Bangui was a relaxing and invigorating stop for me. It is on the Ubangi River, in the center of Africa, on the edge of the massive Congo basin. Upstream on the Ubangi, there were political issues in South Sudan. Roads heading east and south were windy and wandering through the jungles. For thousands of years, the best highway had been the river itself. The nearest significant port was the town of Libenge about 100 kms south of Bangui.
Early one morning as the sun came up, I got a ride on a very small boat across the Ubangi to Zongo, a small settlement in Zaire, on the other side. There wasn’t much there but there was a highway heading south nearby.
I quickly hitched a ride in an empty open flat bed truck with high wooden sides around its bed. At least it started out empty when I climbed in. The truck groaned out along the rutted road and headed slowly south through the forest under an increasingly hotter and hotter sun. There was no shade back where I was riding.
Over the next 6 or 7 hours or so, the truck repeatedly stopped at a series of basic storage structures, each filled with cotton. Jumped out to help the driver and his helpers load cotton into the back of the truck. As we went along, my ride became a little more comfortable with a place to sit for a few minutes until we got to the next stop.
The wooden structures filled with cotton were rectangular steep roofed and thatch covered with two large doors in the front. The doors opened up to allow the crew of four: driver plus two helpers, plus me, to transfer the contents into the back of the truck with a tarp placed on top. The shelters and tarp protected this cash crop from the rain.
With the tarp on top, the truck bed had a mattress where I would rest until the next stop. We slowly wound our way along, going slower with each added load. The back of the truck gradually filled with cotton and the tarp sat higher and higher. When we arrived in Libenge at the port, I was sitting triumphantly high on the top of a pile of cotton.
Libenge wasn’t much of a town, but as a river port it offered the opportunity to travel on one of the barges or the boats that towed them regularly down the Ubangi to the Congo River.
Mais oui, I saw the opportunity and with my travelling companion French, I was able to talk my way into passage on a tugboat heading downstream pushing a couple barges. Tugs were the heartbeat of the river, pushing barges of lumber and livestock (cattle and pigs) which made up the commerce of the region at the time.
On board the tug were the captain and his wife. They spoke French, Sango and other languages along the river. The Captain was at the helm; his wife kept the books while I scurried about doing whatever the captain directed me to do. There was also the Radio Operator and the Radio Operator’s wife, who ran the store onboard the ship. This humble boat was the only source of contact with the outside world for many roadless villages along the lower Ubangi River.
We headed down river for the next three weeks as the equatorial summer got hotter and hotter. The sun now burned directly over head and a person hardly cast a shadow.
The Ubangi is a wide slow-moving river and reminded me of what Mark Twain might have seen going down the Mississippi. Every ten miles or so there were villages, not connected by road, but by the river – Motemge-Boma, Dongo, Bururu and so on. On the left side of river (East side) was Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire in 1972; formerly Belgian Congo); the other side was Republic of Congo (formerly French, Congo-Brazzaville) – two countries, almost the same name. But importantly, both understood my French. I didn’t pick up much of the local languages, but everyone seemed to have a smattering of French and expected to speak to someone who looked like me in French.
The boat stopped to deliver supplies and to pick up cargo. We would approach the village landing slowly using the tug to halt our passage in the constant slow southward flow of the river. Often the landing was just a bare carved out section of riverbank with a very steep path leading to an anchoring Palm tree. When we arrived up to a dozen or more local villagers would come to greet the boat … the barge traffic was their lifeline with the outside world.
People looked at me oddly, many had never seen someone who looked like me. I was likely the only American many of them had ever seen. Kids asked to touch my skin and hair which was a now an unruly mop and looked very odd to them.
We pressed on, and after 6 days, we finally reached the confluence of the Ubangi and the massive Congo River. The Congo was so wide, it seemed more like a great lake or the ocean. The other side of the river was not visible. The water got muddier as we entered the great river.
The captain turned upriver and soon was threading his way through a labyrinth of islands as we headed to Mbandaka, the nearest large town on the Congo.
The town pier was high above the river level at that time of year. The river rises and falls with the rainfall hundreds of miles away to the east in the rift valley. One needed to climb a ladder to get to the deck of the wharf.
There was a crowd on the pier, and I asked in French if there was a Canadian or American around. I was directed to a Canadian family who offered me their hospitality, mais oui.
The Canadian Counsulate-Aid officer told me we were very lucky: we were all going to a 4th of July party later that day at the US consulate. It was quite a treat eating exotic hot dogs, hamburgers, corn-on-the-cob and watermelon to celebrate July 4th, 1972 in Mbandaka, Zaire, on the Equator, beside the Congo River! I don’t think any of our “founding fathers” could have imagined, in their wildest dreams, any of these details.
My fellow traveler, the French language, had helped me arrive and would continue to help me on my travels.