| Celia Lebur |
LIBREVILLE (AFP) – Two grandiose elephant tusks guard the doors of a palace built to celebrate the cultural heritage of Africa’s Bantu tribes, which gradually settled across much of the continent, but beyond them the huge building is a ruin.
“Welcome to the Ciciba!” a young boy in rags hailed visitors outside, using the French acronym for the International Centre of the Bantu Civilisations, built in Gabon’s capital Libreville three decades ago.
Once inside, the crumbling premises proved to be full of poor families, rather than the cultural artefacts of Africa’s Bantus, who number almost 150 million.
Squatters know their way round the labyrinthine centre, built on several floors to the north of the city on the Atlantic coast on the initiative of Gabon’s late president Omar Bongo Ondimba, who held sway for 41 years.
Bongo’s declared purpose was to create a “cultural crossroads” for the Bantu peoples, who farmed and traded where they settled and shaped a number of kingdoms that have since fallen.
A picture taken on August 25 in Libreville shows the entrance of the abandoned headquarters of the International Centre of Bantu Civilisations (CICIBA), with its two concrete structures representing elephant tusks – AFP
The Bantu peoples are held by scholars to have travelled slowly east and south across Africa from a region in what is now Cameroon and east Nigeria, undertaking one of the biggest migrations in history over some 3,000 years.
From Nigeria to South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, Bantus share certain traditions and beliefs, while their speech has retained common linguistic roots. The very name “Bantu” means “people”, or human beings.
In the early 1980s, “there was shared enthusiasm from most of the states that recognised themselves to be a part of this cultural space,” Gabonese historian Andre-Wilson Ndombet said.
Eleven countries – Angola, Burundi, the Central African Republic, the Comoros, the Republic of Congo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and Zambia – founded the Ciciba in 1983.
The African Union and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) put their weight behind the scheme.
Yet the Ciciba gradually decayed into one of Africa’s “white elephant” projects, having cost the Gabonese treasury 10 billion CFA francs ($19.7 million / 15.2 million euros) to build.
The initial joint plan was to create a huge database accessible to researchers and the general public alike, which began with the collection of a vast number of manuscripts, some of them centuries old.
Staff also gathered sound archives that recorded Bantu knowledge and folklore, in domains ranging from archaeology and traditional medicine to linguistics, as well as ancient rites, dances and religious practices.
The researchers succeeded in compiling more than 10,000 documents of different kinds and microfilms, but these treasures are now stashed away in boxes. To be accessible to modern technology, they would need to be turned into digital data, a very expensive and long task.
In the 1990s, efforts were made to revive the foundering Ciciba with biennial exhibitions of contemporary art and sculpture, but the works put on show are now also out of sight, sometimes piled up on dusty floors in buildings in Libreville without electricity.
The Ciciba headquarters has been moved into a rundown house in the shadow of an expressway, while the fountains and pools of the old palace are dry, the walls are peeling and roofing materials have been stolen.
Historians and other specialists tell a familiar story to explain the decay: after the initial sense of shared enthusiasm and goodwill for the project, one of the first things to run out was money.
“The means were not there,” explained the outgoing director of the Bantu centre, Anne-Marie Okome Mba. “Many states had financial problems and Gabon bore the cost of keeping the Ciciba going by itself for several years.”
“Several states went through electoral strife, even civil wars,” Nombet said. The historian believes that much of the zeal that first went into the Ciciba project was sparked by Omar Bongo’s persuasive personality.
A UNESCO audit conducted in 2005 concluded that the Bantu centre had achieved barely 10 per cent of the goals of its founders. Since Bongo died five years ago, Ciciba activities have ground to a standstill and the annual budget is just enough to pay the wages of a handful of employees.
Ali Bongo Ondimba, who came to power in 2009 after his father died, has several times expressed the intention of reviving the Ciciba. A new director, Antoine Manda Tchebwa of the Republic of Congo, has been named to oversee the job.