August 2012, I rashly responded to an open request on a BBC
radio 4 programme ("Saturday Live" - only
half of which is actually live) for people who had scammed
or blagged a free ride on a train, boat or plane. I had done
precisely that after a failed attempt to go and live with
Pygmies of the Likouala forest of Northern Congo-Brazzaville.
I had simply altered an extremely stressed air-ticket so as
to provide a five-hour return flight to Paris instead of a
short onward hop from Bangui to Brazzaville. The Air Afrique
office in Bangui simply issued a crisp new ticket.
by Google Earth. Click to enlarge.
As a result of my impulse to talk about this briefly on the radio,
I not only became disillusioned with the production standards
of magazine programmes, but started to dredge up what sunken memories
I could of the two visits I made to Africa forty years earlier.
Most of my early
education came from shoplifted
books, and one such was Colin Turnbull's Wayward Servants:
the two worlds of the African Pygmies, an academic sequel
to his widely-read The
Forest People, in which he recounted his time with the
Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri Forest of north-eastern Congo (later
Zaïre, now Democratic Republic of Congo). In both books he
showed how the Mbuti not only did not live in servitude to the
non-Pygmy Africans who claimed them as serfs, but lived remarkably
happy, healthy and harmonious lives doing pretty well what they
wanted to - a bit like the admirable bonobo (or 'pygmy') chimpanzees
farther to the west.
has become a pejorative term in most languages, though
originally (as currently in 'pygmy hippopotamus' and other
species, such as marmosets, goats, etc.) it simply means
'of small stature'.
However, Pygmies are not necessarily small, and are certainly
not dwarves. This fine specimen was taller than me.
the forest, it is can be an advantage to be small and
nimble. The Pygmies (male and female together in co-operative
equality) hunt various edible animals - especially small
forest antelope - with nets.
seven-year old Pygmy can feed and look after him/her self.
Thus Pygmies are many thousand years less 'primitive'
than village Africans, and Europeans.
to read a summary of the qualities of Pygmies
All the literature
about Pygmies hitherto had described them as abject servants of
the non-Pygmies who, only a few centuries ago, had, in overrunning
Africa, pushed the the Pygmies into the forests that stretch between
Uganda and Gabon, the 'Bushmen' into the Kalahari, and the Hottentots
to the very southern tip of the continent. The small 'Pygmy' populations
were in separated groups, and all were Gatherer-Hunters. Turnbull
also showed that gathering provides more food than hunting, which
is carried out partly for the sport and to get a bit of exercise.
Their 'servitude' to settled Africans was really a loose agreement
whereby the Pygmies would bring meat to the villages in return
for various luxuries such as palm-beer and knives. Pygmies, like
most forest people, do not like to be tied down or ordered about,
and, since the agreement was largely to the villagers' benefit,
they brought meat only when they felt like it. They could not
be coerced, because they could simply melt into the mothering
forest, which scares patriarchal, villager Africans.
The Mbuti Pygmies
are now on the edge of a terrible war-zone, where DR Congo abuts
Sudan, Uganda and Rwanda. This is the area of war-lords, expelled
Hutu, mercenary soldiers, and coltan mines. But they seem to be
surviving, because they can always melt into the forest - which
has not yet been trashed. Some have become truck-drivers.
By the time I was
seventeen, I had lost any faint will I might have had for 'a career'
or 'normal' future. Never competitive, ambitious or 'aspirational',
I drifted on a sub-educational conveyor-belt with as little effort
as possible, from minor (and local) private school to minor university,
from which I dropped out twice. I opted eventually for Philosophy,
so that I could get to grips with The Meaning of Life, but was
sadly disappointed. Philosophy (as Diogenes
pointed out a long time ago) is not for those who wish to live
a good, honest or wholesome life. Unless you are John
When other youths
of my acquaintance were seeking girlfriends and going to dances,
I was reading Kafka and Dostoyevsky (amongst other metaphysical
luminaries), thanks to my blatant but undetected shoplifting of
Penguin Classics in the 1960s. Although I am a 'born philosopher',
it seemed to me that Socrates had been a bit of a fool, Jesus
the Anti-intellectual Commensual Ascetic had obviously been horribly
betrayed by his fanatic followers, Kant left me cold, Spinoza
seemed as smug as a black tulip, Hegel was heartlessly hieratic,
and those dreary British philosophers who, typically, had no aesthetic
at all about them left me bemused and depressed. In Schopenhauer
I detected an unpleasantly eugenicist attitude, which paradoxically
went hand in hand with his luke-warm defence of homosexuality.
Nietszche I warmed to poetically, but I felt immediately that
his whole philosophy was undermined by his seeking of the Übermensch,
the Wonderful Other that he could not be. Freud repelled me because
of his personal power-complex enshrined in his ludicrous doctrine
of the Oedipus Complex. Jung attracted me greatly, but he had
no real philosophy. I had not yet discovered Diogenes, who (wonderfully,
and like a Pygmy) left no written text.
I admired the 'extremists'
- Kropotkin, Bakunin, Brecht - but their lack of anthropological
awareness, their pseudo-science, and their dreadful Bolshevik
legacy betrayed them.
Hesse was exciting,
but vapid. I read on, thanks to stolen books. Castaneda at least
was vaguely anthropological, but spoke in parables even less useful
than those of Jesus. The various Buddhist teachings and scriptures
opened up what I might call Philosophical Feeling, but in the
end compromised awareness with numbers and route-maps (three-fold
paths and similar nonsense for the Normals) which turn Philosophical
Feeling into Duty, its opposite. Sufi writers were hamstrung by
patriarchal Islam, and ended up being downright (if poetically)
I was a consciousness-in-waiting
for illumination, but unfortunately (?) nothing written seemed
convincing, much less useful to someone raised in the hermetic
backwater, the blind cultural thralldom that was (and to a large
extent still is) Ireland.
So Turnbull's description
of a more-or-less 'Perfect Society' of people living in undoctrinal
(hence gentle) harmony with 'Nature' set my damp spirit alight.
Here were people who had no formal institutions, (and certainly
not the toxic institution of marriage and family) who had very
simple and effective mechanisms to deal with social friction.
They lived in small groups, whose composition changed over time,
as people moved from one group to another. Because there was no
marriage, there was no problem with paternity, and children were
brought up communally. Since there was no marriage, there was
no adultery. Everyone belonged to the voluntary group. Even the
handicapped (very few in any group) had a social role as entertainers
or musicians. But this kind of co-operative life was the opposite
to the western and Israeli ideas of 'communal living', for there
was no coercion to behave in any particular way, no rotas, and
certainly none of that artificial sense of loyalty which is the
creator of strife. If someone got up several people's noses, that
person was gently encouraged to be more cohesive, or to drift
off to another group. Pygmies even took account of loners, and
those (usually male) who wanted to exclude themselves from the
group were allowed to - but were not allowed to starve.
I had read Tobias
Schneebaum's famous (or notorious) Keep
the River on your Right, so I decided I would go
and see if what Turnbull said was true, and, if so, would Seek
my Salvation (Buddhist, Christian) with people without the curse
of religion, because I certainly could not see how to live with
any kind of integrity within the culture whose doctrines of aggression,
greed and hypocrisy had dominated the world and murdered millions.
This part of the world had suffered particularly. There had not
only been the results of the ghastly, capitalist Slave Trade which
destroyed societies and economies throughout the Western part
of Africa, but there had been the particularly appalling rule
of Leopold I of the Belgians in his private concentration-camp,
described in a very mild way by Joseph Conrad, and the kidnapping
and exploitation unto death of hundreds thousands of people from
Ubangi-Shari (now the Central African Republic) by the French
in their little Congo (Moyen-Congo) to build the infamous railway
from Brazzaville to the coast - a railway with more bridges, tunnels
and embankments per kilometre than any in the world.
I wrote to Colin
Turnbull, and - amazingly - he wrote back, saying he would be
in London in a few weeks, and I could meet him there. He had received
hundreds of letters in response to The Forest People, but
I was the only person to ask for help in going to join the Pygmies.
We met, in London,
and he straightaway took me to the last palatial Victorian Turkish
Baths to remain in London. This was to see if I could tolerate
the rain-forest climate. I survived the experience, but of course
an hour in a steam-bath is not at all like a life in the rain-forest.
He suggested that it would be a good idea for me to go and find
a different group of Pygmies to find and live with: the Binga
who lived in the great forest which occupies the northern part
of the (then) People's Republic of the Congo and the extreme south
of the Central African Republic. Almost nothing was known about
them. The capital of the CAR is in the south of the country, so
it was quite feasible to go there (by aeroplane of course) and
simply move southwards into the forest of the Lower Lobaye.
of the Northern Moyen-Congo in 1918.
And so I organised myself. I can't remember how I got the money
together for the flight. I can, indeed, recall very little of
my life, especially not the first twenty years. And what I do
remember may well depend on snapshots. Of course I was unemployed
- have never been employed - and so I must have begged money from
friends to add to my meagre savings. I sold a lot of books and
bits and pieces. I got the requisite vaccinations and inoculations.
I read what I could about the various groups of African Pygmies,
though little was published concerning the Binga (BaBinga, Benga)
who actually were less remote than the Mbuti.
I also had a vasectomy
- just in case I might pollute a population. In fact, I 'had sex'
only once - with a very charming, beautiful and bubbly hotel chambermaid
in Bangui - which was, ironically, my last heterosexual experience.
Flights to Bangui
(the capital of the Central African Republic located in the south-east
of the country on the Ubangi river, a tributary of the Congo)
went from Paris, and Paris had the nearest embassy of the CAR,
from which I had to procure a tourist visa. I don't remember any
part of the journey until I was in the UTA (Union de Transports
Aériens) plane bound for N'Djamena (Chad), Bangui and
Brazzaville. I remember the excellence of the meal onboard, but
not the meal. I remember leaving the airport at Bangui and finding
a taxi, whose charming driver took me to his very pleasant little
mud-brick home for the night instead of a hotel, and charged very
little. Next morning he took me to the city centre, where I booked
into the cleanest of the least touristic hotels.
Having always wanted
to have a very dark skin, I found myself in a rather warm version
of my personal heaven, surrounded by beautiful people, especially
the women with their wonderful dress-sense, poise and humour.
Like most former-French
colonies, the Central African Republic had become a military dictatorship
- under the rule of Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who, notoriously, crowned
himself Emperor in 1977, and bribed the President of France with
diamonds a little later. I had been told that I would require
permission to go beyond 5 kilometres from Bangui, where there
was a police or army checkpoint, so I walked the kilometre from
the hotel to the Ministry of the Interior building, trying to
acclimatise myself to the heat. I went two or three times hoping
to get a piece of paper. On one occasion I remember watching a
secretary behind a counter slowly dismantle a telephone in front
of her. Maybe it didn't work, but it certainly didn't work after
she had pulled it to bits.
After a few days
(presumably waiting for a piece of paper, a laissez-passer)
I was told by a Lebanese who had befriended me that really I didn't
need permission and I could just go wherever I wanted. The Lebanese
are (or were) a trading class in francophone Africa, importing
consumer-goods and retailing them in shops which stocked anything
and everything saleable. This young man was amazed to learn that
I wanted to go to the forest and find Pygmies. He was also very
well informed and expressed his amazement at the situation in
Northern Ireland - at how different religious sects could be at
each other's throats. This was just 5 years before Lebanon disintegrated
in sectarian strife.
I took a taxi to
Km 5, with my little rucksack, and there I started to hitch-hike
towards M'baïki, the nearest accessible small town close
to the forest. The police (or were they army ?) being, like most
Africans, anxious to be of service to Whites, simply ordered the
next driver to arrive at the checkpoint to take me to M'baïki.
So far, so good.
I got to the little town very quickly, and, being a white man,
I was offered a free room at the government guest-house, which
effectively separated me from the inhabitants of the town. I remember
nothing of M'baïki, except that it was clean and neat, largely
mud-brick with tin rooves, just like the outskirts of Bangui which,
I had been surprised to see, was not a series of depressing and
Next morning, I
started walking towards the river Lobaye and the forest.
I remember very
little of the short journey to the Lobaye river, except that at
some stage I was picked up in a Land Rover by a White Father and
brought to lunch at the mission station which turned out to be
a large coffee-plantation run by missionaries who lived luxuriously,
with plenty of provisions - including pastis - flown in from France.
At the Lobaye river,
there were clouds of beautiful butterflies, and a ferry operated
by a man with a pole. Now
the ferry is motorised, as you can see in this photo. It looks
very like the old ones they used to have on the river Seine, between
le Havre and Rouen..
I walked slowly
along a shady red dirt road, and by mid-afternoon I had arrived
at a small village on the edge of the (more-or-less) virgin forest.
The landscape up to that point had been plantations and secondary
forest, pleasant, if not particularly impressive.
The Chef du village
was, of course, alerted immediately to my arrival, and again I
was shepherded to a house on stilts, reserved for white visitors.
Walking through the little village people were of course curious,
and also very friendly - anxious to feed me, if I bought the ingredients.
I ended up with a stew composed largely of chicken neck and feet
with the usual green leaves to generate some taste, because, being
a white man and 'fair game', the cooks quite rightly spirited
away the best parts of the scrawny fowl for a feast of their own.
I also had boiled manioc (bitter cassava) for the first time.
This is a rather tasteless doughy carbohydrate, a staple root-crop,
about which you can read here.
When there is only
an outdoor fire of three small logs to cook it on, and few cooking
implements, it can only be boiled, fried or roasted. I never had
it fried, but it was rather good roasted. (Many years later I
found this to be true also of Bacalhau (salt cod) in Portugal.)
That first night
in the village (whose name I think was Bagandou), pleasantly relaxed
by delicious palm-beer, I heard the Pygmies singing their distinctive
polyphonic songs not so far away in the non-virgin forest. This
was very exciting, so next day, despite entreaties not to risk
my life in the dangerous forest, I left my privileged accommodation
and set out on the path into it.
the track went through what is called degraded forest. But
after a while this gave way to true forest with massive
trees buttressed by massive above-ground roots, and widely-spaced.
In Africa, true forest is spacious, not unlike a planted
European beech-wood. There is not much undergrowth. To anyone
familiar with it, progress would be fairly rapid without
a path. At this point I took off my tee-shirt and shorts,
and put on the very practical breech-clout which only Pygmies
wear. In Villager eyes, I was demeaning myself so much that
I must be deranged.
(I had loathed compulsory sport at school, not least because
it was compulsory), I walked slowly. Ever since I had arrived
in Africa, the heat had rendered me very sluggish, even
though it was December: the cool, dry season. I was walking
due South, in the direction of the border with Congo-Brazzaville,
beyond which stretched a vast forest and then the nearly
as vast swamp of Likouala-des-Eaux, where prehistoric animals
are rumoured to survive.
asked me why I was not afraid of snakes. I don't know. A
black mamba once appeared on the path in front of me, but
it was just crossing, following its own business. I have
never been afraid of animals, believing that if I don't
annoy them, they won't annoy me. I have always admired snakes
for their grace and beauty.
My little rucksack
contained very little - anti-malaria pills, tetracycline, a couple
of bandages, a battered old Agfa camera and just one film (I have
always been quixotic), soft moccasins that I made in Ireland before
I left, a couple of maps of the forest (mostly green with contour-lines,
but, importantly, with rivers and streams marked) and a blanket.
I should have brought two blankets, or a sleeping-bag, because
the temperature in the rain forest drops quite considerably at
night. I shivered that first night in the forest, as the monkeys
called back and forth. I must have brought some food with me from
the village, probably papayas (which I had never eaten before
and found quite delicious). I also had a small amount of money
in the local currency (CFA francs, formerly francs des Colonies
françaises d'Afrique but now called francs de la
Communauté financière africaine), and some French
francs. I probably had some ointment, and I must have had a few
Lobaye river on Google Earth. Click on the picture to enlarge.
On my second day
in the forest a group of Pygmies found me, and were highly amused
by what they saw. I was quite intrigued by what I saw, because
here at last were real, live Pygmies, many with the distinctive
characteristics of 'square' head, stocky bodies, and beautiful
feet. The men had flat-top haircuts, and some of them had their
teeth filed to points, which is a feature of all Pygmy groups.
of Pygmy groups is that they do not have their own language, but
use the nearest and most convenient. In this part of Africa, the
language of trade is Lingala, a beautifully-easy language to learn
immersively, and these Pygmies understood my attempts to speak
it - learned from a book produced for American diplomats and spies.
(I had this book in my rucksack, too.) I don't know whether or
not they also spoke the quite different Sango language spoken
throughout the Central African Republic.
They brought me
to their camp.
the picture for a sequence of old slides
So - why did it
not work out ? They were lovely people and charmingly accepting
of the strange thin, floppy white man with glasses who offered
them no skills worth having, and could not explain why he was
I have felt out-of-place
in most places for most of my life. When I didn't feel it at the
time, I realised afterwards that I was. A person who feels out-of-place
all the time, or out of his/her depth, cannot be a tourist. And
I very quickly felt that I was just being a tired tourist
in the African rain-forest. Maybe I was simply too self-conscious,
too embarrassed by my own incapacities. How could a European misfit
possibly blend with these happy, singing people ? I ate their
food, took lessons on the molorou (the local name for the 'African
lyre') and the sanzi (thumb-piano, lamellophone, also known in
Europe as the Mbira), started to pick up words here and there
to express myself. But my self was not a Pygmy self. I was a typically
fucked-up European - what was I doing here ? Was I pursuing a
mere romantic fantasy ? Was I patronising them ?
And so I left the
rain forest and went back to M'baïki like a good (if quixotic)
tourist. And back to Bangui. But how was I to get back to Europe.
I still had the outward air-ticket at the bottom of my rucksack.
It was one of those tickets with counterfoils and was, to say
the least, somewhat stressed: smudged and torn. In a hotel room
I managed to change the 'open' (unreserved) destination Brazzaville
to a smudged Paris. Next morning I went to the Air Afrique
office in Bangui and handed them the ticket. The counter assistant
laughed at it, remarking that I must have been swimming with it
in my pocket. I told him I had been to the forest. That was all
that was needed. He simply made me out a new ticket, destination
Paris, and booked me on the next flight out, which was the next
day. I had no more CFA francs, but I had some French ones.
And so I got back
to Paris, at the end of January with almost no clothes, and incredibly
inadequate footwear. On the plane I had managed to adapt a rather
beautiful real wool Air Afrique blanket into a poncho,
which I donned before leaving the aircraft - and which probably
saved me from getting pneumonia. I was surrounded by the cold
grey people of Europe and their frightening property-insanity,
their pathetic and aggressive cargo-cult. I remember trying to
busk to get some money, but within minutes a plain-clothes policeman
came along and shooed me away.
How I got back to
Ireland I simply don't remember. I seem to have blanked it out.
And in the 40 intervening years of intermittent fatigue I have
hardly thought about my failure to become a real human being.
But I have seen documentaries on television about the B'aka of
the border area covering parts of the Central African Republic,
Cameroun and the (Brazzaville) Republic of Congo, of whom the
Binga are certainly an offshoot. And since I answered the call
by a BBC programme to recount my little travel-scam, I have learned
that there are now guided
tours for the rich from Bangui to beyond the Lobaye
river. I am surprised that the forest is still there, because
I saw logging going on in 1973 (or was it 1972 ?) And, moreover,
the Pygmies are still there, living their lives only slightly
differently from when I was there. They seem to have abandoned
the breech-clout. Naturally they have geared themselves for the
tourists, and probably are gradually losing their close relationship
with the forest.
This is a photo
taken by a tourist who not only had a decent camera, but could
on the photo for more
But these Pygmies
are at the edge of the forest, and there are hundreds - if not
thousands - of square kilometres of forest to the south, east
and west, where almost nobody goes. That
at least is heartening.
is what civilised people do.
The Forest People online