By Patrick Fort
With hindsight, it was a bit of a gamble taking my family to remote Loango National Park in southwestern Gabon for our Christmas break knowing that Séléka rebels in the Central African Republic were on the offensive and vaguely threatening the capital. Such uprisings usually fizzled out quickly, so I reasonably assumed that I would not be called to active duty.
But I kept my phone on and I had secured a visa, just in case. That turned out, alas, to be an inspired move.
On Christmas Day the rebellion made a push for Bangui, and AFP told me to get there ASAP. Normally that would have entailed scrambling north some 900 kilometers to Gabon’s coastal capital Libreville. But this was not an option, I was told – all flights to Bangui from the Gabonese capital were booked or had been cancelled.
That meant pushing on another 600 kilometers north to the international airport in Douala, Cameroon while circumventing an entire country, Equatorial Guinea. My office booked me a Douala-Bangui flight for December 27 at 6 p.m.
Bottom line: I have 36 hours to get to a tarmac 1,500 kilometers away.
But how? There are no high-speed trains or motorways cutting through the West African jungle, only rutted roads, slow boats and predictable but unforeseeable problems at every turn.
I have a plan. Three hours by four-wheel drive + three hours by boat + one hour in a small plane should get me to Libreville. From there, I’ll hire a taxi for the 500 kilometer trip to Douala.
While I am contemplating all the things that could wrong with this scheme, my hotelier suggests a ‘Plan B’: Why not go up the Ogooué River by pirogue? It may seem the longer option, he argues, but I stand a better chance of actually getting to a town (Lambaréné) on the main road, where I can hook up with a car and a driver.
Sold. The holidays abruptly over, I clamber into a motorized canoe with the wife and kids at 7:00 am on Boxing Day (December 26). For a cool 1,000 euros we are promised a 1:00 pm arrival in Lambaréné.
December in Gabon is supposed to be dry, which is exactly what the weatherman had forecast. Within an hour we are engulfed in a thunderous tropical downpour. The kids find a dry spot among the baggage under a tarp and play computer games while my wife and I, soaked to the bone, swap ideas on how best to torment meteorologists.
At least we’re making good progress, I thought, between deceptive lulls in the rain. That’s when the engine dies – rain water in the petrol tank. I suddenly remember of the sage words of a local friend: “In the bush, better two engines that are 40-horsepower than one that is 80.”
Having done its evil work, the rain gives way to suffocating heat. But long years in West Africa have taught me not to despair easily, because things can always get far worse. Or better – the crew dismantles the engine, cleans it, and we sputter on our merry way.
In Lambaréné, we are to be met by Stéphane, a gypsy cab driver I know, with gear – including a computer, clothes, a bullet-proof vest and cash – prepared by my photographer colleague (and personal nanny) Xavier Bourgois. One small hitch: Stephane isn’t there. We wait. And wait. Just as my mind tends toward murderous thoughts, he shows up.
Bearing bad news: To chauffer me into Cameroon he has to pick up his ID papers at the immigration authority before leaving. That we do. But then we learn that it will take hours of paperwork to get his vehicle across the border.
Oh, and did I mention that the border station shuts down between 8 pm and 6 am?
Plan ‘C’: Stephane takes me as far as the last town in Gabon, where I cross the border and find another ride for the rest of the way. Bitam, here we come. (I have, by now, sent my family packing back home to Libreville.)
AFP Photo/Xavier Bourgois
This is when Stéphane informs me that his car needs a fresh set of tires.
“What, now?”, I say. “You couldn’t have done this, like, yesterday or early this morning?” Apparently not. So tires are changed and off we go. Until, somewhere in the near suburbs of Lambaréné, the smell of burning rubber forebodes further delay: the new tires are rubbing against the car frame; they’re too wide.
After a couple of hours we finally hit the road on a third set of tires. We’re running nearly three hours behind schedule when we hit the town of Ndjolé, and then two things occur to me simultaneously: I have not eaten all day, and Njolé has the best spicy goat’s head stew (coupé-coupé) in Gabon. If you don’t trust me, just ask President Ali Bongo. (That’s one thing we agree on.) Ten minutes is all we need to chow down.
Back On the Road Again, a sign informs us: “Road blocked for next 36 kilometers from 6 pm to 5 am”. This time I blow my top, persuaded that the plane for Bangui will leave without me. I scream at Stephane. He drives, unperturbed, slower than a bicycle.
At the next of an endless string of check points, where police examine the same papers as the all policemen before, I ask about the road block ahead. “What, they still haven’t taken down that sign?”, one of them asked, laughing. “It’s out of date by about a year!”
OK, I was grossly unfair to Stéphane. Still, I couldn’t quite bring myself to apologize, and I make a feeble attempt to shift the blame to the immigration authorities. Apparently I am forgiven anyhow, and Stéphane, bless him, picks up speed.
We get to Biram – just shy of the border – at midnight.
The next morning we run into another check point at the far edge of town, and into snag: French citizens need an exit visa to be allowed out of Gabon, a patrolman says. I lose it (again). “Listen up, mister. I’ve been living in Gabon for five years. I have never, not once, heard of an exit visa for French people. You should read up on your own laws. Stop asking me for stuff and just let me through!”
It works. The policeman complies without another word. Stéphane is impressed. “You certainly showed him,” he marvels as we walk toward our vehicle. But once in the car, he gives me an earful about how foolish it is to get angry with officials. “If you enter into a tug-of-war with them, they always win.” I silently vow to become a better person.
We finally arrive at the border, where a Gabonese guard tells us he can’t possibly stamp my passport because THAT is the Bitam authorities’ job. Naturally, their office won’t open for several hours.
Miraculously, with only the slightest protest on my part, he waves me through into Cameroon. I’m on a roll. And then, his counterpart on the other side of the border deals me a losing hand.
“Where’s your exit stamp from Gabon?”
“Don’t have one. I couldn’t wait until 9 o’clock because I have a plane to catch at 2:00 (a lie, yes, but I need a little wiggle room here).”
“Maybe so, but your passport is not stamped.”
“Why don’t you give me a Cameroon entry visa and then I’ll have a stamp.”
“I can’t give you a Cameroon entry stamp without a Gabon exit stamp.”
“I understand that you need to know who enters Cameroon, but why do you need a Gabon stamp as well?”
“Because before you enter a country, you first have to leave another country. If you don’t leave a country, you can’t enter another.”
I know when I’m defeated by logic.
“So what do I do?”, I pleaded.
He was magnanimous in victory. “Bring me an authorization from any official. A handwritten one will do.”
So I return to Bitam, a bit downcast, thinking I could be here forever. But lo and behold, I find a policeman willing to listen to a sob story about a bedraggled and belabored journalist trying to catch a plane, and he agrees to sign my exit paper. I ask his name.
I stop here to sing the praises of Yoppa-Davy. I loved you, Yoppa-Davy. On this 1,500-k, 36-hr ordeal you will be the only person who did me a favor without asking anything in return. May your name shine as an example of honest and competent officialdom for future generations of men in uniform in all countries. Let thy salary rise to heaven, let thy kingdom come.
So now we are in Cameroon, and all I need is a taxi to get me to Douala. I enter negotiations and before I know it a deal is on the table: 110,000 CFA francs for the trip and a 10,000 francs bonus for the driver if I make the flight. Done. My driver is Nestor.
“Let’s burn rubber, Nestor,” I say.
As soon as we register with the traffic authorities… I have no fight left in me. We do the paperwork, and then we’re off. We stop in a town called Ambam.
“Why in god’s name are we stopping here, Nestor?”
“We’re getting registered with the police.”
“Didn’t we just do that? Do we have to do it again?”
“Yes sir. If we don’t, we’ll be stopped 20 kilometers from here and they’ll send us back. If not after 20 kilometer, then after 40 or maybe 60. You get the picture.”
So we queue at the police station. The person in charge of registration wasn’t due until 7:30 am, a policeman told me cheerily. After a bit of bantering, I told him my woeful tale and asked if there might be some way to speed things up. Apparently there is. A small amount of cash changes hands, and I find myself at the head of the queue. Feeling a little guilty about the other supplicants still cooling their heels in line, I sooth my conscience with thoughts about my sacred journalistic mission. Ends justify the means, and all that. It works.
AFP Photo/Fanny Pigeaud
At 7:35 exactly we are back on the road. Nestor does his best, but progress is slow. Gabon and Cameroon have one thing in common: endless checkpoints, one every 10 or 20 kilometers. And then, near Mbalmayo, suddenly the car won’t stop. (Leak in the brake fluid, it turns out.) I concede, reluctantly, that this is inconvenient and needs to be fixed. More time lost.
I check my phone and realize that the battery is nearly drained. The socket in which I had plugged my overnight charger, I realize, must have been dead. I rush to find a replacement, but none of the 250 chargers on sale in Mbalmayo fit my phone.
No matter, we have to get going again. Time is getting seriously tight.
At the next check point, Nestor, no doubt feeling cocky, makes a flippant remark about a policeman’s badge. Surprise, surprise, it turns out that our car’s inspection papers are out of date. Discussion ensues, and eventually we get to the heart of the matter.
“You’ve insulted me in front of everybody. And you don’t have the right papers. Just you wait. We’re going to lock you up. And your car is going to the pound.”
Nestor invokes democracy, human rights, free speech – to no avail.
Then I came in, pleading my case and producing my trump card, the waiting plane.
“Take your things,” the policeman cuts me off. “I have nothing against you, just against this individual. Get a cab, you’re free to go.”
Easier said than done. And besides, I’ve grown rather attached to Nestor.
“Can’t we come to an understanding here?” I ask the policemen. “The driver didn’t mean what he said. It’s a misunderstanding.” I wax lyrical about international friendship and brotherly solidarity between the citizens of Cameroon.
Moral suasion is useless, but 100 euros, it is suggested, might made a difference. “100 euros? That’s one hell of a bribe!”, I fume. Nestor pulls me aside and into the car. “Monsieur Patrick, we need to talk,” he says, asking me to shut the door.
I assume he wants to talk strategy but instead he hit the throttle and speeds away, leaving his papers in the hands of the stunned policeman. “Papers are for pussies,” he hisses as we leave the guard in a cloud of dust.
Good news #1: No gunshots. Good news #2: Nobody in hot pursuit.
But I still worry. These guys have radios and cell phones. I image our arrest at the next check point, and start rehearsing my explanation to my editor-in-chief as to why I am calling from a prison in Mbalmayo, Cameroon. (If the prison were in Bangui, that would be OK.) I can see a local prosecutor reading out a long list of crimes against the state of Cameroon.
But nothing happens. On the outskirts of Yaoundé Nestor, feeling cocky again, even picks up two hitch-hiking policemen and tells them our story, though in his version the checkpoint guards are highway robbers he’s Mother Teresa. Maybe they believe him, maybe they don’t, but we part pals.
The Yaoundé-Douala highway has just one lane each way, and traffic is always dense. Taxi-buses overtake trucks recklessly, accidents are common and we still have 200 kilometers to negotiate. Life-threatening, stressful, but we make progress.
Until we get stuck in a bad traffic jam at 2.30 pm. Suddenly we aren’t going anywhere. We try a side road, but it’s even worse. Nestor’s getting nervous – the clock is ticking and he sees his bonus evaporating.
But finally, miracle of miracles, the airport comes into sight at 4:10 pm. Ha, we are even a couple of hours early. Enough time to buy a phone and a charger. As my adrenaline slowly subsides, I think of a proverb Africans like to throw at Europeans. “You have a watch, I have time,” it goes.
And they have nerves of steel, one could add.
A month later, on my return from the Central African Republic, I call Nestor to ask whether he had trouble getting his papers back. “Trouble? Of course not, Monsieur Patrick. There was no problem. Why should there be?”