Updated at 9:38 a.m. ET on July 9, 2019.
If you venture outside Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, it’s dangerous to travel alone. Journeying from village to village means navigating jungle or savanna without paved roads or reliable communication networks. CAR straddles one of the world’s largest magnetic anomalies, so compasses often err. And conflict among more than a dozen armed religious groups has balkanized the country.
Amid all of this, one unlikely institution has become crucial to the country’s survival: the Boy Scouts. Like scouts the world over, members wear trim shorts and multicolor neckerchiefs—but their youthful uniform belies a grander-than-average sociopolitical mission. When they aren’t earning badges for cooking and woodworking, they’re guiding ailing villagers to hospitals, or distributing mosquito nets and food at refugee camps. Last year, as Simon Allison reported in Mail & Guardian, the boys investigated rumors of Ebola in a remote part of the country. The year before that, they helped negotiate the release of a Muslim community held hostage by armed groups.
Since 2013, when rebels staged a coup and religious violence flared, CAR has been in a state of civil war. Today, the enfeebled government in Bangui relies on foreign aid agencies to hold the country together—and the agencies in turn rely on the country’s 20,000 boy scouts, who surpass CAR’s largest armed factions in both size and geographic reach. UNICEF, for example, deploys boys to public squares to perform plays about hand-washing, and sends them door-to-door to promote the polio vaccine.