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 Africa Republic’s national day, December 1.
For years, citizens were deprived of the much-loved spectacle as their country, among the poorest and most volatile in the world, was torn apart by civil war. Two-thirds of the former French colony remains under the control of rebel groups.
But as inter-communal fighting has receded in intensity — and the capital Bangui remains relatively untouched by violence since a peace accord between the government and armed groups last year — the race has at last resumed.
Using large wooden canoes also known as pirogues, the competition pits four ethnic groups against each other for the title of best paddlers: the Mbaka, Sango, Modjombo and Yakoma.
All live along the country’s largest river, the Ubangi.
“Before, it was the Yakoma who always won, but since 2003 it’s been the Mbaka every year,” explains Mesmin, the 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 dugout canoe as the team stretched in the scorching sun.
– ‘Determined to win’ –
Mesmin is a former competitor and a local hero to those who remember the famous second place title won by his team during his youth.
But 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, are able to build huge pirogues a metre wide and 20 metres (65 feet) 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,” says team leader Yvon Akelelo. “We’re not going to change it.”
But it is above all community solidarity which allows their opponents to build these giant vessels, whose prices can reach the equivalent of $1,800 (1,500 euros).
“Before, all the families in our neighbourhood used to contribute, but now people don’t give anymore,” Mesmin said.
So the young people of Ngaragba have to make do with a more modest boat, rented by the day for 20,000 CFA francs ($35).
Still, it’s not enough to dampen the fervour of rowers like Paul.
“The Mbaka win every time, but today the young people are determined to win for our community,” the student said.
– The big prize –
For these young people, the race is also an opportunity to pocket some extra income in a country where the average monthly salary barely reaches $35.
The government encourages the competition by awarding a prize of 50,000 CFA francs to all of the teams. The winners share 1 million CFA francs ($1,800).
“Those who race earn more, but we keep a share for the community, we share household by household,” Yvon said.
At 1 pm, all of the canoes are gathered together. The reigning champions can be spotted by their uniforms and matching colours on their boats — and by their perfectly synchronised movements.
Ngaragba’s small pirogue 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 neighbours.
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 pirogues 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.