On the Oubangui

Guides poled and guests paddled,

The bare-backed crew working currents

As the rest of us stroked slowly,

Wake and water snakes trailing

Our canoe on the broad Oubangui, border

Of Congo and a former French colony,

La Republique de l’Afrique Centrale,

Five desperate degrees above the equator.

The shortwave radio crackled static:

‘Snow in the Dakotas,’ ‘Season’s Greetings,’

And on Christmas, ‘Dean Martin has Died.’

Tourists toasted with palm wine

The voice, the Rat Pack, Vegas –

A fond belief in booze and crooning,

Remote as we were, on a river in Africa.

The first morning we had pushed into mist,

Splash followed by the splash of crocodiles,

On the tributary Mboumou. Second morning,

A portage past rapids and the start

Of a week on the big river west

Of Kemba, mud and a mile wide.

Many hours passed without hailing

Another dugout, then suddenly dozens

Would appear near the next village,

Where we’d stock up on water and wine,

Either bank of the bending river –

Or if the radio warned of rebels in Congo,

The next north, hugging the Republic.

A post office and goats, gusts

Of children, chickens, a mission, a mosque.

Animated gab in the taverns, our topics

Christmas, Amore, and small arms.

The guides would buy cassava bread

And fish and bake the fish on the bank,

Saying grace by day to Le Seigneur,

By night in Sango to mahogany and the moon.