Natural born hunters

 Life in the equatorial rainforest. The Bayaka Pygmys. Central African Republic

It's 6:30 a.m. The first rays of sunlight filter through the trees, painting tiny little dots of golden light on the dense vegetation of the jungle. The air is humid but still retains the freshness released by the plants during the night. The women gather in a group preparing their nets and baskets, while a few youngsters prepare their spears. Meanwhile, children play between them until the adults announce the moment of departure. Today is hunting day, the day when the Bayaka travel deep into the rainforest in search of edible plants, fruits and animals to stock up on food.

The walk begins in one of the many trails around the village. Aligned in a row, almost with the perfect synchronization of an army, marching without respite and with the heavy baskets on their backs, it is the women who are leading this squad. They are the ones that order, guide and teach the youngest to move around and survive in this jungle. Guided by an ancestral wisdom, they advance through jungle spaces so dense that at first glance, they seem impenetrable for anyone who comes from the urban world. The thick crust of the sole of their feet and their fleeting agility allow them to ignore everything that lies on the ground of the forest, including spiders, scorpions and, even more remarkably, the successive colonies of legionary ants with their jaws capable of devouring a whole animal.

Three hours at a fast pace through increasingly narrow interstices go by, advancing almost uninterruptedly, always in line. All the way, the Bayaka do not stop talking. From one end of the line to the other, some ask questions, others comment and others respond and every so often they laugh out loud, but the march rarely stops. Obviously, I do not understand anything of what they say, but it is not always necessary to understand a language to perceive when the energy is positive, and these women emanate it and pass it on to others. Their voices echo in the amphitheatre of this thick jungle and stand out on top of the omnipresent, deafening bustle that surrounds us with millions of bugs and birds buzzing incessantly.

So we continue until, at one point, by some event that I fail to recognize, the march stops altogether. A brief moment of silence follows. Until suddenly, everybody breaks row and with an overwhelming agility disappear in different parts of the jungle. They position themselves forming an imaginary big circle around a sector where someone suspects that there is a hidden animal. Some of the women quickly unload their nets and begin to deploy them through impossible spaces with surprising ease. Others stand on guard in an ambush fashion and the young guys arm themselves with their spears ready to attack. Meanwhile, each and every one of them produces a series of onomatopoeias with which they try to emulate animal sounds. These rumble in the jungle and its purpose is to intimidate the animal that is hidden to scare it out of its lair and have him run inadvertently towards the nets that are waiting to catch it.

10 to 15 minutes go by, but nothing happens. Finally, they abort the operation, and with the same ease with which they have mounted them, they now dismantle the nets and fold them back in the baskets to continue walking. Meanwhile, children set up snares with leaves, vines and branches. They will leave them ready to catch prey until they come back. The children are the ones who take me through recondite spaces, showing me the traps they had left on previous expeditions. They are completely invisible to my eyes. One by one, they check them to see if any animal has fallen in them since then, but there has been no luck either. They are all empty.

However, what overwhelms me the most is not the ingenuity with which these traps are put together, but the fact that, in this space without any sort of coordinates, signs, or indications, they can find them! I do not have the faintest idea where I'm standing, nor in what direction have we moved to get where we are so far. I look around and everything is the same impenetrable entanglement of branches, vines and leaves of all sizes and gigantic trees, through which, up there at the canopy, perhaps 40 or 50 meters above, I can see small spaces of blue sky and incandescent sun. They, on the other hand, move with the absolute certainty of anyone who knows exactly where he is, where he is going and how.

In this impenetrable labyrinth, my size feels completely inadequate. My skills to move are reduced to the point of uselessness. My agility is nonexistent and my clumsiness is absolute. I trip over everything, I fall, I get tangled, I hit my head against the branches above me and from the waist down, the vines, like sharp saws, tear my skin like a hot knife cutting through butter. At times, I get trapped and I must come to a full stop to unlock myself while my skin burns like fire. I, with all my physical training, cannot keep up with the Bayaka. My mental speed to interpret and solve this intricate environment is not fast enough to walk at this pace. On the other hand, the Bayakas, with their tiny and muscular bodies, ultra-fast reflexes and five acute senses, seem to be designed to survive in this environment so hostile to any other person.

We are clearly in a sector of animal presence since the whole operation is repeated several times during the day. The modus operandi is the same: form a circle around the lair, deploy the nets, intimidate through the emulation of the sounds of the animals and stalk. It requires a lot of perseverance and patience, but the Bayaka seem not to bother at any time regardless of the result.

It is the middle of the day already, the heat is now brutal and the humidity disintegrates the body. The air is so dense and torrid that breathing is difficult. Finally, in one of the many attempts, an animal falls into one of the nets. It is a blue duiker, a small antelope inhabitant of this jungle. Trapped in the net, without any remorse, the Bayaka snap its neck and put it in a basket to go for more.

As we continue advancing through this impossible space, I can not stop dazzling myself seeing the Bayaka in action moving through it. They move nimbly walking on trunks, climbing the branches, hanging by the vines as perfect acrobats in this circus of entanglements. Where I see no more than a monotonous environment painted with millions of variations of colour green, they, with a visual acuity of absolute precision, are able to distinguish several meters away, those corners where the groups of edible leaves are found. In the same way, in this soft mattress of mud, branches and leaves where we walk on, where everything is indistinguishable for me, they find those non-poisonous mushrooms that have essential nutrients for their food. It is always the older women who teach the little ones with a lot of patience how to distinguish the good from the bad. The latter pay full attention and learn from what they see. In this way, they can transmit knowledge from generation to generation to continue surviving by taking advantage of everything the jungle provides them.

 Once having stocked up with as many provisions as possible, one last ritual remains before the end of the day: the blessing of the nets. The women throw them on the ground and while standing before them, begin to chant, scream and spit on them for a few minutes. After this, it is time to go back home, it is mid-afternoon and the days in the tropics are short.

The way back to the village is just as long. During it, one can breathe the same air of positive energy, when the conversation and singing resume while making our way through the thick vegetation. Everyone is happy, it has been a very productive day. On the way home, we now stop at the streams of water, where the Bayaka stop to cool themselves. They fold large leaves turning them into cones to scoop water for drinking.

However, the most spectacular thing to me is to see the children throw themselves into the water and suddenly realise that from the erratic noise of their simple splashes, now full melodies emerge. They create them by the orchestrated blows of their palms against the surface of the water. Music made with water, I had seen it in documentaries and now right here live, in front of me. The children are playing it for me. It's so wonderful that it moves me. Not only because of the fantastic melodies that they create and their perfect synchronization but because of the deep enjoyment I see in them while doing it. If all the children in the world could enjoy as much as I see them enjoying this, then this world would be much better without a doubt.

It's the end of the afternoon and we are almost back in the village, but before we arrive, once I know my way back, I decide to let the Bayaka continue on their own while I stay behind a few minutes in the jungle. I sit by the stream with my feet in the water, and I reflect on what I have just experienced today.

Few times in my life I have found myself in situations in which I have not had any control over my location, and probably none in which I have lost all sense of orientation. I have spent a full day walking through this impenetrable jungle and throughout the day I have not been able to discern where I was, where I have walked to, in what direction, or what distance. If it were not for the Bayaka, had I been left there alone, I am certain that it would have been the end of my days.

What I also know is that my whole body hurts. I have cuts all over my skin, I feel fire in my ankles which I am now trying to mitigate by soaking my legs in the water. All of my muscles, other than the ones I use while cycling, are extremely sore. I had to make a huge effort to keep up with the Bayaka, while they moved around the jungle with the lightness of those who go out for a walk around their neighbourhood to walk theirs dogs.

But happiness overwhelms me, it has been one of the most extraordinary days of my life. One more chapter in this fairytale that I have gotten myself into. I need to pinch myself to believe what I am living. Now I'm all set to go back to the village and spend the rest of yet another incredible evening around this amazing people.

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