Tuesday morning I awoke early, stepped onto the balcony and peered down to the fog-swaddled Oubangui, the river that separates CAR from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Already at such an early hour, the water teems with pirogues (canoes made from hollowed tree trunks). Some are full of fishermen, who paddle (sometimes with oars, sometimes with flip-flops, cupped hands, or whatever else they can find) to the calm, current-less spots that dot the water like knots in a piece of wood, where they cast long nets in hopes of ensnaring the ever-more-elusive capitaine. Some have outboard motors and transport beehive-like Styrofoam structures full of plastic baggies of neon-colored juices for sale either here or across the river in Zongo. It's a Bruegel painting come to life, even on the calmest of Sundays. But Tuesday was different: the annual pirogue race. My two housemates had slept on the balcony in anticipation of catching the first preparations.
Sadly, though, I saw only the usual puttering river folk. Perhaps the race was on Wednesday after all – it is usually on 1 December, which is the day CAR celebrates independence (not the actual day of independence, which is in August like that of all the other former African colonies save Guinea). But this year they decided to roll the usual independence day celebrations into the 50th anniversary commemoration, and hence expected a number of the region's heads of states, and the festivities spread over several days. The official program (a few hastily photocopied sheets stapled into a book, such that the text ran in randomly inclining and declining lines) placed the race on Tuesday, but who really knew? I sighed and commenced the usual early morning ablutions.
Then I heard it: drumming, and some cheering, and people beginning to gather on the patch of beach that has emerged now in the first weeks of the dry season. All of a sudden a monster pirogue appeared around the corner. Whereas the daily pirogues carry maybe five people, some 45 people filled the enormous race pirogue. They stood in two columns. Each column was divided into thirds. The front and rear third rowed in unison, and then, as they rotated their paddles through the air, the middle third cut into the water: a human piston. In addition to the rowers, each boat carried a drummer to keep rhythm, and many carried a bailer to triage the water inevitably taken on.
Pretty soon the water teemed with drumming, whirring boats. Some teams sported a fresh-white t-shirt from their sponsor. An Areva employee tossed them out to his boat. One of the KNK (the president's party) boats got to wear their signature orange. Another was inexplicably pink. Others stuck with the rainbow of knock-off soccer jerseys they wear every day. Meanwhile, the Navy (yes, landlocked though it is, CAR has a navy) zipped around in Zodiacs and wore their orange horseshoe life preservers with all the dignity of ermine-bedecked royals. A fight broke out between a young man and woman on shore, but the crowd quickly broke it up. Last year the police spent a lot of time whacking people with sticks to clear the finish area of people. This year they didn't even seem to mind as fans climbed on top of their vans for a better view.
And they were off! The race started more suddenly – ahead of schedule! – than anyone thought possible. The water churned with these human pistons, who quickly sped around the bend and out of sight. They returned via the far bank, some 800m away, racing millipedes to us now. Then, immediately in front of where they started, they cut across at a 90 degree angle to finish by ramming into the shore in front of the assembled dignitaries. The rowers jumped out quickly to avoid those behind them and as they did so the pirogues often became water logged and sank. The skill of many of the rowers – none of whom ever seem to practice – became even more apparent alongside this reminder of their crafts' fragility.
Meanwhile, pirogues kept arriving from both sides. I learned later that the initial race had been a false start, but the navy had been unable to catch up to all the boats to alert them to turn around so they just let them complete the course. Either that or the VIPs weren't in place yet. By the time President Bozize, gliding by in a Zodiac (no life vest for him, just a sober beige suit), made a surprise appearance, flashing his trademark double thumbs-up at the crowd, 32 boats jockeyed for position at the start. The gun cracked and they again flew downriver. Whistles blew and Zodiacs whizzed: false start. It seems impossible to actually line up so many boats evenly in such a strong current, and I wonder if the false start verdict is simply a way of increasing the illusion of fairness. Whatever the case, it meant that we got to watch the most exciting part not once, but thrice.
Apparently two pirogues overturned during the race (post-race rumors said two died), but I didn't see it. I saw only the masterful cooperation of one of the white teams, which powered to shore in first place. The rowers celebrated with gymnastic leaps from their craft. In their euphoria they seemed not to notice the runners-up sailing in behind them, but by some unknown artistry, disaster was avoided.
After the race, overheard shrieks led us to wander to the deck on the side of the building that fronts the road. A large woman, resplendent in a boubou, screamed at a man with a pousse-pousse (a hand cart similar to those Americans use for their gardening). The pousse-pousse was filled with pigs trussed by their legs. The woman grabbed each pig by the ear and hurled it angrily onto the ground. The pigs wailed their too-human-like squeal at the pain and attempted futilely to scootch away. They came to encircle a homeless man who'd made the grassy patch his bed and slept tranquilly through all the drama. The woman disputed the delivery charge the pousse-pousse man had leveled for his service. In the end, she tossed the pigs – using either the ear or the tail as a handle – into a taxi and drove away. The turbaned Chadian soldiers that accompany the president watched on, seeming bored, from their on-guard positions in the middle of the road.
For the rest of the day, I bubbled over attempting to convey the morning's excitement to friends: Did you see the pirogue race? It's the most impressive sporting feat I've ever seen! Never have I felt such exhilaration and euphoria at an athletic event. The West Africans who populate the middle levels of INGOs and UN agencies sniffed, “Pirogue races? We used to do that.” Expatriates shrugged, “I had to work.” Central Africans seemed happy to see a foreigner so impressed with their country but a little baffled by the eagerness.
Far greater sportswriters than I have dedicated their careers to describing the effervescence that animates these mass events. And yet in the end it always comes back to: you had to be there.