Here’s a video I put together of footage I shot in Congo along with a song from Obenge’s Malaika choir. Enjoy! I love this song and every time I listen to it wish I could turn it up to 12.
“Could we build a tomb for her father?”
That was Maurice’s idea, and a good one. Chefitaine Marie’s father was the founder of Obenge, and women still visit his forest grave to rub grave-dirt on their bellies and pray for fertility. She agreed, but her family made her back down, nervous that such a thing would put them in debt to the project.
“I know what to do.” said the Lieutenant. “The guard that died this spring, Yumulani-Tebe. His grave is there in the village cemetery. We’ll use the cement and the bricks to build a grave marker for him. Such a thing is outside Mama Chief’s power to refuse. If we do that, we’ll have our monument.” He presented the idea to Mama Chief the next day, and she approved it.
We laid the foundation for the tomb during a riotous celebration in the small graveyard at Obenge’s south edge. Fully half of the men in the village came out to help us mix and pour the rectangular base, under the careful supervision of Papa Stany, one of the pastors at Obenge’s Protestant church who happens to be an accomplished mason. A goat was killed and roasted, jugs of manioc liquor were procured and passed around, songs were sung and the wet ground stamped dry by the pounding of dancing feet. The ICCN guards troweled ceremonial passes into the wet cement, fired joyful rounds from their Kalashnikovs into the palm crowns, and danced for their dead colleague.
Mama Chief came with her family and her coterie of notables to observe the work in progress; they were fêted in their turn by the enthusiastic crowd. Maurice described the work to her, modeling with his hands the shape that the monument would take. Mama Chief watched his hands move with a small twist of bitterness on her lips, until she was picked up and hoisted in her chair by a gang of young men, who bobbed her up and down in rhythm with their song. Her smile crept back and she whisked the length of printed yellow cloth she was carrying in time to the music. Behind her the wind was shaking the purple fronds of the tomb-shrub that grows from Obenge’s mass grave. Her daughter was in there, a victim of the war and the RCD officer known as Dracula.
Messing with the timeline a bit: here are two photos that Terese just sent along, showing Omo using the bandanas to explain the park and its protected species (Click the arrow at the right of the image above to see the other). Here you see him talking to two different teams of poachers encountered while on patrol in the southern region of the proposed park area. This is great to see, and really this was the whole point of the project- to provide educational materials that traveled well in rough circumstances, and that would appeal to a broad range of people.
In between the episodes of political wrangling and the intrigue of the village, we went into the forest. We walked the transects that delineated the zone of study, counting monkeys and whatever else there was to be seen. We stayed at Losekola camp, a clearing at a bend in the small Losekola river, where thatched roofs provided sheltered space. The rainy season was coming on and when the sky opened, it came down full force, torrents of warm rain pounding every surface. We were accompanied to the forest by a team of guards from the ICCN (Institute Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature, Congo’s national conservation institute), who had taken up residence in a small barracks within the borders of the camp. The guards were on loan from Maiko National Park in the Northeast. They told us stories of their work there: apparently they spent a lot of time getting into firefights with the rump elements of Pierre Mulele’s SImba army, who’ve inhabited the park since the 1960’s. The Simbas’ guerrilla war against Mobutu never ended, and during his rule, when the country was called Zaire, they claimed the park as a separate nation which retained the name Congo. Now that Congo is Congo again, there’s been some movement towards a reintegration of them and their forces into Congolese society, but they retain a fierce independence and sense of ownership over the forest. The guards were relieved at how comparatively easy life was in the Lomami area- no illegal mining, prospecting or logging to contend against, just poachers. Seen here clockwise from top left: Lieutenant Alexei, Harassment, me, Amisi, Fresh Fish, and Koffi. Solid fellows all.
I started distributing the bandanas to people in the village. I started with the people who worked for the TL2 project, most of whom had come to Obenge from elsewhere in Congo. Maurice and Maga were from Mbandaka, near Salonga National Park. Omo was from Opala, Kinois from Kindu. Pablo was from Lubumbashi by way of Kisangani, where he’d studied botany. Mama Rebecca and her son Obadi were from Epulu, in the Ituri region. The Harts have assembled quite a huge team of skilled, dedicated people to do the work of running these encampments and doing the science that conservation relies on.
Part of the work of promoting the park in Obenge has involved training people from the village to assist in that work, which consists of cutting and walking transects in the forest and making observations of fauna. Camera traps are set up to record diurnal and nocturnal traffic at small, open wetlands and along dense, well-used animal trails. All this requires a functional knowledge of compass, GPS, digital camera, and a clear method of notation. Several young men from the village have picked these skills up, and it was to them and their families that I unloaded the first round of bandanas. In the image above you can see a young woman wearing one of them, at left. She’s singing in a choir called Maendeleo, at the all-church gathering held at the Branhamite church on the second weekend of my stay. There were quite a few people wearing them at that event, and the colors mingled nicely with the gloriously bright fancy prints that people had pulled out and put on for the occasion. That’s Frank Alatcho conducting.
Bear Deluxe Article
This is the text of an article I wrote about the bandana project before I left, and which was recently published in the Bear Deluxe, Portland’s environmental arts journal. There’s instructions on how to order a copy on their Facebook page.
When one thinks about the Democratic Republic of Congo, the enormous nation that sits at the heart of the African continent like the hub of a wheel, one tends to accentuate the negative. War. Rape. Epidemics. Ecological devastation. Child soldiers, clutching guns as large as themselves. Child miners, scrabbling in rank pits for the trace elements that power our lifestyles. The colonial regime built with severed hands and the hippo-hide whip. Most would agree that Congo’s grim history of exploitation and brutality has doomed its large population to a life of misery in one of the poorest and most dangerous countries in the world.
In the history of European and American relationships with the region, one can find ways to understand how the world works, and why it is the way it is. Material cut from the forests or hacked from the red laterite soils of Congo made the twentieth century possible- all the wars, all the ambitions, all of the coming together and being torn apart. The uranium that vaporized Hiroshima came from a mine in the southeast, which was still being tapped by wildcat coltan miners in 2004 when it collapsed and trapped 30 underground. The cliché about countries with the richest natural wealth having the weakest economic health should be written on Congo’s national flag.
Another blistering track from the people of Obenge. This is the men’s choir, Côté G, performing at a gathering of all of the members of the three churches in town. The gathering took place at the Branhamite church, an obscure Apostolic sect with a surprisingly large global following. Note: it gets pretty punchy at about 1:25.
At last, we arrived in Obenge, the village where I was to spend the next two months. It’s a small place, two rows of wattle-and-daub houses facing each other across a well-stamped earthen street, up a steep bank from the broad, brown Lomami. This picture is from my first morning there, walking into town with the TL2 workers to present myself and my bona fides to the Chief, Marie Longembengembe. It didn’t go well- She refused to sign my Order of Mission, and refused permission for the monument that we had intended to build. We had brought the cement and bricks a good distance for that purpose, but she angrily remonstrated with the TL2 workers, Maurice and Pablo- what need do we have here of a monument? We need better houses, better tools, we need a new spring built. Mama Chief, as she is known, has been cold to the idea of a park from the beginning, and especially cold to the idea of having her village relocated- the prospect of a loss of power and prestige weighs heavily on her. We bid our respects to her and walked back to the encampment to take stock of this turn of events.
At Masasi, one of three small villages upriver from Opala, just outside the limits of the future park. Here’s an image of Maurice and Dino, two of the TL2 fieldworkers, with some of the notables from Masasi village. Handing out the bandanas in small riverside villages like this made the project concrete in a way that our efforts in Opala hadn’t- These are people who make a good portion of their everyday living from the forest and its animals, and they face some changes to their way of living. The work of communicating the ideas of community based conservation (at which both Dino and Maurice excel) is going to be critical to the development and maintenance of a park. It’s especially important when you consider one of the truly historic qualities of this effort: this is the first national park to be created in Congo in which the people who live in or near it have been sought out for involvement in the process. All of the others, more or less, were created by executive decree by Mobutu in 1969, and his mandate was clear- he sent soldiers into the parks to order everyone out. You have a month, they said, before we return to burn your village.
The town of Opala is the capital of its’ eponymous territory, on the Lomami river in Orientale province, six days by barge to the southeast of Kisangani. While we waited there for members of our team to arrive via motorcycle, Omo and I set out to visit the town schools. Here he’s talking with prefects from the Opala Catholic school, explaining the contents of the bandana and the concept of the park.