After surviving Neil Armstrong’s lobotomy, which I presume is a control for ebola or yellow fever, I move into what i assume to be the next room, but later discover is actually the main body of the airport. The room is like an over-packed club where the doorman has let in too many people, on top of that there appears to be a random queuing system whereby other people show up and deliver other people’s passports? These people then go to the front of the queue and I’m like the rest of the athletes at a Usain Bolt 100m race, just disappearing backwards. My guy doesn’t make it through the last security check and has to wait for me at the baggage reclaim. After what seems like an eternity I step over the passed out UN soldier and make my way to what i discover is more baggage roulette than reclaim. The conveyor belt is broken so three men have taken it upon themselves to literally throw our suitcases out to us, luckily in the scramble I find mine and I escape out of the melee with Farel out to Richard and Jay from Water for Good who are there to pick me up.
Richard Klopp is CEO of Water for Good, he grew up in Africa and got his first job at 13 for an NGO in Timbuktu. Jay Hocking is the country director, owner of a school bus, as well as raised in the CAR by his dad and the founder of Water for Good Jim Hocking.
We drive out of the airport and through the market at Bangui, there are people everywhere and my mind immediately starts to race, it’s 430 in the afternoon here, what are all these people doing. I start making comparisons with what I’m seeing to what I would be doing now in Sweden. A futile exercise that only serves to reinforce my ignorance of this part of the world but I persist anyway. Where are the mothers and fathers picking their kids up from school? Dinner preparation? I catch myself, as we approach the evangelist guest house, we live such a stressful life in the Western world but it is stress that is entirely of our own creation. We have everything we could possibly need in Europe and yet here in the Central African Republic their need is for the very basic essentials to survive, food, water and shelter. I settle into my room at the guest house, basic (what I will later come to see as luxurious) but comfortable with two guards, one in the front and one in the back.
Charlotte picks me up in her landrover and we head to her house which lies up in the hills overlooking Bangui, there is a large expat population here and as we head up the hill the land rover lurches and skids from side to side looking for that elusive grip to get it up the hill. In amongst the potholes and the mud she explains about the impact on prices because of the return of the UN into the country. Renting a house in Bangui is the equivalent of living in the centre of Paris and the two guards you need are akin to your second mortgage, amounting to a thousand euros for their services. The irony is not lost on me, poverty is an expensive game.
Over a lovely meal made from all the local fruits and vegetables from the market my fellow swede tells tales about her life growing up in the CAR. Charlotte has written her own blog post but so I won’t steal all her material but she grew up around a lot of injustice, crime and violence in the CAR. In her own words,
“Death was always around the corner.”
She goes on to tell the story of her brother being shot by poachers as nonchalantly as if he’d had a dose of the manflu. He was airlifted out of the Congo, eventually having surgery in South Africa and rehabilitating back in Sweden. I ask if he is still working in the Parks?
“Of course he is! Someone has to save the elephants otherwise my kids aren’t going to see them.”
I listen intently as she goes on to talk about her main concern for children growing up in the CAR, and that’s the age at which young girls become sexually active, usually around the age of 11 years old is normal. It is also someone from the family/community that ‘teaches’ them how to have sex. As shocking as this is to us Charlotte remembers that her friends thought she was weird because she wasn’t having sex.
The pain au chocolat washed down with a cup of coffee at the lovely coffee shop in Bangui clears my head from the restless night’s sleep I had and allows me to prepare myself for the internal plane ride I’m about to take to the Sangha Lodge. I’m flying on a propeller, one engine, 7 seater aircraft with a guy that needs to take sleeping tablets to go on a boeing 777. As our land rover pulls up to the plane Jay turns to me and offers me a tablet with the immortal words,
“We’ve got this.”
All my worries disappear as we soar over the boundless beauty of the Central African Republic, the interminable green of the rainforest expands out across the horizon rarely intersected by the red-earth roads that I will become so well acquainted with. As the plane lands we are greeted by a film crew, crowds of people and the WWF until they realise their mistake, that we aren't the ministers they are waiting for. Instead we make acquaintances with police who take one look at our passports and promptly walk away with them Luckily, the manager of the lodge is there and he explains that this is normal procedure and can expect our passports back tomorrow, maybe?! I can’t help thinking to myself that if I was in any other continent I would never accept someone taking my passport without at least saying something but here what seems unusual is the norm. What’s more surprising is the ease with which I accept these changes.
The Lodge is beautifully tucked away in the depths of the rainforest and I’m lucky enough to get a cottage to myself with electricity, running water and questionable internet. The Lodge is owned by a married couple Rod and Tamra from South Africa, we sit down together for a much welcomed meal of spaghetti bolognese before retiring to our rooms for a midday siesta. Just as I’m about to fall asleep I hear a knock at the door, they have found a Pangolin, one of the most trafficked animals in the world, that they protect here at the lodge and ask if I want to see it? Of course I do! Hurrying over to see it, I realise that I don’t have any idea what it looks like. They are like a cross between an armadillo and a sloth and this particular one is so sweet and thame because they have nursed him back to health. I also witness the feeding of a blue duiker, the world’s second smallest antelope.
As we are standing there admiring the animals we hear gunshots, the walkie talkies start buzzing and it becomes apparent that the lodge’s guards have found poachers that have killed four elephants.
We hear more shots from the guards, we know it is them because the poachers use homemade guns that can only fire one round. The situation is scary but calm and I reflect that it is another one of those situations that when looked at in the context of Africa, is just another. I’m again surprised at how easily I accept every new situation that is imposed upon me and I begin to feel a warmth grow inside for this land.
Later at dinner Rod passes around a picture of the guards and the tusks that they confiscated. There is also a picture of a poacher that they caught, I’m shocked, he’s just a young boy! Rod goes on to explain that these people, or should I say children are poaching out of desperation to feed themselves and their families. As with most things, especially in Africa, we are treating the symptom not the disease and the disease is poverty.
We finish the day with a tasty dinner exchanging stories about life and travels. It seems all Europeans working in Central Africa have some kind of connection, on a continent so vast it suddenly starts to feel very small. After having a showdown with what I’m convinced is the World’s largest grasshopper on my bed, I fall asleep.