21 Pygmies, the Jungle, and Me

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July 16th 2009
Published: July 20th 2009
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My sister had arranged for us to go camping with her BaAka (pygmies) workers in the jungle for a couple of nights. She couldn’t stay the whole time so she was going to head back after the first evening. In all it was going to be the 9 guys who worked for her, 4 of their wives, and 8 kids.

We packed our stuff and walked about 5km to Mossapola one of the BaAka villages to meet up with some of her workers. Some people were going to meet up with us later so a few of us headed out it was about another 4 km walk through the rainforest to get the river we were going to camp by. We got to the area where the BaAka decided we should camp. It was literally just jungle everywhere. I was not sure how this was going to work out with the tents we brought. One of the BaAka started hacking at the plants with his machete to clear off some area. He was very good at it. I took my machete and gave it a try for awhile and it was quite tiring work. In about 15 minutes we had cleared off enough area for our tent and space to start a fire. Eventually more people started showing up and doing more clearing.

My sister’s workers had the tents that they used in forest. However when the women showed up they immediately start building traditional BaAka houses. The frames are made from small trees. Two trees are placed across from each other in the ground and the tops bent together and tied in the middle. This process is repeated to make an igloo like structure. Big leaves are used to fill in the gaps and line the floor. After starting to build several structures, the women eventually settled on making one big structure using one of our tarps as a roof.

Wonga one of the older BaAka headed off into the woods for a bit an came back with a bunch of trees. He started hacking at them with this machete very quickly assembled a bench for us to sit on.

I asked my sister to ask Wonga if he could show me how to build a simple chair. We headed off into the jungle to gather wood. By the quantity of wood we were gathering I quickly surmised that this not going to be a simple stool like I had intended. When we got back he went to work and before long he had constructed a full size chair with a back and arm rests.

That night we were sitting around in the dark. I start looking at the ground and started see little lights everywhere. At first I thought it was those little bright spots you see right before you faint. No that wasn’t it. Then my mind settled on the fact that the ground was glowing. After a few more seconds of thinking I was losing my mind I realized that it was some of the roots or vines were glowing. It turns out that the roots and vines have a phosphorescent property when the bark is rubbed off. Another trippy thing going on in the jungle at night is fireflies. Even if the sky is a bit bright from the moon every thing around you is still very dark from the dense foliage. Except for these occasionally specks of light darting around in the dense jungle

The next day we were going to go hunting with the BaAka. They can not afford guns and prefer to use traditional net hunting. This works by stringing up a series of nets together then trying to flush animals into the nets by walking through the jungle making lots of noise. For reasons I still do not fully understand they are not allowed to use nylon or other non natural material. They have to make there nets by hand making there own rope from jungle plants, which is a very time consuming process.

All the adults except the cook went out hunting. I have mentioned this before but the BaAka can move through the dense forest with incredible ease. They are not hacking through things with machetes. After playing around with my machete I quickly realized why. It takes a lot of energy to clear a path through the jungle and it is much easier to just move around things. We went through the jungle a much faster pace than I would walk down a street in Boulder. There would be no way I could spot animal tracks or look out snakes at that speed. I felt especially clumsy when I noticed that one of the women was not wearing shoes, had basket hanging off her head, carrying a baby, and carrying a hunting net. She moved like all the thorny vines were just not there.

After a couple of hours my sister had to leave to go back to town to do some work and would not be coming back. So now I was walking around the jungle with a bunch people I could not speak with. I just followed one of the guys around for the next few hours. After 6 hours of hunting nothing had been caught. Several things had gotten away. At this point the younger guys and I headed back. Maybe they were just trying to get rid of me. They do seem to be a bit superstitious. At one point after hunting for awhile and not catching anything a lot arguing starting going on. According to my sister they had decided that since one of the guys wives was newly pregnant that was reason nothing was being caught. Thus he was no longer allowed to set the nets.

Latter day the rest of the hunters came back and they had some success. They caught a blue duiker (my siseter’s research subject, a small deer like creature) a small bird, and a Gabon Viper (one of the more deadly snakes in Africa). The duiker was the dinner for the evening and breakfast the next day along with some gozo.

My time alone with the BaAka was working out alright not to many problems. However a couple of hours after dark, Moley ( the BaAka that walked my sister back to town that morning) came back to camp. He walked up to me said hello and showed me his face. It had a fair amount of blood covering one side. He apparently had gotten into a fight and had a big and inch and half long cut on his eyelid. I was the only one with medical supplies, so I put on some gloves and irrigated this cut with a syringe and closed it with some butterfly bandages. I was pretty sure it needed stitches, and I had a suture kit with me. However, I decided that since we could get him to a nurse within an hour or two I should hold off. I did not quite think my first time doing stitches should be on someone’s eyelid at night in the jungle using a headlamp. I probably would wound up with another one eyed friend. I did my best to try and convince the BaAka that he should go back and see a doctor that night. For reasons I still don’t understand they wanted to wait till morning. In the end Moley eventually went to the local nurse and got some stitches

Later that evening after that drama had subsided, the BaAka performed traditional forest spirit dance for me. The guys were playing drums on various things with one guy was banging on a machete stuck in the ground. The women were clapping and singing. The music they perform is quite deferent from anything else. It is very hard to describe. Simply put it sounds like nobody is on beat, but then they occasionally sinc up. The BaAka believe in forest sprits and the song involves someone playing the part of the spirit. The music went on for 40 minutes. At the beginning I would occasionally hear something rustling around in the jungle behind me. It was slowly getting louder and closer. Then the spirit started occasionally yelling and shaking the trees. Eventually he was right behind us, but there were no lights so you couldn’t really see much. Finally he was dancing right in front of us. It was hard to see much but the spirit was covered in leaves and had the phosphorescent roots smeared on his body. That was the culmination of the dance and after that everything went silent.

The next day we woke up had some more duiker for breakfast, then broke camp and headed out.

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Carolyn and Baby GrantCarolyn and Baby Grant
Carolyn and Baby Grant

He is named after her boyfriend

7th August 2009

Thank You ~
John, These photos and your stories are rich and thoughtful. thank you for sharing the details - I'm not sure I could've slept knowing about the poisinous cobras. YIKES!!!! Did you eat it, ps? ...like chicken? I didn't hear the "cut eye" story last night but that did happen on the LOST episode I watched. SMart move to outsource the stitches... What a trip, John. Thanks for sharing...
26th September 2009

Great blog!! If you like, come back and visit mine: albumdeestampillas blogspot com Thanks, Pablo from Argentina

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