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Heart of Africa Expedition: Honored Guest in a Village That’s Forgotten William Stamps Cherry

We slept in a small gallery forest. The dawn chorus woke me up. I thought: “It’s alive”. The tinker birds were already in action, then a group of giant blue touracos, and soon several species, all seeming to take their turn to bring in the day. Agile mangabeys (Ngarako) and greater white-nosed monkeys were calling deeper in the bako, but we know that the large mammals are not listening, they are mostly gone. First thing I recorded on the trail was a 12ga MACC shell and a campfire and human trail that parted to the north, maybe to the Ndjé River.

We met two bikes on the road, one a hunter, the second with two kids on the bike. They said that the Tongo Tongo destroyed the village of Owou. They said that they took everything of value, herded up the boys and girls without babies, and men to carry the booty, and then burned the entire village to the ground, including the school and the Catholic church. This explained the ghostly feeling of the place when we passed through.

At 09h30 we reached Dongo I village. They had already heard that there was a white man walking on the road and they were settled around a large mango tree waiting. It was a small village, maybe 20 huts, mostly new. This village, they said, had also been burned to the ground two years previously, and just last year they came back timidly to resettle with the ex-Mayor of Yalinga. They said the Mayor spoke lots of languages, including Chadian Arabic; he was an intellectual. He was out tending his fields, but there was the vice chief.

I went over to talk to the vice chief who was using an adze to scrape the charcoal off the uprights for his house. He said when the Tongo Tongo came, they would have liked to resist, but they only have shotguns. He took me on a tour of the village. We passed burned-down hut after another. He simply counted, oko, use, ota, all the way bale use na use, 22 huts was the extent of the old village, all burned down except the poles that hold the roof. On the second occasion,  the Tonga Tonga shot the mayor’s son right in the head, killed him.   They burned down several huts at the end of the village and took people to carry goods, then after a few days let them go. There were about eight huts redone now. They took one girl out of the village who hasn’t come back yet; in Owou, they said, two people were killed for resisting.

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I asked a kid of about 9 if he had ever seen a white man, “mo ba moundjou koso”. He shook his head, no. I toured the village with the guy who was reconstructing his house. He said that anybody under 12 or 15 had never seen a white man. They had decided not to be afraid anymore, but they were. He said this was their place, they wanted to be here, so it was in God’s hands if they survived or not. He pointed out one house after another that had been turned to ash.

Only a few weeks back, a few French Sangaris military vehicles had come to the creek before the village from Bria, but they got stuck and turned around. This is the closest the international effort to sort things out in the CAR have come to them. Security-wise and to rebuild their village, these folks are still entirely on their own, no international aid out this way.

They seemed quite satisfied though when they told us that three months ago the Ugandans (UPDF) killing 18 Seleka Rebels in Zako diamond camp, which is the closest place where they can get supplies, about 90 km away.

As we left the village, there was a huge swath along the mango tree-lined road that had been fields which was now inhabited by bokassa. It reminded me of Cherry’s observations from this same road. Once the raiders come through, the subsistence culture kind of falls apart, people leave their fields behind. We heard a chopper to the south, they are like phantoms in the sky here, never land in the little villages, people just see them going overhead.

The mayor, ex-mayor actually, caught up to us on a bike; he was carrying a shotgun. He was in his fifties and lean, and spoke to me in French and Sangho. He used to be a big man, but was tired. He railed about the incompetent management of the country. He was the last guy, who back in the 1970s, had the govt. put in a metal bridge at one or other creek crossings. He said he was in the dialogue talks in Bangui, but pulled out; said they were a bunch of idiots.

He told us of the Tongo Tongo, only three days before, had attacked the village of Banga, which was only about 20 km from where we stood on the road to Zako. He said that they captured three hunters. They sent one to Zako to buy sugar and coffee etc., and kept the other two hostage. When the hunter went to Zako he told the UPDF and they made a plan to follow on foot and then attack once the other two guys were released. They executed the plan, but instead of shooting them, they captured four of them, the rest got away.

He seemed quite disappointed that they didn’t kill them all. He said they took them off in a helicopter and that the LRA shot in the air as they left and then cleared out. He said that these Tongo Tongo are still all over the place. I chatted for a long time with Mr. Dimassi Pierre Alexi. He said they couldn’t go to town only to suffer there, or even worse Bangui, so he chooses to be out here in this little village.

We pressed on and I became apprehensive. We would be reaching the crossroad to Zaco where motos and even the occasional pilgrimage of a Toyota reaches. There there would be scrutiny, questions about who we were and where our paperwork was. I even put 200,000 CFA in my back pocket just in case I had to pay a toll the old fashioned way. I figured we only had a few villages to go through before we got back into the woods so better to just grease the wheels maybe, but these are special times. Just like the kid said on the road, prepare to pay your 500 CFA.

We reached the creek going into the village of Ngee. They already know we were coming, so didn’t run. There were about 20 people bathing, including one young, bare breasted maiden who must have been all of 14. Her breasts were bulging, and was beautiful, a perfect target for the Tongo Tong, I thought. I realized that a girl like this is rare out in these villages. Most girls, when they reach puberty, get pregnant right away, maybe even somewhat as a defense. She would have been a target today just as she would have been of Senousi’s bazingars when Cherry passed.

We reached Ngee where there was a second Mayor. We were not going to stay long hopefully. I sat for a bit, said hello, gave them the dog and pony about Cherry. They recognized a couple of the creek names, but none of the village names. I showed them the pictures of Cherry; they were more interested in the Samsung S4 than the content.

They did confirm that this was the exact track the foot path took before the colony, so I was following directly in Cherry’s footsteps. I was thinking how little had changed in these villages, still getting pillaged, still living hand-to-mouth, still trying to survive on nothing.

They also confirmed the presence of large numbers of elephants up until around 40 years ago, but with the braconniers, as they call them, nothing was left. They said every once in a while in the wet season an elephant ventures out of the forest and a track is seen. But as soon as it is, people track the elephant down and shoot it.   They said the Tongo Tongo had raided their village three times in the last few years.

We walked on to the village of Ngoulia, past the crossroad to Zako, and went directly to the Chef’s house. I introduced myself and said we wanted to spend the night. He was old and seemed not too coherent, but he said it was fine. He then introduced me to a more modern looking chap. The Chief said, “lo inga kwa ti mbeti”, he knows how to write, therefore he would be sophisticated enough to deal with us.

We sat for sometime chatting about our trip. I pulled out the S4 again and showed them Cherry’s map. They recognized the creek names Azzia as Aza and Branga as Branja. The Chief had warmed up by then; his name was Gboko. When he was a young man, the elephants would come right behind the village and eat the crops. At night they could hear them trumpeting in the creek and would find their manioc fields ravaged.

They confirmed the existence of the trail that leads to the Ndjé (Cherry’s N’Gee) here. They said the Mbororo, as well as the folks from the village, use the trail to go hunting. He said the that Yakpa go all the way in their pirogues up the bridge across the Ndjé. But if they want to hunt real game they will go to the Mbari and across — that is where the large mammals still exist.

They confirmed the presence of bongo, but not eland here. There are also still a few hippos on the Ndje. The Chief said he had often spent weeks in the bako when the Tongo Tongo came, because they were afraid. They lost everything. Try as I might, they claimed no knowledge of Senousi, or Rafai or Bangassou and their razzias.  The history of that era has been completely lost.

What they are experiencing is almost identical as when Senousi passed by these villages, except the Tongo Tongo take fewer people, but still value the different categories in exactly the same way. The chief does not like the Mbororo. They had a skirmish with them in the not too distant past; two mbororo were killed and one villager. He said they invade the territory, give nothing back, kill the wildlife and destroy the savanna. I couldn’t argue with his assessment. He said when he was a kid he had never seen a Mbororo. They don’t speak of the white man as an oppressor.

Tradition was still alive here, the women did all the tending. They heated water for me for a bath, not for my three men, only for me. They served me coffee from trees that the chief planted himself that came from the forest. This is native species of coffee that was traded by Senoussi just as it is today. It has a very nice flavor. I bought a chicken and the chief’s daughter started to cook it. The chief’s wife was real fat and sat selling stuff. She was pleasant enough, but she had her daughters none of whom were over 14 but all with kids, doing all the work.

As nightfall came, the fires came alive in front of each hut, the village filled with the smoke. Each family cooked their food in the front yard, on three rocks with a pot made from melted aluminium. Kids started to circulate up and down the village, with bicycles and on foot. There were no lamps, no fossil fuel being burned here, just firewood. By about 19h30 the entire village was quiet, everyone was in bed.

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.