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Squatters take over abandoned Ciciba project in Gabon

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Gabon

In the heart of Gabon's capital Libreville, the International Centre for Bantu Civilisations (Ciciba), designed to showcase African culture, is now occupied by hundreds of squatting families. The Ciciba project got underway in the 1980s but a lack of funds meant the project never came to fruition.

"When you don't know where to go, you have no choice. Even if you end up with ten people in a room, it doesn't matter, the most important thing is to have somewhere where you can close your eyes and sleep" said Apollon Mekoghi, President of the Ciciba Squatters' Association.

In the 1980s, Ciciba was created to promote the cultural heritage of African people south of the Equator. Eleven countries (Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Comoros, Congo Brazzaville, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, DRC, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Zambia) joined forces to create a vast database accessible to researchers and the general public. The aim is to promote the culture of the Bantus, who are present in Central and Southern Africa and share linguistic roots as well as certain traditions and beliefs.

Under the leadership of President Omar Bongo Ondimba, host country Gabon is spending some 10 billion CFA francs, about 15 million euros, to build the centre north of Libreville. Two huge concrete elephant tusks several metres high symbolise the entrance. A theatre was built.

But the resources were not sufficient - several countries in civil war were unable to finance the project - and only a few buildings were erected, which were abandoned for several years. The Ciciba becomes a "white elephant", a huge project that never sees the light of day. The first squatters arrive in 2013.

- "Humanitarian disaster" -

"The university campus where I was staying was destroyed, I found myself without a home and I came here," Mekoghi points out.

Today, more than 400 families live in Ciciba. "As soon as someone wants to move in, he submits his application. If he is accepted, he can come and build his house," explains Mr Mekoghi. Makeshift houses without running water are built in the alleys of the centre, a concrete labyrinth that stretches over several levels.

The inhabitants of the Ciciba sometimes cram a dozen people into a few square metres. This is a breeding ground for many diseases, such as typhoid fever.

Françoise Moughola, 40 years old, has been living in the squat for 7 years. Mother of 12 children, she has just lost her husband. "It's hard for all of us," she says, busily washing and ironing clothes. "I don't know how to live with twelve kids, I can't even afford to send them to school," she says. In Gabon, school enrolment costs about 10,000 CFA francs, or 15 euros.

The vast majority of the inhabitants of Ciciba are Gabonese, but some squatters are foreigners. Like Sika, a 34-year-old Central African, who arrived in 2016 after fleeing the civil war in his country. "We live very badly," he complains. "We have water delivered only once a day by tankers, it's not enough, sometimes we have to make choices between washing or cooking," he says.

- Wanting to leave -

Gabon, a small central African country of 2 million people, is one of the continent's largest oil producers and one of the richest per capita in the region. But according to the World Bank, a third of the population lived below the poverty line in 2017.

In the alleys of the centre, bars, stalls and churches have been erected. The squatters of Ciciba pay no rent, but have to pay 20,000 CFA francs (about 30 euros) for electricity every month. And the power is cut off as soon as the inhabitants are unable to pay. "I can't afford it so I live without electricity, I'm always in the dark at home," says Lilly Loundou, 31, who arrived in Ciciba two months ago.

"Everyone wants to leave," says Marc Malomba, a member of the Ciciba squatters' association. "I was ashamed at first to say I was living here, I hid it," recalls Jessye Angounié, who has been living with his wife and two children in the squat for two years.

Despite the difficult living conditions, "we still have many families waiting to settle here," says Apollon Mekoghi.

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