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Abandoned Villages Along William Stamps Cherry’s Trail Through Africa’s Heart

Reaching the Kotto River Drainage

With no meal to prepare we busted out of camp early, before 06h00 for once. The savanna here is burned. I immediately ran across bush buck and duiker dung, both fresh, and lots of warthog holes, mostly old.

Before 08h00 we hit the “road”. It is barely as good as the trail we just came off of. It seems that this road has probably not really been worked with machines, maybe never. It was a colonial road and then became a road that just never quite made it into the category that ever received attention, like just about every road in the east of the country.

We spied three guys on the road to our east, coming from Yalinga with bicycles. They stopped in their tracks when they saw us and hesitated for about 10 minutes. They finally got up their courage and came forward. They were hunters on their way to Zaco, like everyone else on Earth it would seem out here. They said that even out of Yalinga there is virtually no big game left, just baquia (baboons) and duikers. They said that there are no elephants at all.

We stopped at the first creek to prepare a meal and get some coffee in us. We could hear a bike coming down the hill from the west. Before the guy could avoid us he was in our presence, looking a bit shocked. Quickly we spoke Sangho to him and tried to put him at ease. We invited him for a cup of coffee. Soon a second showed, his “petit”. They warmed up somewhat and chatted.

The river here they call the Banguina toward the confluence and Faquado at this level. In contrast to the other guys, these guys said that they still have some big game to the east of Yalinga.

I went through all the names of villages and rivers between here and Bria, no luck, Cherry’s names have changed. They had come from Bria, two days before. They said the town is in the hands of the Seleka, who charge 500 CFA to pass on the road. They are located 3 km from the Bria bac on the east side of the Kotto River. They say that there are plenty of pirogues there to cross the river.

The town is not really controlled by the Seleka because the French and the Ugandans are there; they hold the airport and make sure that the Seleka behave themselves. So it is like Senousi in Ndele from 1900 to 1910; eventually the French will kick the Seleka out of all towns, reestablishing martial law. They said that there are only about 150 people left in Yalinga, so it is basically a small village at this point.

Their one bike was loaded with a 25-kg sack of sugar that he paid 25,000 for in Bria, a 50-kg sack of rice, and a carton box of soap. They buy from the Sudanese in Bria that sell stuff the cheapest. They said that the prices are much lower in Bria than in Zaco, so it is worth the extra 150 km on the bikes to make a few more bucks.

Another group of hunters caught up to us coming from Yalinga; they had a pannier of bushmeat and also rice to sell. They said that they had already gotten the news of our presence on the road, so they seemed fine with our character.

Soon a woman with her kid on the back of a bike passed by. My guys said from the accent that she was a Yakpba. There are Yakpba, Banda, Togbo and Langba on this road.

We started hitting some old villages just past midday. There were manioc plants and mango trees. We sat for a rest and old Raymond was scratching his legs white. I queried; he said it was filaria. He said everyone in Bangassou and Fode and Rafai have it. They even have the classic guys who get elephantiasis in their scotum and use wheelbarrows to carry the grotesque sac.  They gave out the medicine about 10 years ago and treated people, but they said since then it was impossible to get it. He was obviously full worms, because he was just about scratching his legs raw.

We carried on and ran into a group of baquia, and heard a bush buck barking in the same place, also black-and-white colobus. Raymond has this amazing baquia call that imitates the baquia when they are getting attacked, which brings in the male and bystanders. He called, and the male immediately gave the huh, huh, huh call and started coming our way. Amazing that he would fall for this trick on the road.

The air was filled with a beautiful bouquet smell that comes from the Lophira tree. It used to be a major source of oil; Hervé said his mother still collects it. The mango trees started lining the road much of the way now, and by the clearings and bokassa it was evident that this part of the road was much more heavily inhabited not that many years ago. At 13h29 we hit the first creek that flowed north into the Ndjé River, so we have reached the Kotto River drainage.

Around 15h00 we walked for 20 minutes through an old village. There was a school, the bac alu roof was still on it. There was a Catholic church; the cross was still standing, but there is no one here now. This village still has bananas; people gone less than 10 years ago. My guys made no pretext to sleep in the abandoned village. I could sense they wanted to clear out of there as quickly as possible.  They said the village had been pillaged by the Tongo Tongo.

Around 16h00 we hit another creek; the boys were still not happy.  I think they might feel we are working too hard, but Cherry did the road from Ratto to Yaggo in 2.5 days, well over 100 km. This is a diffent era, but the problem it is mainly I think the classic disorientation that comes from leaving their known world; they are scared to be outside of their tribal area.

We made camp and prepared a second large meal of the day. There were lots of monkeys calling in the forest here. Just before dusk I heard this typical oooop….wa wa wa wa. It was the agile mangabey, the first time we have heard this species on the trip. The Nzakara call it Ngarako.

Those bikes sure do speed up transport around here. I would say that they can carry a minimum of 100 kg and speed the travel on a road like this up to 10 kmh, instead of 5 kmh.

This place is more abandoned now than in Cherry’s time. We haven’t hit a single village in 100 km of walking, whereas Cherry would have seen 10.

Two guys passed by after dark on bikes coming from Yalinga. We said hello, they just passed by as fast as they could. People don’t trust anybody on this road, just like when Cherry came through. We will see tomorrow when we get to the inhabited part of this road. The passersby said that there was one village before the turn off for Zaco. If we make it past tomorrow we will be ok. Cherry did this exact track I think; the more I look at his map the more I think that it is the same road.

We anticipated getting to Owou for days, and when we reached it it was silent. The church and school were empty. The sharpening stone was still in the middle of the village, a sign for those who come again to this place that there was once a village, when all else is gone. There were posts of houses like we used to see on the Gounda; there were still some bananas but the crops are long gone.

Cherry passed through when these villages were under attack, and yet people persisted. Now because of depredations by Tongo Tongo, Sudanese and Mbororo, along with a state the doesn’t basically exist for people out here, it has started the same southwest migration as when Senousi’s raids became too intense. The only difference is the slaves and ivory are no longer the engines of the economy. Now it’s driven by diamonds, gold and small game. The villages don’t control any of these, they are still marginalized in their own lands.

I hope we don’t have the Ugandans or, much worse, the Gendarmes after us tomorrow. I would be surprised, even if they are worried about this white man traveling through this land, that they would mobilize. They would have to come on bicycles or maybe a motorcycle. Military like their vehicles and aircraft.

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.