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Who still remembers that Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic, has a museum? Some days the manager thinks he’s the only one. Even the gilding of Bokassa’s two thrones in a corner of the office seem to wonder what they are doing there. Opposite, the Ministry of Mines, renovated in 2019 thanks to a Chinese donation, taunts the small building for which Abel Kotton is in charge and which is still awaiting its work.
In 2014, the Boganda Museum suffered the first looting in its history. Before the remaining 3,500 rooms were in turn threatened by water leaks, due to bullet holes on the roof. The decision was then taken to shelter everything in wooden crates before the roof was redone and the sarcophagi closed.
Abel Kotton always frees time for the few expatriates who pass through the doors of his museum, perhaps seeing in each a potential patron. In the meantime, the visit is as much a journey into the absurd as it is into the history of the country. We see mountains of boxes, we walk past empty shelves, before the organ in Block B: a stuffed gorilla and an alligator, posed a few meters from a dismantled imperial bed. All in relative darkness, the electricity being out of service on the floors.
Relaunching a museum is not easy. “There is scientific and technical restoration work to be carried out, explains Abel Kotton. Especially since we do not know in what condition we will find the parts. “ They will not see the light of day before the renovation of the premises, co-financed by French and Chinese cooperation, to the tune of 100 million francs. But the pandemic brought the project to a temporary halt.
A minimum memorial policy
When it was inaugurated in 1966, the museum wanted to promote the cultural riches of some 90 ethnic groups in the country, as well as the life of the first President Barthélémy Boganda. The aim was to turn the colonial page and write the history of the country. Sixty years later, the scene illustrates the abandonment of all memorial politics in this country where the priorities are elsewhere.
“We celebrate independence twice a year, we lay a wreath on the Boganda monument, but that’s about it, notes Bernard Simiti, historian and former minister of higher education. There is no continuity. Each new regime wants to erase the traces of the previous one. “
Bokassa’s villa in Petevo? Destroyed. The palace of Bérengo? A military camp run by the Russians. In the city center, the dilapidated colonial houses of Camp Fidèle-Obrou give way to a brand new administrative center. Yet they were part of the colonial building of Bangui, inscribed on the indicative list of Unesco, antechamber of world heritage. A regret for Georges Davy Touckia, in charge of mission and the arts at the Ministry of Culture, who did send a note to the Council of Ministers, but “Lost the arbitration”.
The ministry has a political weight weak enough to know a waltz of the holders and that the files concerning the inheritance progress with difficulty. “We have perhaps forgotten that the Republic must have a memory, advance Georges Davy Touckia. For example, we have legally created a national library, to keep the archives. That was twenty years ago. But it is still not built. “
Bernard Simiti also regrets “The little space” that Central African history takes from school textbooks. A challenge when illiteracy affects nearly half of the population. And yet, if we want the story not to stammer, the stakes are high. “The events were in part linked to the fact that many Central Africans saw Muslims as foreigners. However, the community has been present in the country since its origins. But that’s not taught “, he specifies.
Continue despite insecurity
The memory deficit feeds the security crises which, themselves, threaten the discipline. When the secretary general of Bangui University delves into his memories as a history student in the 1980s, he recalls that “From the second year, we were sent to do research in the provinces. “” It is no longer possible today, adds Jean Kokidé. So the work is now focused on NGOs and international institutions, because they can be done in Bangui. “
The nearby archeology and history center, the Curdhaca, also saw its field of research shrink as early as 2003, as rebellions intensified in the country. Worse, it has twice lost its premises, looted and destroyed, with documents and archives, during the 1996 mutinies, then when the Séléka arrived in 2013. The ten researchers have since been housed in a cramped annex of the university, without research credit.
And, yet, all continue. Abel Kotton is working on a promotional leaflet to distribute in hotels. The university plans to rely on the assignments of future teachers in the provinces to collect information on the troubles that the country has known since 2003. Archaeologists from Curdhaca are joining together to search the surroundings of Bangui. Two years ago, they managed to go to Carnot, 400 kilometers to the west, thanks to funding from Unesco.
“If we don’t continue, who else will? “, retorts Curdhaca’s research director, Xavier Milenge. Blaise Yandji, his superior, approves: “We have been around since 1989, but we are only just starting to clear the land. Traces of civilizations dating back to the Paleolithic have been discovered. We show future generations that our country was not an empty space before the settlers arrived. We must continue to rewrite our history. “