I was already only 160 km away from the border with Gabon. I was still in the equatorial savannah, suffering more and more the scorching heat, the sticky tropical humidity and without any place to take shelter. It had been over 800 km since I had left Brazzaville and arriving at the jungle still lied far away ahead. I could have chosen a shorter and probably more entertaining route, but it was not arbitrarily but by deliberate choice that I had decided to come here. I had a task to complete before entering Gabon.
Several months ago, when I was pedaling across the north of South Africa following an alternative route with no traffic on the way to Namibia, I came across a cyclist coming in the opposite direction. That's when I met Wouter, with whom we decided to camp there that night. Wouter is a very precocious Belgian guy. When he finished school at the age of 18 he did not feel like doing the same thing as his classmates, so he decided to jump on a bicycle Bruges and pedal all the way to Kuala Lumpur. A year and a half later, after such a long journey, he decided that he had not had enough and continued to "go down" all of West Africa to Cape Town. By the age of 21, Wouter had traveled more kilometers and gained more experience than many cyclists twice his age. But his motivation does not end only in the thirst for adventure to discover the world by bike. Wouter carries much bigger ambitions inside.
When he was pedaling across Congo he came to a small village called Ondingui where he stayed for the night. What initially would be no more than a stop among so many, transformed into a stay of more than two weeks, where Wouter established a beautiful bond with Mabé, the head of the village. During his time there, he decided that he wanted to do something to try to improve their precarious lives and he invested time and his own money to build a bakery together with them. In this way, Mabé's family could thus start a simple business and have a better income. For visa reasons, Wouter had to leave Ondingui before he could finish the bread oven and teach Mabe how to run the business.
6 months later, back in Belgium, Wouter managed to communicate with Mabé who told him that the oven had not yet been built, the money had been poorly spent and the business still could not start. Basically, nothing had progressed after his departure. That's when through an e-mail exchange we had, I offered to change my route to pass through Ondingui to help finish the job he had started. Now, with the additional money Wouter sent me and the one that I decided to invest in the cause, I came to Ondingui willing to move this forward.
Despite being a village of less than 200 people in the middle of the equatorial savannah, with no infrastructure at all and far from the cities, there is one point in space where, like drops falling from a dropper, the weak telephone signal reaches the area and allows villagers to have contact with the rest of the world. Thanks to that, Mabé, her family and all the neighbors were expecting me ready to give me a warm welcome.
Mabé, is less than 40 years old, was born with a malformation on his feet and had small polio, so he uses his knees to walk. It has a peaceful and simple look and speaks enough French so that we can communicate well. As with many Africans, for Mabé there are no problems but challenges. Despite his motor difficulty, he does not stop working from dawn till dusk, making, among the many tasks of daily life, beautiful wooden benches that sell for 1000 CFA (~ 1.80 US$) in the market of the nearest town .
To my astonishment, Mabé is the first African man I have ever met, who is not indifferent to seeing his wife struggling coming back from the field with a 40 kg basket of manioc loaded onto her shoulders. He leaves everything he is doing aside to go to help her. It's an image that moves me after more than a year of seeing men chatting under the trees while women do all the hard work. She is grateful and sits on the ground under a tree with her youngest daughter to start peeling the large tubercules that serve practically as the only food in this region of the world.
In the very house built by Wouter that would be meant to become a bakery sometime, I set up my mosquito net and I turn it into my house during the days that I will spend trying to fulfill the objective that brought me all the way here. However, it does not take me long to notice that what in appearance for any Westerner is a quick and simple job, in Ondingui is an exhaustive task that requires a lot of time, but above all, patience!
It is when one coexists with Africans, but already with a certain practical objective in mind, that one discovers how that beautiful timeless quality that is perceived in the villages, extends to everything in African life but not always necessarily in the most practical, let alone efficient, way. Things and events occur at that same pace of life, sometimes so slow that many times they do not even occur at all. In a universe where, by necessity, life is more about the present than anywhere else, trying to establish a long-term plan seems like an absurd task.
All the tasks to be carried out to complete this project, the simple ones (because there are no complex ones) require equal amount of work as to that necessary to move mountains. Going to see the neighbor who knows how to build the oven and who lives 5 houses away is an attainable task and yet, at times, seems completely undoable. Going to buy the ingredients to make bread to the village's market, only 25 km away takes two days of planning. Trying to impart a practical and sustainable money management plan is an incompressible task for those for whom the concept of saving is as clear as trigonometry is to me. That's how I spend most of the hours of these eternal and burning days where you keep doing but nothing happens.
However, meanwhile, life in Ondingui goes on in absolute normality, without problems or worries. There is so much unconcern that my inevitably pragmatic, Western mind, finds it difficult to reconcile two sides of a strong dichotomy between appreciating the beauty of a life with few worries on the one hand and the inability to be able to carry out something so simple with the end to improve the quality of life of others.
Mabé continues to make benches to leave for sale at the market, the day we go to the village. Self-absorbed in his work with the dedication of an artist, his tranquility is absolute. Rushing does not exist here and life happens at the rural pace of the Congo.
Children play ball every afternoon. Marinated in dust, they roam around the ground, chase and catch each other, hide and seek. What they lack in material wealth they have in tireless energy. They laugh their asses off for the mere fact of being children. They have no toys of any kind but that is no impediment to deprive themselves of having fun. Any object has the potential to be a toy, any motive is a perfect excuse to keep playing.
I extended my stay in Ondingui as much as I could, 5 days. I wanted to start building the oven by myself with Mabé and the neighbors, but to no avail. In the end, I had to commission the work and leave it paid for to the neighboring oven builder with whom I was finally able to meet. I was able to buy all the ingredients to make bread and leave a sort recipe written that indicates how to do it. This seemed more useful to me than to leave it to the fate of an immense task, such as waiting for Mabé to turn to another neighbor, a baker, to teach him how to make bread, or even less feasible, for the latter to approach them to explain how. I was able to mount drums to protect the flour from the mice and containers without rust to keep the oil. Finally, after long days of trying to explain the idea (and importance) behind saving money, I left in writing in a notebook how to manage the money I would leave with them to finally start the business and make it work. Mabé does not know how to read but his kid does.
This simple experience, so simple in theory, as building a small bread oven in a village in the Congo and trying to make work a simple business gave me a clear idea of the enormous complexity behind the great material backwardness of Africa. It is a dimension that encompasses, from the most intrinsic aspects of many Africans, to how they try to coexist (with their innate customs and traditions), in a world where the existential models of Western development have been imposed by force. There is no easy solution to this.
I left Ondingui with more questions than the answers I was able provide during those days. To this day I have not managed to get my contact in the village to be at the only point where the elusive mobile phone network signal reaches the moment I call it. Therefore I was never able to know if the oven has finally been built or not. Part of me wants to be optimistic and believe that yes, it has been built. But my more down-to-earth side tells me that nothing has changed, that the money has vanished in the needs (and not so much needs) of the moment, that the ingredients were spoiled, and that the oven builder never bothered to get to the bakery to do his job.
Be that as it may, I have learned much from this experience, and if there is one thing I have never lacked, it is to have been treated and received with the deepest affection by people who have nothing but who do all they can within their limitations to live with dignity the hard life they've been born to live. More importantly, whatever they may lack, nothing prevents them from living with a broad smile on their faces. That leads me to think that I do not know if it is me who has more to learn from them, than they have to learn from me. I prefer to believe that the reality is that we both have a lot to learn from each other. Now, it is time to cross Gabon and enter the jungle.