Twenty canoes hurtle through the foaming water to the steady rhythm of drums and roars from spectators lined up along Bangui’s river banks.
The race is traditionally the highlight of celebrations on the Central African Republic’s (CAR) national day, Dec. 1.
For years, citizens were deprived of the much-loved spectacle as their country was torn apart by civil war.
Two-thirds of the former French colony remains under the control of rebel groups.
As the intensity of intercommunal fighting has receded — the capital Bangui has remained relatively untouched by violence since a peace accord between the government and armed groups last year — the races have at last resumed.
Using large wooden canoes, the competition pits four ethnic groups — the Mbaka, Sango, Modjombo and Yakoma — against each other for the title of Best Paddlers.
The groups live along the Ubangi River, the country’s largest.
“Before, it was the Yakoma who always won, but since 2003, it’s been the Mbaka every year,” said Mesmin, chief of Ngaragba, a peaceful riverside community populated mostly by Yakoma.
On the day of the race, Mesmin arrived early for the final preparations, testing the canoe, as the team stretched in the scorching sun.
Mesmin is a former competitor and a local hero to those who remember the famous second place title won by his team in his youth.
However, the chief is well aware that this year Ngaragba’s 30 or so paddlers have no chance.
The Mbaka, from the Lobaye forest region in the southwest, can build huge canoes — 1m wide and 20m long — capable of carrying up to 90 paddlers.
The team with the biggest pirogue almost always wins.
The technique of the Mbaka, who paddle standing up, also gives them an advantage over the Yakoma and Sango, who row seated.
“It’s our traditional way of paddling,” team leader Yvon Akelelo said. “We’re not going to change it.”
However, it is above all community solidarity that allows their opponents to build these giant vessels, whose prices can reach the equivalent of US$1,800.
“Before, all the families in our neighborhood used to contribute, but not anymore,” Mesmin said.
The young people of Ngaragba make do with a more modest boat, rented by the day for the equivalent of US$35.
Still, it is not enough to dampen the fervor of the rowers.
At 1pm, all of the canoes are gathered together.
The reigning champions can be spotted by their uniforms and matching colors on their boats — and by their perfectly synchronized movements.
Ngaragba’s small boat pales in comparison to its giant rivals, but it takes more than that to dampen the morale of the rowers, who are cheered from the shore by their neighbors.
The long-awaited race lasts barely 10 minutes.
After making a loop, the first boats approach the finish line. Their crews expend the last of their strength and the canoes glide across the sun-drenched water like long millipedes.
Once again, the Mbaka win everything.
“First, second, third, fourth and fifth place, are all Mbaka. The Yakoma are seventh,” said Mesmin, his ear glued to a radio broadcasting live commentary.
And, finally, coming in last, is Ngaragba’s team.
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