Badass in Bangui

Sometimes, you have to tread a very precarious line in Africa, and our mission with the Kingsley Holgate Foundation to rescue stranded chimpanzees in the Central African Republic definitely qualifies as one of the most edgy trips ever. This excerpt is from Chapter 34 of #TheWanderings … such a blast timelining way back to these pages from one of my 2010 journals documenting one of the Mother Continent’s most unpredictable countries 👌

In the build-up to the Independence Day regatta, the pirogues shapeshift into one giant flotilla of boats, consisting of thousands of paddlers who then migrate to the start line in a sinuous mass of colourful chaos. War cries, drumming, ululations and the occasional gun shot ring out across the great, greasy-brown expanse of Bangui River as the cacophony sweeps towards an uproarious, unbridled and animalistic crescendo. This is 100% proof Africa, raw, vibrant and overwhelmingly in-your-face.

The president of the Central African Republic – we were never formally introduced, so I only know him as Mr Don’t-Fuck-With-Papa – then steps forward onto a small island, requisitions a 9mm pistol from one of his personal guards, cocks the side arm and fires a live round over the heads of the massed paddlers to start proceedings. The ensuing mêlée can’t be adequately be put into words or pictures: thousands of oars churn and stab at the water, while all round a rabid, raucous roar rises up from the crowds lining the river banks.

The coxswains, perched precariously on knife-edged bow-sprits and sporting anything from bearskin caps to ridiculous summer bonnets, exhort their teams on to greater effort, causing a frenzy of late bets in the sweltering crowds. I manage to shoulder my way through the crush of humanity to a military vehicle and, after a sharp and short disagreement with a drunk policeman, manage to hoist myself onto the back to where I have a commanding view of the river from amidst a half-dozen soldiers.

Unbridled anarchy – the sort bordering on bloodletting – radiates all round, but now is not the time to be timid. I’m swept up into the pandemonium of the crowd as I jump of the vehicle, and eventually force my way to where a teenage tribal warrior spins and gyrates and lunges his spear in an out-of-body trance. His eyes are wild, his body language demented and thrusts manically at my lens. His eyes roll back, spittle flying from his rictus sneer, while I ratchet off shot after shot on motor-drive. All the while hoping, praying, he won’t cross that now invisible line between reality and whatever the ghat demons in his head are screaming out …

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