As I sat myself down in my seat next to Björn, the Swedish Opera singer, on the first leg of my journey that would culminate in my landing in Bangui, the capital city of the Central African Republic, I reflected upon the road that has got me to this life-changing point. My reflection turned into narration as Björn kindly introduced himself and I set about explaining what we did at Yuhme as social entrepreneurs. I feel a great sense of pride everytime I tell our story, not in a boastful way it’s much deeper than that, it’s a feeling within me that acknowledges I’m on the right path. Then it strikes me, this is the feeling of fulfillment.
The Starwars themed hotel at Paris will be my last taste of decadence, along with my breakfast of croissants and french cheese. I hop onto the shuttle that takes me back to Charles de Gaulle, my point of departure to Bangui and the unknown, at least in my case. As I’m wandering up to the Check-in, still half-asleep from the early wake-up call, I catch myself filling in the narratives of people’s lives that are standing in front me. Is it an Asian couple taking a once in a lifetime trip to see Europe and are now returning home? Or the African-American visiting family in Kenya? When I ask, of course all my preconceived notions are crushed as I’m greeted with thick american accents and they tell me that they try to visit Europe at least once a year. I laugh to myself as we start boarding the plane and reflect that this is going to be a journey that challenges all my perceptions.
I’ve been sitting in my aisle seat about five minutes when the woman, Chantelle, next to me asks in french if I wouldn’t mind swapping seats with her sister so they can sit next to each other? Realising that French isn’t my strong suit Marie-Chantelle changes to English with more success. Remembering the kindness that has always been shown to me and my family when traveling I say it’s no problem and wiggle my way out. What I lose in comfort I gain in friendship as I sit between the businessman and the aid worker. Once we the plane has assumed it’s natural position in the air Marie-Chantelle comes over and asks where I’m staying in Bangui? I explain that I’m only in Bangui one night but will return at the end of my trip for a couple of days. With a burst of excitement Marie-Chantelle invites me to their Mother’s house as she simultaneously pushes a piece of paper with her phone number on into my hand. Their genuine smiles and generosity makes me feel relaxed as even before I land in Bangui, I start to feel that sense of community that I have been looking for.
The usual inhouse amenities are offered from their usual mobile vehicle by the stewardesses as both my neighbours adopt the usual positions of travellers in cattle class on aeroplanes, sleeping in positions akin to something between a trapeze artist and a contortionist frozen in time. After watching a film, I feel my eyes gently closing as sleep eventually takes over me. Five minutes later a nudge on my left leg drags me back from the brink, my neighbour needs to get out to go to the toilet. On her return we start talking and she explains that she’s on her way to Cameroon to work with deforestation. I learn that the biggest culprits of deforestation are palm oil, soy and cocoa beans. She works for a New York based organisation, her father is a professor in Paris and she speaks ten languages. This is the beauty of traveling, you meet such a diversity of people and just on this plane, the vast majority are here with good intentions trying to make the World a better place. That in it’s itself leaves me with a feeling of inspiration and fortifies my belief that I and Yuhme are on the right path.
Our conversation continues with why there are so many campaigns that say no to something rather than say yes to the alternative? This seems to typify the negative mindset of media today that if you let it, will come to dominate our own mindsets. Then I see it, the expanse of green lushness interspersed by, what I will learn are the red, sandy roads that typify the Central African Republic. For two years now we have donated six months of clean water to Water for Good for every Yuhme water bottle we have sold and now I’m in the CAR to see first hand what the impact of this money has been. The feeling of calm and contentment and purpose fills me as the stifling heat hits me as we disembark, then an altogether different feeling hits me as a thermometer is shoved in my ear by a man in something that resembles a space suit. Welcome to Africa!