Years before my travels in Africa, my college professor Paul Breer at Cornell University assigned us The Forest People by Colin Turnbull to read. It was on the first day of class. The book describes his experience living with a tribe of Pygmies for three years in the Ituri Congo rainforest in the far east of the country.
Less than six years after reading the book, I met a Dutch anthropologist named Pieter in Bangui, Central African Republic (CAR). He had recruited me to be his French interpreter as his group went into the CAR forest to meet a different band of pygmies in west Africa. It is not something I could have ever foretold when I dutifully read the required reading.
In this formerly French country, he needed a French speaker to translate for him because his Aka guide could only speak French and his native language. Pieter’s French was not that strong and he felt the need for some support.
After a 70 km drive south-southwest from Bangui, we reached a small village on the Lobaye River where we picked up our pygmy guide to the Aka village. We drove down a dirt ramp to the river where the road ended. It seemed. But there was a way.
We slowly and very carefully drove our Land Rover onto a raft-ferry built with planks fixed onto tops of logs. It didn’t seem to be too stable as we drove on, but it held. It was powered by men hauling on a rope that was strung across the river. They pulled us tentatively toward the far bank against the cross current, the raft tipping slightly into the rivers flow. After crossing to the other side, we drove the Land Rover off on to the muddy bank, very carefully.
From the bank, there was a heavily rutted path that wound through the dense jungle. We proceeded slowly in four wheel drive about 20 minutes on it, arriving at a small clearing where the road really ended.
We stopped, got out, and saw thick forest all around us. It looked impenetrable. We gathered our supplies for the day in the bush: our lunches, cameras, journals, and some gifts for the Forest People.
In a flash, our pygmy guide, who had come with us, disappeared into the forest. All we could see of him was a swoosh of high grasses in front of us. He poked out of the grass after a few yards and beckoned us to follow. We followed the swoosh – he would regularly pause and raise a hand to make sure we could follow.
I asked our pygmy guide, “Comment pouvez-vous voir où vous allez?” How can you see where you are going? He smiled and motioned to me to bend down to almost half my height.
I will never forget what I saw. Once I crouched down, I could see what looked like a covered highway, a tunnel through the dense forest. Above five feet, all you could see was a canopy of green leaves, below five feet, there was a jungle highway, a well beaten path that was easy to follow as it tunneled through the woods. I just wasn’t constructed to understand the paths in their world.
There was a branch in the highway just ahead of us. One tunnel veered off to the right, and the one we would take, veered to the left. The pygmies had created these covered highways that were more like tunnels of cleared forest paths for themselves but were invisible to anyone over 5 feet tall!
This was their forest in a world they understood; we were traveling on their highways – highways which the Pygmies regularly maintained. We kept on at a good pace for about an hour through the thick vegetation. Ducking down from time to time to make sure we were on track and our guide was still ahead. Without the guide, we would have crawled slowly on our hands and knees to follow the path.
Finally, we reached a circular clearing in the forest where there were several low round huts made of branches, vines, and leaves with several small smoldering fires in little fire circles. We took it all in as we finally were able to stand up tall and look around at what we had found.
There were huts, apparently for sleeping, with grass mats on their floors. Other huts were for storage with rough shelves made with branches attached.
We were all alone: three foreign folk (two Dutch anthropologists and me), our driver, and our pygmy guide. It was eerily quiet. We took some pictures. Then Pieter and his colleague started writing field notes. We kept looking around, seeing nothing but forest. Had our guide brought us to the wrong place?
We were there alone in the near silence of the encampment for what seemed like an eternity; but, in reality, it was only about 20 minutes.
Then without warning, all around us we saw spear points emerge from the forest, then we saw the spear tips disappear behind the rough wall enclosure of branches and brambles that enclosed our clearing except for the opening through which we had entered. Presently the band came into the clearing from the forest beyond the clearing, led by the men with their spears, followed by the women and children. There wasn’t a sound. Our guide and the driver were smiling. Then Pieter, his colleague and I were smiling too.
As if on some silent, invisible cue, the pygmy band walked in single file using the path we had taken into the clearing. One after another, they greeted our guide, whom they knew as a cousin. The men with their spears warmly greeted us with a kind of timid smirk. One of the women, holding a baby in a sling, went to a food hut, got something to eat and offered it to our guide. Everyone was very casual.
Most of the women seemed very shy. One girl stared at a couple of large safety pins that I had on one of my belt loops. She gave me a look of admiration. I gave them to her. She smiled and decided to wear them as earrings (see photo).
We stayed among the Aka Pygmies for a couple of hours. Pieter asked them about their hunting, their relations with neighboring bands, and how well they were managing to survive. I was busy relaying his questions to our Aka guide, in French, who then relayed them to tribal members in their language.
I felt that we had been transported back in time a millennium or more, back to our hunter gatherer ancestors. I was surprised that they had sustained their traditional hunter-gatherer life in the forest so well. But then I suppose they had had thousands of years to perfect it and learn to decode the secrets the jungle held.
It would have been a shame if their secret, intimate knowledge of the jungle had been lost. Their knowledge of the forest database was impressive. Pieter was trying to understand it so it could be shared, but I believe, as outsiders, we could only touch the surface of the knowledge.
They seemed safe and protected on their jungle island, surrounded and protected by tributaries of the Ubangi. Water flowed all around them, with the risk of flooding each year that further discouraged outsiders.
When we were ready to leave, we once again followed our guide back to the Land Rover without fail. I don’t think we could have found our way without him.
We drove back the short distance to the river where the plank-raft-ferry was waiting. We carefully loaded on to it and carefully crossed the Lobaye River before darkness fell.
We drove back through the darkening jungle to the village to drop off our guide where we had picked him up. Then, as the sun quickly set, we got on the red dirt highway that brought us from Bangui.
In the tropics, there seems to be almost no twilight. It gets dark with a thud. Our headlights swept the road, which seemed to be another tunnel through the forest as we drove back into the capital. Were we in a Land Rover or a time machine? Certainly both!
I learned that risk analysis among the pygmies is really straight-forward. They live their lives prepared, secure and happy. Everything they need is in the forest which also surrounds and protects them. The forest is their database, they understand its risks and rewards.
Each pygmy group has several widely dispersed forest clearings stocked with shelters, work, and food storage huts. All the clearings are connected through their network of covered tunnel-like paths cut through the forest. Some paths may also lead to favored hunting and/or gathering grounds. Other paths in this maze lead to dead-ends to confound strangers who the pygmies don’t want to meet.
Part of the pygmies’ culture requires acute awareness of their environment to be able live in harmony with the forest and what it can provide to them. It is a balance.
Long before we came close to the village, when they heard us coming, they had made an orderly retreat into the forest. As we approached and entered their clearing, we could not hear or see them, but they could hear and see us. They were assessing us, determining the risks of contact with us. Our Aka guide was our key to their door.
I was going to take risk analysis as a business course when I returned to university. The pygmies had not only mastered the concept of risk analysis in their forest; for them, it was a way of life.