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Heart of Africa Expedition: Switching to a Pirogue

The Ndjé River

It was cold in the night. We left camp at 07h10; nice Terminalia savanna, burned. There were two groups of crested mangabeys vocalizing from the gallery where we slept. My leg seemed to be improving a bit, a bit less of the sharp pain when I go from walking to standing or in bed. Maybe. Hoping, anyway.

At 07h43 we hit a big mare, a seasonally flooded ancient meander of a large, slow river. Then there were two giant kingfishers calling. Of course, all I could think of was what this place would have looked like in Cherry’s time. It would have had elephant trails into it and abundant elephants, hippos and buffalo feeding on the lush grass as the area dried out in the season. This was at the doorstep of what he called Hunters Paradise. These areas are where the Chadians plant millet and sorghum.

Actually my leg is just as bad, it is very hard for me to put my chacos on or bend to drink water, let alone when I have to do #2. We hit what looked like the main floodplain of the Ndjé. It has that big water river feeling, but meandering.

Then we hit a camp. I arrived first. There were two older men eating. They did not overly react; maybe they too had heard of the white man in the area, I thought. Guess he can appear anywhere. They said hello. I quickly name dropped Hissain and told them we camped at the Chiefs’ house, and his fat wife, the old verification process to determine friend from foe. Soon I came to find out that the gang leader of the two was Hissain’s uncle, or thereabouts. They said that they had been here for three days fishing but the water was too cold.

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They had killed a single monkey that was on a small triangular drying rack over a fire. They also had a forest tortoise hanging up ready for transport.

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They were sorting through their nets, which seemed to be small patches of what used to be a long net, that they drape here and there in hope of catching fish. Nets are hard to get and cash is even harder to come by.

They also said that they didn’t have any manioc left. The gang leader had a limp, shorter leg. I thought that is what I am going to look like if I don’t get this worm out of my leg.

They said all the big game has been hunted out. They have a trail that goes 20 km north of the river, and they say even there it is rough finding game to shoot.

They bummed smokes off my guys. I headed to the river; they said we were at the confluence of the Owou and the Mbari. I think the Owou is the creek that Cherry named after his wife, which makes me think that the road of today is south of the old footpath.

On the way there was another camp, but this had the feeling of a stepping-off place, not a destination, not enough abundance left even here, 30 km from the village. The river was classic, lined with thick stands of Irivingia smithii, a tree that is superabundant along these classic lowland rivers. But this one is pretty high, over 400 m to the sea.

There was a couple of pirogues at the port. They were even tied up; one was big enough for three people and some baggage. It had a nice squared out bottom, even if it did come from a small tree so the pirogue twisted a bit.

I went back to camp. The two guys were packing up. They said that there was a hunting trail that went straight north of the river maybe 25 km, then there was a gap to hit the trail that would lead us to the mouth of the Ndjé with the Kotto. They said we would have to bushwack for a while.

Sounded like most people used pirogues here. He showed us where he kept the paddle for what he said was his pirogue, the big one, just in case we wanted to fish from a boat. He said that they took it all they way up to the bridge, which is the bridge north of Yalinga, that is like 120 km from here, just to fish and hunt.

And then they are in the Yalinga and Ouadda and Sam Ouandjia hunting zones; certainly Sam Ouandjia is a huge diamond camp in the middle of nowhere along the Sudanese border that is bigger than Zako, in Seleka territory. They must hunt then on the far side of the Mbari; this is where the game is and everyone knows it.

My head was turning, but these guys were soon gone and I went back down to the river to see about fishing possibilities. I looked at that big pirogue and the river and said, need to go in boat.

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I went back to camp and the guys were moping, saying there was no bait for the hooks, even though I bought them like $100 worth of gear and they were taking almost all day off to fish. That is when I decided. I ran down the trail to catch up to the two guys to see if I could negotiate the pirogue. Too late, I got all the way back to the camp and they had already scavenged the box from couscous we left behind that they said they would pick up for rolling cigarettes.

I trailed them by 25 minutes, which if they’re trucking is a hard catch-up. Kind of dejected, I went back to camp and found Herve down at the river. I told him that as they didn’t know how to swim, and they had never been in a pirogue, I was going to take the pirogue downstream by myself the next day and they would return to the village. I told him that I would pay them for the full length of the trip. He walked straight back to camp with me, where I told Felix and Raymond and that was it.

They started to sort the baggage, what would I take. I also wrote a note to the gang leader, via the chief of the village, that said “Chef, j’ai decidé de louer une pirogue…” The bottom line was I would “rent” the pirogue for the whopping sum of 200,000 CFA, which is probably equivalent to about 8-10 times its value. And I left it open, saying if there was no deal, to send a runner to tell me, with my 200,000 CFA, and I would carry on by foot, and that they could recuperate it wherever I left it on the river.

I kept some rice, oil, coffee, sugar, tea, sardines, and my reserve of Ramen. I could probably live on the 8 Ramen for a week, I thought. They also jettisoned the manioc powder, saying manioc that makes it into the bush does not return to the village. No sooner had I thought it would be impossible to separate from my team, they vanished with hardly a word onto the trail, and who knows I may never seen them again.

I had paid each of them $200, including their transport and food home, which would probably cost them $50-$100 depending if they catch a bike taxi or motorcycle taxi to Bakoumba. They made more than a month’s wage in 10 days. It helped them decide that our team could never separate.

I did get that empty feeling I get sometimes when I am completely alone: not fright, not sadness, just some kind of innate social being in me. I also thought, damn, now I am committed to taking that boat. And with 200,000 in their pockets there is no way in hell anybody is going to come from the village. I had heard of rapids on the river, but for some reason didn’t seem to concerned. I figured Cherry did it, so so can I.

I made a second cup of coffee, went back and checked out the pirogue, and then collected some firewood since I was going to be there for the night. I looked up and there was this guy standing there with a 12 ga shotgun. He looked to be about 20, he said he was all alone. He didn’t have a shirt on, was ripped, a fairly nice bike, a coat and a shotgun, that was it. He said he had been about 20 km north of the river for 3 nights and didn’t shoot anything; all he got was a ground tortoise like the other guys.

Since he was traveling light he got hungry. He said that there were way too many Mbororo to be able to hunt well; the Mbororo are hunting everything out. He said he ran across 4 groups of western Mbororo and one group of Sudanese Mbororo. He said all he saw in 3 days was a single group of baboons that fled as soon as they sensed him.

What is sad is nobody is thinking what have we done, how can we get the game back. No reflection at all about a Plan B, only forward in the process, not back. Again humans are really no different anywhere. He said that there are still hippos on the river; this is like the signature animal that they cite. I am thinking, like a lot of places I have seen in the past a scared, hidden hippo every 5-10 km along the river. It is crazy to think that all this bush knowledge that has accumulated over thousands of years — names, behaviors, group size, populations and uses — all gone into the abysss, the once-again unknown.

If the anti-Balaka movement had not been stopped by the French, it would have spread through the entire country. Well over a century of domination by the Muslims from the north was enough. For if they weren’t physically capturing non-Muslims, and putting them to work or selling them, they were dominating them economically through being better at trade. To that add somewhat pious and thrifty.  And then two years ago these Muslims were now in the Presidential Palace, from Dar al Kuti to the masters of the entire country for the first time. So what to do if the tides turned: rape and pillage and raze the property of the other guy.

But I was in Bangui when the Sargaris first arrived. Like in any situation it is confusing, esp. at first if you have just stepped off a C-130 from France. When the French came in it was to take Bangui back from the control of the Seleka and push them into civilian life with disarmament. Well it wasn’t quite that clean. A lot of Seleka said sorry, we do not give up our guns, typical of a defeated force. Soon there were dead bodies on both sides and the normal 20-year-old on the streets of Bangui sees Seleka off kilter and they take their shot. Lots and lots of people dead in a very short amount of time.

I was at the airport when the evacuation really started. There were tens of thousands of Muslims jumping on planes sent from Cameroon and Chad or fleeing on the road north the CAR, back to Dar al Kuti or Dar Goula or beyond. This is why the Central Africans now “hate” the French, as some would say.

I think the hate is because the Sangaris did not allow genocide to occur, even if most would have fled. This was maybe the opportunity to remove the veil of servitude or helplessness. But also an opportunity to pillage every boutique in the country, worth in the tens of billions of CFA, surely.

We have seen it many times before in Africa; craziness and theft seem to be essential elements in these urban warfare situations that have a large percentage of disadvantaged people. It gets very basic, the primal human comes out. You see an inch you take a mile. Before long ritual killings and cannibalism reemerge. For over 100 years they have been like an elephant that is defeated, it seeks refuge from his killer. People have acquiesced, until now.

Look around the country, in the smallest village there is always a Muslim merchant who buys and sells, both legally and illegally. The pay little into a national economy and benefit from corruption. Now this was a chance for the mainly Bantu to go back in time to about 1750, before the Muslims arrived in numbers, when this area was known by a different name to the Arabs and the tribes of Wadai and Dar Fur. There were no cattle. There was abundant game and only local tribes to defend against and capture from. There was no state that claimed them.

Yet now, a year later, all the streets in Bangui are filled with the normal hustle and bustle of life, but the Muslims are quickly coming back too. It will be normalized in a few years and back to an era of servitude. The French are playing a game that pleases no one.

The kid left on his bike, but not before getting a little aggressive in asking for stuff, and admiring a bit too much my equipment. We settled for a tin of sardines and he departed.

Then at 14h08 I hear voices. Nothing comes. Of course now I am having misgivings, maybe I should have kept my team. No it was the right decision, they are pretty worthless already, being aliens here. But they are also literally unable to swim or operate a pirogue, and we are following a river for 200 km. No regrets.

I remembered the gang leader, owner of the pirogue, saying yeah, we have a trail that goes north about 2 days. Then you get to this “bako, lo kono mingui, mbi gilisa, mbi sara lango use na ya ni,” an enormous forest where he got lost for two nights. We would have to cross that before we would reach the human trail that goes to the confluence of the Kotto and Ndjé. He explained the way, but I had already opted for the river.

At around 15h00 a guy appeared in the camp. He was much more surprised than me, but tried to show a brave face. He spotted the paddle and said, oh great a paddle. I said, “a zo mingui a ga ge. Mbi pense mbi yeke sengue”, there are people everywhere here, I thought I was alone. He said that they had come from hunting on the other side of the river and he wanted to borrow the pirogue. They were Banda Bria. I kind of acted dumb and followed him back down to the river, with the paddle.

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There were three guys and a baggage on the other side. He traversed with the pirogue and they proceeded to load a basket of meat that must have weighed easily 80 kg, about twice as wide as the pirogue. They partially unloaded it and the guy made it across with excellent balance. In four more trips they brought two more baskets of meat, bicycles, guns, and a baby baboon that didn’t look overly happy, but considering that he was still suckling and got ripped from his mother’s corpse, he seemed pretty chipper. They strated warming up; I was taking pictures. At least now I knew that I wasn’t ”hearing voices”, but actually hearing voices.

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They spent another 2 hours packing the stuff back up on to three bikes, each will over 100 kg of baggage, plus a pusher. From what I saw they had mostly baboon meat plus a few red river hogs, and a few duikers.  The baby baboon, they said, they were going to sell it to the Sargaris in Bria for 2500 CFA. We reached camp and they said they would spend the night. Pushing the bikes another 30 km in the dark was not something they thought they had the energy for.

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20150105_163654These guys had nothing; same old plastic shoes with patches that they weld on with a hot knife. They had some old plastic bags with more rags and each of the leaders had a coat. The two kids, one of whom had deformed hands, were in t-shirts. The leader’ name was Kozou Donatian. I didn’t really trust him; skinny, beady eyes, a slight mean streak to him, but he was also the Chef de Mission, as I called him. That brought a chuckle, but he confirmed he was indeed the leader. The lieutenant who paddled the boat was Honore.

They said they were out since well before Christmas, with 4 guns, three fabrication and one Russian Baikal held by Donatian. They had killed 12 baboons, 1 bushbuck, 2 red river hogs and two red flanked duikers, so on the average about an animal a day, say of 12 kg.

By the time we got camp fixed up, firewood, water, and a nice fire, and I offered up sugar and coffee, they were my buddies. They built two drying racks for the meat; the pigs weren’t quite cooked through yet and that stuff is valuable. Don’t want to let the flies in there or you have a mass of maggots in no time.

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I asked them about Badongo, the village where Cherry ended his downstream voyage from Bria. They said they hadn’t heard of it, but that most of the villages were on the road now, not the river.

The kid showed me his bird gun. This is also home made, with a pipe and about a .22 caliber. They remove the heads from two packs of Cameroonian matches and put a wadding and a single shot out of the shot gun shell. He was proud of his little gun, which he said was great for killing guinea fowl and even a duiker.

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Donatian said that they were capable of making stuff, they just needed the materials, like he was trying to convince me that they had brains too. They confirmed that the elephants are gone. They were hunting 25 km north of the river and saw zero sign of large game, and plenty of Mbororo. Donatian hunts on the Boungou, all the way up to the bridge, all over out of Bria. He said that this is one of the best places left.

Donatian told me he was really Jonesing for a cup of coffee as he sucked his down; they had run out days ago. Always the same with these guys; they eat all their supplies in the first few days then live off meat for the rest and come back half starved.

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Donatian gave me a little bag of chunks of pig meat that I put on the coals. The kids pulled the meat off a smoked guinea fowl they were preparing for dinner.  Glad my guys left the manioc; they were right, it should never go back to town. These boys were beat; soon after dinner we were bedded down and asleep.

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.