There are three foreigners living in Bayanga, this ever-so-small remote corner of the Central African Republic. I had come here with the help of one of them, and now I was on my way to meet the second, one of the most special people I would meet in my life.
Few like Louie
Louis Sarno is 61 years old * and is originally from New York. Moved by his deep passion for music, he decided a little over 30 years ago to take a trip to Central Africa that would change his life forever. His original goal was to record the native music of the inhabitants of the jungle and the natural sounds of it, although essentially he was in search of a radical change of life.
That's how over the years, as he recorded hours and hours of music and sounds, it was in the deepest regions of the Central African jungle where Louie found his place in the world with his adoptive family: the Bayaka, one of the ethnic groups of Mbenga pygmies that ancestrally inhabit the jungle of western Central Africa. Today, four countries converge in this region: the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon and the Central African Republic. He has lived with them for more than 30 years and it was their village that I had determined myself to reach.
Pushing the bicycle down a narrow sandy trail surrounded by thick shrubs and bushes, I move forward bathed in tropical sweat into the jungle. After a few miles go by in the outskirts of Bayanga, I begin to cross paths with the first pygmies to whom, using signs, I ask them directions to reach Louie's house. The truth is though, that I just had to mention his name because everyone here knows him. In an African village without electricity in the middle of the jungle, where only 3 Westerners live, the news arrives faster than e-mail, and Louie, along with his family of pygmies, was already waiting for my arrival.
While I keep pushing, now in the last stretch before reaching what I suspect is Louie's house, a pygmy rushes past me running at full speed. A few seconds later, I realise that he is running away from the woman that passes immediately after him, running, screaming at him in anger and throwing sticks at him.I understand absolutely nothing of what is going on so I continue in a bit of confusion for a few more meters until I finally see the figure of a tall and lanky white man standing on the door of a wooden house.
- You must be Louie! - I say energetically with a smile, while I stop the bike to shake his hand.
- And you're Nico, right? - He answers me with that thick, hoarse and serene voice that characterizes him
- Louie, first of all, what was that all about? - I ask him making a gesture of reference to the episode that had just happened, the one of the woman chasing the man.
- It's nothing, don't worry, it's just that the woman is irritated with her husband because he hasn't brought her honey for a week. Here women can not live without honey and get very irritated when husbands do not bring it - He replied - I'll tell you more - he added
I burst out laughing, and I begin little by little to realise the fairytale world which I have gotten myself into.This was the moment in which I met Louie, who along with his wife, Agathi, and dozens of pygmies who live in this village located in a clearing of the jungle, welcomed me with open arms and enormous curiosity. Louie has the only house built entirely out of wood. It had just been finished with a lot of effort.
Scattered around and magically mimicked by their surroundings, are the igloos made of branches and leaves where most families of pygmies live. Among all of them, in an open garden space where Louie had built a thatched roof with four poles and no walls, I hung my mosquito net. That would be my house in the community for the following weeks.
For me, living with all of them quickly becomes the most similar thing to living in a fairy tale. Every day I wake up early with the sounds of thousands of birds singing and the first rays of the sun piercing through the trees in the shape of long golden beams of light. During the daily morning effort of the awful exercise of opening and closing my eyes until finally waking up completely, I can see through my mosquito net the women and the children coming in and out of the rainforest. They carry their baskets and rudimentary tools to carry out the first tasks of the day in the areas surrounding the village.
From that moment on, life does not stop vibrating at any moment as if it were the rhythm of a city, with pygmies going back and forth between the villages. Appearing, disappearing, and reappearing among the bushes. Women with bare chests and long skirts, chatting here and there as they meet on the trails, men smoking and sharpening their spears to hunt, and the children behind helping their mothers in the manioc plantations or learning something with their parents.
When the torrid tropical heat begins to tighten at noon, the bustle fades and only the bugs are left buzzing incessantly. Everybody flees from the open spaces of the village, moving their tasks to those places of thick vegetation, where they find refuge in the freshness of the plants and the crystalline rivers that run cross it. After mid-afternoon, the bustle resumes and the village thrives again. The women now return with their baskets full, ready to do the housework and cooking, while the men, instead of continuing to work and help, sit and chat.
Meanwhile, Louie spends the day in his corner of the house where he has his few material possessions. These include some books, and a simple Chinese music player in which he listens, both the music he has recorded for thirty years in the jungle and the great works of classical music of the West. Louie has the tastes of a true intellectual, the serene gaze of a Zen master and the clothes and body decorations of a hippie traveller of the 60's.
His moments of serenity, while smoking tobacco to the sound of a Mozart piece, contemplating the jungle from his room, are frequently interrupted by the pygmies, who throughout the day approach his window. Sometimes they consult him about some ailment, other times they bring up a conflict between family members, and frequently they also ask him for something, which can range from sugar to money to buy something. Louie, who speaks perfect Bayaka, listens to everyone attentively. Sometimes he concedes and others he gets irritated and he scolds them as if they were children.
Louie has spent his life dedicated to helping these people who have become his very family. Thus he has become like a kind of protective angel for them and also an essential figure in their society. As a white man, with greater access to the contacts and resources of the western world, he has been able to intercede to get help from several NGOs who, from time to time, send him medicine so that he can administer to the Bayaka. Without being a doctor, with years of reading, studying on his own and field experience, he has learned about the symptoms and treatment of the most common diseases affecting the Bayaka.
Louie explains to me that the life expectancy of the Pygmies is around 43 years. Many die from one of the many strains of tuberculosis, others fall from the trees when they climb to get honey, children constantly suffer from parasites of all kinds and of course, the omnipresent African scourge of malaria and others such as typhoid fever . Seeing how the pygmies constantly turn to him, it is clear to me that despite having spent 30 years there, speaking the local dialect perfectly, knowing the customs, being married to a Bayaka and having the greatest authority in the village, the one that corresponds to an elder, they still see him as the white man to ask for things.
When I shared my amazement about this and asked him how he felt about it, Louie replied that he always accepted his role there, that he always knew that he would never be considered equal and that he should accept how they saw him. Finally, he concluded firmly: - "Nothing that I can give them compares with what I feel they have given me, so I accept things as they are, I give them what I can only give them. , and they give me what they can give me "-
His words made me reflect a lot on my own feelings of aversion every time, throughout Africa, someone had judged me as a rich man just for being white and therefore asking me for things or money, something that more than once, in extreme cases, caused me much disgust and disappointment.
At the end of the afternoon, everyone is already in the village, going back and forth from house to house, gossiping, exchanging things between them. As I sit on the floor under the eaves in Louie's house veranda, I contemplate this special life happening in front of me.
Children do not stop for a minute. Here there are no toys in childhood, but children turn the jungle into the very playground where they have fun every day. They climb trees, swim and dance in the rivers, run in the mud but they also have themselves a ball harassing animals.
Louie had explained to me that for the Bayaka, who ancestrally have lived from what the jungle provides, it is very difficult to feel any empathy for animals. For them, animals are just a symbol of food and nothing else. Animals represent their subsistence. When they turned their lives more stable, it was difficult for Louie to make them understand that domestic animals should not be mistreated, and several cats lost their lives until they finally understood that they should not be killed.
But old habits die hard, and while I'm still sitting there I see Toto, Esanga, Mame and others in the garden, laughing their asses off terrorizing a poor chicken. They chase her through the jungle, among the trees, while she, unhinged, running for her life, tries to escape from their little clutches without scruples. They forgive her life one more day, but I suspect that the chicken is saturated with so much harassment and would rather choose capital punishment.
Some time later, while several children sit beside me to play with me, Toto appears from the bushes bringing something small in the palm of his hand. As he approaches us, we see that it is a baby squirrel that he found there. For a while, gathered in a circle around it, everyone looks at it with what I suspect is curiosity. They do not stop discussing things but I do not understand anything of what they say. I suppose that like me, when they pat her, they feel tenderness for the little squirrel who now sleeps quietly, clinging to Esanga's palm. But after a few more minutes, Esanga, without the slightest remorse, lets her fall to the ground, and the others, without compassion, tear the squirrel apart with a spear, before jumping on their feet to dismember her completely. My heart does not shrink so much for the poor squirrel, as for the intense image of seeing in the eyes of these little children the absolute lack of compassion for another living being. But I try to remember what Louie taught me and understand why.
The afternoon passes and I do not get tired of playing with them. I think my curiosity is as innocent and childlike as theirs. The door of Louie's house turns into a circus. Esanga does not stop brushing and examining my hair with fascination, Toto and Mame jump up on me and the others flutter around. Together we try to communicate. I practice the few phrases in Bayaka that I learned and they cry in laughter when listening to me and I burst laughing at seeing them having so much fun. The energy I breathe is so beautiful that it inflates my chest with joy.
When the day comes to an end, women and girls prepare food in the village. Some grind and sieve the manioc, others prepare the leaves and fruits they gathered and others sit down or squat around the fire. The atmosphere is one of harmony, nothing is done in silence, nothing is done individually, everything is done in community.
Sitting on the wooden boards of Louie's house floor, we dined together as a family, in a circle around the casserole full of manioc and two bowls full of boiled vegetables and porcupine meat. The faint light emitted by the flame of the oil lamp flickers revealing only parts of our features and leaving the rest in the shadows. Dinner time is quiet, we talk little, we eat with our hands and we suck our fingers to savour and cleanse ourselves.
Outside, everything is absolute darkness. At 8:30 pm everyone sleeps, and every night that I go to bed under my mosquito net, surrounded by this immense jungle around me, and that now vibrates with its infinite nocturnal symphony, I need to pinch myself to know if what I am experiencing is actually real. One more day I spend in the jungle, one more day I live in this fairytale that I have turned my life into. I fall asleep dreaming of the next chapter of this story, the day I finally go hunting with the Bayaka.
* Halfway through 2017 I learned from another traveller that Louie had just passed away. It was with great sorrow that the entire Bayaka community said farewell to him and entire weeks of mourning followed his death.