After five years living in Africa, and twenty-some odd countries visited in the continent, I finally had the chance to accompany a friend going to Central African Republic on business. Having visited southern, eastern, and western Africa, it was time to venture into the center of the continent- the very heart of darkness.
On our first night in Bangui, we wandered down to the Bangui Plage, a small outdoor restaurant on the banks of the Oubangui River. It was dark by the time we arrived, and we met up with two other travelers seated on the patio. Over wonderfully ripe and creamy avocat aux crevettes, and several ice cold Mocaf beers, the pilots told us stories of flying over the jungles of Africa (“Basically, this whole continent is on fire”) and the perils of trying to get fuel with a credit card in cities such as Bangui and Juba (“Headquarters does not like handwritten receipts written on a napkin and signed by an illiterate man”.). In the darkness beyond the restaurant, we could see an occasional kerosene lantern across the Oubangui River representing small huts in a Congolese village, but not the river itself.
The next day was a hustle of activity for me as I set off to explore the small city- village, rather- of Bangui. The French called the city “La Coquette” (the beautiful), but the few signs still bearing the name were peeling, flaking, dirt-covered placards of a by-gone era. I set out to look for the Musee de Boganda, housing artifacts from “Emperor Bokassa’s” reign and more, but it was closed. I found the office for the Hotel des Chutes de Boali, a small hotel 100 km outside of town at the edge of a waterfall- the office was also closed, but helpfully listed a phone number to call to arrange a ride out to the hotel. I tried a small hotel listed in my guidebook (four pages dedicated to C.A.R.) that boasted a band on Sunday nights, but after finding the manager, discovered that the band in question no longer played in the hotel and had not for some years.
As I walked along the red dust-covered streets of Bangui, shouts of “Cherie” and “Americaine” followed me wherever I went. Small children walked along side me, practicing their few phrases in English that they knew, and tugging on my pants pockets for change. Around every corner, half a dozen young men stood, selling phone cards, making 2% profit on the face value of the cards. Taxis beeped their horn as they trolled the few paved streets, looking for a paying customer. Men carried flats of egg crates stacked a dozen high, only the top three flats cut and stacked with eggs to make a pyramid. Only the tops of their egg towers could be seen as they wound their way through a crowd.
For dinner that night we drove to the edge of town, to the property owned by the Oubangui Hotel (a Sofitel property in an earlier life). The tallest building in town, the Oubangui Hotel sits at the easternmost side of the city, overlooking the Oubangui River and Congo. A series of natural rocks juts out into the river, with a concrete walkway connecting them to the hotel. Atop the peninsula are a dozen covered tables, all bearing the names of French and West-African cities. We sat at the “Nice” table and sipped a cold drink, watching the sunset over the river. Sellers and workers drifted across the river towards Congo in their pirogues, calling out to each other in Sango. As the sun set, the river fell silent.
Having secured a ride to the waterfall at Boali, the next day we headed outside the city. The falls are not too far from the city, and the road was surprisingly well-paved, considering that few roads in the capital itself are paved at all. A little more than an hour after we left Bangui, we had arrived at the village of Boali. Bags of charcoal stacked alongside the highway sat next to piles of ripe papaya, waiting for a traveler with the coins to purchase one. As we passed into the village, the local outdoor church finished its services, the congregation drifting towards their homes, the women wrapped in brightly colored pagnes and the men wearing crisp white shirts, pressed pants, and freshly shined shoes. Once at the falls, a group of six young men attached themselves to us, eagerly offering to be our “guides” as we descended to the bottom of the falls, ascended the other side, and crossed back over the river upstream of the falls on a swaying, precarious vine bridge (reinforced by steel wire). Feeling rushed by our young friends, I rebelled against their hurried tour guide spiels and took off my shoes and socks, slipping my feet into the clear, cold water of the Mpoko River. Later we hiked back up to the top of the waterfall, and then crossed back over the river on a vine bridge- very scary! After our water adventures we had a lunch of grilled chicken, fried plantains, and cold beer at the water’s edge.
Also while in Bangui, I got to try two tennis lessons. I hadn’t played since college, when I took tennis as one of my P.E.’s and pretty much was terrible at it. The two lessons went well and I’m hoping to practice some more once we return to Chad.
All in all, Bangui: interesting place to visit, wouldn’t want to live there.