Here in the Central African Republic, life is a constant struggle for its 4.4 million people. Despite its vast natural wealth, including uranium, gold, diamonds and crude oil, the CAR remains among the world’s poorest. On the Human Development Index, the nation ranks 179 out of 187 countries.
“This is one of the most undeveloped places on the continent,” said Jean Sebastien Munie, the head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in this sleepy capital city.
In a nation where the per-capita income is $457 a year, one of the lowest in Africa, nearly two-thirds of the population lives on $1.25 a day, according to the United Nations. Nearly half of all adults are illiterate; infant mortality rates are among the highest in Africa.
Such stats play out in Bangui. With few high-rises, the city feels more like a small town than a capital. The central area is no bigger than a couple of blocks. Even the presidential palace looks rundown.
But bizarrely, money has been spent on a massive neon sign, imitating the cultural icon overlooking Hollywood, placed on a mountain hovering over the capital.
It reads “BANGUI.”
This one, though, lights up at night.
During the day, the capital’s center is a buzz of activity. Lebanese and Indian immigrants run many of the businesses. Vendors near the Grand Café, the city’s only central coffee shop, hawk paintings of animals and landscapes that include a sentence in French: “A souvenir of the Central African Republic.” There are few buyers.
The few foreigners who visit find it unlike most capital cities in Africa, such as Nairobi or Kinshasa, which are much more developed, with large, bustling downtowns, offering five-star hotels and other Western amenities. But here, no one accepts credit cards; ATMs are non-existent, so visitors have to bring cash, lots of it, just like when traveling to places as war-torn as Somalia.
A handful of restaurants have sprung up to cater to foreigners, but everything is imported, so dinner for two can easily run up to $100. Many also sip espresso with the local elite at the Grand Cafe. By nightfall, the streets empty out. Electricity runs out in many neighborhoods.
Outside the capital, life is worse. Several militias plague different corners of the country. Roads are dilapidated, and people are isolated.
To get to Obo, 550 miles southeast of Bangui, for example, you have to take a U.N. plane that makes four stops along the way. Rivers shimmer in the sunlight. The canopy of forests spread out like a giant green tarpaulin. The entire trip can take more than three hours.
But such a journey is only for the lucky few, who either are aid workers or have good contacts with the United Nations: It normally takes a week or longer to travel from Obo on dirt roads. Obo itself cannot be called a town. It’s more like a patchwork of villages, surrounded by thick forests.
One of the few places a foreigner can stay is with the Catholic diocese, headed by Martin Modove, a jovial man who likes to host visitors because they provide windows into far-flung worlds he yearns to see.
“What is Washington like?” he eagerly asked a visitor.
Residents seldom venture too far outside the town because they fear the Lord’s Resistance Army, a brutal militia that has ravaged Obo and nearby villages. The days are stiflingly hot. At night, there is no electricity.
The biggest luxuries are sipping Kenyan beer imported through neighboring Uganda — and, of course, eating delicious mangoes.