Ngbaba, a sport lost in time, returns to battered C. Africa

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Ngbaba players hold wooden sticks before a game in Bangui, on August 8, 2019. -AFP
Ngbaba players hold wooden sticks before a game in Bangui, on August 8, 2019. -AFP

BANGUI, CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC - Two teams confronted each other on the dusty sports field, wielding roughly cut sticks to whack a homemade puck at high speed.

For the middle-aged and beyond, the sight of this rugged game triggered distant memories, of happier times.

The sport, known as ngbaba, is unique to the Central African Republic -- and, almost like the embattled country itself, has been hauled back from near-death.

Once played widely in streets and villages, ngbaba -- pronounced "g'baba" -- has simple rules and requires speed, dexterity and a dose of fearlessness.

Players hew a thin stick, roughly about as long as their arm and slightly curved at the end, and use it to hit a puck carved out of an old pair of rubber sandals.

If the puck lands in the opposing side of the pitch, the other team has to make sure that they get to it quickly to keep it moving and hit it back over to the other side.

The aim is to avoid the puck stopping face down in your half of the pitch.

At this match, played on a sports field at the University of Bangui, the challenges and skills of ngbaba were on clear display.

To reach the puck in time requires lightning sharp reflexes, and it takes quick thinking and team coordination to mount a counterattack.

"It's years since we've seen this," exclaimed Terrence, 31, as he prepared to take to the field. "It brings back good memories for everyone."

Jean, a student kicking his heels in the shade of the mango trees as he awaited his turn to play, said ngbaba belonged to the time before social networking and mobile phones.

"In the old days, young people only had ngbaba for leisure," he said.

Sonek Langate, head of the Baila association that has launched ngbaba's rebirth, said: "Every time we organize a match, everyone wants to take part."

"We have to revive this game, especially among the young generation. We have a culture and we should value it." -AFP

Like so many other aspects of life in the CAR, it became a victim of the unrest that broke out among the country's mosaic of ethnic and religious groups.

"People became afraid of going into other neighbourhoods," Langate said, adding that parents took to banning their children from playing it, fearing violence and eye injuries.

In 2003, former president Francois Bozize seized power in a coup, and in 2013 was himself overthrown, and since then, much of the country has been at the mercy of armed groups trying to control gold, diamond and oil deposits.

In February, Bozize's elected successor, Faustin-Archange Touadera, signed a peace deal with 14 militias who still control more than three-quarters of the territory.

- Peace hopes -

The agreement is the 13th in a decade and violations have been many.

But in the past few months, the country's roads and the streets of the capital have been relatively calm, enabling Baila to set up matches between neighbourhoods.

Many hurdles lie ahead before ngbaba recovers its former glory.

"These days, young people prefer to play football or basketball, because they have a better chance of making a living from those sports," said Jean, the student.

"What we need is a professional federation."

Joel Nacka, a CAR businessman who lives in France, the former colonial power, has his eyes on that very goal.

He is hunting for sponsors and, more distantly, believes that the sport can be exported.

"A sport that we give to the world-- what better way to give a different image of our country," he said.

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By Camille Laffont


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