As the light failed, we sat on plastic chairs in the chief’s compound, sharing a bottle of Boss Tangawisi. Mama Omba had interviewed the chief at the end of her session of questioning, and he was thoughtful as he sipped from the mug Maurice handed him. He had an enormous scar that ran up the right side of his head, from mandible to hairline.
Maurice told a story that I’d heard before, about an expedition he’d taken into the forest on the other side of the Lomami. He’d followed a trail for several days into Kasai province, eventually coming across a group of Djonga men in a hunting camp. He’d spent a couple of days with them, learning about their hunting system. The camp where he’d found them was where they lived, snaring and hunting in the surrounding forest until they had a load of meat that was almost too big to carry. Then they hauled that load along a different trail until they came to what they called an exchange camp, where they would meet with their wives, coming from the opposite direction. They’d unload the meat, pick up fufu , rice, salt, and liquor, spend a week with their wives, and then return to the forest, while their wives hauled the meat to their village and loaded it up for transit to market.
”They’d do that for eight months at a time.” said Maurice, shaking his head. “That forest was empty.” He snapped his fingers for emphasis. The chief sipped from his cup, leaned forward, and spoke. Maurice translated the Swahili for me.
When he was a child, said the chief, there were troops of buffalo in the savannas between these villages. Elephants, too; so many elephants that people didn’t dare to travel between villages after sundown for fear of meeting with them. Now, nothing, he said, cleaving the air with his hand. No buffalos, no elephants. The forest has changed, he said, and I see the river hogs and the antelope vanishing as well. My name, he said, is Ngombe Ndjatu. Ndjatu means buffalo. Who would name me that now?
I asked him if his sons, seated at his side, had seen elephants or buffalo. He rocked back in his chair to look at them. No, he said. HIs elder son spoke: We’ve seen the tracks of buffalo, and elephant scat, but never the animals themselves. We’ve just heard stories.
I drained my cup and put it down on the sand. “Where I live, there’s a way of thinking about this that’s called shifting baselines. What that means is that each generation of people sees the environment that they experience as a child as the normal way for that environment to be. If an animal has vanished before they were born, and all they know of that animal is the stories that thier elders tell, it will never be truly real for them as part of their milieu- they’ll never feel its absence. Only the elders will know what things used to be like. As forests get emptier, as savannas become silent, new generations will not realize that things used to be a different way.”
The chief looked at his sons, and nodded. He drank, deeply, from his cup. His sons sat in silence.
As we were preparing for bed, a tree hyrax started shrieking, somewhere high up in a tree in the forest behind the the chief’s camp. Maurice raised a finger towards the sound.
”Where I grew up, in Equateur province, the forest is truly empty. When someone in the village hears that sound, they sprint into the forest, even in the middle of the night. In total darkness, they run as fast as they can through brush and thorns and lianas to try to find the tree where the sound is coming from. When they find it, they mark the tree, return to the village , and come back during the day. Then they climb the tree and find the hyrax, which is a small, slow animal that doesn’t run when disturbed- they seize it and bring it back to the village. That’s about all the meat they can get.”
As the light failed, we sat on plastic chairs in the chief’s compound, sharing a bottle of Boss Tangawisi. Mama Omba had interviewed the chief at the end of her session of questioning, and he was thoughtful as he sipped from the mug Maurice handed him. He had an enormous scar that ran up the right side of his head, from mandible to hairline.
The ride to Lole was one of the least treacherous six kilometers of road since we’d left Dingi, through second-growth and agricultural fragments that threw up dense brush and vinery. The green pressed in from both sides, making the road a tunnel in the shape of a human on a two-wheeled vehicle. This is a strange space to move through, especially at speed. You have to keep precisely to the bearing of the road, constantly adjusting as it swerves and undulates. The lack of divots or roots or standing mud and water made it possible to go faster than we’d been used to, which created its own problems. Concentrating so closely on the precise direction of the bicycle caused me to collide with a low hanging-trunk, which, if it had been two inches lower, would have taken me bodily off the bike. As it was it simply provoked a vast torrent of swearing and a sizable lump. A few hundred meters further on, we emerged from a patch of forest into a field, where the change in the quality of light was so intense that I was momentarily blinded and failed to turn quickly enough to follow the road. Instead I went up the mound of soil and vegetation at roadside and over into a surprisingly large trench at the far side, leaping from the bike to flail in an ungraceful arc through the bright sunlight and land bent-kneed in a stand of broad-bladed grass while the bike tumbled end-over-end into the trench. More swearing was heard as I descended and began to push it up out of the hole. I wrenched the load straight, mounted up again and passed back into forest, where I spooked a large predatory bird that flapped away slow and low ahead of me through the forest on broad dappled wings.
We crossed a clear stream where women were at laundry and pushed our cycles up the far slope into the village of Lole, a small place with a broad and wide-open central space. We arrived in the chief’s compound and made tea, resting in the shade of a broadleaf tree. A mantis the precise color of the large, heart-shaped foliage sat perched on the underside of the outermost leaf, swaying in a slow breeze.
”Mr. Roger,” said Salva, “what does ‘fucking’ mean, in French?
I pondered this for a moment. “You are asking this because you’ve heard me say it a lot today.” He nodded. “Well, it’s like cursed, or damned. It’s a bit difficult to describe- literally, fuck means sex, or intercourse. But when you use it when you’re angry it is an amplifier of feeling. Don’t you have words like that in Swahili?”
He thought for a moment and shook his head. “Not really.”
Maurice raised a finger. “It’s like what Mr. Ashley used to say, when he worked here with us.” Ashley Vosper, a British primatologist, had participated in a lot of the early surveying and examination of the forest that became the park. “Whenever something happened that he didn’t like, he would say, ” and here Maurice rendered precisely a frustrated British explosion- “oh, fuck no!” He chuckled and repeated it. “FUCK NO! He would say that when he saw women going off to work in the fields all day while their husbands sat in cane chairs in the shade and played cards.”
”That’s about right.” I said. The mantis took a butterfly. We finished our tea and wandered off to bathe.
It was a good audience that afternoon, a big crescent of people arrayed around the entrance to the chief’s palisade. We’d had some more success attracting women this time, several of whom had brought their big wooden mortars with them to continue pestling the rice crop or the evening’s greens as they watched. I went back to where LeRoi and Salva were changing to get a picture of them in their outfits.
LeRoi whispered to me, “Make sure there’s some water in the pot when you set up. One of these days I’m going to dunk him in it.” I smiled and went out to find the props we needed- bricks and logs for a fire-pit, a mortar and pestle for LeRoi and a stick for Salva- and set them up in front of the waiting crowd. Then I retreated behind the crowd to hide, which I did every time- if I didn’t hide, I had found that the audience simply watched me the whole time, and not the performance.
The two actors were hilarious, as usual, and the small door in the palisade was a perfect exit for the leopard to charge out of, scattering gleefully terrified children.
Maurice came over after they’d finished. “A good show, here. I heard a lot of people talking about how important it was for them to protect their forest. I’ve heard that each time we’ve presented this, but nowhere so much as here.”
Mama Omba was setting up to interview villagers, and I was pleased to see that the first person she had managed to buttonhole was a young woman in floral headwrap, holding an infant in her lap. I watched them talk for a while, taking pictures, and then went off to return the props to their places.
At dinner I asked Omba what the woman had said.
”Ah, well- she had very interesting things to say. She understood the themes of the skits, and so understood the need to protect what’s left of their forest and to keep outsiders from hunting there. The problem she posed was this: now that the park is there, and now that their own forest is so degraded, they can no longer earn money from hunting- any meat that they get, they eat. But they need money to buy daily necessities like soap and salt, to clothe their children and to send them to school, so they have given themselves over to farming. They’ve been somewhat successful, and have had a big crop of rice this year, but they have no way of getting that rice to market. She says that they have fulfilled their part of the bargain, and are waiting for someone else to fulfill the other part.” Omba picked up her chicken and bit. “Can’t argue with that.”
No, I agreed. There is the rub. I felt a mild chagrin, thinking of my diatribe of the morning, realizing that it’s the women who are doing most of the basic work related to this project. It’s the women who are doing most of the farming, who have picked up the burden of labor now that hunting brings in little to no return. The women are caring for the children, gathering the firewood, harvesting the family’s food, gathering wild plants, processing crops, and preparing meals while many of the men stand around dreaming of motorcycles, dreaming of a hunt that’s gone. While I thought about this, the sound of pounding could be heard throughout the village- women at work. Any contributions that the project could make towards road improvements would validate women’s work, first and foremost, which may be the most important and practical thing to do.
Morning in Makoka and the hornbills were calling, swooping across the village in smooth arcs, moving impossibly slow against the dawn. LeRoi and Salva were playing cards, Maurice and the chief and I were drinking coffee, and Omba was trying to get some more people to respond to the questionnaire. She had an older man buttonholed for a while, but he refused to answer the questions.
”He says he won’t answer them because the project hasn’t done anything for them here. Why should he help us? What he really needs is for us to fix the road, is what he says. People need to get their rice to market.” She shrugged, fixing herself a coffee. Maurice nodded. This opinion was nothing new to him. He turned to me.
” Well, Roger, what do you think of that?”
I think that the coffee must have been kicking in at this point, as I commenced a bit of a diatribe. Why, I asked, is it that people ask that the TL2 project perform works like this? Why don’t people make demands of this sort of the state? It’s because the state is utterly absent here, and performs no work that anyone here would find useful. The reason people ask that TL2 fix the road- which, it should be noted, they’ve already done once, all the way from one end to another, and that was only five years ago- is that they are the only entity doing anything here, the only people with any power at all who ever pass through these villages. It’s understandable that demands should be made of a project that is requesting that people give up some of their hunting territory for the preservation of species and the forests they inhabit, but isn’t there something else that could be done in the meantime, instead of waiting around for work to be done? Couldn’t demands be made on the state somehow? Couldn’t the chiefs of the villages along this road request a measure of labor from the villagers for road-work on a monthly basis? I know the chiefs can request labor be done, why not direct some of it in this direction? Couldn’t the chiefs petition the next level of government? Couldn’t the villagers petition their chiefs? If nothing ever gets done, couldn’t the villagers try to get something done themselves? I tried, at this point, to render “power concedes nothing without a demand” into French and, failing, returned to my coffee.
Maurice nodded. “The state has an outlay for road improvements. That money leaves the purse in Kindu every month, but none of it make it here- too many pockets to fill along the way. People will continue to make these demands- and TL2 will have to respond to them somehow. As you said, we are the only ones who come here, so we are the only ones people think to ask.”
After we finished our coffee, the chief took us to see some of the old Belgian structures. Makoka had been an administrative center during colonial times, and was dotted with the remnants of their works. A large, open-walled cement structure with a tin roof stood at the crossroads as we walked through the village. “That was a courthouse,” said the chief, pointing.
”No-one uses it for anything now?” I said. He shrugged.
”We used it as a school for a while when we were building the new one. Now, nothing.”
We took the north fork of the road through a patch of forest. I have to note, again, that the road here is only wide enough for two people to walk along it shoulder to shoulder. The chief turned into the forest, swinging his machete.
”Here?” I said. Maurice nodded. We stepped off into the dense foliage. Twenty feet ahead loomed a tall brick wall, neatly split in two by the trunk of a substantial young tree. Inside, the house was large and spacious, with high roofs and tall ceilings, precise woodwork and joinery, and smooth cement floors. The rear had fallen away and we stood looking into the foliage that was churning up into the gap, a slow tornado of leaves and vines. “See the holes down there?” said Maurice, pointing. I nodded. There were big divots in the sandy soil, lined with wet duff. “People came here and dug for diamonds. They reasoned that the Belgians must have hidden diamonds somewhere here, so they dug that huge pit. They dug for a month, and then the wall fell over. They didn’t find anything of course. ” Everyone laughed. I took pictures of huge mason-bee tunnels built on the large double-doors that walled the living room off from the veranda, and of a nest of malevolent red-faced wasps that sat quietly on their precise paper cone and stared at me, vibrating gently.
”Why doesn’t anyone use this structure?” I asked. “It’s built so well, and the tin up there is still shiny underneath, after fifty years.” Maurice waved a hand.
”Bad feelings. Ghosts. People don’t trust the things the Belgians built.” We walked back to the road and up to where the colonists had dug a well, lining it with the same excellent brick that the house was made of. Children were playing at the edge and scattered as we approached. I looked into it, deep and damp and empty and draped with a luxurious growth of ferns. Maurice sat on the low lip of brick, looking down. “This used to have a pump attached to it, that filled tanks on the roofs of that house, so they could flush their toilet and have running water in kitchen and bath. They built this well here for themselves, and another, which you saw by the chief’s house, for the villagers.” I asked what happened to the pump. He looked at me. “Oh, you know. Parts of it are now church-bells. Parts are being used as anvils. The pipes were taken to use in local stills.”
”Practical.” I said. He nodded, gravely.
The following morning I sat down with Salva and LeRoi as we drank our coffee to try to offer some further reassurance.
”You’ve noticed, I’m sure, that in every single village along this road, Maurice is greeted with shouts of ‘Obama!”. They both nodded, and smiled.
”The American President!” said Salva, cackling.
As we’d been riding east from Dingi, this phenomenon had become a hilarious everyday occurrence. We’d ride into the dark shroud of forest from a few blazing kilometers under the hammering sun out on the savannah, and there’d be a village there, the sandy road widening out and a few small huts with bamboo palisades on each side. From within the huts, or the palisades, would come cries of “Obama!”, and we’d pull to a halt so that Maurice could make the rounds of the enthusiastic people who emerged to shake his hand.
”Why is it, Maurice, that everyone calls you Obama?” I asked, after the umpteenth time.
He grinned. “When the project fixed the road through here in 2009, I was in charge of the funds, so I got to pay everyone who did work. A good way to make people think of you fondly.”
Salva and LeRoi had heard this story as well. I gestured at Maurice, who was haggling over the price of a couple of chickens.
”You see how everyone here likes him. If there were any danger on this road, if Thoms’ soldiers were really going to come for us, if they were coming to attack the TL2 camps on this side of the river, they’d have to go through a lot of villages where Maurice is well liked before they got to us. I guarantee you that these people would send a warning before anything like that happened.”
They nodded, solemnly.
”What we’ll do, to make sure you’re comfortable, and to make sure I’m comfortable for that matter, is this. When we get to the next village, Makoka, you and Mama Omba can take a rest and get ready for the show and Maurice and I will unload our bikes and ride the 5km to the TL2 camp at Tchombe Kilima to confer with the workers there. They will be able to tell us exactly what is going on with the situation with the guards, and with this column of armed men that is threatening to burn Katopa. We’ll get concrete news, and then we’ll come back and tell it to you. And if there’s any sign of clear danger, we will turn back. OK?”
This was acceptable to both. We loaded up our pack, the water jugs, the oil jugs, the chickens, the bags of cooking gear and supplies and the masks and rode out for Makoka.
Just outside of Kakungu, the road crosses a broad, low river called the Machach. This river splits into nine channels in a stretch called 9 Bridges. The bridges in question are hopefully named. Two were built by TL2, under Maurice’s supervision, over the two largest arms of the river. The rest are bridges in the sense that there is something that goes across the river, from side to side, technically bridging it. That is where the familiar concept of bridge ends.
The seven remaining bridges were cobbled together from fragments of might once have been a larger and more substantial sort of bridge. There were long, dark planks of thick hardwood that had deep grooves worn in them, the width of a bicycle tire. These were propped at rakish angles on fragments of older planks, or on rough-hewn trunks braced haphazardly against fragments of anything that might provide some shred of stability. Where there were no ancient planks, groups of tree trunks, none particularly straight, were abutted. Sometimes there was a thin strand of liana that hoped to serve as a rail, but these were more often than not attached to thin saplings that bent wildly under the slightest pressure so best avoided. Pushing a steel bicycle laden with a heavy pack, water, food, and sundries across these things was a novel experience. It made my attention focus in a way I’m not sure it ever has before. Underneath you ran the red-black water of the Machach- not particularly deep, but enough so that you and your load would certainly vanish from sight if you went in.
We all made it to Makoka, a sub-divided village that appears in segments along the road, and where the road splits into northern and southern arms. The Belgians left some well-built structures here, which are melting into the forest. As promised, Maurice and I unloaded and headed off towards Tchombe Kilima. It was the heat of the day, and the road from Kakungu hadn’t been particularly great, but to ride quickly along a lightly flooded savannah with no load and a hot wind felt wonderful. We arrived in Tchombe Kilima to greet Kinois Kitoko, the base chief.
Kinois sat us down in cool shade and opened his laptop to show us a video he’d made. It showed a young boy, nervous and fidgeting, who under light prodding explained that he’d come from Benekamba, the village to the north of PolePole where the group of armed men had retreated to. He said that he’d seen them going northwest on the path towards Ngombe, Thoms’ main base. Kinois said “Brave little fellow. They told everyone in the village to say nothing about them and where they’d gone, and the first thing he did when he got here was to come to us.” Then he opened the folder of photos of the injured guard.
”We heard that those men were coming to burn our camp at Oluo, so we went out on patrol” said Kinois. “We camped at the river and the two guards crossed over. We were all on edge. Near dawn we heard gunfire, and assumed there’d been a confrontation, but then we heard Dimanche calling out to us. There’s no bridge there, just a downed tree. We crossed and found Dimanche in hysterics. I had to take his gun from him, and I had to take the other from Yousca, the injured guard. Dimanche lifted Yousca up and carried him over the tree, I don’t know how, and then to the village. He was covered in blood. The doctor from Makoka came and cut off his trousers. You could see the terrible injuries to his leg and to his genitals.” Kinois clicked through the images. “We put him on the motorcycle and headed for Kindu as fast as we could.”
How did they cross those bridges? How did they cross all those rivers? How did a man with a shattered femur and amputated testicles make it all the way to Kindu bleeding like that and not die? Luckily no artery was hit, and that’s probably the reason.
”Everyone’s so afraid.” said Kinois, shaking his head and closing the laptop. “The situation is probably fine, and safe, but it was terror that made Dimanche shoot Yousca. And now there’s only one guard here.”
Kinois gave us oranges and we said au revoir, knowing we’d be back in a couple of days. We rode quickly back to Makoka and briefed the theater crew. The show in Makoka went off swimmingly- a small dog confronted LeRoi while he was in the leopard mask, and he scared it off, lunging. The laughter was loud, as usual, and the audience clapped wildly as the hunter was led away by his wife.We had a late start so twilight was falling as Mama Omba was asking her questions.
Every village along this road has a bicycle mechanic. Good thing, too- nary a day went by when we weren’t in need of some sort of repair to our lumbering steel steeds. In Wemambuli the chief introduced us to a young fellow with the obscure nickname “Eating Problem”. His toolkit, shown above, was one of the more elaborate seen on the whole excursion- take note of the feather, a critical tool for the application of diesel as a lubricant. While we watched him work, some disturbing news came through the grapevine, passed along from person to person from the village of Oluo, about forty km away and home to a TL2 base camp. The news was this: while out on patrol, one of the two TL2 park guards had failed to give the correct password to his companion when returning to camp at dusk, and had been subsequently fired upon. Details were scant, but it was certain that he’d been seriously wounded. We sat in silence for a while digesting this.
We took the rough savannah road back to Lomango, preparing to strike back out on the road to the east. In an afternoon of downtime I asked the chief to give me a lesson in snare-making. I’d observed Congolese snares on my previous trip, and their ingenuity and simplicity had piqued my interest. The chief was obliging- we went down the road a little ways and he demonstrated a selection of snares, each designed with a particular purpose. There are snares for small animals and large animals. There are snares for game paths in the forest, snares for the mouths of burrows, and snares for branches across streams.
The chief gave a careful demonstration of a selection of these, and was gracious enough to catch himself in each to show the trip-mechanism at work. each snare incorporates the spring-tension of a bent sapling, a trigger, and a loop made either of wire or nylon cord, designed to tighten when struggled against. “The ancestors were geniuses,” mused Maurice.
In the heat of the afternoon, after the snare lesson, we were lazing around the chief’s hospitality structure when a stocky man in military fatigues with an AK47 swinging at his side came strolling out of the forest. Maurice grinned widely and went to embrace him- it was Michel, one of the park guards from TL2’s Katopa base camp. He brought uncomfortable news- heavily armed men had emerged from the forest on the other side of the Lomami and entered the town of PolePole, where they’d demanded that the chief give them pirogues which they could use to head downstream and burn Katopa. The chief had refused, and had instead given them oarsmen to take them back upstream. Michel was heading to Kindu for his month of rest, after a year in the forest. He had with him a frightened, ragged man whom the villagers of Katopa had denounced as a spy. They were both walking to Kindu; the desperate looking man was carrying Michel’s bag.
That night in Lomango Maurice came to my tent as I was reading. “Monsieur Roger, we have a problem,” he said. “The young fellows don’t want to continue. They are afraid of bandits in the forest. They are afraid of Thoms.”
I got up to talk to them. We sat around a candle in the dark, with tree hyraxes shrieking in the trees off in the forest. LeRoi was obviously terrified, and Salva was wide-eyed with concern. I asked them what was wrong.
”Mr. Roger,” began Leroi, “we’ve heard a lot of things from people here. People in Wemambuli, people in Lomango, they are all saying that we are going to be killed if we continue on this path. That if Thoms finds us he will kill us for working with you. They say that we are putting ourselves in danger and that we should go back.”
”I don’t think that Thoms is a threat to us, LeRoi. He and his men are far away, on the other side of the river. They threatened to attack Katopa but they didn’t. They went away.”
”But what about Kakongo? They attacked there, they beat the chief’s father and raped that woman and they did that because they had worked with TL2. They had a letter from Thoms that they brought with them. What did the letter say?”
”I don’t know what it said, and yes, it’s terrible that they did that, but they are far away now, not a threat to us. We are going to go to five more villages and perform these skits, and I guarantee your safety.”
”But what about Kakongo? What about that letter? What if that letter said something about us, about what happens to people who work with TL2?” I opened my mouth to answer and before I did a small bird chirped in my ear and I stood, raising one finger and running to my tent. I returned with a map of the park area.
”I think I understand what is happening here. We are here.” I pointed to Lomango. “The village of Kakongo, eighty km away to the northeast, is here. ” I pointed. “Tomorrow, we are going to the village of Kakungu, 12 km away to the east.” I pointed again. Salva and LeRoi craned to see. Salva cackled and slapped his leg. “I’m off to bed!” he said, rising to leave. LeRoi sat with his head bowed.
I tried to give an inspirational speech at this point, something with which I’m not enormously familiar. Fear, I said, was the means that Thoms uses to get what he wants. If he can get people to fear him, he doesn’t have to do as much work- people will do his labors by themselves, I said. They’ll avoid the forest if they think he’s there, they’ll shun people who they think bring his danger down on them, they’ll crouch trembling in the darkness while he continues to take whatever he wants. LeRoi nodded solemnly, and sighed. “The people in these villages will say anything to bring down someone that they are jealous of,” said Maurice, shaking his head. “Ah! The Bangengele are not thieves, but they are the most terrible gossips.” We went to our respective tents.
In the early morning we proceeded to Kakungu. The show went marvelously, until a titanic thunderclap opened lowering skies onto us just as the second skit was beginning. Everyone scrambled for the nearest eave to watch the sheets of water distort the air like heavy static. The sound was incredible, the thunder like deep steel barrels colliding in a huge vault of stone.
When the rain cleared, Mama Omba managed to buttonhole a small selection of villagers to answer her questionnaires. They sat in the newly smoothed road that ran through the center of the village and spoke quietly while she wrote.
Next stop- Wemambuli. (Click through the photoset above for accompanying images) The road, which I will continue to call a road throughout the duration of this narrative even though it’s minimum diameter at several points was no greater than 12 inches, headed out into savanna. We turned left at a lone palm, south across rough terrain, riding in misty dawn hours to avoid as much as possible the enervating afternoon heat. When we arrived in Wemambuli, a sizable village stretching about 500 m, the Catholic church at the far end of the village was in full spate. A scratchy guitar blazed out through a loud-hailer, and people were dancing in processional under a palm-thatch roof. We inquired the day’s schedule, and were given the go ahead to perform the skits after the event had moved out from the church into the village proper. We ate and rested- and when the music began again a few hours or so later in the center of the village, we made our way over to watch visiting dance teams perform to the unrelenting guitar-and-drum trance music.
Mama Omba introduced the skits after the music had drawn to an eventual lull, and Salva and LeRoi came out decked in their finery. This was our largest audience by far- several hundred people arrayed in a large oval around the two comics. They began the first skit with a bit of a dance routine, or at least Salva did- LeRoi studied him charitably as he thrashed about. Lots of enthusiasm from the crowd for the first skit, but what happened when the second skit began was, for me, perhaps the greatest single sensation of artistic success in my life. Salva and LeRoi had been prepping inside a house at roadside, emerging when their costume changes were finished. When LeRoi trotted out on all fours from the black interior wearing the leopard mask, the entire crowd gasped and took a step back. Small groups of children broke from the larger assembly and fled. I hissed “yessssssss” under my breath.
After the skits, Mama Omba asked the crowd if they’d like to respond to some questions, and there was immediate uproar. It became suddenly obvious that there was a contingent of men in the assembled villagers who were deeply unhappy about the content of the skits, and opposed in particular to the idea of the park, and this vocal minority became a haranguing throng. The chief attempted to intrude, but tempers were rising and nobody was listening to anyone else. We retreated to an orange tree near the chief’s house, and the music started up again. The chief came over, shaking his head. “Shouldn’t have tried to pose the questions publicly like that,” said Maurice. Mama Omba came over to join us with a man who she proceeded to interview. Several other men came over to join the discussion, and a lot of heated Swahili was thrown back and forth, with great enthusiasm. When I asked the gist, Maurice said “It comes down to the fact that people wanted to get back to the music and were annoyed at the idea of waiting around while questions were answered. That and the fact that there is always a contingent in these villages of people opposed to the park- and they will take any opportunity to make their opinion known”.
The music went on long into the night. Maurice and I shared a bottle of Boss Tangawisi, a sweet Congolese whiskey flavored with ginger, and joined the throng circling the loudhailer. As usual, I found that people were deeply amused by my dancing. This is nothing new.
Back in Kindu now, the tour a great success! I’ll try to do it justice in upcoming blog posts. I’ve uploaded seven photos in the above photoset- the first of which shows LeRoi and Salva with their loaded cycles on the morning of our departure- We left Kindu at dawn, heading out of town and north on the road to Dingi. It’s a passable road, unpaved but hardpack sand , and we were riding in the cool hours just after dawn. Not far out of town we came to a savanna, where I parked my bike for a picture- you can see my chicken strapped to the back of my bike there- not a bad perch, although to be sure the future didn’t hold much for that particular chicken, nor for the other four. The day turned clear and hot and we made it to Dingi in the mid-afternoon. I must have consumed four or five liters of water during the ride, and kept imagining my kidneys as hapless cartoon slaves, sweating under the lash. We spent the night in Dingi at the house of a hospitable fellow and were off at dawn the next day- passing through groves of giant bamboo on our way to the village of Lomango, where we had planned the first performance. We checked in with the chief, at whose home we set up camp, and requested that he call the villagers together at about 530, after people had returned from their fields. A crowd gathered at the appointed time, and Salva and Leroi started their act- which suddenly was transformed into something much more sophisticated than it had been in rehearsal- they’d costumed themselves elaborately, LeRoi pulling off an amazing drag, and Salva’s comic Grandpa getup had people in fits before he said a word. I hid myself behind the chief’s welcome-structure, because if I was visible, people tended to watch me instead of the action. I snapped a secret photo of some attending ladies - at least some seemed to be enjoying themselves.
After the performance, Maurice addressed the crowd, summing up some of what had been addressed in the skits, and the chief offered some comments too. Everyone drifted back to the village to prepare dinner, and we set up our tents. We noticed a parade of children heading into the forest- on inquiry we were informed that they were members of the local Catholic church heading to Wemambuli, the village where we’d planned to go next. Apparently there was a big Catholic festival there tomorrow- a fortunate coincidence! That meant there’d be a crowd assembled from a number of other villages and we could probably jump in to perform for them. I watched the kids trotting off into the deep dark green of the forest. They’re walking there, I said to myself, a distance of some twenty kilometers, and they’re leaving at dusk. None of them have flashlights and there’s no moon. They all had smiles on there faces, though, so I turned back towards the house, where Mama Omba was setting out dishes. After dinner I spent a while stalking and photographing a lovely leaf-mimic katydid, setting a theme for many of the insects I’d capture over the following three weeks.
Masks are finished, and rehearsals are progressing. The troupe is seen above in the first photo in the set, Salva at left, Roi Kishishi with leopard mask, then Maurice and Mama Omba from the ICCN. We found a nice spot of green near the old convent in which to rehearse without the noise of the city interrupting (second photo).
After a diagnostic test ride in which it was determined that these inexpensive steel bicycles arrive from the factory designed to inhibit movement instead of encouraging it, we invited a mechanic to tune them up. This he accomplished with a surprising amount of carefully applied brute force, including bashing vigorously on the rear stays with a two-pointed pick head, inserting a punch into the crank and wrenching it in the direction of the alignment he required, and placing the entire bicycle prone across the brick laundry trench and carefully jumping up and down on it several times. After he finished his ministrations, we took them out for another test ride, with excellent results.
Many small points of logistical wrangling and many small purchases in the innumerable minute grocery stores of central Kindu occupy the rest of my time. While on the hunt for salt fish in the central market yesterday we ran across a young fellow with a monkey on a string- The white stripe on its nose made me shriek “Lesula!”, which is the cryptic ground-dwelling monkey endemic to the forests of the Lomami basin, where we’re headed. It turned out instead to be an Owl-Faced Monkey, the Lesula’s closest relative, also a ground dweller, and also vanishingly rare and cryptic.
Two friends arrived last night- Maurice Emetshu and Maga Booto. We spent two months together in Obenge when I was previously here, and it’s truly a pleasure to see them both. The first photo above is Maga, showing off some trophies taken from a hunters’ camp dismantled by park workers- the feathers and the taloned foot of an African Crowned Eagle, the great terror of monkeys and other meaty canopy morsels throughout the region.
The second photo shows Maurice (at left) and Salumu in deep contemplation of vital issues in the courtyard. They’re discussing news of recent developments with the warlord Thoms- Maurice came under fire from Thoms’ team of bandits earlier last year, more about which later. Salumu spent Saturday at the local radio station, interviewing for two, among the troupe of young people who compose and perform weekly radio dramas there, who might be interested in participating in this project. There were certain stipulations, most important of which were a commitment to two weeks of field-work, and compatibility with the idea of doing that field-work by bicycle.
Yes, it does indeed seem that we’re going to be doing this all by bike. Maurice and Salumu explain- if you buy bikes, tools, and spare parts for an excursion like this, you’re still going to be well under the price you’d pay to hire an equivalent number of motorcycle drivers and buy the gasoline their machines require. Plus you don’t have to feed the drivers. AND you can take your time. So, in the third photo in the photoset you see our two recruits Kishishi (at left) and Salos (at right), doing a dry reading of the French version of the skits that I’ve written. A note here- Congo is one of the most nickname rich places I’ve ever traveled, and it is likely that several further names for these two will be in use as the project progresses. That is, if they are indeed okay with riding a well-stocked bicycle for about 40 km a day. Salos seems a bit dubious, but I think he’ll come around. They do seem to be a talented pair. They’ve expressed enthusiasm in streamlining Salumu’s Swahili translation for clarity.
I’ve been spending some of my afternoons wandering around Kindu, taking the air, watching the stormclouds mass and the canoes punt past. The last image is from the woeful Kindu Railway station, which doesn’t seem to be functioning. It’s hard to tell what items of infrastructure are in use here and which are not- I’ve taken to reserving judgement until I see them move. The train-tracks are rusty and overgrown and much in demand as a footpath, so I’m not holding my breath on their account.
Kindu! Jewel of Maniema. It’s a bit of a dusty jewel, but it’s here and so am I. Pictured above are two colleagues from TL2- that’s Kinois Kitoko at left, and Léon Salumu at right. Léon and I have been hard at work for the past couple of days writing some skits for the theater project. After some brainstorming over beers at the lovely Vero Beach (that’s the Congo River view in the second photo in the above photoset) we settled on three themes- Community Forests, Why a Park is Worth It, and What Scientists Actually Do. I wrote these up and translated them into French, and then Léon took them and cleaned them up and translated them into Swahili. A surprisingly painless experience, to be sure. Next, of course, is the more delicate process of finding performers who are interested in not only getting down with some novel themes, but also getting on the back of a motorcycle to parade those themes through some very remote regions. I’ve absolutely no idea how well this is going to go, but Léon is enthusiastic, and his confidence is contagious. I’ll post the skits individually in later posts, for the dubious enlightenment of all.