Two months into my sejour in the Central African Republic (CAR) and I’m having a love affair with this place. A slightly masochistic one, maybe; in some parts of the capital, Bangui, you can cut the tension with a switchblade, and tracts of the rest of the country, especially in the North, are quite literally lawless. Nevertheless, after just spending a week in the equatorial forests from which much of the Central African republic is carved, I now understand why ‘Our man in Bangui’ has lived here for thirty-five years.
CAR is a big country with a small population, about 4.5 million, and travelling here ain’t easy. Aid workers in white 4×4’s struggle to move around – because of roadblocks erected by Seleka, and other rebels, who demand money at every stop – and because the security situation changes from day to day, so travelling is unpredictable and sometimes really dangerous. Most local people, meanwhile, rely on public transport, like minibuses and fantastically overcrowded public taxis. But as far as I know, Munjus, or white people, never take public transport because it’s considered a risk.
Given all of this, I was lucky to be offered a lift on a logging truck that was heading down to the forests south west of Bangui last week, where a friend of a friend had invited me to visit him, in a region called the Lobaye.
The truck driver was very laid-back, and the view from the cabin was like being at the cinema. We trundled southwards for a hundred kilometres or so, along a fairly decent road, before turning onto a wide dirt track that descended into dense equatorial rain-forest in all its rainy-season fecund glory of fifty shades of glistening green.
My contact, Patrick, works for a Central African logging company. His cabin, adjacent to the Lobaye river, has a breath-catching view of forest; it is part of the vast Congo basin rainforest, the second-largest rainforest on our earth.
There are thousands of people living in this swathe of forest: they build their houses from timber, grow manioc and other vegetables in-between the trees, and hunt birds and animals throughout the forest. It’s macongo caterpillar season right now, and many local people are out foraging, because the macongo are a local delicacy and fetch a good market price.
Patrick was a great host: he offered me a guide with a motorbike, a man who knows this forest, and loves it, and who took me out every day, even in the rain. We motorbiked down wretched tracks churned with mud to reach settlements deep within the forest. I wanted to meet the local Akka, the forest pygmies, who only live in this part of CAR. In one village, the placid local village chief wore a Hawaiian style shirt, with a badge that said ‘Chef du Village.’ Most of the other villagers wore rags. They talked to me about their lives, their music, and about the missionaries who used to come to their village, but who don’t visit any more. The Akka are Christians now, but they’ve kept their indigenous religion alive, and told me they’re proud of these beliefs.
Religion and religious beliefs are intense elements of life in the Lobaye: during my week of motorbiking through the forest, I met nuns from half a dozen countries who run Catholic missions in villages in the forest. And I met local women who’ve been accused of sorcery by their own communities, often by members of their own families, and had to flee for their lives. A local activist told me these traditional beliefs flourish because local people aren’t educated, so if somebody becomes ill, or dies, they believe this is the result of sorcery. He is passionate that the answer is education. The Catholic missions certainly offer education, but they have their own agendas too.
These are just a few of the stories I’m exploring in this great forest of a country. I have barely touched the surface yet, so I’m going to have to stay here for quite a while, travel and write, and let this consuming love affair really take me over!