Central African Republic Part Two – A trip to remember

So, where were we…? Oh yeah, Tom attempted to sabotage our visa application for Central African Republic (CAR), but luckily we somehow managed to get them approved.  This resulted in 10 amazing days in the capital of CAR, Bangui. Now, I must warn you, this is a long one that requires your full attention for ten minutes, plus the ability to read paragraphs put together worse than Michael Jacksons face. Our final pre-requisite is that this is the SHORT version, and we hope to publish a much more in depth case study in the future.

The process that Tom and I went through in order to get CAR could be likened to any holiday. Get home, do some last minute packing, drive to the airport, panic that you can’t find your passport, have an overpriced beer at an inappropriate hour and bump into some form of D list celebrity at the airport (in our case, it was none other than Peter Andre). We waited for our names to be called out, rushed to the plan, boarded and then found a place for our luggage (we had been advised not to trust the offloading at the array of African airports we would be visiting). Faff over!

Our journey was made 6 million times more comfortable when the guy in the middle of us decided to up sticks and find another seat, leaving us with 1.5 seats each.

This is where the similarities between our journey and a normal holiday stop.

The plane smelt like a normal plane (the accumulation of 750 farts), but the stench was not enough to mask either of our apprehension and excitement about the complete unknown quantity that lay ahead of us. The purpose of our journey?  To create a documentary about the street children of Bangui and the forgotten country of CAR (2nd poorest country in the WORLD), and prove to ourselves that the work that War Child does, has a positive effect and is a worthwhile cause.

Neither of us was ready for what lay ahead, and we couldn’t have predicted what a profound effect it would have on us.

We flew from Heathrow to Nairobi, waited for a few hours, from Nairobi to Cameroon, and then onto Bangui. One notable point about our journey is this: Tom Nelson warmed the toilet seat for Mr Peter Andre at Nairobi airport. Other highlights included an empty plane with plenty of legroom, a safety briefing from a sexy African airhostess and probably the best plane food I’ve ever had.

After 18 hours flying, we started to descend over Bangui. With blue skys and amazing sunshine, we couldn’t quite believe the sheer beauty of the place. Rivers and rainforest as far as the eye could see. It was quite hard to contemplate that this country, having faced over 50yrs of conflict, is home to over 190,000 internally displaced people, some of whom would be living in the rainforests we were flying over. Shockingly, this figure doesn’t even include the number of CAR refugees living in neighbouring countries Cameroon, Chad, DRC and Sudan.

I guess it was at that point that we looked at one another and realised the enormity of what we were doing and the fact that this journey would forever change our lives.

We disembarked the plane, made our way through customs and then found ourselves in a situation we were praying wouldn’t come to be. An armed army officer, 7ft 7 and built like the proverbial, wanted to search our bags. Now, considering our visas were tourist visas, you can imagine his reaction when opening our bag and finding 3 cameras, tripods, two laptops, notebooks, microphones, and a sound recorder. He started questioning what everything was, why we had it and what on Earth we were doing in his country! Well, that’s what we guessed he was saying. He was speaking in his local dialect of Zango and we had no clue what was being growled at us. After a few scary minutes he let us leave the airport without any problems; it seems he just wanted to scare us.

Panic over, we made our way through the airport and were delighted when we met Guillaume at the other end. Guillaume works in CAR for War Child, and would act as our guide for the next 9 days; he had a warm smile, a genuine handshake and was a guy that we both immediately liked. Without him, our journey would have been an unsuccessful one, and thanks to his patience, language skills and general kind-heartedness, he made our stay in CAR a pleasant one.

We jumped into the taxi and had a couple of minutes to take in the surroundings. You see places like this on TV, but until you feel the heat and taste the smell, it’s hard to know what these places are like. The atmosphere hit you straight away, a bustling street vibe, with thousands of people avoiding the impossible number of taxis; all of whom were beeping their horn at every possible opportunity. Despite how run down the place was and the obvious poverty, there was a mood here that Tom and I instantly took a shine to. We had arrived in Bangui and we loved it.

It’s worth mentioning the Taxi’s in Bangui. Every single one has a smashed windscreen, and instead of pre-ordering one or flagging one down, they stop and ask everyone if they need a lift. Consequently, the first (usually 4 seat) taxi we got consisted of 7 people; 4 in back, 3 in the front. This is a great way to operate, and only costs about 20 pence a ride, and it’s standard practise in Bangui. However, despite all the positives, I can’t really see London adopting the same policy!

Our accommodation for the week was a Catholic Missionary, a small room, with ants on the floor, lizards on the wall and two smelly beds. It bodes well for our forthcoming journey that Tom and I immediately said “we have landed on our feet here”.

Whilst in CAR, we spend most of our time filming in the foundation Voix De Coeur. This is the centre that War Child supports and over the period of time we were there, we would come to realise how important this place is to the children and the community as a whole.

We experienced a huge array of emotions whilst there, from laughter to tears. The 50 resident children in the centre have nothing but the shirts on their back, but, while there, they seemed happier than the children of the UK.

The work of War Child DOES make a huge difference, and without it, the world would be a much worse place. The centre provides children with a relatively normal upbringing (they get food, shelter, access to good sanitation, healthcare and an education), without it, they would be living on the streets, and working to stay alive.

The majority of the children have lost their parents and have not got a home to live in; the centre allows them to play, to be educated and most importantly, to smile. The events that we saw at the centre cannot be justified through a short blog. Therefore, they will be included in the follow up blogs to this.

We hardly ate whilst away. Not through lack of food, just because we didn’t have time. In the morning, we gobbled down half a baguette at 7.30am, and then at lunch, we would eat some spicy chicken/fish and rice from a Togolese shack across the road from the centre.

In the evening, we would occasionally treat ourselves to a bag of popcorn, whilst we drank beers with our new friends who worked and lived in Bangui. A great group of people, from aid workers, to masters students, all of whom touched our hearts and will be great friends for years to come.

We frequented at a bar not far from our accommodation, it was a lively place, open air and attached to the 36,000 seater national stadium. The public are free to walk in and around the stadium 24/7, watch the African cup of nations on the big screen and drink plenty of the local beer. In stark contrast to London, and the Europe in general, there were never any problems whilst we were there, despite the combination of beer and football, and we hardly ever felt threatened. I say hardly, as there was one distinct time when I was so scared, I wanted to go home.

Sitting in our private residence, filming a sunset and writing our journal; fairly standard practise for us after 5 days in the capital.

Suddenly an armed vehicle turns up, machine gun on top, six military personnel inside, all with AK47’s. Again, this is fairly standard practise for Bangui, but not for our secluded missionary.

They march over towards us, accompanied by the only other white guy living in the residence.

We were scared and sat in silence.

They continued towards us. Then thankfully, they turned right into the white guy’s dorm.

I was scared and saw this as an opportunity to pack our equipment away and hide in our room until they went. My fear was based on strict instructions to not film anyone in a uniform; particularly those carrying massive machine guns. Tom wisely suggested that moving would just create a scene, and, more to the point he really loved the sun-set, so wanted to make sure he got it on film.

Fifteen minutes later and we were still stuck in the same position and the army had not left and were looking more aggravated then when they initially arrived. The sun-set had finished, and we had both had enough. Hurriedly, we packed our equipment away, and moved inside, praying that would be the end of it. We got into our room, and for some unknown reason, we hid all of our electronic equipment. This was to prove a grave error when the officers stormed our room and demanded to see what we were filming. Bearing in mind the language barrier, it was hard to explain to them exactly what we were doing, and even harder to explain why our equipment was hidden. Nevertheless, we endeavoured to explain our situation to the machine gun wielding mad man! They confiscated our phones and cameras, looked through our bags, saw our laptops and shouted at us some more. The mood changed after ten minutes of us trying to explain ourselves in French, and the offices looking through our equipment. Suddenly they all had smiles and started saying goodbye and shaking our hands. Their quick change of mood only unsettled our nerves further, and we spent the whole evening convinced they were going to return to ‘borrow’ our equipment. Evidently, they did not and our camera gear and invaluable footage lived to tell the tale.

Quicker than it had begun, our amazing journey was over, and we readied ourselves for the 30 hours travelling ahead of us. The journey has changed our lives, and over the next month we’ll be releasing bite size blogs of the stories from our trip. For now, we must say a huge thank you to the whole War Child team (particularly Guillaume, Elisabeth and Amanda), the children of Voix De Coeur, the people of Bangui itself, and to you for reading.


Posted on February 17, 2012, in General and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. trasie inkersole

    This made me cry and smile at the same time.
    Thank you for sharing this with us.
    Love you and am so very very proud of you.

  2. good stuff boys, sure this experience we give you all the energy and will power to get through the next couple of years x

  3. Great beginning and got me wanting more. Sounds like an amazing experience and clearly one that has touched you both. Cannot wait to hear and see more about War Childs work!

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