New Yorker, February 6, 1984
ZAIRE is a big, young, troubled country that takes up almost a million square miles on the western side of sub-Saharan Africa, below the bulge. Formerly called the Belgian Congo, it is eighty times the size of Belgium, whose colony it was until 1960. For the past eighteen years, it has been ruled by one man, President Mobutu Sese Seko, although many of its twenty-seven million people, scattered in the densely forested Zaire (formerly Congo River Basin and on outlying savannas, are scarcely aware of his leadership. The village of Opoku is more or less typical of rural Zaire. (Because of the possible impact that this publicity could have, I have given the village the name of an apparently extinct community in the same geographic and linguistic region and have changed some people’s names.) The road it is on, deeply rutted and rarely used by vehicles, can become impassable in the rainy season. About the only regular motor traffic is the Land Rover belonging to the Catholic sisters who drive up every few weeks, from a mission sixty miles to the south, to give the lepers their sulfa pills and to dispense other medication. Twice a year, a commerqant, or merchant, comes to Opoku in a truck and buys the villagers’ cash crops: rice,peanuts, coffee. Only once a year, when each citoyen and each single citoyenne in Opoku who is over eighteen must pay a head tax of six zaires (the name not only of the country and the river but of the currency), does the fact that they live in a country called Zaire have any real bearing. Politically, Opoku is a sous-localite in the collectivite of Balesedese, in the zone of Mambasa, in the sous-region of Ituri, in the region of Haut-Zaire. Geographically, Opoku is in the Ituri Forest, in the northeastern part of the country, within two hundred miles of Uganda and the Sudan. The northern part of the Ituri Forest, an area of about forty thousand square miles, named for the river that drains it, is inhabited primarily by three tribes-the BaBudu, the BaBira, and the BaLese-totalling about two hundred and twenty-five thousand people, and by some twenty thousand pygmies. (No one knows exactly how many pygmies there are, because they are often on the move.) The BaBudu and the BaBira are the descendants of Bantu people who may have arrived in the Zaire Valley around the year 1 A.D. The BaLese are a Sudanic people who, as well as can be determined, migrated from the savannas of Uganda or the Sudan more than two hundred years ago. They are one of the poorest, least “developed” tribes in Zaire. Their more assimilated and commercially oriented neighbors, the BaBudu and the BaBira, look down on them for being dirty and uneducated and liking the forest too much. Opoku is a BaLese village.Pygmies live near the villages of each of the three tribes; they bring the villagers meat and honey from the forest, and help them clear and plant their shambas, or gardens, for which they are paid daily, usually with food. The pygmies’ relationship with the BaLese is closer and more amiable than their relationship with the BaBira. (Their relationship with the BaBudu has never been studied.) BaLese men often take pygmy women to wife, but BaLese women refuse to marry pygmy men. The gene flow from the pygmies to the villagers is one-way; the offspring of mixed marriages don’t join the pygmy community. Often a villager’s metal-tipped arrows or his dog will be on permanent loan to a pygmy, in return for a cut of each kill; and a pygmy will often work for the villager for whose father his father worked. It is a longterm, practical relationship, but it is not symbiosis, because the villagers don’t really need the pygmies, and the pygmies could probably survive without the BaLese, but not at their present population densities, as hunter-gatherers in the forest. They let the villagers think they are dependent, but often don’t show up for weeks. Nor is it parasitism, because the villagers are not harmed by it, except maybe at the end of April, when the new crops are growing and there is a shortage of food. Perhaps the best term for it is “a communication.” About three thousand pygmies are in communication with the BaLese. Although their presence in the Ituri Forest predates that of the BaLese and, perhaps, even that of the Bantu, the pygmies there have lost their language, as have all pygmies, and speak the BaLese’s tonal language, in which they are known as the Efe. About a hundred and forty thousand pygmies live in Africa-in Rwanda, Gabon, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, and the People’s Republic of the Congo, and in other parts of Zaire, as well as the Ituri Forest. Together, they are considered the largest group of hunter-gatherers left in the world, although some anthropologists object to that term, because the pygmies actually get most of their calories from villagers’s shambas. The anthropologist Richard Wrangham has suggested that “hunter-scroungers” would be a better term. While some pygmies have begun, in recent times, to grow at least some of their own food, the Efe continue to show no interest in taking part in the agricultural revolution that most of the world underwent about twelve thousand years ago, or in changing an existence that techno logically, even for “primitive” people, is not highly developed. Of Africa’s pygmies, they are probably the most tradition-bound and the least likely to be disturbed. Other pygmy habitats are being invaded by planters and lumber companies, but little is happening in this part of the Ituri Forest, and probably, with Zaire’s economy at a virtual standstill except for extraction of minerals in the south, little is going to happen for a while.In March, 1981, I visited four anthropologists who were studying the Efe and the BaLese near Opoku. I had spent some time in the Amazon, and I wanted to see how the world’s second-largest continuous expanse of rain forest compared. One of the anthropologists, Robert Bailey, was an old school friend. In 1978, he had visited eleven pygmy populations in the Zaire River Basin, including the Efe. In February, 1980, he had returned, walking up the road to Opoku with a pack on his back. The Efe had slipped into the forest when they caught sight of him, as they had done before, and the BaLese had sprinted to Opoku in terror. When he reached the village, he found most of the villagers standing together and laughing at the ones who had been afraid. Bob told them, in Swahili, that there was nothing to be afraid of, that he had come to learn about them and the Efe and would be with them for two years.
Bob is easygoing and a good athlete -tall, bearded, blue-eyed. He laughed with the Efe and the villagers, danced with them, kept up with them in the forest. For the first time, they appreciated how they sounded and looked, as Bob played back their songs on a tape recorder and gave them snapshots he had taken with a Polaroid camera moments earlier. They began to trust him. The villagers helped him clear some land and build two huts on it for him and his friends, who he said would be coming soon. The huts were like the villagers’ own-with plastered mud walls and roofs thatched with leaves, except that the rooms were bigger. They couldn’t understand why Bob wanted such large rooms.
In July, Bob’s colleague and friend, a handsome woman from Chicago named Nadine Peacock, came to Opoku; both were going for doctorates in anthropology at Harvard. In November, they were joined by two British scientists, Richard Wrangham and Elizabeth Ross. Richard had studied chimpanzees in Tanzania, and Elizabeth was an immunologist, and they had got married in May. The team was now complete. Bob and Nadine would study the Efe men and women, respectively; Richard and Elizabeth would do the same wi th the villagers. Such was the interdependence between the two societies that you could not understand either without studying both. A lot of the four anthropologists’ work was sociobiological-concerning factors like nutrition, energy expenditure, time allocation, and patterns of cooperation and their effects on reproductive success in both populations. The four scientists had done anthropometry (measurement of height, weight, subcutaneous fat, and other body characteristics) and demography (data about age, residential history, kinship, birth and death rates) on twelve hundred people, and they had completed hundreds of hours of “focal samples.” “We follow a person for an hour,” Bob explained, “quantify what they eat, who they talk to, who they sit next to, who they fight with, who they laugh with, how much time they spend working; we observe about a hundred of their activities. It’s based on primate-observation techniques.” During hours of conversation-in firelight, in kerosene lamplight, at the water hole, in meditative strolls on the road, and, months later, when we had all returned to the United States, on the telephone-the four anthropologists generously shared what they had learned about the Efe and the BaLese and the natural history of the region. This article is permeated with their ideas and observations and could never have been written without them.
When he heard that I had two weeks’ free time, Bob suggested that I walk southwest from Opoku through the Ituri Forest. After about a hundred miles, I would emerge on the big road to Kisangani (the city that inspired Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and V. S. Naipaul’s “A Bend in the River”), at another village, called Epini. Four days into the forest-he was allowing eleven for the whole trip -there were some small BaLese villages that no white man had been to. He said that this had to be one of the wildest parts of Africa.
One evening, he and I went to Opoku to see if anyone was interested in going with me. The older men averted their eyes. They were afraid of being alone in the forest with a strange muzungu, my friend explained. Mzungu is the Swahili word for white man. I had been hearing it a lot lately-mostly from children, who would point at me and scream it excitedly when I passed. Like the word “gringo” in Latin America, it can carry a derogatory connotation. The BaLese and the Efe are convinced, along with many other rural Zairois, that bazungu eat people. The conviction is based partly on stories that are told around a fire in the evening about brutal Arab slavers in the last century, Belgians during the colonial period, and white mercenaries during the risings of the sixties-and partly on a confusion about Holy Communion: people who eat the flesh and drink the blood of their god must be cannibals. Until several generations ago, the BaLese themselves sometimes ate parts. of enemies they had slain, and this may have enhanced their credulity.
Two of the younger, more progressive men in Opoku, who were not as scared of muzungus as their neighbors were, wanted to hear more about the trip. Their names were Baudouin and Gamaembi.
Baudouin spoke a little French-the official language of Zaire, which few BaLese and no Efe speak or understand-and Gamaembi knew it quite well, so we could communicate. They also spoke their own language, KiLese, as well as Swahili, the lingua franca of the region, neither of which I knew. Like many male Zairois born in 1955, Baudouin had been named for the King of the Belgians, who had toured the Congo that year. He had another, “authentic” name, Apabu, probably given by his father. President Mobutu, in his authenticite decree of 1972, had ordered the citizens of Zaire to stop using their European names, but Baudouin was one of many who had not got the word. He was about five feet tall, with a large head, a high, shiny forehead, and lighter skin than most of the .villagers. He thought he had pygmy blood, although his father was a Lende, from near Uganda, and his mother a Lese. He had grown up with her in her village-his father had abandoned them when he was little-and his strongest connection to Opoku was a leprotic aunt, whose claw hand I shook, reaching into an enclosure where she and two other women were gaily shelling peanuts. People liked to employ him, but they did not feel obligated to him, because he was an immigrant and not in their fungu, or clan-the patrilineal kinship group to which every Lese’s allegiance is unquestioning. In many ways, he was more like a pygmy than like a villager. His best friend, Manuele, was an Efe. So was his wife. It was a mark of his low status that he didn’t have a BaLese wife. His personality-the air of mischief, the spoiling for fun, the way he dissolved into laughter at the slightest provocation-was Efe, and, like the Efe, he loved marijuana. After it was introduced to the BaLese in the last century, by Arabs, they cultivated fields of bangi, as the drug is called here, but the Belgians outlawed it, and the BaLese now frown on its use, although some of the older people still smoke it, and the more politically powerful villagers, who are left alone by the police, grow it to trade to the Efe.
Baudouin had the nicest manners I had encountered in a long time. Once, as he walked beside me, with his hands clasped shyly in front of him, I tripped and he said, with a look of real distress, as if it were his fault, “Oh, pardon, monsieur.”
GAMAEMBI (ex-Dieudonne-the European name, it seemed, of every third man in Zaire) was twentytwo, four inches taller than Baudouin, darker-skinned, and well built, with broad shoulders, strong arms and legs, a slim waist, and not an ounce of fat. “Gamaembi” means “the man without a chief.” He was the last son of the late capita, or headman, of Opoku. One of his brothers was almost sixty, one of his sisters was married to a son of the chief of the collectivite, and some of the capitas of the villages in the forest were his relatives. Besides being well connected, he had walked to Epini a few years earlier and knew the way, so I couldn’t have had a better guide. He was about to plant a peanut shamba, but when I offered to pay him five zaires a day, he decided to come. Five zaires was then officially worth about a dollar-fifty. At the “parallel” (black market) rate-the one that mattered-five zaires was worth only fifty cents, but that was still good money to Gamaembi: double what the Greek coffee planters in Digbo, twenty miles up the road, were paying. He and his half brother Kuri were raising money to open a store in Opoku. (The nearest store was in Digbo.) I made the same offer to Baudouin, and he accepted. The three of us shook hands and agreed to set out in the mornmg.
That night, I made a final inventory of my gear. For clothing, I had shorts (long pants are cumbersome in the jungle ), jogging shoes, heavy knee socks, a couple of T-shirts, a blue cap, a poncho that doubled as a ground cloth, a sweatshirt to put on at night, flannel pajamas, and bedroom slippers. I had a bottle of alcohol to rub down my arms and legs with; cuts and insect bites infect easily in the humid tropics, and alcohol not only disinfects them but reduces the urge to scratch. My medicine chest-an empty coffee can -contained Merthiolate; a course of the broad-spectrum antibiotic ampicillin; paregoric and Lomotil for diarrhea; chloroquine and primaquine for malaria; effervescent Vitamin C tablets; and gamma globulin, which offers imperfect protection against hepatitis, and a syringe to inject it with. I had already given myself a shot that was good for thirty days. Elizabeth supplied me with a handful of aspirin for “public relations,” and some little white pills to be taken twice a week against African river blindness, which is transmitted by black flies. Richard lent me a lightweight sleeping bag, and Nadine told me three good sentences to know in Swahili: K wenda nzuri (Go well); Bakie nzuri (Stay well); Lala nzuri (Sleep well). I had field guides to the birds, butterflies, and large mammals of Africa, and a stack of empty notebooks. All this fit into a long brown canvas duffelbag, whose strap I put over my forehead as a tumpline, letting the bag hang behind. Once your neck muscles have got used to it, this system-which most of the people in South America, Africa, and Asia use to carry heavy loads-works better in the forest than a backpack, because your shoulders are not pinned down and it is easier to raise your arms to negotiate vines and branches.
I had a small, cheap steel-stringed guitar, made in Korea, with a black vinyl case. I knew from the Amazon that a guitar is useful not only for breaking the ice with people who have never seen anybody like you before but for killing time. My valuables were in a side bag: a Nikkormat camera with a macro lens for close studies of butterflies and flowers; a small Sony tape recorder; a small pair of six-power Nikon binoculars; a money belt with my passport, traveller’s checks, and return air ticket; and, wrapped in a white plastic bag, a brick of one thousand crisp, newly minted ten-zaire notes that I had bought at the parallel rate in Kinshasa, the capital. The bills were large and green, with images of earnest, bespectacled President Mobutu, a springing leopard, and a sinuous black hand holding a torch, and with a warning: “LE CONTREFACTEUR EST PUNI DE SERVITUDE PENALE.” I felt nervous carrying so much money, but I would need it later on to get around the country and back to Kinshasa. I had also brought a large folding knife, such as the longhaired carpenters in my home town wear in cases on their belts. I figured I owed it to my family to have it along (although I should point out that, in nearly a year spent in various jungles, I have yet to be threatened by anything ).
The provisions and trade items were in a burlap sack. I had picked up a dozen small hand mirrors in the central market of Kinshasa. If the Ituri Forest was anything like the Amazon, they would be appreciated. So would some bags of salt, soap (a dozen bars), and cigarettes, of which I had bought a carton. The local brand was called Tumbaco and was filled with strong, unprocessed black tobacco. I smoked them until somebody a few weeks later had me exhale a lungful quickly against a sheet of paper, and the paper turned brown. I had two cans of sardines and enough rice, beans, peanuts, and plantains to last three people two days. After that, we would be dependent on hunting and gathering and on trading with the people in the forest. For cooking, I had a small aluminum pot with a lid and a detachable handle; for illumination a flashlight, a dozen candles, and several hundred matches. I had also brought a dozen plastic Ziploc bags. They didn’t weigh much and always came in handy for sequestering things.
AT three o’clock the next morning -it was a Thursday-I tapped at the small wicker door of one of the huts in Opoku and whispered “Baudouin,” and he came out, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. The darkness quaked with frog and insect din. A troop of black-and-white colobus monkeys-a slow-moving, leaf-eating species that fills approximately the niche howler monkeys occupy in the New World-called to each other. They sounded like several motorcycles being revved. Every minute or so, a bloodcurdling scream, as if from a woman about to be murdered, would sound in a nearby treetop. Its perpetrator was the tree hyrax-a small, edible gray mammal with a white dorsal tuft, whose family is most closely related to elephants. The BaLese (except in clans that have a taboo against eating hyrax) mark the tree in which a territorial male is calling and, returning in daylight, chop it down and find the hole to which the hyrax has retired (just as Amazonian Indians do with owl monkeys). But by the time we were under way, walking through the misty shambas behind Opoku, it was strangely quiet: the lull before dawn, when bees would begin to hum and birds to give their position.
At daybreak, we reached Ondikomvu, a suburb of Opoku, consisting of three huts, one of which was inhabited by Gamaembi and his wife, Anna. When Henry Morton Stanley passed through the Ituri Forest, almost a century earlier, on his way to rescue Emin Pasha from the fanatic followers of the Mahdi, the villages he saw consisted of “a long low wooden building. ..200, 300, or 400 feet long,” in a clearing “quite a mile and a half in diameter, and the whole strewn with the relics, debris, and timber of the primeval forest.” But early in this century, probably as soon as inter-village wars were stopped by the Belgians, the BaLese adopted the single-family huts that are standard in much of the Third World. Gamaembi came out of one of them, looking dapper in red shorts and a red T-shirt, with a red vinyl side bag that contained a toothbrush, a comb, and a change of clothes. He contributed some palm oil and some peanut butter that his wife had ground the night before. I had watched two barebreasted women in Opoku making mafuta, as the viscous, orange-colored palm oil is called-rhythmically mashing nuts of the oil palm, Elaeis guineensis, in a large wooden mortar; as one raised her stake, the other brought hers down. The oil palm is a native of West Africa; its oil is an ingredient of Palmolive soap and an important source of fat for the BaLese. A bottle of mafuta is worth a day’s work. Baudouin put the oil, which was in a plastic bottle, and the peanut butter, which was wrapped in leaves, into the burlap sack. He wore a white shirt and a pair of long brown pants, which he stooped to roll up over his strong thighs when, soon after leaving Ondikomvu, we entered relatively undisturbed forest.
It was a world of overpowering vegetable intensity. Huge buttresses flared at the bases of ancient trees; vines streamed down in cool green galleries; ferns and air plants encrusted branches. A large butterfly, flashing creamy turquoise, rose in front of us and, after several dozen yards of erratic flight, landed in a patch of sun and let the light pour through its half-open wings. A member of one of Africa’s most spectacular genera, Charaxes. A large brown moth settled on the pungent, leafstrewn floor and blended in so closely that I could see only the faint outlines of its wings, like the edges of a jigsaw puzzle. The canopy was coming to life: I could hear the huffing and groaning of hornbills flying over, and their raucous contentment as they settled in a tree. The horn bill is a large bird of the treetops which resembles the South American toucan in its behavior and appearance. During incubation, the female hornbill imprisons herself inside her hollow-tree nest by plastering the edges of the entrance hole until it is just wide enough for the male to pass food through. Africa has forty-five species; these were probably white-thighed hornbills, the most common of the four larger kinds in the Ituri Forest.
Some of the plants looked very familiar. Many of the most abundant ones, whose leaves, on long stalks, stood like pennants in the understory, were in the arrowroot family. The roofs of Opoku and Ondikomvu were thatched with it, and Gamaembi said it was called mangungu. The arrowroots are also well represented in the Amazon, as are other plant families found in Africa. The floras of the two great rain forests overlap a lot at the family level, and considerably at the genus level, and they even have a few species in common. There are also cases of convergent evolution-plants in completely different families which, in filling similar niches on different continents, have come to look alike. The cacti of the New World and the succulent euphorbs of Africa are ready examples of this type of morphological convergence (to which animals-like the hornbills and the toucans-are just as prone), while the cecropia tree of Brazil and its Zairian counterpart, the umbrella tree, Musanga cecropioides, which both have palmately cleft foliage and flourish on disturbed sites, are an example of parallel evolutionmorphological convergence between generically separate members of the same family.
The flora of the Zaire forest is less than half as rich as that of the Amazon, however. Africa and South America began to separate soon after higher plants evolved, about a hundred and twenty million years ago. Interchange was still possible through the Oligocene epoch. About twenty-five thousand years ago, Africa suffered a widespread desiccation. The forest contracted to a few small refuge areas, and it is thought that many kinds of plants were wiped out. The whole continent has no more than twenty thousand species, while the Amazon alone has between twenty-five and fifty thousand. In the higher parts of the Zaire Valley, trees form almost pure stands. But the Amazon is so diverse that you can walk for hundreds of feet from one tree and not find another like it.
“Do you have forest like this in America?” Gamaembi asked. He was in the lead, carrying my duffelbag and holding a small bow and about a dozen arrows. Baudouin was next, carrying the burlap sack by a tumpline he had made from the inner bark of a tree. I followed close behind, with my side bag and Gamaembi’s and the guitar.
“No, not exactly,” I said. “It isn’t as thick with shrubs and vines. There aren’t so many kinds of trees, and it isn’t so green.”
Gamaembi’s response was to turn over a leaf with a silver underside. “This is another leaf,” he said.
Baudouin and Gamaembi walked with slightly bowed legs, gripping the ground with spread toes. I said I envied them that contact. “Of course, we would like to have shoes if we could afford them,” Gamaembi told me, “but in the forest we prefer bare feet.” He sidestepped a column of driver ants, relatives of the famous South American army ant. They were small and brown, and looked harmless enough, but they could make quick work of a nestling bird or a small injured mammal; the reputation they have for tearing down people is a Victorian exaggeration. I watched two medium-sized butterflies with long, narrow orange-and-black wings-mating acraeas-whirl up a shaft of sunlight that had pierced the canopy. Another patch of light, for some reason, reminded me of an incident in my early childhood. I could almost bring the specific place and time into focus, but at the last moment they faded into only a sensation.
After a while, we came to a smoky clearing with half a dozen domes of mangungu thatch in it. They were the smallest dwellings I had ever seen, like tropical igloos or the nests of some gregarious ground creature. I could not quite have stretched out in one. Two Efe women, squatting before a little fire that smoldered at the meeting point of three logs, got up and, without daring to look at me, bravely took my extended hand. A man and another woman came out of one of the huts. The four were a completely different physical type from the BaLese: they were shorter, of course; their skin was light copper-brown; their hair, except for bushy black brows, was in golden peppercorn tussocks; the pink lips of their large, wryly pursed mouths were thinner (“convex and uneverted,” in anthropological jargon, as opposed to the “roll-out” lips of Gamaembi); and their noses were broad and flattenedso broad that the ends of their nostril wings were plumb with the centers of their eyes.
Pygmies used to be described as one of the four original races of Africa, along with the Negroes, the NiloSaharans, and the Bushmen, but by now there are so many gradients that many anthropologists question whether four geographically and biologically distinct “races” ever existed. Pygmies may have originally lived in the savannas of the Upper Nile and, according to the physical anthropologist Carleton S. Coon, may have been driven into the forest by a drought that affected both their water supply and their hunting. “Pygmy” is a Greek word. Homer mentions ‘&VOpES llv’Y,ucxtot, “men a cubit high,” to whom overwintering cranes brought slaughter and death; later texts place these men in Africa. “Once they were in the forest,” Coon writes in his book “The Origin of Races,” “one or more mutations for dwarfing, which had already occurred among them outside the forest, now acquired a survival value, and natural selection soon spread this new trait through the forest populations.” Both the size and the anatomy of pygmies are clearly adaptive for life in an equatorial forest. Smallness is advantageous not only because it is easier to move through the low-hanging branches of the shrub layer, and because less food, whose availability in the forest varies seasonally and from place to place, is needed but also because the ratio between surface area and body size increases as size decreases, and the smaller one is, the faster one passes off heat.
In the Ituri Forest, not only human beings but buffaloes, elephants, antelopes, and giraffids are reduced. The ratio of the pygmies’ limb length to their torsos, which is the highest of any humans, is also advantageous for shedding body heat: the larger the limbs, the greater the surface area, in proportion to body mass, from which heat can be lost. The relatively small development of their bodies-pygmies tend to be fifteen per cent smaller than other Africans-has recently been found to be caused by a lack of the somatomedins, the hormones that mediate between growth hormones and organ development. This lack seems to be programmed into every pygmy, although the exact genetic mechanism by which the trait is transmitted is not known. Whether the body develops normally until a certain age, and then its development slows down or stops altogether, is not known, either. Perhaps at some point very long ago, one or, more likely, several mutations took place in the parent race of the pygmies, whoever they were (Coon suggests that they may be descended from Rhodesian man, but this is a highly speculative theory that is based on only one skull); and because these mutations were adaptive for forest people they gradually became a “trend in evolution,” and ultimately a character. The evidence that such a process did indeed occur, however, is purely circumstantial. Nothing has been proved at the molecular level.
The Efe man standing before me was very muscular, like a wrestler, and his arms and legs seemed, indeed, slightly long in relation to his torso. He stood about four feet nine and, except for a rag tucked through a vine belt, he was naked. The women, who were a few inches shorter, wore similar loincloths. They had black circles of plant juice painted on their arms and legs and black lines on their faces, much as Amazon Indian women have, and their teeth were chipped to points. Two of them were old-over thirtywith wrinkled breasts sagging over their bellies. The average life span of an Efe, with infant mortality taken into account, is forty, although some live to be eighty. Twenty-six per cent die before they reach fifteen. I passed the man and each of the women cigarettes, which they took, still not looking at me even when I lighted the cigarettes for them. I took out my guitar and played them a high-stepping rag called “The St. Louis Tickle.” Their reaction was guarded, but they understood that it was music. The man went to his hut and, returning with a little five-string harp, plucked a single open minor chord over and over for about a minute. I recorded it. Then I recorded the women, who, after much giggling and several false starts, broke into a haunting three-part yodel to a cross rhythm that one of them kept by slapping her thigh. “It is a song of joy,” Gamaembi explained when they had stopped, “about their child being old enough to be sent to his hut for the first time after disobeying his mother.” They listened intently as I played it back to them, and when it was over they looked at each other with sly, knowing smiles, burst into laughter, and slapped each other’s open palms, like basketball players who have just scored. I had always thought that “giving skin” was something American blacks had invented-part of a routine that the members of a particular oppressed minority had made up to support each other. It is equally intriguing that the BaLese use the word “bad” in the approving way, and “brother” in the loosely fraternal way that some American blacks do.
WE crossed a little river called the Afalabombi. Baudouin’s tumpline had frayed and was coming apart, and while he was off peeling a new one Gamaembi picked a nearby mangungu leaf, folded it into a cone, dipped it in the river, and passed it to me. The Afalabombi was an acid, relatively sterile, blackwater river, steeped to the color of tea with leaf tannins and safe to drink from. (Tropical forest rivers are of three basic kinds: whitewater, blackwater, and clearwater.) There were bilharzia parasites in the rivers near some of the larger settlements, but the Afalabombi came out of the forest, and no one lived on it. It ran clear amber in the sunlight and sooty blue in the shadows, and its reflection flickered on the undersides of the branches that overhung it. Thousands of little purple butterflies swirled over the riverbed and puddled on moist sandbars in dense groups of fifty to a hundred; this sucking up of moisture and eliminating it through the anus has been interpreted as a thermoregulatory device. One group, perhaps attracted by some chemical odor, settled on my left shoe and completely covered it. I moved my foot slightly, and the insects flew up in a blizzard of metallic lavender flakes. They were lycaenids-a large, complex family with more than a thousand species in Africa, or almost half the butterfly forms found below the Sahara. Most of the ones I was looking at were the same species, but a few with copper undersides were mixed in. In the past few days, the first rains of the wet season had brought forth all kinds of insects. Not only lycaenids but skippers, an equally complex family of small, stout-bodied butterflies. And, at night, winged adult termites had been emerging in fantastic numbers. I had seen the same lycaenids in Opoku. Maybe they were the kind that Stanley wrote about:
We saw a cloud of moths sailing up river, which reached from the water’s face to the topmost height of the forest, say 180 feet, so dense, that before it overtook us we thought that it was a fog, or, as was scarcely possible, a thick fall of lavendercoloured snow. The rate of flight was about three knots an hour. In the dead calm morning air they maintained an even flight, but the slightest breeze from the banks whirled them confusedly about, like light snow particles on a gusty day.
The females of most butterfly species, including lycaenids, can lay more than a hundred eggs in the course of their brief adulthood. In most species, however, the majority of the eggs addle or are attacked by pathogens and parasites. In some years, more of the eggs survive than usual, resulting in a banner crop of butterflies.
Gamaembi had both metal-tipped arrows and arrows with plain, sharpened shafts which had been dipped in the sap of a vine of the biologically active genus Strophanthus-a sap that paralyzes monkeys and makes them release the branches they are holding. I asked if he was a good shot, and he said, without a trace of ego, “We are all good shots.” I never got to see him in action, although we ran into quite a lot of game. He carried the bow in case of attack from animals or spirits, not for hunting. Baudouin returned with a long strip of bark and wrapped it around the neck of the burlap sack, leaving a loop that he slipped over his head, and we started out again.
After several hours, we reached the top of a viewless hill. “This is where we stop and rest whenever we are here,” Gamaembi informed me. He spread out a few handy mangungu leaves for me to sit on, while Baudouin tore a square from an old, khakicolored mangungu leaf, sprinkled Tumbaco and bangi on it, and rolled himself a joint. The leaf had the body of thin sheets of paper etched with tough little fibres. M angungu seemed to have a thousand and one uses.
We were sitting in a grove of hundred-and-fifty-foot strangler figs, The species, Ficus thonningii, is partial to high, well-drained sites. Each tree had started as a seed dropped by a bird in the crotch of a different species of tree which had originally occupied the site. Like wax melting down the side of a candle, the roots had descended from the seed, mingled and merged, and eventually smothered the host tree out of existence. At the same time, usually about thirty feet from the ground, a trunk had ascended from the seed and shot up for a hundred feet or so before finally branching into a crown. Gamaembi cut into a huge buttress of anastomosed fig root with the edge of an iron arrowhead, and a sticky white latex bubbled out. “Along the rivers, we line traps with the milk of this tree and bait them with seeds,” he said. “Birds walk in and get stuck,” He said the tree was called popo and was one of those whose inner bark the Efe and some of the older BaLese pounded into loincloths.
As we sat eating peanut butter with our fingers, Gamaembi told me how the BaLese and the Efe first met each other: “One day, an Efe wandered into one of our shambas, smelled the sweet, small bananas, ate some, and fell asleep. A villager found him and, thinking he was a chimpanzee, was about to shoot him when he saw that he was two-legged and his eyes were different. The Efe awakened and asked the villager for some more bananas to take to his wife. A few days later, he returned with some meat and honey to give to the villager. The two men became friends. The villager and his wife did not know how to have children, so the Efe made love to her, to show him how. The woman had a boy. The Efe made love to her again, and she had a girl. Now the Efe men complain that they can’t have our women; we take theirs, and it was they who taught us about sex.”
WHEN we started walking again, Baudouin pointed out on the edge of the path a bent-over branch with a noose on the end of it for snaring little forest antelopes. Most of them are duikers, six species of which inhabit the lturi Forest. The smallest and most abundant, the blue duiker, is not much bigger than a dachshund. There are also Bates’s pygmy antelope and the water chevrotain, a diminutive relative of deer which has some affinities with pigs. Of these, the wildlife ecologist John Hart, who has spent five years in the forest, has told me, only the pygmy antelope, which frequents the edges of shambas, subsists on leaves. The rest subsist on fallen fruit, seeds, flowers, and mushrooms.
There are very few deep-forest leaf-eaters in the lturi. All the monkeys (except the colobuses), and even the forest elephants, are frugivorous. The reason for this may be that here the cost to a tree of losing its leaves is tremendous. Most of the trees are not deciduous, and because they do not flush a new set of leaves each year their foliage is heavily protected-in most cases by toxic or indigestible secondary compounds, but sometimes by thorns or prickly hairs or by sophisticated symbiotic relationships with stinging insects. A few species have evolved extra-floral nectaries, which attract fire ants; no one would want to brush against these leaves, let alone try to eat them. Life for a tree in such a forest is not easy. Many trees spend years, or even their whole lives, no more than a yard tall, waiting for a gap to open in the canopy, and at this stage they are most vulnerable. When an opening does present itself, they shoot up with amazing speed.
Gamaembi picked some white-gilled mushrooms with light-gray caps and foot-long taproots. He said they were called imamburama and were good to eat. That evening, we ate them sauteed in mafuta with rice and sardines, and they were good. We would sleep on mangungu pallets in a lean-to on the Afande River which two men from Opoku had recently built as a fishing and trapping camp. After supper, I tried one of Baudouin’s joints. The bangi was very smooth and relaxing, but it wasn’t conducive to clear thought, and when I got up to poke the fire back to life I discovered that it made tedious demands on motor coordination. Gamaembi didn’t touch the stuff. “For me, life is already wonderful,” he explained.
He and Baudouin were fascinated by the color plates in Jean Dorst and Pierre Dandelot’s “Field Guide to the Larger Mammals of Africa,” which we pored over with a flashlight. I wrote down the Swahili and KiLese names of the animals they recognized. I asked about leopards. Gamaembi said that a day in from the road they were quite common-especially along rivers. “We can hear him sing, cry, etre dans la folie pour rien, purr happily after killing an antelope,” he said. He told me that you could hit a giant forest hog with a hundred arrows before it died, but that with a spear it only took once or twice. I asked about butterflies. The B”Lese have many names for bees, but for butterflies they use only the general Swahili word, kipepeo. “Butterflies are bad for us, because we have no use for them,” Gamaembi said.
“To me, the butterfly is the insect that climbs trees and eats the leaves,” Baudouin remarked.
“Butterflies are metamorphoses,” Gamaembi said. “We eat the caterpillars but not the butterflies.”
“I love the forest, monsieur,” Gamaembi said a little later, as we lay in the darkness. “To know its situation, to find all the marvellous little things and the mountains in it.”
Late in the night, it started to pour, but the roof was good and we stayed dry. In the morning, the river was muddy and swollen, way up over the rocks and prostrate trees I had walked out on the evening before. “Friday the 27th. The quality of our drinking water has taken a turn for the worse,” I entered in a journal I was keeping. “We can look forward to a day of gray dampness.” The river was now as wide as the trees along its bank were tall. If one of the trees had fallen over, it would have been just long enough to cross on. I noticed several pendulous socks hanging in a tree on the other side. They were the nests of malimbe weavers and looked much like the nests of the yellow-rumped cacique of the Amazon. The malimbes were already off somewhere, perhaps flocking with greenbuls, bulbuls, and flycatchers. Africa has at least ninety kinds of weaver. A few days earlier, I had watched a noisy colony of Vieillot’s black weavers-a savanna and villagedwelling species in the same family as malimbes-in an umbrella tree near Opoku. There had been dozens of nests, shaped like inverted cups, among the large, splayed leaves, and at the bottom of each nest a male weaver clung and flapped in some sort of display. The entrance hole was underneath and was indented in such a way that the eggs would not fall out. But malimbes are less gregarious, at least in their nesting habits.
I sat turtle-still on a log, listening to the lugubrious coo of doves, to the cracked-whip calls of a wattle-eye flycatcher, to the clear, liquid fluting of an ant-thrush, and to the whistles of an African golden oriole, which had the same clarion richness as a Baltimore oriole’s song. Something big thrashed in a tree upstream, and then, forcing air from its chest, made a sound that was definitely mammalian. Moments later, a large, dark monkey appeared, perhaps a hundred feet above the ground, and, holding on to a branch with one hand, called again across the river. From a thicket on the other side, the call was answered. They were two male blue monkeys at the edges of their territories, each warning the other to stay away. The river was the boundary.
WE were ready to go at 6:30 A.M., but as I was zipping up the duffelbag the slide caught on my pajamas and, trying to free it, I forced it off one of its tracks. “What are we going to do now?” I asked Gamaembi. He started to work-removing the staple at the base of the tracks, rethreading the slide, putting back the staple-and in five minutes it was fixed. I was impressed, having operated hundreds of zippers but never having come to terms with one. I tended to take the mechanisms in my life for grantedeven had a slight aversion to thembut Gamaembi approached them with deep respect and curiosity. If in the United States the zipper in my pants had broken, I reflected, I would probably have thrown them away and bought a new pair. But this was not a throw-it-away society. There were no spare parts, no convenient repair shops. If something broke, you had no choice but to try to fix it.
We crossed the Afande half a mile downstream, inching along a partly submerged log. Almost at the end, I lost my balance and fell into furious brown water; I expected to be swept away, but it was only knee-deep. The three of us laughed, realizing we could have just waded across. Soon afterward, we crossed another river-the Afalu-and then we reached the first village in the forest: Zalondi.
Gamaembi had been explaining as we walked that in 1942 the men of his tribe had been forced by the Belgians to come out of the forest and build the road that went past Opoku. The road was needed to bring up war materiel to the Sudan, and after it was built the men were sent out to collect wild rubber, which was also needed. It was a period of great hardship for the BaLese. The men were separated from their wives and their shambas. There was little to eat. If they did not bring in their quota of rubber, they were beaten. After the war, the BaLese men were forced to live near the roadwhere they could be kept track of-to keep the road in repair, and to grow cash crops like peanuts, rice, and cotton. Their women joined them, and the villages in the forest were abandoned. During the fifties, the road was so well maintained that it was possible to take it at fifty miles per hour. The road superintendent, a Belgian, drove along it with a glass of water on his dashboard, and if any spilled he would make the chief in whose localite the accident had occurred clean his car. Maintenance of the road stopped abruptly with independence. Some of the BaLese immediately went back to their matongo, their ancienne place in the forest, and started new villages, but most of them remained on the road. It was disappearing, becoming not much more than a path that vehicles with four-wheel drive could traverse at about five miles per hour, and there was little to keep the BaLese on it. Because gonorrhea, perhaps in conjunction with other diseases, was making the women infertile, and because an epidemic of bacillary dysentery was killing the old, the weak, and the newborn, the population along the road was in decline. With each new devaluation of the currency, more BaLese were giving up on the cash economyon the promises that life on the road had held out-were returning to the places where their people had lived before, and were reverting to subsistence. In the past few years, a dozen new villages had started in the forest. The collectivite, like much of the country, was in a state of active regression.
Zalondi was a recent recolonization of one of the ancestral village sites. It consisted of three huts in a clearing surrounded by immense banana trees. The capita, a young man who was a friend of Gamaembi’s, welcomed us warmly. In broken French, he told me that he had come to Zalondi a year ago, “for a rest.” He went on to say, “There is too much derangement, too many thieves. I was getting tired of the police taking my chickens, and officials of the collectivite dropping in and expecting to be fed.” Thirty Efe had a camp nearby, and a group of women and children from it were sitting in a doorway of one of the huts, all heaped together, nursing babies, combing each other’s hair, enjoying each other’s warmth. A sweet lanolin smell emanated from them. The oldest woman, a withered grandmother, puffed marijuana in a wooden pipe whose stem was the hollowed threefoot midrib of a banana leaf. The Efe like to smoke a lot of bangi before they go hunting-especially when they are going for elephant-or before they climb a honey tree, but sometimes they smoke so much it leaves them dazed and their projects are abandoned.
We traded a bar of soap for a hand of pudgy bananas that were only a few inches long, and traded some of Baudouin’s bangi for a comb of thick, dark honey. The bananas were wonderfully sweet, and the honey was so strong I felt a surge of energy from it almost immediately. Bob, who had accompanied the Efe on honey-gathering expeditions, had told me that during July and August, the wettest months, the Efe roam the forest and eat nothing else. The start of the honey season is signalled by a long, woeful, high-pitched cry that is heard in the distance. The Efe say the sound is made by a newt who is about to lay her eggs and die, and that that is why her cry is woeful; but it i actually made by a crake.
No later than five-thirty in the morning, before the bees have left their hives, the Efe men fan out in groups of five or six, approaching trees and tilting their heads. When one of them hears a tree humming with the promise of honey, he blows a flute made from a sapling, as a joyous announcement to the others, and breaks branches around the bee tree to mark the site. After a man has found three or four such trees, he goes back with his companions (not necessarily right away but within several weeks) to get the honey, a procedure that may require daring feats of engineering, since the hive is often a hundred feet up and a bridge from a smaller tree-sometimes several bridges-must be built. On the spot, the men weave from mangungu two baskets-one for the honey, the other to fill with burning wet leaves-and the man who found the bees’ hole climbs to it, and smokes the hive; after waiting for the bees to go into a torpor, he widens the hole with an axe and chops out the honey. When he returns to the ground, more often than not he will eat several pounds of honey and get on a sugar high-becoming excited to the point of screaming about the next tree he is going to raid. (The Efe seem immune to the nausea and chills of hyperglycemia.) A good hive can yield from twenty to twenty-five pounds of honey, and what the finder does not eat he brings to his wife and relatives. At the start of the honey season, the BaLese villagers give the Efe big chungus-aluminum pots capable of holding forty pounds of honey -which the Efe bring back full and trade for colorful wax-print cloth. The women of Zaire make saronglike pagnes from this cloth to wrap around their bodies. One year, there may be a bumper crop of honey, the next almost none, whereupon the Efe become uncharacteristically sad for that season.
The village clearing was swarming with bees (one stung me on the neck when I brushed it accidentally with my hands) and with skippers that had dull brown wings and stout green bodies-a species known as the striped policeman. Several chickens and emaciated dogs were snapping up the butterflies. The dogs were small, with curly tails, and were mostly hound. The breed is called the African barkless dog, because they don’t vocalize as much as other dogs; they are thought to be like the first dogs that lived with man. Dogs are very important for driving game. Before a drive starts, the Efe tie wooden clappers around the necks of the dogs, about half of which belong to the BaLese villagers. One man, the beater, sings and shouts continually to keep the dogs moving. Four hundred yards from where the drive begins, the other men wait in a semicircle, very still, for panicky duikers to streak within bowshot. The hunters do not shoot at anything over thirty feet away; it is too chancy through the trees. Once an animal is hit, the dogs keep it on the move until it drops or passes by another hunter, who is waiting motionless to finish it off with another arrow.
I took out my camera and aimed it at three teen-age Efe girls, and they ran in mock terror behind a hut, where I could hear them giggling. I tried to photograph another Efe woman and her children, but she shooed them from the man-eating muzungu, so I gave up on taking pictures and turned on my Sony. When the girls behind the hut heard the three women I had recorded the day before, they returned and, not to be outdone, launched into a three-part yodel, breaking their voices on throaty aOO’s that came with the haphazard timing of frogs in chorus or katydids in late August. The girls were as shy as birds, and their music was cosmic; their yodels seemed to resonate indefinitely. The way each took a different note is called hocket singing, but their collective sound, unlike contemporary Western music, came out in a pentatonic scale; it was based almost entirely on the dominant, with the occasional addition of sevenths, and was nearly always in a descending pattern. Every few seconds, another rhythm, another melody blended in. The Belgian ethnomusicologist Benoit Quersin has described the pygmies’ music as “polyphonic en cascade.” There is nothing quite like it elsewhere in Africa or in any other place.
The capita of Zalondi told Gamaembi of a village that had been started since his last visit. It was up the Mubilinga River, and we could go to it instead of to three villages that Gamaembi was already familiar with. I said it sounded like a good idea. When we were back in the forest, I asked to go first, so I could learn to find the way. The path was well worn and about a foot wide-twice as wide as an Amazonian footpath, because the Indians put one foot directly in front of the other as they lope along. Sometimes it had lots of little offshoots. It wasn’t easy to tell the ones that were shortcuts from the animal trails that petered into nothing. The elephant trails, which crossed the path from time to time and sometimes followed it for a stretch, were deep and especially confusing. Sometimes the path would split in two, which meant that up ahead a tree had fallen across the original route. You took the newer-looking detour. Snapped saplings always meant something-usually that someone had rights to a nearby honey tree. Once, we came across a message carved on a tree in Swahili. It said, . according to Gamaembi:
I came by here in December, when you had gone in search of honey. Bring me some quickly.
In time, I learned to let my feet make the decisions, and they were usually right.
The forest was quite hilly, and its physiognomy varied with the elevation. In some high places, it was as open as the woods in my native Westchester. In seasonally flooded places, we had to fight through vines and mangungu; it was like mata de cipo, a dense vine thicket in the Amazon. But it was never evil or teeming with danger, as writers brought up on Stanley and Conrad feel they should i make “the jungle” out to be. It was just intense. Maybe for me it was an adventure, but for Gamaembi and Baudouin it was home. There were few mosquitoes, and in eleven days we didn’t see one snake, although the Gabon viper is said to be fairly common. Knowing how slim the odds were of 1 running into a snake, let alone being’ bitten by one, I had not brought any antivenin. We passed through a stand of shrubs with glossy leaves and small, fragrant, starlike white flowersrobusta coffee, either a natural stand or escapees from an abandoned village. Gamaembi did not know. Coffea robusta used to be considered native to the Zaire Valley, but now there is some question about its origin. It is grown widely here and exported, mainly for instant coffee. Moments later, we stampeded a sounder-as a herd is called-of ten or so bright-red bush pigs with long white dorsal crests. Gamaembi and Baudouin dropped their baggage and took off after them. “Restez donc que nous partons,” Baudouin told me, in solemn, antiquated French. In a little while, they came back, empty-handed. When we reached the turnoff to Mubilinga, the new village, Baudouin dropped three mangungu leaves in the path as a courtesy to other BaLese and pygmies in the forest who might be interested in our movements. Minutes later, we surprised an okapi, an aberrant forest giraffe so secretive and sharp of hearing that it was one of the last large mammals to become known to science; a complete skin was not obtained until 1901. Though its habits are still largely unknown, it has become the unofficial faunal symbol of Zaire, lending its name to a hotel, a filter cigarette, and the folding knife that is carried by policemen. An adult male okapi stands eight feet tall and elk proud, with a coat of mauve velvet a~ shiny as a curried horse’s and with white slashes across the rump and forelegs-disruptive coloration, such as zebras have, perhaps to confuse leopards. It has large, nervous ears; short, furry horns pointing backward; a long tongue, for licking its eyes clean and for pulling down foliage (it is the only deep-forest terrestrial leaf-eater in the Ituri); and an elongated head and neck, which also relate to its eating habits but which are not nearly as long as those of its gregarious cousin of the savanna. The female has no horns and is larger than the maleone of the few such cases among large mammals. The okapi inhabits only the Ituri Forest and is thus a rare animal, though in the forest it is common. It tames readily. This okapi bolted before I could even determine its sex. A bit later, Gamaembi flushed a family of blue duikers by hissing into a thicket, but they, too, to my secret delight, ran off, as silently as fleeting shadows, before Gamaembi could even feather his bow. They wait for the cover of night to appear in the open. “You can’t see them at all when they’re still,” Gamaembi told me.
We had better luck with mushrooms. The forest gave us seven more imamburama that morning, and Baudouin spotted a colony of edible white ikiangi fastened to a mossy fallen tree. Their stalks were shaggy, their caps depressed at the center and spattered with little gray squamules. I had never seen such woods for mushrooms. Racks of yellow-gilled shelf fungi hung twenty feet up. Tiny, purple-striped parasols stood on mildewed green slivers of wood, and there was a violently poisonous off-white member of the genus Phallus whose cap was surrounded by a mantle of delicately reticulated deliquescent tissue. I asked Gamaembi how many kinds of mushrooms were good to eat. He started to tick them off on his fingers, then gave up and said, “More than I can count.” Bob Bailey knew at least sixteen.
After about half an hour on the new path, Gamaembi and Baudouin heard voices in a gully and went off to see whose they were. “There are men talking and women singing down there,” Gamaembi said as he left. I couldn’t hear a thing-only birds. One had a descending whistle that sounded like a bomb dropping. Others pulsed in audibility. A robin chat sang a quotable theme, which I whistled back. It answered with the theme again, then mocked it in half a dozen brilliant variations. After a while, I heard dogs howling in the gully, then Gamaembi and Baudouin shouting to identify themselves, then a great shout from the people they had startled, then silence. Soon Gamaembi and Baudouin returned with two Efe men and their wives, who had been looking for honey.
Half an hour later, we met on the path two BaLese men and two women who looked to be pygmoids-BaLeseEfe mixes. The pygmoids are raised by the villagers. A BaLese man will not permit an Efe woman to go back to the forest with their child, and the BaLese fight over the right to bring up even children who are not their own. In a society without writing, children are perhaps the most precious commodities, because the only way to achieve immortality, to have your name continue for several generations, is through them. If the child is a girl, his bow. They wait for the cover of night to appear in the open. “You can’t see them at all when they’re still,” Gamaembi told me.
We had better luck with mushrooms. The forest gave us seven more imamburama that morning, and Baudouin spotted a colony of edible white ikiangi fastened to a mossy fallen tree. Their stalks were shaggy, their caps depressed at the center and spattered with little gray squamules. I had never seen such woods for mushrooms. Racks of yellow-gilled shelf fungi hung twenty feet up. Tiny, purple-striped parasols stood on mildewed green slivers of wood, and there was a violently poisonous off-white member of the genus Phallus whose cap was surrounded by a mantle of delicately reticulated deliquescent tissue. I asked Gamaembi how many kinds of mushrooms were good to eat. He started to tick them off on his fingers, then gave up and said, “More than I can count.” Bob Bailey knew at least sixteen.
After about half an hour on the new path, Gamaembi and Baudouin heard voices in a gully and went off to see whose they were. “There are men talking and women singing down there,” Gamaembi said as he left. I couldn’t hear a thing-only birds. One had a descending whistle that sounded like a bomb dropping. Others pulsed in audibility. A robin chat sang a quotable theme, which I whistled back. It answered with the them again, then mocked it in half a dozen brilliant variations. After a while, I heard dogs howling in the gully, then Gamaembi and Baudouin shouting to identify themselves, then a great shout from the people they had startled, then silence. Soon Gamaembi and Baudouin returned with two Efe men and their wives, who had been looking for honey.
Half an hour later, we met on the path two BaLese men and two women who looked to be pygmoids-BaLeseEfe mixes. The pygmoids are raised by the villagers. A BaLese man will not permit an Efe woman to go back to the forest with their child, and the BaLese fight over the right to bring up even children who are not their own. In a society without writing, children are perhaps the most precious commodities, because the only way to achieve immortality, to have your name continue for several generations, is through them. If the child is a girl, penetrated the canopy. “We already have umbrellas,” J oa~im joked. We exchanged addresses and promised to correspond, then went opposite ways. When he had gone, Gamaembi said, “Joacim’s father is getting old, and he will be the next chief, because no one else in the collectivite is as intelligent or as educated. Only he and his brother can afford shotguns. He hunts on this side of the road, his brother on the other. When he kills an elephant, he takes the ivory and leaves the meat for his people. He brings news and tetracycline. Some of his friends are soldiers.”
I asked if it had been hard for his sister when J oacim took other wives, and Gamaembi said, “The first wife always complains.”
A little later, Joacim came running up behind us. “My friends are probably wondering where I am,” he said, with a grin. “I left without telling them. I will go to Mubilinga with you.” Gamaembi told me later that it was a great honor for Joacim to have returned. On the way, Joacim showed me a golden vine with asperous bark, rough to the touch, like sandpaper, that would give you a nasty scrape and was to be avoided. He had the coat liner on inside out, and I could see a label at the nape; it said “WinHite.” I asked where he had got the garment. From a trader, he said. Big bundles of clothing donated by American church organizations arrive in Kinshasa, and by the time they reach the Ituri Forest-having ascended the Zaire by riverboat, been transferred to trucks, and finally to green wooden chests strapped over the back wheels of bicycles, which BaBudu traders walk from village to village-they have to be paid for. In the middle of nowhere, you ran into T-shirts that read “RICH’S EAST STATE SUNOCO” or “LABORATORY OF NEURO-PHYSIOLOGY DOWNSTATE MEDICAL CENTER CREW TEAM.”
After half an hour, we came to a pygmy camp, but its eight huts were empty. In the middle of the clearing was a large stone for whetting arrows and a small stool made of four crossed sticks lashed together with vines. I could find no water in the vicinity. The Efe do not camp along rivers, because malaria- and filaria-bearing insects breed there. The women have to bring the water in pots to camp. They do not bathe every day and can do with a very small trickle. I asked Joacim why the Efe didn’t grow things. He said that it was because they didn’t like to sit in one place for the whole year, and because they didn’t like sunlight. “The Efe come to you with meat and say they have a friend who wants bananas, when it is really they themselves,” he said, with a laugh. “They say they will come early and work in your shamba, and it is afternoon and they haven’t come yet.”
After another hour, we reached Mubilinga. As soon as they saw us, a man of about forty and two women quickly gathered some things and left. An old man standing before one of the huts with his knees shaking and his eyes on the treetops said that they had gone fishing. Gamaembi said the old man was cold, so I gave him some aspirin. He told us that the village had been started two years earlier, and that there were three men and two women in it, and twelve Efe who came and went. Richard W rangham had asked me to make a census of each new village, so I took down the name, age, and clan of each resident. The ages that the old man gave me were very approximate. Few BaLese born before 1960 know how many years they have been alive. They speak of being born before the road was built or before a certain man became chief or after the Belgians went away or during the Rebellion (the Simba Rebellion of 1964, during which tens of thousands were killed and much of Haut-Zaire was devastated ).
Joacim stayed for a while and talked with me in the baraza. The baraza is like the men’s hut in the Amazon. It is where the men sit and make things and discuss what is happening in the village. Usually, it is nothing more than a thatched roof on upright poles. It starts to fill up at noon. Joa<;im followed world developments on a short-wave radio and had a theory about why Israel always beat Egypt. Maybe an Egyptian woman got pregnant in Israel, went back to Egypt to have the baby, sent him to the best schools, and he grew up to be a general. Then she told him that his father was an Israeli, and he became a mole.
After Joacim left, we had the village to ourselves except for the old man, who stood where he was until it got dark, and another old man, in one of the huts. I finally realized that the people of Mubilinga were terrified of me. Gamaembi later confessed that the others had not gone fishing-they had fled. The old men who stayed would have fled, too, if they had been able to. The one with shaking knees had not been having a malaria attack. He had been waiting for me to kill him. The village was immaculately swept (“tres soigne,” I remarked to Gamaembi), probably with the broom, a cluster of dry berries, that was leaning on a post of the baraza. Hanging from the rafters were several gourds and a calendar that looked like a clip of firecrackers, with numbered wooden slats that were brought down on a string. (The date it indicated was two days earlier.) Various things were wedged in the thatch-a few smoke-blackened ears of seed corn, a buffalo horn, a wooden spoon, a rattle of dried seeds in a ball of woven vine. A game of mangola, in which seeds are moved along four rows of pockets in the red earth, had been left in progress.
The next morning, Gamaembi again demonstrated his handiness, melting one of my Ziploc bags with a match and sealing with the liquid plastic a crack that had developed in the mafuta bottle. Soon after leaving the village, we crossed a stream full of milky quartz pebbles that puzzled him. “This stream has too many stones,”he said. There was no obvious source for them nearby, and many were too large for such a small stream to have borne them any distance. He showed me some large, round depressions in the soft, miry leaves-elephant prints. We passed a place permeated with the smell of crested mangabeys, who had slept there. We picked some edible yellow gilled mushrooms called lobolobo. I photographed a lily with a clustered inflorescence of pale-orange flowers, each with six petals and six exserted stamens. I also photographed white, trumpet-shaped blossoms that dripped from a twining liana in the birth wort family. Flies were induced to enter the trumpets by a carrion smell; were trapped inside, by retrorse hairs; and were released within twenty-four hours, smothered with pollen, when the hairs wilted. But these were rare splashes of color in an otherwise drab green understory. It was the wrong time of year for flowers, and even at the right time the lower strata of the Ituri Forest are relatively poor in showy flowers; nor are the sunbirds, which drink their nectar, as numerous as hummingbirds are in the Amazon. Heavy taboos protect such blooms as there are from would-be pickers. There is an orchid, for instance, that the pygmies believe must never be touched, or a heavy rain will come and make branches fall on them-perhaps the greatest danger to someone walking in the forest. Conservation may have had nothing to do with the belief; there is often no functional explanation for what the Efe think and do.
We found a lime tree-all that was left of a BaBudu village-and helped ourselves to half a dozen limes. We were on the edge of BaBudu country. Gamaembi said we would visit three villages that day-Matiasi, Selemani, and Azangu. Men named Matiasi, Selemani, and Azangu were the capitas. As often as not, a BaLese village is known by the name of its capita. Opoku, for example, is also known as Abdullah; Opoku is the stream that runs by. The BaLese generally name their villages after the water they drink. But the other name of the village of Matiasi was Pumzika Un, which meant Resting Place One, and Selemani was Pumzika Deux. I was reminded of a hamlet called Rest-andBe-Thankful, in the mountainous interior of Jamaica, which I once passed through. The village whose capita was Azangu was also named for a certain kind of fly.
WHEN we reached Matiasi, Gamaembi guessed it was nine thirty-five, and it was. He had once had the use of a wristwatch, and his sense of clock time was uncanny. The capita Matiasi was Gamaembi’s maternal uncle. Two of his little cousins ran up and hugged him. Several hundred large pierid, or White, butterflies had congregated in the middle of the village. Through their shimmering wings, I could see a young BaLese mother in a doorway looking deep into her baby’s eyes and stroking its forehead as it fed at her breast. A constant humming of voices, most of them pygmy women’s, filled the clearing and occasionally broke into song. “They are singing, ‘Why do you come each time with a muzungu?’ ” Gamaembi told me. Two Efe boys came up and asked for a cigarette. A while later, they returned with six small fish. “The Efe are like that,” Gamaembi explained. “You give them something and they give you something back.” Baudouin beheaded and plucked and cut up a chicken we had bought for ten zaires, holding my pot between his feet as he threw in the pieces and added manioc greens and mafuta to fry them in. The boiled greens are called sombe, and are a Zairian staple. Fish or the meat of antelope or elephant can also be added. The spinachlike greens are very nutritious, being rich in Vitamins A and C and containing adequate quantities of seven of the eight essential amino acids. Manioc is native to Brazil and was brought to Africa by the Portuguese. It is puzzling that the Amazonians eat the starchy roots but do not eat the leaves as often.
In Selemani, an hour farther on, we met a family of BaBudu who had come from Wamba, a populous town two days to the west, to trade clothes and mafuta for meat. The proximity of Wamba was another good reason for the BaLese to move into the forest. I noticed a net stuffed in the rafters of the baraza. Hunting nets, which are made from a vine in the spurge family called kusa, are used by the pygmies of the BaBudu and the BaBira but rarely by the Efe, to whom this one was probably on loan. It is much more efficient to drive game into a net than to hunt it with a bow, but the Efe have not adopted the method; perhaps from pride or perhaps because it would force them to live in larger groups. Three or four families are not enough people for an effective drive.
At two o’clock, we reached Azangu. The capita was Gamaembi’s father’s “brother ,” or ndugu; he was from the localite, though not from the same clan. An old man with a sly, humorous face, he was wearing a purple shirt and sitting in a wicker deck chair weaving a shallow basket for winnowing rice. The chair, a far more finished piece of furniture than the BaLese produce, was made by the Mangbetu, a tribe to the north; such chairs are a popular trade item. After studying me for some time, Azangu thanked me for coming and said, “You are big, as our people used to be.” (I am six feet tall and was about twenty pounds overweight.) Excess body fat, implying that you have plenty of food and have other people to do your work for you, is a status symbol in black Africa. The only men in the collectivite who were in my league were Joac;im’s father and the judge. Azangu must have thought I was an important person. I spent the afternoon conversing with him through Gamaembi, after bathing in the river and painting with Merthiolate the cuts and open sores of several Efe, whose camp was below the village. I told my patients it would sting for a moment, and afterward they would feel better. They sucked in their breath, as if in pain, even before the applicator touched them.
I dropped a tablet of effervescent Vitamin C into a cup of water and passed it to Azangu; who screamed “Ow!” with delight before he drank.. Later, when I played the guitar, he stood up and did a .little shuffle, which everybody had to come and ,watch. When he had sat down again, he tapped some snuff from a Coca-Cola bottle, inhaled it, and dictated into my Sonya letter of introduction to Moto Moto, the most important chief in the southern part of the forest: “This is Alex. He spent the night here. I need a shirt and some pants.”
“Azangu is the biggest village around here,” Gamaembi explained. “Moto Moto is the capital of all the little villages de ce cote Iii.”
We stayed that night in a small hut without windows. Gamaembi barred the door on the inside, and I asked why we needed so much security. He said, “It is our custom.” It was not attack from another village he was worried about. Fifty years ago, the BaLese had raided each other’s villages for women, as the Yanomamo of northern Amazonia still do today, but the Belgians had put a stop to the practice. Nor was it spirits, who could walk through walls, that concerned him. It was enemies, who could change into leopards through sorcery and kill you as you slept. Metamor phosed enemies were not afraid of fire, as real leopards are.
The BaLese and the Efe believe that mbolozi, or witches, are at the bottom of all sickness and death, even when there is a clear natural cause. There had been a case of witchcraft in Opoku not long before I arrived. A woman had slept with her husband’s brother. The man had fallen in love with her and then had died, and his jealous widow had accused the woman of killing him with dawa, or “medicine,” which can be either sorcery or actual potions, such as water that has been used to wash a cadaver (which might be put in food). It is a crime against the state to be a witch, and the police had come from Bangupanda, a day’s walk. As they were dragging the I woman away to prison she was beaten I by all the women of the village, for-I merlv her friends. One of the police men “ate” her-bit her arm, making it septic-and she almost died. But the woman had recovered, and she now lived in a separate community of outcasts near Opoku, with her mother and four men who had also been categorized as mbolozi. The BaLese and the Efe live in constant fear both of being harmed by mbolozi and of being accused of witchcraft themselves. The local mbolozi tend to be old, unproductive members of the community. “They have nothing to think about except how their friends and relatives did them wrong,” Gamaembi explained. But most mbolozi are not in one’s own clan or village, or even in one’s own tribe. Gamaembi told me about how his wife, Anna, had got sick, and he had had to walk for a day to the Mamvu, a tribe to the north, to get special dawa from their sorcerer, because the mbolozi was thought to be from that tribe. The dawa was some leaves that, after they had been ground up and brewed to make a tea, compelled Anna to name her mbolozi, who I was, indeed, a Mamvu nobody new.’ Only then could her witch doctor prescribe counteractive dawa-some different leaves-and she got well. The effect of the leaves was presumably purely psychological.
Outside, still sitting in the baraza, Azangu told stories about mean Belgians in a voice the whole village could hear. I slept deeply in the pitch darkness. In the morning, Azangu asked to see another Vitamin C tablet dissolve in water. Soon after crossing the Angu River, we met an Efe man and his wife. Using an iron arrowhead, he was whittling the shaft of another arrow to a point, for hunting monkeys, and he had a round wooden plug in the pierced philtrum of his upper lip. The labret may have been a vestige of the large lip disc that used to be in vogue, which may have served to emphasize the sexual function of the mouth. This I was a rare sighting, as Efe men carve lip plugs for their wives but seldom wear them themselves. This man’s wife was carrying a smoldering faggot to start their next fire with and an empty bottle of Primus, the most popular beer, to put honey in.
We reached the village of Adremani by midmorning. The capita, Bernard, bore an amazing resemblance to the, young Harry Belafonte. He was sitting in the baraza with a policeman in ragged, epauletted green fatigues and worn-out sneakers who had come to collect the annual head tax from the people in the forest. The policeman, who had an Okapi-brand folding knife for a weapon, had brought a prisoner as his porter. The man, whose hands were tied, had been arrested in Digbo for making alcohol from manioc, which is illegal-although all the Zairois, and especially policemen, drink it. Somebody must have wanted the man arrested; perhaps it was the policeman himself, knowing that he was going into the forest for several months and could use a porter, and that the man would never be able to come up with the three-hundred-zaire fine for making home brew.
In the afternoon, farther up the Angu River, we came to a village of four huts, named Angu-Kinshasa, after the capital of Zaire. The capita, Sadiki, was forging a curved brush hook, pumping with his foot a bellows made of the endlessly useful mangungu. As I was going through my duffelbag, his eyes fell on my blue cap, and he asked me for it. I asked what he would give me in return. He went into his hut and brought out a cup carved of very hard gray wood, and we made the trade-both of us thinking we had got the better of the deal.
In the clearing, his fifteen-year-old daughter, already a sultry young woman and pregnant by a BaBudu trader, was pounding the hulls off some rice in a mortar. A boy led me to a stream. As I washed in a pool, a huge velvet-brown swallowtail butterfly with luminous lemon-green wing bands-it flew so strongly I thought at first it was a bird-patrolled the streambed possessively, disappearing upstream and returning every few minutes. It was the largest of several brown-and-yellow species in the genus Graphium. Downstream, the boy was checking traps for catfish. He came back with two freshwater crabs that had walked into them. Suddenly, I was in a whirl of smaller butterflieshairstreaks-which changed from dull purple to brilliant blowtorch blue whenever sunlight hit their wings. I watched one land on a leaf and rub its long, slender tails together, perhaps to make them seem even more like its antennae. On its folded hind wings, black spots, ringed with orange and shot with a zigzag of opalescent green, furthered the illusion that the insect was resting face down. The purpose of the illusion was probably to fool predators into striking at a part of its body which it could better afford to lose than its head.
When I returned to the village, Sadiki was drunk on banana wine -le whisky zairois, Gamaembi called it. After dark, the whole village, roused by Sadiki, had a dance in our honor. An Efe man tapped a brisk, contagious rhythm on a drum, three Efe women yodelled, and all the others joined in a BaBudu chant they knew. Tramping in a circle with our hands on the next person’s shoulders, we hopped to either side with both feet together, like downhill skiers, or stood and watched as two people on opposite edges of the circle jumped in, acted spooky for a few seconds, then dropped back to their places. I spotted two new uses of mangungu, of which I had begun a list: one of the Efe women wore an upright leaf, like a feather, on a head band; another had a bracelet pouch, rather like a disco bag, on her wrist. In the morning, all the villagers put on their best clothes for an official photograph. Some of them went with us for a little way into the forest.
Soon after they had turned back, we could hear the Mambo River rushing through a gorge to our right. After following it for four and a half hours, we reached Salumu, the last village that any muzungu had ever been to. Sadiki had told me that he talked regularly to Salumu with drums, although all he could say was “Corne here.” In other parts of Africa, drummers can communicate full paragraphs.
In Salumu, several magnificent roosters paced the clearing, and a young man with aT-shirt that said “Houston 38” was strumming a homemade stringed instrument carved in the shape of an electric guitar. We were offered, as a special treat, some smoked elephant meat. I put a chunk in my mouth but could not bring myself to swallow it. It was as tough as rubber and it smelled and tasted weeks old. Gamaembi, talking with the villagers about where to go from here, learned of a new village called Pereni, which some of their people had started. A pygmy named Sabani offered to take us there, but his wife wouldn’t let him go, so we went on by ourselves.
We crossed the Ngawe River almost immediately. It flowed south; the other rivers we had crossed flowed north. After three and a half hours, we carne to Pereni, which was not really a village but a still. It owed its existence to a grove of raffia palm trees, whose juice becomes alcoholic within a few hours of being tapped. Two young men named Mosalia and Shafiku and their women ran the still, which was not legal. Mosalia was wearing a Wonder knit shirt with a label that said, “Washing instructions: only machine wash-warm tumble dry-no bleach.” Shafiku was an Efe-BaLese mestizo. That night, passing around halved calabashes full of palm wine, we made up a song that consisted of one line in Swahili, “It is just us here,” and shouted it again and again in the darkness, like dogs howling at the moon.
In the morning, we were given a tour of the works. Since their arrival, Mosalia and Shafiku had cut down seven trees, and they were all still exuding juice, or wine, which the two men collected every twenty-four hours from homemade clay pots they had left beneath the dripping ends of the fallen trunks. “It flows day and night,” Mosalia told me. The wine was slightly hard, like cider or birch beer, and very drinkable. It is a beverage of great antiquity, mentioned by Herodotus. We tasted wine from a tree that had been cut down a month earlier and was still dripping, and wine from one felled only the day before. The fresher stuff was more acid and carbonated, the other calmer and smoother, rather like Beaujolais. As we drank, we sat and watched two white lines way above the clouds trace themselves across the sky. Gamaembi, who had never been near an airplane, said, “That one holds four hundred and fifty people.”
from the trees, Mosalia and Shafiku poured it into an oil drum, heated it while it evaporated up a length of hollowed bamboo, and bottled the distillate as it condensed and ran down another bamboo tube. The final product, known as kaikbo (it is also distilled from corn, bananas, or manioc), was as strong as gasoline, Mosalia claimed, and exploded when you threw it on a fire. They were making thirty bottles a day and selling them to BaBudu traders. He offered to sell us some, but Gamaembi, looking anxiously at Baudouin, shook his head. Baudouin was already drunk, and it was only eight o’clock. With great difficulty, we got him to his feet and on the path. He didn’t want to leave at all. “Pereni c’ est matata,” he said. Matata means “trouble,” in a positive sense. He managed to stagger along for about half a mile; then, overcome by a mixture of wine and pot, he vomited and passed out. As he slept, half a dozen huge cicadas, each blending with the mossy bark of a different tree, droned around us.
We waited for Baudouin to come to, and Gamaembi talked about the store he was going to start with his half brother Kuri. He would bring the goods by bicycle from Digbo: simple things at first-cooking pots, flashlights, drinking glasses, soap, needles, cigarettes-slowly building up to more expensive items, like radios and waxprinted cloth. Then he would put a tin roof on the store. Then he would buy a truck. He already had a bicycle. Bicycles were not cheap in Haut-Zaire. Even a beaten-up wreck cost six hundred zaires. But he and Kuri owned a coffee shamba together. With three hundred zaires they had made from selling the beans, they had paid some Efe-in soap, shirts, and pants-to kill an elephant with spears. A local fraudeur, or smuggler, had bought the tusks and the teeth for two thousand zaires. He would sell them to the next level of fraudeur, and from then on they would be the focus of numerous illegal dealings. Perhaps the subregional administrator in Isiro, the nearest large city, would acquire them (a few weeks earlier in Isiro I had watched as dozens of tusks wrapped in burlap were hurriedly loaded onto the plane on which I had just arrived). They would probably end up in Hong Kong, to be carved into coffee-table objects and jewelry for consumers in the West. Gamaembi figured he had enough to start with-nine hundred zaires for the merchandise, two hundred for incidental expenses like keeping the police off his back. I thought how unfortunate it was that the only way a young man in Gamaembi’s position could get ahead was to kill an elephant.
By eleven, Baudouin was ready to continue. We crossed the N gawe again-on a fallen tree, with a vine railing along which a column of small red ants was moving. They jumped on my hand instantly and covered it with bites. We saw fireflies with dazzling blue wings, and an elongated b1ackand-white butterfly that was hardly distinguishable from the dappled shadows among which it was lazily flapping. We arrived at Dulungu by mid-afternoon, stayed long enough to take a census-Dulungu was seventeen years old, one of the oldest of the new villages in the forest, with a population of eight-and pushed on to make Sandiki by nightfall.
From Sandiki, it was eight hours to the next village, Mangiese, by a path that went along a shrubby ridge most of the way. Mangiese was on the Isolo River, and four families lived there. Eight prospectors from Mambasa, a relatively large town on the Kisangani road, which was the capital of the zone, were lodging there, too. Gold had been found in a stream near Moto Moto, about fifteen miles away, and the discovery had sparked a small gold rush in the southern Ituri Forest. I photographed the prospectors, with their picks and shovels. “They want to get rich without working in shambas,” Gamaembi said, perhaps a little enviously. If gold was found near Mangiese, it would no longer be a quiet village in the forest. Already, the doors of its huts were padlocked.
Andalita, the capita of Mangiese, was the son of Gamaembi’s aunt, and he received us as family. He mended Baudouin’s torn pants on his sewing machine and fixed a broken buckle on my side bag. He was not one for lounging in the baraza. It had taken him only a week to clear a large shamba we had passed on the way to the village. As the bees died down and daylight faded and a flock of green forest ibises, hurrying to their roosts, flew over and filled the sky with trumpeting, he chipped weeds in the clearing with a hoe. “This has to be done every two weeks,” he said. His two-year-old daughter, Molai, followed him with a little hoe, stabbing at weeds, and in a vinegrown shamba behind them his wife, Ubolubu, of a delicate and sensitive beauty, picked leaves for a flyswatter. They seemed a happy family.
After dark, Ubolubu came to the baraza with boiled bananas and chicken and sombe on a real silver platter. (Andalita must have been panning a little gold himself, I thought.) Molai, with coils of thread in her pierced ears, sat on my lap and looked up at me with wonder. She had never seen a mzungu. I couldn’t get a smile out of her. I played a little to her on my guitar, but one of the strings broke. The villagers and the prospectors sang the Zairian national anthem, which was in French, for me; then they fell into their own language. On the edge of the sky, flickering flashes of lightning momentarily eclipsed the stars and the fire’s glow, and illumined clouds, looming trees, tattered banana leaves, a battered pot in the middle of the gray clay clearing, and Molai, who had moved to a little chair against a post but was still staring at me with her mouth open. I thought of how Gamaembi had promised that afternoon to give me his bracelet, woven from the black hair of an elephant’s tail, to commemorate our friendship. But he still did not quite believe that if a well-cooked plate of human flesh were put before me I would be able to pass it up. “A few years ago, my cousin bought what he thought was a can of sardines at a store in Kisangani,” he had told me. “He opened it, and there was a hand inside. The owner of the store, a mzungu, begged him to keep it a secret.” The basis of this story probably went back to the First World War, when the natives of the Congo were first forced to collect rubber, and the Belgians sometimes cut off the hands of those who had not collected enough. To the BaLese, the most logical motive for the amputations was that bazungu were cannibals, as the BaLese’s other enemies were.
I started to fade, listening to wonderful-sounding stories I couldn’t make head or tail of, but suddenly there was a great shout and everyone in the baraza jumped up. Andalita grabbed a burning log from the fire and clubbed something on the ground. It looked like a scorpion, but was another arthropod-a long-tailed thirty-legged centipede. Gamaembi said that it had been attracted to the fire, and that its bite could paralyze you for days, or even kill a child.
When we hit the trail for Moto Moto the next day, Gamaembi, who was in the lead, and was breathing faint, evanescent plumes of steam into the morning coolness and parting wet cobwebs with his forehead, turned around and said, “There will be a story in Mangiese about the muzungu who came and played the guitar and one of his strings broke.” I had given Andalita a roll of nylon cord, although Bob Bailey had advised me to go easy with presents, saying, “Your presence will be enough of a gift.”
I was bushed. I had not recovered from the long day before. Gamaembi said it was only four hours to Moto Moto, but every step was an effort. I kept asking when we were going to get there and Baudouin would say gently, “A peu Pres, monsieur. Un peu plus pres.” To aggravate matters, I was stung by nettles on the back of my right thumb. Too late, Gamaembi showed me the vine, whose innocentlooking, heart-shaped leaves were covered with minute, prickly hairs. The thumb quickly swelled, and for the next few days it itched incessantly. But my malaise was more than physical. I wondered if it had anything to do with the “mental strain” described in a pamphlet, “Preservation of Personal Health in Warm Climates,” which I’d read in preparation for the trip. It was published in Great Britain, for people planning extended stays in the tropics, and stated:
The condition at present responsible for many cases of Europeans having to be invalided from the tropics is mental health, which commonly takes the form of lack of self-confidence and anxiety. Some of this ill health is associated with physical illness but most of it arises from a temperamental incompetence-an inability to adjust outlook and habits to the strange people, customs, social life and climate of a tropical environment. Inflexible people and those with definite racial or cultural prejudices find this adjustment most difficult, and those to whom the glamour of tropical life seems an escape from competition “at home” are sure to be disillusioned. Persons of a highly nervous disposition or with a family history of mental disturbance react badly to the life in the tropics where the heat and the humidity tend to magnify the petty irritations that would pass unnoticed in more temperate regions.
The pamphlet went on to say that many people had found a glass of gin in the evening an antidote.
At eleven, we met some pygmies on the path, and they told us, “You will get to Moto Moto before we get to Mangiese.” One of the women, whose face was scored with black lines, had an enormous bottom. This condition, known as steatopygia, is common among pygmies. Since pygmy women with bulbous bottoms are the most attractive to pygmies and to BaLese, whose women also have the trait (though nowhere nearly so conspicuously), sexual selection may be at work. (An equally interesting question is why muzungus have comparatively flat, compact bottoms.) An hour later, we walked into Moto Moto. In contrast to Mangiese and the butterflies that haunted it, it was a filthy place. It hadn’t been swept in days, and all kinds of putrid scraps and leftovers were lying around, attracting flies by the thousands. I went to the river as quickly as I could; that was always the best part of the day. Three Efe girls, waist-deep in the water, were pounding it with cupped hands, making a staccato clopping sound, like horses trotting on pavement. Baudouin called to them teasingly, “I am your husband,” and they screamed with frightened delight. A little later, one of them came over shyly to borrow my soap.
When we returned to the village, Gamaembi told me there were some Efe who needed medicine. One was an old man who complained of pain in his chest. I asked if he smoked a lot, and he said he did. I gave him some aspirin and told him to stop smoking until the pain went away. That was all I could do for him. Then we went to a woman sitting in front of a hut. She called her son, who was lying in the darkness inside, and he came out, so weak he could barely stand. He was about six years old. His face and back were covered with purulent warts the size of nickels and quarters. They looked like little cauliflowers. She pulled away his loincloth, and what I saw made tears rush to my eyes. On the inside of both thighs the flesh was inflated and white, like whale blubber, and the infection was eating into his scrotum. Whatever he had, it was advanced. SomethIng I had read rang a bell, and when I got home I found the following passage in a book by Sebastian Snow, who reached the source of the Maranon River, in Peru, early in the nineteen-fifties:
Inside the shelter, with his head against a large earthenware cauldron, lay an Indian boy, his legs covered with verrugas, or warts. They were hardly distinguishable because they were so covered with blood and flies, with hundreds of mosquitoes circling above. …His legs were like matchsticks, his cheeks hollow and his eyes large and brilliant. He seemed remarkably philosophical about his condition and accepted his fate with a stoicism which I greatly admired and envied. He had no fear of death; he certainly had little will to live.
This was not verruga peruana, however, but another tropical disease, called yaws, or frambesia. I did not know the French word for it, and neither did Gamaembi. “Young children get it, and it comes again in adolescence,” he said. “He needs penicillin.” The antibiotic I had with me had almost the same spectrum. It might raise the boy’s chances to fifty-fifty, but if I gave it to him I would be unprotected. And if I didn’t give it to him his chances were probably zero. Emotionally, almost shouting, I explained to the woman through Gamaembi that I was giving her this medicine, but it would not save the boy, ~nd if she did not take him to the dispensary in Wamba, which was three days’ walk, he would probably die. And if she did not follow the full course, and give him one pill three times a day for nine days, the medicine would do no good. She nodded, but I doubt whether she understood any of it.
As we walked into the village, Gamaembi stopped a woman he knew, and she said she would go with the mother and her son to Wamba. In one of the most interesting of the mba, the plant and animal taboos that protect the capacity of the forest to provide for them, the pygmies believe that if they kill and eat a baby blue duiker their own child will get sick and die unless they find a certain plant in the arrowroot family, pound its root, boil it with salt, and feed it to the child. To their way of thinking, something awful could have happened to one of my sons if I had allowed the boy to die by not giving him the medicine. What you did mattered in the Ituri Forest, as it did anywhere. All sorts of taboos and fetishes held you responsible for your actions.
I sat for the rest of the day in the baraw. Moto Moto, the degenerate old capita, was there, in a chair that was slightly higher and fancier than the others. A wire in the Sony had come loose, and the complex circuitry was beyond Gamaembi or me, so I could not play Moto Moto his message from Azangu. Moto Moto was a member of the same clan as Gamaembi’s wife. His mother was an Efe. He wore sandals, and also owned a pair of yellow rubber boots, which were drying in the yard. Lighting a marijuana pipe, he asked me through Gamaembi, who sat at his feet, if it was possible for him to marry a woman of my race. I said yes. “Well, bring me one the next time you come,” he said. “And what about the bride price?” he asked a bit later. I said there was none. “What? You mean I can get a woman for nothing?” he asked with astonishment. Not only that, I said, but her father would probably pay for the wedding.
FOR the better part of the afternoon, I sat across from a tall policeman with a goatee, who had come from Mambasa to collect the annual head tax. He was reading a pamphlet, in French, about pregnancy. His two young associates were reading a paperback called “How to Realize Your Life;’ and an excruciatingly theological biography of Mary of Nazareth, both of which were also in French. Each of the two had a radio to his ear, and the radios tuned to different rumba stations. I found it hard to hear myself think, but everybody else was oblivious of the problem. “French is the national language, but not many people in Haut-Zaire know it,” the policeman told me. “Only five per cent really speak it. Maybe fifteen or twenty per cent get along, and thirty per cent understand it.” He said he was resting that day, but, beginning the next day, he and his associates were going to spend about five days hunting down prospectors and getting six zaires from each of them. He reckoned there were about thirty prospectors in the area BaNdaka from Mambasa, and WaNande from the highlands.
Like the policeman in Adremani, he had an Okapi-brand folding knife for a weapon. His symbol of authority, instead of a badge, was a set of keys. He told me that two of the keys opened desks at the police station, one was to his house, the fourth was a skeleton. I had the impression he could have been bought with little trouble. In the course of the afternoon, he bummed a dozen cigarettes, two candles, and a box of matches from me, and asked for but did not get my felt-tip pen, my guitar, my running shoes, and my knife. I felt I got off lightly.
Toward evening, a low, sullen, but beautiful raft of steel-gray clouds moved in from the north. Gamaembi said we should get an early start tomorrow, or we might not be able to cross the river. I changed the string on my guitar and played a few licks for Moto Moto and the policeman, who eyed me wordlessly, trying to decide what to ask for next. An old man from the village who was sitting next to him also studied me intently. I thought he was interested in the music, but he finally saw his moment and asked, “Soap, monsieur?” When we turned in, the policeman had a last request: my address. I asked what for. “So we can correspond.”
It rained all night, but in the morning we waded the Ngawe without trouble. It was only up to our waists. We passed a buffalo pit trap and then some small, capped termitaries that resembled two-foot gray toadstools. We surprised a large troop of gray cheeked mangabeys feeding on the ground. Compared with blue monkeys, which stay in a small, fixed home range, mangabeys are seminomadic; they move for several weeks into an area where a particular forest fruit is abundant, then go somewhere else. As the troop scampered along, with clucks of alarm which turned into panicky shrieks as they climbed up leafy lianas, I spotted several males. (The females of most of the monkey species in the Ituri Forest are usually accompanied by only a single male.) A bit later, some monkeys that were more arboreal -probably Angolan colobus-brayed at us from the crown of an emergent, sucking in air with excited haas. One of them threw down a dead branch, which just missed me. I was exhilarated. Farther on, I stopped to pick burrs from my socks, and Baudouin plucked a vine stretched taut between two buttresses; it resonated deeply, like a bass. We came to two empty Efe camps. The Efe were always somewhere else, it seemed. The second camp had eighteen huts, and several healthy bangi plants and a creeping cherry-tomato vine were growing in the clearing. “So they do grow things,” I said to Gamaembi, and he said that these had probably not been planted but had started spontaneously from fallen seeds.
That night, after ten hours of walking, we slept in a streamside lean-to. When day came, Gamaembi noticed a tree even he did not know, with long, linear leaves in the crown, almost like pine needles. I asked if he could climb it. He ~aid “M ais aui” and proceeded to swarm up it, grabbing the straight branchless trunk, as big around as a telephone pole, in his hands, and bringing up his feet-measuring it like an inchworm. The sprig he threw down, which I described a few days later to the botanist Terese Hart, who was doing an ecological study in the forest, was probably from a species of dracaena called the dragon tree. Soon after starting on the path, we began to hear the sonorous low gears of trucks. They had never sounded so welcome. After three hours, we came out on the Kisangani road. We bathed in the Epini River, washed our clothes, laid them out on gray slabs beside the water, and rested. In the course of our trek, I had lost about fifteen pounds.
The next evening, after a series of truck rides, I parted company with Baudoin and Gamaembi in the main square of Mambasa. They started to walk north; they would be back in Opoku in four days. I continued east, to the savannas of Kivu and the western arm of the Great Rift Valley, which is filled with lakes and with great herds of ungulates.
When I got home, months later, there was a letter full of news from Gamaembi. After we parted, they had spent the next night with his grand fr’ere Apimo, Gamaembi wrote, and Apimo had asked them all about the trip, and whether they had not been afraid to be with a muzungu for twelve days. Gamaembi had told him everything-where we had slept each night, what we had eaten, how I had written everything down and had taken pictures of everybody. “Eh. I still remember the American song you taught us,” the letter continued (a sassy ragtime version of “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue”). “And you’ll never guess what happened three weeks after I got home. I took another wife. The girl is from the groupement of Andape, forty-three kilometres from Opoku, and she belongs to the little fungu of Anduchu. It was a great wedding, I understand. I wasn’t there myself.” The groom’s presence is not required at a BaLese wedding, and Gamaembi was, I have since learned, prospecting for gold along the Nepoko River, north of Opoku. “My brothers carried in a substitute for me on their shoulders. The bride-price negotiations went on for two days. In the end, I had to give her family eight hundred zaires and a goat. So there went the money for my store.” The letter ended with a request for a digital wristwatch and a pair of Adidas running shoes, size 8. “Please send them. It will bring me glory when my brothers see that I really have a friend in America.”