Magazine article New Internationalist

Penthouse and Pavement

Magazine article New Internationalist

Penthouse and Pavement

Article excerpt

We stop the car, and gaze upward.

In front of us is a brand-new 12-floor tower block, all sharp angles and concrete slabs behind reels of razor wire. Like a high-rise prison. Though it does have a great view of the Oubangui River.

'What a monster,' I say to my driver.

Cedric shakes his head slowly, his eyes almost shining.

'C'est super!'

Bangui is being spruced up. Everywhere I walk or drive, roads are being repaired and buildings constructed, especially new residences for the ever-increasing ex-pat community. Plus new supermarkets, where we can spend our money on a growing range of luxury goods, from softFrench cheeses to chandeliers and highend mattresses.

The construction companies are also tearing down some of the old colonial-style houses (and cosy riverside bars), replacing them with hideous modern tower blocks of apartments, like this one in front of us, where each apartment costs several thousand dollars to rent per month. The visage of this small capital is beginning to change.

As a result of all this building, traffic across Bangui is getting worse too, as wagons and four-wheel drives battle for space in the overcrowded streets. Recently, the United Nations installed a series of what I can only call 'human traffic lights' at the city's main junctions: individual men and women in uniform directing the traffic while standing on small stationary carousels built to protect them from the sun and the chaotic swarm of drivers.

Some of this construction is necessary - there's a real lack of accommodation across the city. But the companies erecting these over-priced residences are not Central African, and local people are benefiting little from these lucrative business ventures being pushed forward, among other reasons, because legislative and Presidential elections are looming.

There are now several different parallel economies operating in the Central African Republic (CAR). First, there is the local economy, where many Central Africans survive by trading on the streets, growing their own food and quite literally living hand to mouth. Gross national income here is $470 per year. Outside Bangui, across 15 rural prefectures where the vast majority of Central Africans are small-scale peasant farmers, incomes are far lower and opportunities fewer. …

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