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 Christian 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.
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.
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 ‘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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.