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From Jersey to the jungle

The circle of low, leaf-covered, beehive-shaped homes deep in the Dzanga-Sangha forest of south-western Central African Republic (CAR) has been quiet all day. But now, as the community of Ba’aka pygmies return from their daily hunt, voices echo through the encampment and fires are stoked, sending wisps of smoke up into the canopy.

Agati, a pygmy woman in her 20s, drops a small forest antelope onto the ground from her bare shoulders. She grabs a cleaver and sets about butchering the animal with powerful, muscled arms. She has also brought home a live tortoise from the hunt: threading twine between its shell and body, she passes it to a small boy to hang on a tree, where it will remain until she is ready to prepare it for her family.

Agati’s husband steps into the clearing. At six feet tall, he towers over his diminutive fellow tribespeople. Aged 61 in a community where the life expectancy is a mere 40, he is a respected elder: a pygmy chief, according to some. He wears yellow Crocs, a wristwatch and a thin moustache, and bears a passing resemblance to Salvador Dalí – but none whatsoever to anyone else in the Ba’aka community.

There is a good reason for this. Louis Sarno is from New Jersey.

Louis looks on while Agati prepares a meal

He has lived with the Ba’aka pygmies in the remote south-west of CAR for 30 years. The Ba’aka typically move between forest and village and Louis moves with them between encampments in the Dzanga-Sangha forest and the village of Yandoumbe, on the forest’s edge. The nearest place to Yandoumbe of any significance is the tiny village of Bayanga, and beyond that there is nothing but forest for miles.

There are a few other expats kicking around – the World Wildlife Fund has a small office in Bayanga – but unlike Louis, they will all return to their “real” homes in due course. Home for Louis is here, with the Ba’aka. He speaks their language, Yaka, as well as Sango, the lingua franca of CAR. He holds both US and CAR passports.

The Ba’aka and other pygmy tribes have lived a hunter-gatherer existence in harmony with nature for millennia. Their world is defined by forests, not nations: their communities are scattered across nine African countries, an area of 178 million hectares. The first ever survey of their population, released in January 2016, puts it at 920,000: their way of life is under threat and that number is likely to be falling.

Nothing in Louis’s early life pointed to him ending up here. The son of second-generation Italian immigrants, he grew up hopping fences and playing hide and seek in his suburban neighbourhood. After gaining a degree in English at Rutgers University, he went on to the University of Iowa where he studied comparative literature and met and married Dutch-American Wanda Boeke. The couple moved to Amsterdam, where Louis picked up odd jobs. “In the ’70s and ’80s I was writing science fiction. Africa was not even on the horizon!” he exclaims with a laugh.

Ba’aka children play in a clearing in the forest

Ba’aka children play in a clearing in the forest

When the lease on their flat expired in 1984, Louis left his wife with friends in Scotland and returned to Amsterdam to find and set up a new place for them. Pottering away on his first night in the empty new flat, his attention was suddenly caught by a programme on the radio. He listened, hypnotised by the extraordinary music of the Ba’aka.

The moment changed his life forever. “I had grown up with classical music, but there was something about the Ba’aka music… It was as if it was reminding me of something that I just can’t put my finger on. Like maybe in a former life I was in Africa. Not that I believe in former lives,” he adds quickly – Louis is nothing if not rational. “But it was a weird thing I started to feel.” Shortly afterwards he and Wanda split up and – armed with only a tape recorder and lots of batteries – he set out to find the pygmies.

It wasn’t easy. War in Sudan and uncooperative Congolese officials thwarted his first two attempts to get to Ituri Province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Undeterred, the penniless, single-minded young traveller saved up and on his third try headed for the airport nearest the rainforest: Bangui, CAR’s capital.

After an arduous 15-hour journey by bus from Bangui, Sarno arrived at the settlement of Amapolo, the Ba’aka’s home when not in the forest. He was bitterly disappointed. Nothing was as he had imagined.  Not only were the Ba’aka not as short as he expected, but they also seemed interested in nothing but cigarettes and moonshine. Not even the music – performed perfunctorily at his request – lived up to the recordings which had drawn him here.

The Ba’aka’s world is defined by forests, not nations: their communities are scattered across nine African countries, an area of 178 million hectares”

But he persisted, unwilling to leave before he’d heard the true Ba’aka sound, sleeping rough on the ground after his money ran out. Slowly, the Ba’aka began to treat him as a friend. Finally they invited him deep into the forest and at last he heard the music he’d come for. It was more than he had ever dreamed of.

The forest encampment is encircled with dots of light from the campfires which stand in front of each family’s home. Louis’s wife Agati puts down a large pot of blue duiker antelope stew for everyone to share.

As night draws in the campfires are extinguished one by one. There’s a full moon, but little light filters through the dense canopy high above us. A few idle beats, drummed on plastic water containers and an isolated vocal refrain, a warbling cry from deep in the forest, disappear into the darkness. And then a single female voice rips through the night in an astonishing multi-octave yodel, an otherworldly, heart-stopping polyphonic cascade.

Ba’aka music is considered the world’s most sophisticated, its polyphony and rhythms far more complex than that of Western music”

The music grows, the drumming purposeful and insistent; a chorus of women’s voices form a mosaic of harmonies. The undergrowth rustles, branches snap and Bobee, a “spirit creature” covered in leaves, emerges from the forest, jumping wildly, kept in check only by the cluster of men who whip at its legs with thin switches. A symphony of sound builds deep into the night, until at last Bobee offers his benediction for the next day’s hunt.

Ba’aka music is considered the world’s most sophisticated, its polyphony and rhythms far more complex than that of Western music. Culturally, music is also of particular importance to the Ba’aka, featuring not only in their many ceremonies – including the hunting ceremony I witnessed – but also in their daily lives, while foraging and even bathing. It was impossible to believe the multi-layered music was made by only 40 female voices and four men drumming on plastic barrels.  I had never heard anything like it before. It was magical.

(Audio recorded by Susan Schulman)

It was what brought Louis here at first, and what kept him here. He barely noticed the cultural chasm between himself and his new community. “It was like I was floating on some other level because of the music,” he recalls, “and the people making it seemed to me to be the most fantastic people.”

Spellbound, Louis stayed on. He spent his days deep in the jungle, recording the sounds of a forest bursting with life, and his evenings recording the mesmerising music of the Ba’aka, witnessing ceremonies no outsider had ever seen. He learned the language and before long fell head over heels in love with a Ba’aka woman.

That relationship didn’t last but his love for the Ba’aka, the music and the forest deepened. He married again, adopting his wife’s son Samedi, now 18, and his younger brother Youma. When that marriage broke up, Louis was on his own until he got together with Agati and adopted her six-year-old son, Tutu, four years ago. Louis worries about his children constantly.

Death is never far away for the Ba’aka, few of whom live past 40. None of the adults who were Louis’s friends when he first arrived are still alive. “Lots of illnesses grab the children here; a lot of them die,” explains Badangba, shaking her head sadly as her small grandchild sits in her lap. “There is a lot of sadness for mothers, as their arms are empty and they don’t know what to do.”

A group of Ba’aka women join together in song

A group of Ba’aka women
join together in song

“Fifty percent of the children here don’t make it to five,” says Louis. “If I was gone a for year, I’d be scared to come back, scared of who would have died.” TB is approaching crisis level, Hepatitis B and malaria are endemic and snake bites and any number of tropical diseases all take their toll, but for the Ba’aka, sorcery is the ultimate culprit. “Things here are so strange sometimes, I tell you. I have been here during some dark periods where I almost started getting sucked into this belief in sorcery,” Louis confesses.

It is night. A battery-powered lantern illuminates the interior of Louis’s “house”. A small plastic orange box glows in the light. An older man comes and sits outside and he and Louis talk in Yaka. Louis opens the box. It is  filled with medicines. He rummages through and hands the man a blister pack of malaria tablets.

With the nearest trained medical professional 120 kilometres away, Louis has, without a day of professional training, become the de facto doctor to the community. Supplied with medicines by MEDEOR, a German NGO, he diagnoses illnesses and dispenses drugs, countering the stubborn belief in sorcery and reliance on traditional medicine with results. It is not a job he wants to be doing. “The burden of being diagnostician and doctor keeps me up at night,” he acknowledges. “And, if someone dies, you can be blamed.” Being blamed for a death can lead to accusations of sorcery, which can have serious consequences.

Illness hasn’t spared Louis himself. Much of the time he has spent abroad in the past three decades has been for medical emergencies, including bouts of malaria, typhoid, leprosy and loa loa filariasis, a skin and eye disease caused by a worm. While tropical medicine specialists in London and New York have delighted in the opportunity to see rare exotic tropical illnesses up close – and have happily waived Louis’s bill in exchange for letting their students examine him – illness has taken a severe toll on Louis’s health, which is fragile as a result.

Over the years, Louis has amassed the world’s largest collection of recordings of Ba’aka music, soundscapes of Ba’aka rituals and hunting expeditions and of the virgin Dzanga-Sangha forest. His archive is housed at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. It is an important and unique record of pygmy culture and perhaps the last of its kind as the Ba’aka struggle to survive in a greatly changed world.

But Louis no longer makes recordings. Thirty years ago, the forest used to be full of life. Monkeys scampered high in the canopy, while animals from antelopes to elephants filled the woods. Ceremonies were daily and magnificent. Now, however, logging and poaching have severely depleted the forest, leaving the Ba’aka’s way of life hanging in the balance. The forest is quiet. “It makes me sad,” Louis says quietly. “I don’t have the heart to record.”

In 1987-1988, the government of CAR, with cooperation from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), declared this area the preserve of the Ba’aka. Only the Ba’aka are allowed to hunt here, and only using their traditional nets and spears. Further protection came in 2012, when UNESCO listed the forest as a world heritage site. “But it’s a joke,” Louis exclaims angrily. “It is filled with guns and snares.”

A Ba’aka hunter poses with his wooden spear

A Ba’aka hunter poses with his wooden spear

There are poachers everywhere. One day three of them enter the camp after most of the Ba’aka have disappeared into the jungle for the day’s hunt, leaving behind only Louis, who doesn’t hunt, a small group of women and a gaggle of lively pint-sized children. The poachers are carrying rifles and have knives strapped to their belts. One of the men carries a frame on his back, from which a jumble of small animal heads protrude. The Ba’aka women watch in silence as the men unwrap the frame: seven blue duikers and one monkey tumble out. The men lop off the monkey’s head and toss it into a pot of water to cook. As it boils, the men sit aloof, staring at the Ba’aka as if they were animals.

The poachers hunt at night, using torches to stun animals and shoot them as they stand paralysed in the light. The nets and spears of the Ba’aka cannot compete. The blue duiker, the staple food of the Ba’aka, is being wiped out. Without it, they cannot survive. “Hunting with guns and snares is the biggest threat to the Ba’aka way of life,” observes Louis. “When they go into the forest they often come back empty-handed.” Louis says he has been trying hard to get the WWF to act effectively against poachers. He is frustrated. “The WWF consider the Sangha forest one of their success stories. I wouldn’t like to see their failures,” he remarks, acidly.

UNESCO listed the forest as a world heritage site. ‘But it’s a joke,’ Louis exclaims angrily. ‘It is filled with guns and snares.’”

The Ba’aka are having to look more and more at life outside the forest, and the young are at the sharp end of the change. There are vanishingly few opportunities for them. As the wildlife on which a forest existence depends becomes increasingly depleted, so does the appeal of the traditional life. But village life also holds little promise. The local schoolteacher shows up only sporadically, drunk and mean. The only occasional work available is from Bantu tribespeople who offer the paltry sum of $1 for five days hunting in the bush but often fail to pay. The young Ba’aka are floundering and have started taking refuge in glue-sniffing and Tramadol, a powerful opiate-based analgesic available in nearby Bayanga town.

Parents are extremely concerned. “It is really bad for them to be sniffing glue and taking drugs,” explains Agati’s mother Malala. “If they keep on doing that, they become lazy and then they won’t go into the forest any more.” Not going to the forest would mark the end of the traditional Ba’aka way of life.

At the Pan-African music festival in Brazzaville, Congo, in 2007 all the performers were put up in hotels. All, that is, apart from the Ba’aka pygmies, who were housed in a tent in the city’s zoo where curious tourists snapped pictures of them. It was an obscene replay of the scene at the Bronx Zoo a century earlier in 1906, where pygmy Ota Benga was put on display in a cage alongside monkeys for the amusement of the public.

The Ba’aka have always been seen as inferior and even sub-human by the dominant local populations. Historically, they were owned by the Bantu, their entire population enslaved. While this explicit slavery has largely broken down in recent years, the Ba’aka remain the lowest of the low on the social hierarchy, invariably exploited, discriminated against and marginalised. As they are forced to look outside the forest for their livelihood, this prejudice becomes an increasingly grave impediment.

In 2010, a film was made based on Louis’s life with the Ba’aka. Oka! was directed by Lavinia Currier and co-written by Currier and Louis. It provided the penniless Louis with a windfall. At last he had the means to provide a secure, safe place for the Ba’aka. He bought land on the edge of the forest and created a village for them.

Armed poachers regularly enter the camps of the Ba’aka

Armed poachers regularly enter the camps of the Ba’aka

It was to be a place that was their own, where they would be free from the habitual abuse they suffer from the Bantu, and where they could learn a bit more about the modern world. Before long, Yandoumbe had 400 residents. But the experiment hasn’t really worked out as Louis had hoped. “The Ba’aka are their own worst enemy,” he exclaims in exasperation. He bought the land so they could be out from under the thumb of the Bantu but they just started to sell the land – back to the Bantu. Now, they complain about the Bantu presence. “They will just end up being serfs of the Bantu again,” says Louis.

Then, in late 2012, a cataclysmic event occurred. An army of rebels, mostly Muslims from the marginalised north of CAR who called themselves “Séléka” (“coalition” in their native Sango), joined by soldiers from neighbouring Chad and Sudan, gained control over large parts of the north and east of the country. In March 2013, they toppled President François Bozizé and assumed power in the mainly Christian country, which descended into two years of horrific, savage violence, often enacted along sectarian lines.

This wasn’t the first coup d’état or bout of political instability to convulse the country since Louis had arrived. Normally, by the time a crisis reached his remote corner of CAR, it had run out of steam. But this time was different. The deposed president had a country house nearby, just down the Sangha river. The buzz of the motorboat carrying Bozizé as he fled the country had barely died down when the Séléka rebels arrived en masse.

The local WWF expats evacuated the area, but Louis retreated with his Ba’aka community into the nearby forest, confident that the drama would fade soon enough.

It didn’t. Word came from his friend Chamekh, a shopkeeper in Bayanga, urging him to leave the country immediately. His name was on a Séléka hit list. Rumours had reached Séléka that Louis held the secret of where to find red mercury, a mythical, kryptonite-like substance of theoretically incomparable value. They were threatening to take the Ba’aka hostage if he didn’t tell them where it was. Out of options, and heartbroken to leave his family, he slipped away downriver into neighbouring Congo.

Louis spent three anxious months in New Jersey, “a refugee in [his] own country”. Erratic phone calls with Chamekh conveyed ever-worsening news. Only when Séléka massacred 26 elephants in the forest clearing of Sangha Bai in May 2013, did the world take note. “Séléka had already killed scores of people but when it’s people, no one cares,” Louis remarks bitterly. “When it’s elephants, all of a sudden they’re up in arms.”

The path was cleared for Louis’s return. An Israeli conservation group run by Nir Kalron, a former Israeli commando who is now the CEO of Maisha Consulting, a security company in Tel Aviv that specialises in wildlife protection, gathered a team of former Israeli soldiers and travelled to the area. Louis met them in Cameroon and together they headed back. Louis returned to find his house trashed and looted. His irreplaceable collection of the countless “notes” – scribbles of a pre-literate people – that the Ba’aka had scratched on bits of bark over the years were gone, lost forever.

I wouldn’t trade this life for anything. Thanks to the Ba’aka, my life has had some kind of meaning. They woke me up out of a trance”

The local Séléka soldiers had terrorised the community but the anti-Balaka Christian militias who followed were even worse. One group arrived in Bayanga with the severed head of a Muslim. They boiled it up in the village square and drank the soup to prove they were the real anti-Balaka, invulnerable and in possession of supernatural abilities.

The Muslim community of Bayanga had always lived peacefully with their Christian neighbours and intermarriage was common. Now they fled for their lives, crowding into boats which joined the sad procession of overflowing vessels coming from further north, all filled with Muslims travelling south to safety in Cameroon, where they remain today in vast refugee camps.

The events have changed the area forever. “Bayanga is not a nice place any more,” Louis observes. “There are people here now who have killed people.” And there are more guns here now. The community remains on edge, fearing a resumption of the violence. The war has piled yet more pressure on the Ba’aka way of life. More guns lead to more poaching, and logging contracts hastily issued in the early days of the transitional government threaten to further deplete the forests on which the Ba’aka rely. Caught on the back foot when the contracts were signed, the WWF is now trying to challenge them but, 16 months later, it is uncertain whether they will succeed.

Louis’s wood-plank house is the biggest in Yandoumbe village. Its exterior walls are gloriously decorated with impromptu chalk drawings: a descending line of closely spaced numerals; a snake-like design writhing up the side.

I sit down to wait on the concrete terrace on the front of the house, in the company of a small group of Ba’aka men who have given me a warm welcome. As friendly as everyone is, it feels listless and downbeat, depressing even. It is a complete contrast to the lively vibrancy of the forest camp. Louis arrives and goes inside, where he unlocks the door to his study. Books and papers cover the surfaces. Louis raises money through donations and pays the school fees for all the children here, which come to an annual total of 159,000 francs (£193).

“When I first came here, something spoke to me, not déjà vu, but like a memory of the life I would be having,” he muses as he runs his finger down his neatly handwritten records, which note the name of each child. “I never really found ‘it’ and here I am near the end of my life and then I started thinking, maybe this life is what ‘it’ is.”

I ask him where the Ba’aka will be in ten years. “If the WWF does its job well and works on anti-poaching, and if the rights of the Ba’aka are respected, it will look like this,” he says. “But if it goes like it is going now, Yandoumbe will be swamped by Bantu and the Ba’aka won’t be going into the forest any more. They will become like serfs to the Bantu again and lose their humanity.”

He looks up – a young woman in need of medical attention has come in. After a short conversation, Louis writes something on a piece of paper and hands it to her. She listens intently as he explains and, paper in hand, leaves. We hear a raised voice outside. A Bantu has arrived and is confronting a young Ba’aka boy, accusing him of having stolen a tiny sum of money. As Louis steps outside to mediate the dispute, he turns back to me. “But I would never trade this life for anything,” he says. “Thanks to the Ba’aka, my life has had some kind of meaning, some purpose. They woke me up out of a trance.”

We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #22 of Delayed Gratification

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