people and experiences that helps him learn quickly.

OK, OK -- I'll stop proselytizing here.

Bagara is not an easy book to find (after borrowing a copy from the library, I bought my own on eBay for about $60), but if you have any interest in the CAR I can't recommend it more highly. Here are a few of my favorite shots:

Thursday, December 5, 2013

CAR in the news

I have a piece up on Africa is a Country about some of the misleading ways that CAR has been covered in the media lately.

And if you're interested in hearing more, tune in to PBS Newshour tonight (18:15 EST) -- I'll be giving the 4-minute synopsis of CAR's recent and longer-standing troubles.