June 1, 2021 – Central African Republic
The breeze rustles the thatch roof of the restaurant on stilts on which I sit, wafting the river smell my way. A combination of fish, water, and garbage make a strong odor, inching its way to where I sit sipping a bottle of water.
Across the river is Zongo, our port of entry into the Democratic Republic of the congo. Pirogues (dug out canoes) are gently pushed down river as fishermen change spots in search of fish. Others sit in the center of the river, dredging the bottom for sand. Two pirogues sit still in the very middle, directly in front of me, in an area low enough that their long poles can reach the bottom. The men, wearing nothing but long tan shorts, lean down, checking, pushing, pulling. They stay in this position for along time and I wonder how their backs don’t hurt. Many minutes pass by as I watch for movement. They are statuesque and from the seat where I am, I will them to stand up. Stand up. Stand up. Stand up. Finally, in one accord, they rise, but from where I sit, they seem to do this effortlessly, without the need to bend backwards to ease their backs. Instead, they haul sand, bucket after bucket, all dumped to the bottom of their pirogues. They are in separate canoes, but their actions are synchronized, happening almost at the exact same time, creating a beautiful dance of movement. I watch them for a long time as the pattern is repeated over and over again and the afternoon takes on the languid feel of a day off. With canoes full, they start paddling towards shore and I shift my gaze to the pirogue carting an elderly woman in green towards the other shore.
The long pole the driver uses goes to the bottom of the river and he pushes along the water’s edge to move forward, skirting around the thick grasses growing there. Grandma sits regally, hands folded on her lap where she holds a golden purse. Her dress, green and gold, match her head wrap and she is absolutely breathtaking. I wish I had my phone to snap her photo, but instead, I memorize her as she makes her way down the shore, slowly going out of site until I no longer see her as she disappears into the bright sunlight and I feel my eyes water because of the brightness. She is gone, the queen in emerald green and gold and I scan over the river and all the people there to see who I want to watch next. My gaze finds a trio of men who float down the river in the opposite direction and I reposition my body on the hard wooden chair on which I sit, crossing my ankles and leaning back.
A voice breaks my view, loud and obnoxious. I do not believe he is talking to me until the voice grows insistent and I turn to face it. The voice belongs to a drunk man in the restaurant adjacent to where I am and he bellows, “bonjour, Madame”! I greet him back, hoping Mandaba will return soon, before this man makes me uncomfortable. He continues talking but I make the facial expression that would suggest that I do not understand French, smile, and turn my stare back to the river. He gives up, sits, and grows quiet, allowing me to watch in peace, savoring the quiet moment, which is anything but silent.
Behind me, outside this small space, the occasional motorcycle beeps, the movement of traffic is felt, voices conversing down the road are heard, and the sounds of our lunch cooking make me aware of the hunger I am feeling in my belly. I put the sounds into my subconscious, allowing them to exist but not overwhelm me, focusing instead of the river and the people how are on it. I watch to my eyes content until Mandaba returns. All focus shifts and while waiting for lunch to be served, we start planning a sustainable food solution for a people in a distant village.