We pulled out of camp before 07h00. Black-and-white colobus and putty-nosed monkeys were calling in the bako to the south, a group of guinea fowl were vocalizing on a small laterite flat, the sky was dark with smog from the grass fires that are in full swing now. The road in this section is not being used by the Mbororo; they follow a more circuitous path of least resistance.
I can imagine Cherry on this trail, walking with his 13 guys, making his way into the unknown. It is the same now as then, no one is beyond suspicion. There is no law or government out here, just people, white, Muslim, non-Muslim. There is a footpath, then as now. People are free to travel but must fend for themselves, must understand the ways of the woods, and others must understand that you know what you are doing. You can see fear, you can see confusion, but you can’t make a mistake. There is always a certain code in a place like this, where no one really makes claim to the land.
We pass a set of tire tracks that were laid down in the mud decades ago, a small pile of duiker dung, and a 12-gauge shell. A bit later in an open plain a large male baboon looked at us as he made haste out of harm’s way; he flushed a houbara bustard. Then a big cow appeared to our left. He was a beautiful dark chocolate color and looked to be in good shape. Then he took a step. He was lame, and thus alone.
Then we could hear children herding. I saw the first; he appeared to be about 7 years old, with a herd of about 200 head. Then I saw two more kids; they appeared to be barely 3, still lacking full coordination in their gait, and yet there they were clucking and whistling behind the cows. They saw me and we called to them. They ran to a safe distance and their cattle came to us, in a defensive front. They were the brown variety of the Adamawa Mbororo.
My guys stood well behind me, they were petrified of the cows,; they could only remark that one of the bull’s horns was broken. However, these are guys who talk all the time about the Mbororo’s ability to transform buffalo into cows, metamorphosis is just a fact to them. So who knows what might be in these cattle. The boys kept on the periphery, just hoping that we would continue on our way with no harm to them.
A bit further we could hear singing in the distance. Soon a girl came into view, and probably her little brother behind. She was already maybe 30 yards from us when she spotted us. We told her to advance. She said “ala yeké pika e apé”, you are not going to shoot us. My guys laughed, but the boy took off running and his sister ran to catch him. A bit later they appeared a few hundred meters to the west, making their way south to join those three other boys no doubt. No doubt that I am the first white person they have ever seen.
This is why the Mbororo from east and west have made huge advances here; they are born out here, grow up here, die here. They know only walking and are free. They have no rights, they own nothing, not even their cows at the end of the day, yet they have come to dominate a vast stretch of land spanning thousands of kilometers across the Sahel and Sudanese tracts of Africa. No one tells them what to do, there is no scrutiny, they cross national borders as if they do not exist. They are ruthless when they need to be, otherwise their creed is to stick to themselves, occupy the niche that they have evolved in.
These kids have already learned how to survive in this bush. The Bantu who live in villages are no match for these people. Long after the Seleka have been forgotten, these people, who only timidly associated with the Goula during the heyday of occupation, possibly because of Muslim alliance, or more likely hedging their bets, the Mbororo will still be present. Seleka are wed to the their vehicles and towns, they wage rather conventional battles and are not a match for the French troops here.
I saw an old hyena dung pile and asked the guys what the hyenas eat. They said they eat cow pies and scavenge carcasses of cattle that die from disease or injury, like the one we saw on his own.
I passed through the first Berlinia forest of the trip. It transported me directly back to the north; I lived in those forests for two years up on the Massif des Bongos. They were still full of wildlife in 1983, herds of hundreds of buffalo, Derby eland, big bush elephants, forest elephants, lions, wild dogs, and no humans other than the Sudanese poachers. I fell in love with that place and standing here makes me want to reconnect with this land; we need to keep a piece of it where the wildlife can once again dominate, we can’t lose it.
Today the only large mammals around here are cows; I could hear them again in the distance again. I cleared the forest into a lakri, and there was a herd of sheep, 300 cows and a nursery group of 50+ calves. I could see people of various descriptions tending to chores. It was a night camp for this group of Mbororo; it was probably their children we saw to the south. I waited for my team, to allay fear of a solitary white man appearing in their midst. We were greeted by the father; there was only one adult male, with a few women and 10 or so other adolescents. His face was cautious, doubtful. We asked him about the trail north. He said in typical fashion, “mbi inga apé”, I don’t know. We carried on north.
We crossed a large trail that went off to the east. The guys said it was the trail that went from Zaco to Ba Na Lé, See With Your Eyes. It is said to be a fairly large diamond camp on the Mbari River. There seems to be a general movement in all directions from Zaco in the search for diamonds. There are already folks in the Chinko concession, using the safari road network for access. These satellite camps of course then create their own radii for hunting. Not all of the meat from hunting will remain in the camp, but will end up as far afield as Bangui. It has been that way for decades.
I fear that no one is learning from history. When Cherry traveled this trail, Muslim power was coming from the north in the form of Senousi organizing ghazzias into this part of the country to collect slaves for agriculture in Ndele, for his harem and to be sold to the north, as far as Benghazi. Bangassou and Rafai were doing the same from the south.
The other commodity was ivory that was being collected in large quantities.The non-Muslims were the slaves, the killed, the tools of the Muslims. There were efforts by the non-Muslims in the day to react, to strike back, but they were always outgunned and out-strategized by the Muslims. In the end it was the French who assassinated Senousi and his heir apparent son, and the Sultanate collapsed immediately. Today we see this phenomenon playing out similarly. After 50 years of independence, the Muslims regained power, this time over the entire nation state. If there was no outside intervention this status quo could have probably been maintained for a long time to come. But the French changed the dynamic once again. They sent 1,600 troops to depose the Muslim power structure, and again it collapses.
The anti-balaka were a feable attempt at what John Garang did in southeastern Sudan. He chose war with the Arab north, and with the help of the U.S. won. Here in CAR we have separated the two sides, but when I look at the countryside, all over it is not dominated by the native tribes but by the Mbororo, Chadian Arabs, Sudanese herders and poachers. These are the people who occupy 90 percent of the land in CAR today. It is they who continue to grow in economic power. What the West has done is check the process in time. But ever since Cherry’s time they haven’t done it well or completely.
The Balaka movement is to rid the country of all Muslims, to finally rid the Banda, Beya, Ndakara, Zande lands of the Muslims, just like in Sudan. What the West is doing now is facilitating their remaining in the country. They have created enemies in this time. The French are now despised in Bangui for two reasons: they are not allowing slaughter of the Muslims and they are stopping the pillaging. When Cherry traveled this road in 1889 and traveled these lands extensively, they were still dominated by the local tribes. They were getting hammered by Senousi and his raiders from Ndele and Ouadda and also from the south by Bangassou and Rafai, but the land was in the hands of the Banda, Nzakara and Zande out in here in the east.
We have encountered two groups of Bantu hunters. They are meek and poor, barefoot with tattered clothes. With us they are obsequious. They hunt for a living, but my guys say there is no game. So we find a hunting camp of three days with a single Ngandi on the smoker. They have walked 35 km into the bush to supply a diamond camp. The Mbororo children are herding cows on this land at 3 years old, they grow up in these woods, they have hunting skills, firearm skills and are fine in the art of animal husbandry. They have Muslim rigor in their lives, tight morality and have no influence from the 21st Century. The only chance for these tribes is to take control of their land, it is the only choice.
In our camp the now familiar black-and-white colobus and putty-nosed monkeys bring in the night. We heard two shot gun shots later; maybe the Banda hunters added to their larder. I see Muslim kids running full bore across rock and grass rubble barefoot, no worries, in their element, no hardship. It is all they know.
Follow Mike Fay as he retraces William Cherry’s footsteps, sharing the experience in words, photos, video, maps, and social media: Expedition Through the Heart of Africa. This link contains all of Fay’s dispatches.