Tales from a far-flung forest: Part 3

When Science Met Nature…

Jessica’s Science Blog – 08.01.17

Tales from a far-flung forest: Part 3

Grey-cheeked mangabeys in the canopy (Lophocebus albigena); PC: Coke and Som Smith Photography

REMINDER: We’re at a rustic FIELD STATION in the Republic of Congo. It’s about 77°F (or 25°C for the rest of the world) with high humidity. Grey-cheeked mangabeys (Lophocebus albigena) are whoop-gobbling in the canopy as they travel through camp. Last night I could have sworn a woman was screaming bloody murder, but it was just the call of a tree hyrax (Dendrohyrax dorsalis). In this third installment of tales from a far-flung forest, we’ll be departing from Mondika camp on foot and by boat for adventures in the Central African Republic!!

Adventures to Bayanga and back

Like the road to slaying the final boss in a video game, one must be prepared to contend with a series of obstacles on the journey. Fortunately, many of them are surmountable challenges, and if one keeps an open mind and a flexible attitude, we’ll make it to the castle (so to speak). And if we’re delayed, at least we’ll get serenaded by echolocating bats on a moonlit boat cruise.

  • African forest buffalo (Syncerus caffer nanus) PC: WCS Congo

    Step 1) Hiking out: We’ve got a 4-hr hike ahead of us. We’ll start at first light, and we won’t rest until we’ve crossed the flood plain of the Djeke River. If we’re lucky, we’ll see a harem of African forest buffalo (Syncerus caffer nanus) feeding in one of the bais along the trail. Mostly though, we’ll focus on putting one foot in front of the other until we reach our destination – the mighty Sangha River. The Sangha is a large tributary of the Congo river, covering nearly 500 miles from end to end. Its water level swells in the rainy season and drops in the dry season to expose sand bars, which are used by hippos. I saw hippos chilling on a sand bar just outside Bayanga in the dry season. The fishing is good on the Sangha. I saw a huge variety of fish forms sold at outdoor markets. I quite enjoyed the smoked river fish, although I never knew what species I was eating.

  • Boating to Bayanga on the project pirogue (dugout canoe)

    Step 2) Boating: Sweaty from the hike, we arrive at N’dakan, a tiny outpost on the Sangha River. To fish and get up and down river, local people use dugout canoes. They’re made from hollowing out massive hardwood trees. Our project canoe has the luxury of an outboard motor, which allows us to reach Bayanga in less than 8 hours. Every month, our boat driver travels this route to resupply and make the changeover with our workers. My field assistant, Whitney, and I are accompanying the boat driver and workers on the changeover for this month’s trip. We could use a “vacation.”

  • Step 2.5) How to pay a bribe: By geographical necessity, we’ll need to pass through a border checkpoint in Lindjombo as we reach the southern edge of the Central African Republic. What this also means is that it’s time to get shaken down by the gendarme (i.e. police or border guards) for a bribe. Pretty standard practice. Pleasantries are also exchanged and questions are asked about the nature of your travels. I admit that I wasn’t aware that I was authorized to divert project funds to pay off a local official. On that occasion, I sat in the office for the better part of an hour trying to talk my way out of a bribe. When the official told me that he had all day, I realized that I had little recourse. I paid the bribe and we were on our way. If you ever find yourself in this situation, I recommend making an offer of coffee and donuts, because that will thrill everyone and you’ll get out of there without forking over project dough. I learned that trick and subsequently deployed it successfully on the return trip!
  • Small fishing village along the Sangha

    Step 2.75) Locating a bathroom along the river: Ugh. If you’re like me, you can’t make it eight hours without a bathroom break. Being a woman poses a particular challenge in this regard. On more than one occasion, I had to ask our boat driver to pull over at a small fishing village and ask an elder for access to an outhouse. Mind you, I didn’t need an outhouse, just some privacy to void my bladder! One funny part about this experience is having tens of children smile and wave at you, shouting, “Mbunzú!”(white person).

  • Step 3) Arrival at Bayanga: Tired and a little sunburned, we finally arrive at Bayanga just before night fall. The very best thing to do upon arrival is hoof it to Doli Lodge for a drink on the water at sunset. An incomparable experience. Even better if you have a friend from WWF join you. Incidentally, doli means elephant in Sango, the national language of the Central African Republic.
  • Saka saka with rice

    Step 4) What’s on the menu?/ Don’t drink the water: After a good night’s sleep, you’ll take the most wonderful shower of your life. It’s ice cold. But it’s a real shower, and you haven’t taken one of those in months. Order some saka saka or koko with gozo at the local cafe. Delicious!

  • But don’t do what I did. Don’t drink the water or ice cubes that’s served to you at the cafe. Even if they assure it’s safe…it may not be filtered or boiled. Needless to say, I suffered a bout of amoebiosis. Flagyl to the rescue! PSA: NEVER mix alcohol with flagyl.
  • Did I mention that the Sango spoken in town is considerably more sophisticated than the bush Sango we use in camp? Also seems to be spoken faster, more confidently, and with a flourish. I tried my best, and attempted to remember to use the formal you (ala) instead of the familiar you (mo) when addressing respected officials. Always greet everyone with an enthusiastic, “Bara mingi! Tonga na nye?” That roughly translates as, “Good morning! How’s it going?” The response is, “Ye’ ke d’ape,” meaning nothing much is happening. I guess that’s a good thing!
  • Chocolate biscuits imported from France

    Step 5) Hit the magasin to pick up supplies: **But, avoid the outdoor market if you’re offended by seeing bushmeat for sale. I didn’t want to see this, so I steered clear. The last thing I wanted to see was dead guenons or worse. I also steered clear of the local palm wine, which I’m told is a bit like moonshine. It cleans your clock.** The local donuts were pretty tasty. One of my favorite treats was the chocolate and vanilla biscuits. Every month, we stocked up on rice, dry beans, pasta, tomato sauce, canned sardines, boxed wine, and spices. Also, copious amounts of oil and maggi are used in what seemed like EVERY DISH. Finish your shopping with the help of a checklist that you’ve prepared in advance to give the shop keeper. He’ll box everything up nice and run through the checklist with you. You’re likely to meet ex-pats and missionaries in the shop. I met one missionary family who moved to Bayanga to teach local people how to grow fruit trees.

  • Step 6) If you speak Sango, why not brave the local discotheque? Bring an escort. Wear your Sunday best: a long skirt and blouse. Don’t show skin. It’s impolite. Stay for a few songs. The DJ will be spinning Koffi Olomide, Papa Wemba, and other Congolese soukus. Upbeat music. You CAN’T MISS the young men showing off their best pelvic gyrations. A form of male-male competition. Whitney and I requested a song by Brenda Fassie, because 90’s Brenda songs are dope.
  • Children at play in Bayanga

    Step 7) Be sensitive to sociocultural issues in town, especially those that relate to historical conflicts between Bantu and Bayaka. Poverty is a pervasive problem in Bayanga and its surrounding areas. Without steady income, heads of households are forced to poach and sell wild animals. To my knowledge, there weren’t any cultural taboos against eating apes. Some of the best hunters have been snapped up by conservation and research organizations and trained as eco-guards or trackers since they know how to locate elephants and gorillas. These reformed hunters receive a monthly paycheck in return for their hard work. It’s a win-win and an example of how ecotourism and conservation efforts can benefit local communities.

  • Also, there is a sad history of the Bantu treating the Bayaka inhumanely, including violence. The Bayaka live in small satellite villages, Yandoumbe and Mousapala, on the outskirts of Bayanga. Bayaka families make intermittent trips into the forest to hunt and gather as their ancestors have done for generations. The women gather tree nuts and koko leaves, and the men hunt diuker. Forest products may also be traded for gozo and household wares in town. There is a co-dependent relationship here, which sways in favor of the Bantu. The Bayaka may be small in stature, but they are not short on heart or cultural traditions; they’re dancing, drumming, story telling, and polyphonic singing have no equal.


Deep forest immersion: Hunt by day, drum and dance with Jengi by night

1) Hunt by day

  • Sangha forest outside of Yandoumbe, Central African Republic

    When you’re offered a once in a lifetime opportunity to tag along on a traditional net hunt and overnight stay in the forest with Bayaka families, you take it! Whitney, myself, and three female field assistants from the Bai Hokou project were given the chance while in Bayanga. I really had no clue what to expect. I had to take a leap of faith that this would work out alright. I knew that a couple of our trackers were bringing their families and that gave me some comfort. We filled our water bottles, grabbed our headlamps, and departed for the forest. I’d say we hiked for about 2 hours before we reached a small clearing in the forest. This was to be our camp site. Drums and vessels for pounding maniac flour were dropped here.

  • The women split from the men, and the five western ladies joined up with our trackers for a duiker hunt. The men carried a massive net that needed to be unfurled, untangled, and arranged around a perimeter of trees. Whitney and I helped Samedi work on his part of the net. He explained that once a duiker was found someone would go inside the net and begin to flush it out. Pretty deft coordination is required to make the hunt successful. This was hard work.
  • Going on a net hunt; PC: James Hopkirk

    After nearly two hours of moving with the net a duiker was spotted! I heard a man in the center working to scare the duiker in a particular direction. We closed in, helping to reduce the net’s circumference. I saw the duiker run into some brush. We were getting closer. Just as the moment was upon the hunters, the duiker escaped through the net (perhaps there was a gap or a hole), and all the time invested in the hunt was for wasted.

2) Drum and dance with Jengi by night

  • We get back to the clearing and families begin to prep dinner. We are offered koko and gozo by an adjacent family. No duiker meat (thankfully). We eat our dinner in peace, surrounded by beautiful trees. After dinner, the Bayaka begin to build a bonfire. Children and young men begin drumming. Women and children begin to sing. Polyphonic singing and hand-clapping like you’ve never heard before. Raw and powerful, and beyond beautiful.
  • Bayaka women and children engaged in polyphonic singing and hand-clapping, unique to their culture

    Over the next hour, the drumming and singing builds as if to a crescendo. The power of the music is growing and throbbing. Individuals begin to dance around the fire. Dancing in a circle, with smiles on their faces. We join in the dancing. It feels awkward at first, but as I let my guard down it became freeing. Everyone’s happy and living in the moment. My headlamp falls off and it disappears. Never getting that back. I take a seat and watch. The singers are still singing. Drummers are still drumming. Dancers still dancing.

  • Rumor spreads that a forest spirit is about to appear. Talk of Jengi. We turn to look in the direction of where leaves are shaking in the dark. What can best be described as a large bush begins dancing toward the bonfire. Everyone clears out. All eyes are on Jengi. Jengi’s power is palpable. My jaw drops as I watch Jengi dance to the music. I’ve imbedded a short clip below that shows a different forest spirit (this time wearing a burlap sack) dancing with a Bayaka family.
  • The night of our Jengi appearance, the spirit manifested as a dancing bush, waving its leaves to and fro in a rhythmic frenzy. I came to understand the nature of the mystical qualities ascribed to forest spirits in this moment. Jengi was exciting – an escape from the norms of reality! Jengi danced for about 20 minutes, and then s(he) disappeared back into the forest. It was as thrilling an experience as any I’ve had since! I feel honored that the Bayaka trusted me and my colleagues to introduce us to one of their forest spirits that night. Also, it was pretty fun joking with our trackers for the next week about how Jengi stole my head lamp. And boy, do the Bayaka know how to laugh, drink, dance, have a good time, and enjoy theatrics, however silly you can make them. I learned how to live in the moment from them and that ‘sillyness’ is contagious.


Sunset over the Sangha River; PC: Coke Smith

After a series of adventures in Bayanga, it’s time to return to Mondika! Even though our boat motor needed repair in Bayanga, which waylaid us by a couple days, I’m happy to report we made it back to N’dakan and to Mondika camp without major incident. The moment my head hit the pillow was pretty satisfying. It felt good to be away. Great to be back. Only an hour’s walk from Kingo and his beautiful family.


Did you enjoy tales from a far-flung forest?

I hope you’ve vicariously experienced some exciting adventures via my blog and increased your knowledge about the people and ecology of the Republic of Congo and Central African Republic. Good news: I have a very special guest/ collaborative post in the works for September. We’ll be flying to Panama and joining up with Dr. Kristiina Hurme for tales from her Ph.D. research on frog behavioral ecology!

Previous post on When Science Met NatureTales from a far-flung forest: Part 2

JUNE 2017: Tales from a far-flung forest: Part 1

MAY 2017: We can be heroes! Finding your community on iNaturalist

FROM 2016: The health benefits of yoga: A scientific perspective


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