17:00 – Mongoumba, Central African Republic

Mongoumba, Central African Republic

In the Central African Republic, truck driver Barbara’s 15-vehicle convoy runs into a few obstacles

How Barbara dazzled an entire community

It is a simple mission. Travel to Mongoumba as part of a UN convoy to help hundreds of Central Africans returning from the Republic of Congo where they were refugees. But nothing is so simple in the Central African Republic (C.A.R.).

After 45 minutes of travel, the World Food Programme (WFP) vehicle  I am travelling in hits a mechanical snag due to the bad road conditions. Unable to return or pull out of the convoy given the volatile security context, we continue our journey.

“I think our air conditioning has been knocked-out, we have to wind down the windows to prevent us from suffocating,” says Barbara Mbroukouzou, our driver. “Get set for new make-up with a very special foundation powder,” she warns with a tinge of sarcasm as we hit a dust road.

Barbara is the only female driver in the 15-vehicle convoy. Upbeat and focused as always, she is unfazed by the dust that she inhales in the overwhelming heat and that settles on her hair as she drives. Helping to save lives takes precedence over all other considerations.

“I feel that working for WFP helps me contribute in rebuilding my country,” says the mother of a three-year-old girl. “Being at WFP is for me the fulfillment of a dream.”

As we drive along this crater-laden road, making it difficult to drive, we realise how access to people in need is a major challenge in the implementation of humanitarian assistance. It took us almost 6 hours to cover 200 km to reach Mongoumba, a commune located in the prefecture of Lobaye.

It’s been a back-breaking trip so far. Despite the fatigue, Barbara sets out to clean her vehicle.

“I am struck by her professionalism,” says Moussa Syndoko, a fellow driver at WFP.

The next day, we set off for Betou, at the border with Congo where we have to support hundreds of Central African returnees. The star of the trip, though, is Barbara. Villagers wave, congratulate and greet her each step of the way.

They repeatedly say, “wali a kpè na kota auto” in Sango, the national language of the C.A.R., which translates to “a woman is driving a 4X4!”

In C.A.R., people generally perceive driving to be a man’s job.

“Seeing a woman like Barbara at the wheel could inspire other young Central African women to break the myth that driving is a man’s job,” says Ngoubou Jos, a UNHCR driver from Congo.

It takes a bit of determination and open-mindedness to do what Barbara is doing in this context.

The holder of a postgraduate degree (Master I) in accounting and management says that for two years, while working as a finance assistant for an international NGO located opposite the WFP office, she looked out for opportunities to join the UN’s frontline organization fighting hunger in the world.

“My former colleagues felt I was mad to leave my position as Finance Assistant to become a driver,” she remembers. “But I feel it’s possible to start as a driver and finish your career as a Finance Officer,” she says.

On the way back, nature was kind enough to send rain. That meant less dust. However, Barbara had to be extra careful that our SUV did not wade in the mud or slip into the ravines.

WFP usually deploys teams to assess the conditions of roads and consider alternative routes. Country Director, Gian Carlo Cirri, says that these missions and the minor repair works that follow are vital to ensure that there are no delays to humanitarian response, and this also serves the population.

After nearly eight hours on the road, we finally arrive in Bangui. Every day in the C.A.R., humanitarian workers like Barbara are putting their lives in danger, to save the lives of others.

Words by Bruno Dyoyo for the WFP