Bangui (AFP)

It is a scene that has become rare in the Central African Republic, if not in the memories of more than 20 years old. Two teams face each other, armed with sticks summarily cut in lacrosse. A puck cut in a flip-flop flies off as soon as the engagement is made by drawing a large curve in the gray sky.

That afternoon, on the grounds of Bangui University, it's Ngbaba match. A sport that almost disappeared from the streets and villages of Central Africa.

The goal of the game: to prevent the disc from setting in its half of ground? Players rush to the point of fall. Missed ! The puck bounces and rolls between the legs of an unlucky man who fails to lose his balance, in front of his laughing opponents. In extremis, a teammate asserts a powerful blow of stick which raises a cloud of dust, under the cheers of the public. Back to the sender.

"We have not seen this for so many years!", Jubilant Terrence, 31, who is about to come in. "It brings back good memories to everyone!"

Like him, there are many in the public to have known the time when laptops and social networks had not yet appeared in the neighborhood. "At the time, the young people had only the Ngbaba to occupy their days," said Jean, a student who stamps waiting for his turn, in the shade of the mango trees.

"As soon as we organize a match, everyone wants to participate," said Sonek Langaté, president of the cultural association Baila behind the initiative. "We need to revive this game, especially with the new generation, we have a culture, we need to value it."

- Street sport -

Ngbaba is a game that exists only in the Central African Republic. But where does it come from exactly? Neither the players nor the curious massed around the ground have any idea.

In the archives of the history department of the University of Bangui, the question raises the same perplexity. "It already existed in the 1970s," says Michel, a septuagenarian who provides security and suggests a hypothesis: "when the TV appeared here, young people mixed Western sports they saw on the screen" .

Possible, since the Ngbaba borrows - by far - in baseball, table tennis and hockey. But its origins could be much older: the games of lacrosse are practiced since ancient times by the peoples of several continents.

For Sonek Langaté, the Ngbaba would rather be a legacy of regional traditions: "It was part of the initiation rites in some tribes and there are variants in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon.

Today, the Ngbaba is first and foremost a street sport accessible to as many people as possible. The guava wood sticks, too expensive, are often replaced by sticks quickly cut for the occasion. Not ideal for catching this puck which sometimes causes serious injury to the eyes in the absence of adequate protection.

"The Ngbaba is not a weak sport," Terrence boils, dripping with sweat on the way out.

But it is also "an engine of peace and social cohesion," says Sonek Langaté. In the past, "young people would regularly challenge those in neighboring neighborhoods, it allowed them to integrate and socialize."

- "Forbidden to play" -

In the early 2000s, the Central African Republic fell into a spiral of violence. "After a while, we did not dare to go to the other neighborhoods," says Sonek Langaté. Because of insecurity and the risk of eye injuries, "many parents have forbidden their children to play Ngbaba".

Since 2013, the country has been the scene of a civil war in which rebel groups fighting the majority of the territory and neighborhoods of Bangui are fighting, as well as fighting between the security forces and these militias.

In recent months, the roads of Central Africa and the streets of the capital are experiencing a relative lull, which the Baila association is hoping to revive these matches between neighborhoods. But the means are lacking in a country ranked among the poorest in the world.

"Today, young people prefer to play football or basketball, because they can hope to make a living with these sports," laments Jean, the student. "What we need is a professional federation," he thinks.

A project on which Joël Nacka, an entrepreneur, is hoping to attract sponsors and encourage vocations in the new generation. And why not export the discipline abroad? A question of pride for this Central African expatriate in France: "a sport that comes from home, it is an opportunity to give another image of the country".

© 2019 AFP