04/21/2008versione stampabileprintinvia paginasend

Everyday Life in Central Africa
 Written for PeaceReporter by
Edoardo Occa

The dull thump of mortar and pestle rises with the first light of day and the pungent aroma of manioc in the air beating out an ancestral rhythm that has marked the passage of hours in these African villages since ancient times. In the Central African Republic, humidity cloaks every gesture and sudden, quick movement is simply out of the question. The women greet one another as they light the fire. The freshly-ground manioc flour gets mixed with water to make gozò, a polenta-like meal that is daily fare for the people here.

Everyone eats gozò: from small children—who have to pitch in as soon as they can walk by looking after newborns or carrying water from the well—to the father of the family who has just emerged from his cabin and is waiting to be served the first meal of the day. Sometimes the gozò is eaten with kokò, an herb similar to spinach chopped very fine (skill in making kokò can be both a source of personal pride and object of good-natured teasing by the other villagers), or more rarely with meat (usually chicken or goat) on special occasions.

The Lobaye region lies deep in the equatorial forest close to the border with Congo-Brazzaville and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The people here speak Sangho, but the flocks of children you meet on their way to elementary school never fail to deliver an exuberant “bonjour papà!” or “bonjour maman!,” legacy of a colonial past still very much present in people’s everyday lives.

Transport vehicles carrying precious wood from the heart of the forest arrive with regularity from Pissa. The road is still paved at this point, which is something of a rarity considering that we are some 85 kilometers from the capital Bungui. Police in Pissa stop all vehicles for inspection and the hubbub that results is responsible for a good part of the local economy. A lively little market in non-perishable goods has recently sprung up thanks to financing from UNICEF and the pride of the villagers and their indefatigable mayor.

By now the sun is high in the sky and the heat is brutal. Already some of the locals are sipping cups of kangoya, a homemade palm wine found everywhere in these parts. Barefoot youths busy themselves with the errands of the day, dignified in their tattered t-shirts emblazoned with European football champions (which have managed to infiltrate even the remotest African markets). No rock is too small for an impromptu champion’s league match—informal, to be sure, but no less competitive and impassioned for that.

By midmorning the relatively low-maintenance manioc and taro fields have been tended to as village life reverts to its age-old calm until sunset, when the market square fills with the voices of women discussing the events of the day while packing away unsold merchandise…

Without fail, officers assigned to the roadblock checkpoint begin to take their seats about now at the only café in town. They will sit here for hours drinking warm beer (the village has only one generator-powered refrigerator and fuel supplies from the capital are prohibitively expensive) and mishui, raw spiced meat wrapped in mango leaves.

The blanket dark of the African night is so absolute that it seems like you could reach out and touch it. Sporadic bonfires dot the landscape along with laughter, singing, and the cries of newborns. But before long human voices give way to the sounds of the forest. At dawn, mothers will rise again to start grinding flour and continue the daily rituals that have defined the seasons, the years, and life itself for as long as anyone here can remember.