One of the most frightening days of my life, part of some of the most extreme days that I have experienced travelling, is finally behind. Now I look around, on my first day of rest in a very long time and the fascination overwhelms me. I am navigating the magnificent Sangha River crossing the heart of the equatorial rainforest of Central Africa in a small boat with outboard engine. As we navigate forward we trace a groove between three countries, Congo, Cameroon and the Central African Republic, leaving a slit in the water that seems to break a perfect mirror. I let the wind, increased by speed, caress my face and relieve me from the punishing tropical sun. As I look at the sky, I breathe deeply this humidity of jungle flavour and I can not believe how far I've come. I am sailing through the middle of the rainforest.
I travel along with Andrea Turkalo, who offered to take me on this long 6 hour trip that has an approximate cost for her of 600 dollars. Andrea is on her way back to her remote base, where she has spent the last 28 years of her life. There she lives mostly alone surrounded by nothing but thick jungle. Although she not entirely alone. Her work for the WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) involves spending 40 hours a week or more, observing and studying the behaviour of the elephants in their habitat. I could not have imagined having a travelling companion more fascinating than she is. Learning to see the rainforest through her knowledge, apart from making the trip extremely entertaining, leads me to see things I've never seen before. Species of trees, singing of birds and even the last 3 hippos that live in a corner of the river, that I could have never seen if it wasn't for her. Few times in my life I have learned so much about nature before.
The true dark side
However, Andrea is not only an excellent reference in terms of biology and social psychology of elephants, but she also shows the skillful management of someone who has spent nearly three decades, operating in an environment not only inhospitable for its geographical and climatic conditions, but even more so, for the extreme social complexities that prevail in a region devastated by years of civil wars, ethnic and religious conflicts and the absolute lack of education of its population.
As a result, on disembarking at the border posts of the Central African Republic, Andrea has to deal with drunken and corrupt military officers, whom she knows very well (as much as she knows Eric, the Congolese immigration bastard that had beaten me only two days ago.) These idlers whose minds are numb of excessive leisure and alcohol haunt every newcomer as vultures. Like Eric in Congo, they also display fake smiles to pretend friendliness. Asphyxiated in their precarious military uniforms, but always well embraced to their machine guns, they lie down on the banks of the river under some tree, trying to find shelter from the sweltering tropical heat. When they talk they emanate a horrendous smell of cheap alcohol. Alcohol that seems to drive to sharpen their senses Their noses just smell money when they see someone coming.
Seeing Andrea in action dealing with all these crooks to get away giving them as little as possible, is to be admired. It is a long and tedious process that consists of persuading these ignorant minds devoid of all empathy so that they do not take away everything she brings with her on each trip in order to help. It requires a lot of patience, experience, intelligence and bargaining power.
The vultures get on the boat and stick their beaks over everything they find, without reservations, including the donation boxes she brings from the US full of anti-malaria treatments, anti-parasitic drugs, analgesics, and other material to help the people who inhabit this god-forsaken remote corner of the world. Among them are the very families of these "officers". But regardless of that, they do anything they can to find an excuse to get some money and stuff off her. Standing with their machine guns on the boat, they tell Andrea (whom they know more than well):
- All these medicines, they are many, they are for trading. You have to pay the import tax - And they threaten her saying that they will have to confiscate all the material. (of course, you pay in cash and there is no certificate of payment whatsoever. Only the well-being of the warmth of their pockets)
- This. All this you see, it's not for me, it's a donation and it's to help your own families. For your own people! To benefit you! Can you understand that? - Andrea tells them, trying futilely to reason with people with the brain of an insect. However, she says it without altering herself, because she goes through this every time she re-enters the country.
Anything serves to feed their insatiable appetite. Fresh money in any first world currency is most welcome. If they are medicines or other products too because some will remain in the family, although the truth is that most will be sold to their neighbours. At the end, they accept everything that is offered.
But it does not end with "customs". Then the ones who stamp the passport follow, and those who look at it in three different offices within the same shithole. And then there are the ones producing "mandatory" stamps. The long row of rapacious crooks never seems to end. It is very sad, but bribes, although very small in value, are unavoidable here, and are part of the very function of the system. To each, Andrea has to give something to finally be able to set foot in her adopted country. That is why she brings with her news magazines, newspapers and other things with which she knows that can dissuade several from asking for more. Her work and patience are commendable, but to see this, is to witness the darker side of the present in which Africa has become.
Andrea left me with two pygmies that accompanied me along a muddy path to the center of Bayanga, this village on the banks of the Sangha, in the heart of the jungle, in the farthest southwestern corner of the Central African Republic. Judging by the legend on the maps, Bayanga seems to be a big city, but seen at eye level, with unbridled optimism, it barely reaches the category of a village. Bayanga seems to be nothing more than a bunch of wooden houses, thatched huts and dirt streets, where life follows a strict little-village-tranquillity rule, typical of central Africa.
Children abound in its streets of sand, playing football with the overwhelming passion of those who have not been corrupted by the hunger for competition and money. Here, children play for a single reason: to have fun. There are no stadiums, there are no courts with established limits, nor goals. Every place is a place to play, and in the midst of the disorder of every improvised match, the other passers-by have to manage to pass in between the players. Nobody gets angry, no one cares, everyone minds her/his own path, in a place where nobody is obsessed with barking orders in a public space, because it belongs to everyone.
But not everything is limited to football here. In a world still safe from the invasion of China's cheap plastic toys, children do not deprive themselves of playing or having fun. Those who do not play football, do not lament themselves or complain about not having toys. On the contrary, the material limitations lead them to act and put all their ingenuity and their creativity at work to build the toys themselves.
In every corner of Africa, the smaller the village, the bigger the display of creativity of these little inventors, who with their own means and abilities are able to generate the necessary instruments to achieve a single end: to play. Age does not matter in a world where time happens to be an irrelevant factor in life and not a tyrant that subdue us to a pace of life pre-established by the interests of others. It's not about running, it's about living.
And perhaps the most beautiful thing about seeing these results are not the finished products themselves, nor the level of fun that is achieved with them, but the faces of pride of those who have created them. The difference between children who accumulate gift toys, and those who create them, is measured in the satisfaction they reflect. Inventing and building for fun not only stimulates creativity but generates love and appreciation for everything one has created.
African toys rarely end up stacked in perfect condition, in the dark corner of a wardrobe once they have been replaced. They are either dismantled to reuse their parts and create something new, or used over and over, over and over, until they break, but they are always enjoyed and valued as something precious.
The most wonderful thing about Bayanga is perhaps the simplicity and tranquillity with which life goes on. It is African rural life at its best. It is no small thing in a country that has been struck by decades of a painful civil war that seems to have no end. A war between clandestine guerrillas and the military forces of one after another corrupt government of the country. All moved by their own cause but always following the same common denominator that underlies each faction: a profound ignorance, product of lack of education, poverty, and inability to know something better.
The remote geographical location and lack of infrastructure have helped to keep the inhabitants of the rainforest mostly outside the conflict, except for the year 2014 when Anti-Balaka Christian militias (not to be confused with Bayaka) took control of the village for a while. Having realised that the region has no commercial or strategic value, and pressured by the Islamic militias, the Séleka, they ended the occupation a few months later. Soon after everything quickly returned to normal life.
And to the normality of this quiet life, I arrive exhausted after severely hard weeks, eager to rest for several days, in this place where time does not seem to pass. However, I have not come here by chance, but specifically looking to meet and live with the most extraordinary inhabitants of the jungle: the Bayaka Pygmies. It will not be long until I meet them to spend some of the most incredible weeks of my life.