cooking eelOur driver’s name is B-13.

He shows up at 5:30am to start the ride back to Zongo, from where we will cross the river to Bangui. From there, a flight will take me to Mombasa, Kenya, where I will meet up with Tifany and Juju, both team leaders-in-training.

It rained hard yesterday and the roads are not dusty at all as we take off just as the sun is rising. Our bags are packed tightly into garbage bags, just in case it rains while we drive and we are both wearing dirty jeans because it makes no sense to trash another pair, as we expect mud to be the name of the game today.

Women walk in a straight line, crowded against the edge of the road, hugging the tall grasses. On their heads, they carry wares for sale at the market, some miles ahead. White cassava roots are piled high in silver bowls, freed from their dusty brown peels. Some carry cut up and dried cassava pieces. Some, the cassava powder. Others, kwanga, a bread made with cassava . Every single bowl is full of some form of cassava. On the other side of the road, children carry large bundles of wood, with the random girl carrying pondu (cassava leaves) on her head, making me think of thick, green wigs, little feet carrying them home or to the market, I don’t know. Bicycles laden with yellow jerry cans full of palm oil and wine makes their way ever so slowly through the muck and mud. The bicyclists are reduced to pushing and pulling through puddles full of red water and lazy pigs. Everyone is going to or from market, as this is the big day of the week.

As we approach the market, the volume escalates. Haggling and yelling and music and children playing and motorcycles and a large overturned truck with men digging it out of the mud with shovels and vendors and buyers and women making breakfast for sale and stacks of peanuts and cassava, cassava, cassava.

We reach the village of Mbari, a familiar place of stick and mud houses, with the main road hugged on both sides by people offering food. A large eel is held out for us to inspect, still wiggling and not yet knowing it is soon going to die. Coffee is ordered and we chomp on some bread and peanuts as we wait for a woman to cook two pieces of eel. I watch as she throws salt, spices and something white (flour?) on the chunks of meat, which she mixes with her hands and forearms, as the bucket is deep and there are many pieces in it. I briefly think of typhoid but turn my head from such thoughts and just watch. She massages and mixes until she is ready to throw a couple of pieces into the hot palm oil, heated on a charcoal grill. The meat spits as it fries into a delicious breakfast treat which we eat with our hands, dipping them into dried hot peppers before bitting into the white flesh. Hungry, skinny dogs surround us, oblivious to our motions for them to leave us in peace.

As we stop for a pee break, we hear the sound of constant, insistent beeping coming closer and closer to us. B-13 explains that a man died in Gemena and he is being taken home for burial. As the sound grows closer, a motorcycle roars by, with the cadaver wrapped tightly is white cloth, in a sitting position behind the driver and a third man holding on to him up during this last ride. A second motorcycle follows closely behind with four adults and a baby and I wonder if it is his widow and child. We pass them two more times, as we each stop in different areas to get out of the rain or to purchase some food. Each time, I wonder how they will straighten the cadaver when they arrive at their destination, which is hours away. I mean no disrespect, but, really… it’s what crosses my mind each time we pass the motorcycle with a wrapped cadaver sitting straight up like any other passenger (except he is wrapped in white cloth), held by a man.
We pass two 6 or 7 year old boys, swinging their machetes as they walk down the road, large baskets hanging from their foreheads and down their necks, making them look like they are playing dress-up with very large hats.

I look at one boy in the eye as we pass and hear his sharp “eh!” a second before he cries out, “mondele”! I hear B-13 laugh and see him shake his head, as this has been our experience the entire trip. I simply look back and wave an arm, watching his face blossom into a wide smile for the instant we connect again.