Bouncing around Bangui, Central African Republic

Another full day of flying…

Another day experiencing the delights of west African airlines.   Taking off from Niamey at 7am, and eventually landing in Bangui at 17.30 via Ouaga, Lome and Douala.   Happily I only had one minor hiccup which involved a sprint through Lomé airport to get the Bangui flight, if I had missed it, the next one was two days later.
The flight to Bangui was relatively full and most people on the plane were from the UN or a NGO.  The friendly Malian chap next to me was probably not the ideal companion as he spent most of the time telling me that Bangui was incredibly dangerous and that the locals would ‘kill each other like animals with hardly any reason’.   Hmmmmmm!

A deserved place at the bottom of the development index?

In fairness, Central African Republic undoubtedly deserves a reputation for violence and chaos – hence the number of UN and aid workers. In a continent of mad dictators, CAR has had some good ones –  most notorious was Jean-Bédel Bokassa, who took the power by force on 31 December 1965, and then declared himself Emperor of the Central African Empire. He was eventually overthrown in a coup.   More recently war broke out in 2014 between the Muslim Seleka (largely nomads) and the Christina anti – balaka’s (largely agriculturalists).  More than 20% of the population of 5 million have been displaced (thats the highest displacement ever recorded globally in a conflict).  Now the country is largely partitioned with the christians in the south/west and the muslims in the north/east.  While the government is in Bangui, it is obvious they are not in control of the country, and by all accounts, they are barely in control of the city.  There are now at least 14 armed rebel groups active in the country as both of the major factions have splintered and criminalised – which makes peace negotiations pretty difficult.   The UN have 14,0000 troops here, but their mission is at best perceived as ineffective.  Worse, there have been signifiant allegations of sexual abuse against the peace keepers.  The going rate for a prostitute is a 1000 CIFAs for the UN peacekeepers (about €1.50, enough to feed the children given there are few other options to earn)  CAR is the country rated lowest on the global 2015 UN development index (188 out of 188), it had the lowest GDP per capita (at PPP) in 2017, it is estimated to be the unhealthiest country and the worst country in which to be young….Its not an optimistic outlook. 

DRC embassy
National museum – apparently it has been looted and there is hardly anything left to see

Arriving in the poorest place in the world

Arriving in Bangui airport there are tonnes of UN planes and a decent military presence.   The immigration procedures are as chaotic as you would expect  and I was forced to give a minor manners lesson to a guy with a UN passport who tried to shove me out of his way at the visa desk (my manners lesson combined my sharp kiwi elbows with some appropriate French questioning about how his mother would feel about him shoving a lady).   Formalities complete I was let out of the airport by the UN soldier and met by the lovely Benjamin to go to the guesthouse who assured me that things were relatively calm at the moment.

Boganda monument
Post office

Getting lucky with the guesthouse

I had gotten lucky, after months of persistent email communication I secured a reservation at the Karakandji guesthouse, which is the best place to stay in town, but normally booked up with long term guests.  The other alternative is the Ledger plaza which at Usd300 per night is highway robbery given the AC barely functions (and when it does it pumps mould spores in the air) and most people who stay there get food poisoning.   In contrast the Karakandji is a reasonable 70 usd per night, and is actually inside the Norwegian/Swedish consulate and owned by Charlotte Mararv – the Consul -her family have lived in CAR for 40 years and she was born here.
The guesthouse is simple but lovely, and my room was in one of the houses with shared bathrooms.  The advantage of staying in a place like this is that you meet more interesting people than you do in a posh hotel.  My housemates were a wonderful collection of strong women from around the world (Niger,Haiti, France and America) and we had a wonderful evening discussing politics, men, life and Africa.
I went to sleep with the rain hammering down on the roof and it was still going strong in the morning.  I eventually roused myself out of bed, made a coffee and wandered off to find some breakfast.   One of my housemates was worried about me wandering around as everyone else gets cars everywhere, but I decided to give it a go.  Again the most problematic issue here is petty crime, which I am fine with.
the guesthouse – and the swedish and norwegian consulate

The ‘streets’ of Bangui

Navigating the ‘streets’ required some of my trail running skills, but I managed to submerge my foot in the red mud within two minutes of leaving.   I don’t think street maintenance is high on the agenda here
School – called toast and chocolate
typical bangui street
First stop the grand cafe for a pain au raisin (which amusingly contained three raisins) and a terrible coffee.  After that more wandering.   Everyone here seems reasonably friendly, although a bit surprised to see me walking around.   People are staring.   Though the polite ones (normally a bit older) follow up the stare with a bonjour.  The atmosphere feels pretty relaxed, tonnes of vendors and some excellent African beats pumping out from various stalls.   I like this place.
PK0
PK0
I stopped off at the patisserie capitole in a vain attempt to get a decent coffee.  Fail!  And then wandered around the cathedral which is pretty lovely.  I sat outside for a while watching some local girls practise some sort of hip hop dancing – no photos though, they were camera shy.
Cathedral of Immaculate Conception
Cathedral of Immaculate Conception
Cathedral of Immaculate Conception
Then a bit more aimless wandering as I had already ticked off the main tourist site on trip advisor (the cathedral).  No 2 was a beauty salon with two reviews.  And no.3 was PK5 – the Muslim District which is a no go area given recent tension and gun fighting.   I found a posh supermarket and bought some lunch and wandered some more and then went back to the meditative gardens of the guesthouse to read a book!

UN harassment and a nice arse

In the afternoon I headed out for another long stroll which was significantly less tranquil.  It started well with another swing by the cathedral and then a stroll round the government buildings.  The guards at the central african bank were polite when denying my request to take a photo of the very groovy building.  Unfortunately the UN guards at the presidential palace were less polite and two of them pointed guns at me… oh well!  You will have the check out the palace for yourselves – its a very cool art deco building.
Roundabout at PK0 – kilometre zero
Peace and national concord for development

I then wandered into town, where I was yelled at by an officious looking man for filming, which I wasn’t.  And then a lovely young man (not) followed me for about 5 minutes telling me I had a nice arse (‘jolie fesse’)…. which is ironic, as I have no arse to speak of, and the women here have magnificent backsides.  To round out my stroll, on the way back to the guesthouse, the road was blocked by about 50 angry folk all yelling and brandishing fists, with some police at the scene.  I figured out it was a car vs truck accident (the car lost), but everyone decided to weigh in to the melee.  I backtracked and came home the long way round.

Friday night in Bangui

Some of the lovely ladies at the guesthouse had offered to take me out for the evening.  We went to the Oubangui hotel and watch the sun set over the Ubangi river – with the DRC on the other bank of the river (apparently there are always men with guns on that side so none of the pirogues cross over).   And then we went to the very low key Escale to have an outstandingly good maboke, which is a mild fish curry, made of capitaine, cooked in a banana leaf and served with plantains.  It was excellent, and the best meal I have had in this trip.   More gossip ensued, though I had an easier run this evening as we were mostly in frenglish, rather than french.   It was a delightful way to end the day.
Ubangi river
Ubangi river
Housemates from Karakandji at La Escale

Only two bribes

The lovely Benjamin was bright and early to take me to the airport. Just as well as the battery was dead in the 4wd and he had to run around the corner to the consul’s dads house to borrow another one. The streets were already lively at 6.30 with the street side stalls opening up. The airport was a typically chaotic west/Central African experience. My bag was searched a full six times! I was however mildly concerned about their standing on the corruption index, as I was only asked for two bribes….. I expected more. They clearly need to up their game. Note that I do occasionally pay bribes but it’s rare and I need a good reason to do so. These guys were all fine when I said I had already spent my last local money and sadly didn’t even have enough for breakfast. Amazingly we left on time! Next stop Casablanca where I have a layover long enough to visit the art museum, have a nice dinner and a sleep. Onward to Gatwick tomorrow morning
Four more to go
Bangui August 25, 2018

Side note

Our flight back from Casablanca to London was delayed by five hours as one of the pilots didn’t show up! It was interesting to watch the crowd….. there was outrage, shouting, threats of solicitors and frequent demands to see the airport manager. Quite a few of the passengers were moaning like it’s the end of the world. Having just left CAR which is a war zone where women prostitute themselves for €1.50 to feed their kids, it is hard to get upset about a flight delay in an airport where there is air con, WiFi and a Starbucks. That is the gift of travelling in Africa, it makes me more grateful for everything I have. And yes we eventually got to London six hours late.
the no.2 attraction in bangui according to trip advisor

Sacrificing sheep in Niamey, Niger

Six airports, six countries (four not on purpose), five flights, 14 hours from A to B ….. where A to B was only 90 minutes of flying time apart

Getting to Niamey wasn’t as easy as it should have been! In theory, Niamey is about 90 minutes flying time from N’djamena. Unfortunately there aren’t any direct flights, or even any indirect flights. I had booked a route leaving N’djamena (Chad) at 7am that was supposed to arrive in Niamey at 17.45, after four consecutive flights (via Douala (Cameroon), Lome (Togo) and Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso)). West Africa being the fun place it is, I got a surprise bonus country, as we also ended up going through Abidjan (Cote d’Ivoire). Apparently one of the Asky planes was broken, so they just shoved us all on one plane and added a drop off in Abidjan – but they didn’t tell us that until we had boarded. Note I had already spent a lot of time in each of those four countries previously, so there was no upside to revisiting their airports. On the bright side I only had to get off the plane in Lome, and they had wifi in the terminal. I had contemplated going overland, but it would have been three days in a bush taxi and it wasn’t particularly safe at the moment with Boko Haram.

These things used to bug me when I started travelling, now i feel like 12 hours of travel on five flights with free food, aircon and loos is better than 12 hours in the back of bush taxi smushed between sweaty passengers. I wasn’t even that bothered by the extra two hours going to Abidjan…. in Africa, I am just grateful to arrive :-).

Relaxing evening – steak frites

I finally arrived at Niamey at 19.20 just in time to watch the sun setting over the river as we landed…. 12 hours since the 7.15am departure from N’djamena. There were twenty of us disembarking – 4 chinese workers (all of whom had tried to get off in Ouaga by accident), one lebanese guy, 4 african business men and three women with an assortment of children. We really are at the end of the world.

Mr Amadou was there to pick me up, and i was surprised by how lively the streets were, and how many motorbikes were going past with live sheep on them. He explained that I have arrived just in time for the festival of mutton – Tabaski or Eid el Adha (the festival of sacrifice) – in celebration of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. Apparently everyone has to slaughter a lamb, give one-third to the poor, one-third to friends and neighbour’s and have one third for your family. That would explain the flocks of sheep road side, and the sheep on the moto -taxis, its a bit like being back in NZ

I arrived at the lovely Tabakady restaurant and hotel to be greeted by the lovely Ida from Togo and the lovely Moroccan manager. Its nice to meet some women. This place is one of the best restaurants in Niger which also has a few basic rooms attached. I highly recommend it. I have said it before, and i know i am repeating myself, but the upside of french colonisation is that you can get an excellent steak frites with sauce au poivre in the unlikeliest of places. It was an excellent dinner! Off to bed to get some sleep after my 4.40am wake up call, i needed too rest up for the lamb festival.

I woke up freezing – the air conditioning had two settings – ferocious or off. I decided to drag myself out of bed to get going before it got too hot. After an excellent breakfast of omelette, croissants and Bissap juice I headed out to stroll around town. Apparently Niamey is famous for muggings rather than kidnappings, and I’m ok with mugging so was happy to walk. Kidnappings I am less cool with! (note I did avoid the two main mugging spots of town, I am not a complete fool.)

Wandering the streets

It was a sleepy morning for a Wednesday, and it turns out the the downside of the sheep festival is that pretty much everything is closed. The upside is that the smaller streets were full of friendly locals preparing for a feast. I do love walking around African cities. Locals aren’t used to seeing toubabs (white people) walk – toubabs are a species normally spotted in 4wds. As a result most people are surprised to see you and are keen to say hello. I also get optimistically chatted up by all manner of young men, who seem to be using me as a good excuse to try out their pick up lines….. am pretty sure most of them would run screaming if i appeared mildly interested.

First stop the perpetual lady of succour – the main cathedral. It was an interesting brutal concrete building with natural air con provided through the designed holes in the brick work. It was sleepy and lovely.

Niamey cathedral
Niamey cathedral

Crying in the zoo

After that, I went to the national open air museum. It was officially closed but an entrepreneurial guard let me in (i.e. in return for a modest bribe). All the pavilions and shops were closed so there wasn’t much to see. I hadn’t realised the museum also had a zoo, and by accident I ended up near the animals. I hate zoos in general, but this was awful. Tiny filthy cages. I started crying when I saw the chimps and then the lion cage. It was vile. Poor animals. I decided it was time to move on.

Dinosaur at the zoo
Zoo pavilion
Zoo pavilion

Coffee and the NationalAssembly

I stopped into Amandine cafe to fortify myself with a coffee and take advantage of the air con. It was 10 am and I was already drenched in sweat. Its not technically that hot here – probably 35, but it feels like 45. Properly restored I headed out to continue sweating and walking. I saw the National Assembly (and the guard gave me permission for a photo), and also checked out some of the other government buildings.

Congress
Main square
National Assembly
Hotel du Ville

Rubbish in the grand market

I then headed around the Grand market. The actual market was closed today but there were a few stalls open. When open, there are 5000 stalls in the main market, but it has burnt down more than once given the closely packed quarters. The rubbish was depressing!

Grande marches entrance
Grande marches entrance
When closed the vendors leave most stuff there but cover it up

Blood in the streets

After that I meandered through the streets strolling the few kilometres to the Ghadaffi mosque. The small streets had become abattoirs with blood literally running in the streets. They weren’t joking when they said that it was a festival of lamb sacrifice – i gave up counting when I had passed 100 slaughtered lambs. There are clearly no butchers here with nicely vacuum packed cuts of lamb. Groups of men with sharp knives were slaughtering, skinning and gutting the sheep every few metres along the streets. It was extraordinary. The small kids were digging holes to bury the entrails. The young boys were sent off to buy sticks to skewer the whole lambs. Other family members were building fires. If i was ever going to become a vegan again, today was the day. On the bright side, it was quite nice to see men actually doing physical work, typically its women in Africa who do all the work. Today the ladies were in their finest clothes and observing proceedings from afar.

These men were butchering street side – it was a continual bloodletting
Later in the morning, butchering done
Later in the morning, butchering done
Now time for cooking

Ghadaffi’s gift

I eventually reached the Ghadaffi mosque – which was gifted to Niger from Gadaffi. Prayers had finished for today so I was invited in to take a look around. It was a stunning mosque, with beautifully intricate tile work, and unusual yellow tiles. After having a gossip on the steps with the custodians, who were trying to persuade me to go and buy them a lamb, I summoned up the energy to stroll back to town.

Ghadaffi mosque
Ghadaffi mosque
Ghadaffi mosque
Mosque guardian

It was sweltering by the time I got back to the hotel so I opted for a laze by the pool with a Diet Coke, and a chat with the wait staff who gave me some free lamb to eat (honestly it was pretty delicious).

Another wee stroll, some more energetic exercise catching a huge cockroach in my room, and then a quiet pizza by the pool. And so ends my amusing time in Niamey. Another early night as have another 5am pick up

I was up early this morning, earlier than my driver so had an amusing ten minutes hanging with the security guards outside the hotel who were fully kitted our with laptops and phones and watching Nigerian dance videos – hilarious. And now am loving the airport, after two nights of dial up speed, the high speed WiFi provided for free by the Chinese corporation at the airport is amazing! Also reinforcing my view that we are at the end of the world, there were only 10 passengers on the flight with 50 spare seats.

5 more to go, next stop Bangui
Niamey August 23, 2018

Additional notes

  • Stayed at Tabakady – a restaurant with a few rooms and a nice pool
  • Flew in with Asky and out with Air Burkina when asky cancelled their flight ; RAM might be a better choice though

Negotiating in N’djamena

I am on the final count down to my list of 197 – just 7 more to go.  Most people quickly figure out from that number the implication is that the remainder are largely sketchy countries.   And they would be right.  This week we have a trifecta of UN development index winners.  There are only 188 countries on the UN development list (out of 193 UN sovereign states some like Tuvalu, San Marino and Monaco are too small).   And this week I get to visit no.s 186,187 and 188 respectively.  It will be an interesting week.

First stop N’djamena, Chad

The flight from Casa seemed unusually touristy, with a lot more pale folks than I am used to going to central or west africa.  Turns out the flight was bound for Nairobi, and only 40 of us got off at N’djamena.  The airport was clean and lovely, and staffed with more people than passengers.  The men here are charming and I was asked out twice before i got out of the terminal (they must have a thing for grubby backpackers with wrinkles and grey hair).   The lovely Toide picked me up and bought me to the Hilton – an extraordinarily lovely hotel that I had found a cracking deal on for 90 euros a night.
After a good night sleep and an excellent (if absurdly over-priced) buffet breakfast – I headed out to see the ‘sights’ of N’djamena.   It is a little tricky to take photographs in town as the police are quite sensitive, so I had decided to go with a guide as at least that way I was less likely to get stopped, hassled and bribed. (At least two of the nutters facebook group have had probs with the police here, so i come forewarned)

Bustling street life

The streets are bustling… and N’djamena is wealthier than I expected.  There is plenty of money in this town – lots of lovely hotels, new buildings going up, and vast numbers of shiny 4wds…. though undoubtedly the wealth is in the hands of the minority.  The main avenues are broad and wide, with lots of commerce on the street, including a lively sheep market
Street life
Street life – this place has an odd name thought – the buvette (cafe) of Wembley from the centre of greenland – someone’s geography is a bit off
Street life

Fossils in the museum

We headed to the national museum of Chad.   Museums are never top of my list of things to do, but as trip advisor will indicate, there isn’t a long list of things to see in ndjamena.   Honestly I get bored in the V&A so there was limited likelihood I was going to be enthralled by this museum.  The museum was small but enthusiastically kept.   There isn’t a huge amount to see but some of the Jewelry and fossils were fascinating.    There is a bonus exhibition about independence from France, which consists of about 20 pictures of politicians, it was riveting.
Mother Africa
Chad museum

Kuran slates at the Chad museum
Kuran versus at the Chad museum
Chad museum

Organised chaos at the grand Marche

Next up, my favourite thing to do in Africa – head to the markets.   N’djamena’s grand market is true to African form – it seems chaotic but is incredibly organised.   Each quarter serves a defined purpose – second hand clothing from Zara and mango piled high to be picked through, pharmaceuticals tended by white robed Muslims, women from the villages with fruit and veg, and the obligatory Chinese plastic tat which you find worldwide.   We wandered round for half an hour soaking up the vibes and avoiding the kids asking me for cash.
Market

Market

Market
Market
Market
Market

A war of attrition with the souvenir stall holders

Honestly, I try and avoid visiting souvenir markets, but apparently there wasn’t much else to see and we had some free time (yes we have all heard that one before and I fell for it willingly).  Business was probably pretty slow, so the fifty or so stall holders were pretty happy to see me.  It was exhausting to be 1 tourist with 50 vendors, and it was a war of attrition I had no hope of winning.  It is rare that I buy souvenirs, but some of the masks were lovely, so my pack is now weighed down with two more plus a very groovy comb.  I would like to think that i held my own in the negotiations, but these days I am a lazy old tourist of the type I despised when I was backpacking around Asia at 20 hustling everything down to the last rupee.  Now I don’t really care what the price is provided it isn’t daylight robbery…..
Successful vendors
Successful vendors
Successful vendors

Celebration of ‘independence’

We headed to see the Place du nation.  African nations do monuments to independence well!  This one was a treat.  The highlight for me was the world globe, mostly because NZ was actually on it!   Taking photos here was a sensitive manoeuvre – we were only allowed to face in one direction with the presidents palace behind us.  God forbid someone take a photo of the presidents palace.   Idriss Deby is a model of African democracy…. he has been president since 1990, and he removed the term limits to enable himself to be ‘elected’ five times.   He doesn’t hold the record – I think that is still Equatorial Guinea with 38 years of the same ‘democratically’ elected guy.

Place du Nation
Place du Nation
Across from the palace is the cathedral which is sadly closed for renovation.   It was tricky to get a picture given the proximity to the palace but eventually a vaguely official looking dude in camouflage gear said it would be ok.  I imagine it was lovely and will be again.
Cathedral

“No tourist card no photo” at the Mosque

We passed by the grand mosque and stopped to see if we could take a photo.  The ‘friendly’ militia were adamant that I couldn’t take a photo without a tourist card – irrelevant that such a thing doesn’t exist.  Oh well!  Apparently I could be boko haram scoping it out for bombing (and they have executed suicide bombings in ndjamena numerous times).  It isn’t the nicest mosque in the world in any case, but have popped in a picture from google images for your edification.
picture from beautifulmosque.com

Sunning by the river

After that back to the hotel for a couple of hours sunning myself next to the river.  Its incongruous hanging out in the Hilton in N’djamena, as I don’t really feel like I am in Africa.  The guest list of the hotel was on display as i was paying this evening, and half the US consulate appears to be living here…., its not my typical African experience.    Heading to Niger tomorrow at the crack of dawn, and normalcy will be restored as I am staying at one of the cheaper guesthouses I could find.   I will be looking forward to a bed of any description after four flights with Asky tomorrow (N’djamena to Douala to Lome to Ouagadougou to Niamey),  🙂
View of the river from the hotel
View of the river from the hotel
6 more to go
N’djamena 20 August 2018

Notes

  • I stayed at the Hilton N’djamena.  It was lovely, staff were delightful!  Shop around for a deal
  • I cut a deal with the hilton driver to take me around town, you can contact Toide on toide2006@yahoo.fr or +23566471272.  he speaks english and french.

Side note – i still hate flights in africa

Travelling in Africa is never boring.  The flight times are loose guidelines versus actual commitments.  Getting to three of my last four countries in Africa was never going to be easy given the limited connections.   I had constructed an optimistic flight booking through Casablanca to ndjamena, then on to Niamey (the neighboring country)  via Douala, Lome, and Ouagadougou, then back to Bangui via Ouagadougou, Lome and Douala (don’t ask, I tried to do it in the other order but it didn’t work), then back to London via Casablanca.   Things had already gone a bit pear shaped with Asky cancelling the first leg of the Niamey to Bangui leg a few weeks ago, but I had found an exorbitantly priced ticket on Air Burkina to replace that leg.   And I was unsurprised when I got to Gatwick this morning to find my flight was delayed an hour.  Given my connection time was originally only 75 minutes, I was not wildly hopeful I would make it with just 15 minutes.  I did a dead sprint across the airport, smiled my way to the front of the security line and made it to the gate with one minute to spare!  Happy to have done so, as the next flight to N’djamena wasn’t for two more days.   Fingers crossed the rest works out….., I don’t expect it to, ….but thats part of the joy of being in Africa…., you are pleasantly surprised when stuff actually works.