Klaserie River Sands

Congo Chronicles: Into the Great Wide Open

‘No borders, just horizons’ – Amelia Earhart

Leaving Yengo early on a Sunday morning with the community team and heading north towards Ouesso, a town on the Cameroon border. It was the start of the second sensitization road trip, this time heading east and north. Travelling in a skedonk cruiser with no roof racks finds 8 of us and our luggage  getting very up close and personal over the following days.

Somewhere between the edge of the whiteboard digging into one thigh, overripe wild mangoes and manioc under my feet and the soldiers AK47 digging ever more into my knee with every hole we hit on the other side, I found myself having the occasional chuckle at the picture. It’s hot, humid and the Chinese trucks that come tearing around every corner, playing chicken with our own over committed driver, kicks up dust clouds so thick you can’t see 2 meters in front of you.

It is said all good stories commence in an exotic city, with a woman, and chance. Well, then so will this one. Although of course the interpretation of this border town in Congo as being ‘exotic’ is complete poetic license. It did however have the first and last bathroom tap with water coming out of it I have experienced in Congo outside of Brazzaville. Either way, the town is Ouesso, the woman is the formidable character of Mere Gina, whom as chance would have it, also happens to be our assistant for the north. Following the infallible advice of my friend in Yengo, I go in search of Mere Gina my first night in Ouesso, hoping to find some food, the preparation of which did not come within 10 meters of a can of tuna or sardines. Sitting in her restaurant, ostensibly her yard backing onto a street, I watched a rat or two scampering around the cooking pots. But like a mate says: what doesn’t kill you makes you thinner’.  Not only did Mere Gina cook me one of the best meals of fresh fish, saka saka and plantain, she handed me a cold beer before I even sat down. A woman after my own heart.

Our first night we spent camping on the road outside the chiefs’ hut. Being the only hut in the village with a generator and thus a TV inside, sees most of the village sitting in neat rows after nightfall outside the hut, watching a bad kung fu movie dubbed in French followed by a history of the king makers of the Second World War. Again I am struck by the fact that there is not a single operational school along this whole axis.

Sitting talking to the irrepressible Gina that evening I am reminded again that most people here are just looking for an opportunity to make something better of their lives. For whatever reason, few of them succeed. But for those who do, the ingenuity of Africans knows no bounds. South Africa can attest to the inexhaustible possibilities that abound when people are given the space and tools in order to uplift themselves. It is not always a case of people seeking a hand out, but simply a hand up. With a bit of luck and at the moment an inestimable amount of hard work, this is a place of opportunity.

Three days later without any form of shower and Mere Gina and I take a walk down to the stream outside our next village camp.  Wandering upstream a bit, I find two girls washing so figure this to be a good spot. Stripping down to knickers as they are, we all have a good laugh at my pasty skin but bugger sensibilities, I checked them at the airport. Especially when a little girl comes wading upstream clutching a cold beer for me, compliments of Mere Gina.  The next minute we hear men coming down the stream. Bad time to have forgotten my kikoi when the stream is only ankle deep. My two bathing companions are up in arms with the guys who are resolutely refusing to walk the other way around to the village. Before I know what’s happening I have both girls standing in front and in back of me, trying to keep all three of us covered with their tiny wraps. A stream of what I can only imagine as Lingala vitriol erupts from the girls as the boys come around the bend to find this Mzungu sandwich in their river. Boys gone, my beer is still safely chilling in the stream, the three of us take a moment to think and just burst out laughing. I think I might have made for interesting fireside conversation for their families that evening.

It seemed as though Mere Gina had taken instructions from Christelle because the next night she cooks me up a plate of meat and watches me to ensure I eat all of it. The previous night I had respectfully declined eating the porcupine she was busy preparing. I think the sight of the small quills she was viciously scraping off the meat left me in no doubt as to the internal scrub it would give my stomach. She on the other hand was mightily unimpressed with my can of food, hence the force feed of real food. I refrained from asking what kind of meat it was. Between the porcupine and the half a monkey carcass that had travelled with us on the last road trip, I figured this to be a prudent choice. Either way, she can work wonders with food. And the fact that she magically managed to find a cold beer for us to share in a village of 4 huts is a gift I am not going to question.

I’m Catherina Hall-Martin and I’m based out in Congo Brazzaville, currently working as a volunteer for the African Parks Network. Follow my blog posts The Congo Chronicles for stories about working hard to create community development projects around the wilds of Odzala National Park.

AG Kariega Photo Safari
Princeton University Press
Princeton University Press
Africa Geographic