Reporter At Large (The Ituri Forest)
New Yorker, February 6, 1984
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|ZAIRE is a big, young,
troubled country that takes up almost a million square miles on the western
side of sub-Saharan Africa, below the bulge. Formerly called the Belgian
Congo, it is eighty times the size of Belgium, whose colony it was until
1960. For the past eighteen years, it has been ruled by one man, President
Mobutu Sese Seko, although many of its twenty-seven million people, scattered
in the densely forested Zaire (formerly Congo River Basin and on outlying
savannas, are scarcely aware of his leadership. The village of Opoku is
more or less typical of rural Zaire. (Because of the possible impact that
this publicity could have, I have given the village the name of an apparently
extinct community in the same geographic and linguistic region and have
changed some people's names.) The road it is on, deeply rutted and rarely
used by vehicles, can become impassable in the rainy season. About
the only regular motor traffic is the Land Rover belonging to the Catholic
sisters who drive up every few weeks, from a mission sixty miles to the
south, to give the lepers their sulfa pills and to dispense other medication.
Twice a year, a commerqant, or merchant, comes to Opoku in a truck and
buys the villagers' cash crops: rice,peanuts, coffee. Only once a year,
when each citoyen and each single citoyenne in Opoku who is over eighteen
must pay a head tax of six zaires (the name not only of the country and
the river but of the currency), does the fact that they live in a country
called Zaire have any real bearing. Politically, Opoku is a sous-localite
in the collectivite of Balesedese, in the zone of Mambasa, in the sous-region
of Ituri, in the region of Haut-Zaire. Geographically, Opoku is in the
Ituri Forest, in the northeastern part of the country, within two hundred
miles of Uganda and the Sudan. The northern part of the Ituri Forest, an
area of about forty thousand square miles, named for the river that drains
it, is inhabited primarily by three tribes-the BaBudu, the BaBira, and
the BaLese-totalling about two hundred and twenty-five thousand people,
and by some twenty thousand pygmies. (No one knows exactly how many pygmies
there are, because they are often on the move.) The BaBudu and the BaBira
are the descendants of Bantu people who may have arrived in the Zaire Valley
around the year 1 A.D. The BaLese are a Sudanic people who, as well as
can be determined, migrated from the savannas of Uganda or the Sudan more
than two hundred years ago. They are one of the poorest, least "developed"
tribes in Zaire. Their more assimilated and commercially oriented neighbors,
the BaBudu and the BaBira, look down on them for being dirty and uneducated
and liking the forest too much. Opoku is a BaLese village.
Pygmies live near the villages of each of the three tribes; they bring the villagers meat and honey from the forest, and help them clear and plant their shambas, or gardens, for which they are paid daily, usually with food. The pygmies' relationship with the BaLese is closer and more amiable than their relationship with the BaBira. (Their relationship with the BaBudu has never been studied.) BaLese men often take pygmy women to wife, but BaLese women refuse to marry pygmy men. The gene flow from the pygmies to the villagers is one-way; the offspring of mixed marriages don't join the pygmy community. Often a villager's metal-tipped arrows or his dog will be on permanent loan to a pygmy, in return for a cut of each kill; and a pygmy will often work for the villager for whose father his father worked. It is a longterm, practical relationship, but it is not symbiosis, because the villagers don't really need the pygmies, and the pygmies could probably survive without the BaLese, but not at their present population densities, as hunter-gatherers in the forest. They let the villagers think they are dependent, but often don't show up for weeks. Nor is it parasitism, because the villagers are not harmed by it, except maybe at the end of April, when the new crops are growing and there is a shortage of food. Perhaps the best term for it is "a communication." About three thousand pygmies are in communication with the BaLese. Although their presence in the Ituri Forest predates that of the BaLese and, perhaps, even that of the Bantu, the pygmies there have lost their language, as have all pygmies, and speak the BaLese's tonal language, in which they are known as the Efe. About a hundred and forty thousand pygmies live in Africa-in Rwanda, Gabon, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, and the People's Republic of the Congo, and in other parts of Zaire, as well as the Ituri Forest. Together, they are considered the largest group of hunter-gatherers left in the world, although some anthropologists object to that term, because the pygmies actually get most of their calories from villagers's shambas. The anthropologist Richard Wrangham has suggested that "hunter-scroungers" would be a better term. While some pygmies have begun, in recent times, to grow at least some of their own food, the Efe continue to show no interest in taking part in the agricultural revolution that most of the world underwent about twelve thousand years ago, or in changing an existence that techno logically, even for "primitive" people, is not highly developed. Of Africa's pygmies, they are probably the most tradition-bound and the least likely to be disturbed. Other pygmy habitats are being invaded by planters and lumber companies, but little is happening in this part of the Ituri Forest, and probably, with Zaire's economy at a virtual standstill except for extraction of minerals in the south, little is going to happen for a while.
In March, 1981, I visited four anthropologists who were studying the Efe and the BaLese near Opoku. I had spent some time in the Amazon, and I wanted to see how the world's second-largest continuous expanse of rain forest compared. One of the anthropologists, Robert Bailey, was an old school friend. In 1978, he had visited eleven pygmy populations in the Zaire River Basin, including the Efe. In February, 1980, he had returned, walking up the road to Opoku with a pack on his back. The Efe had slipped into the forest when they caught sight of him, as they had done before, and the BaLese had sprinted to Opoku in terror. When he reached the village, he found most of the villagers standing together and laughing at the ones who had been afraid. Bob told them, in Swahili, that there was nothing to be afraid of, that he had come to learn about them and the Efe and would be with them for two years.
Bob is easygoing and a good athlete -tall, bearded, blue-eyed. He laughed with the Efe and the villagers, danced with them, kept up with them in the forest. For the first time, they appreciated how they sounded and looked, as Bob played back their songs on a tape recorder and gave them snapshots he had taken with a Polaroid camera moments earlier. They began to trust him. The villagers helped him clear some land and build two huts on it for him and his friends, who he said would be coming soon. The huts were like the villagers' own-with plastered mud walls and roofs thatched with leaves, except that the rooms were bigger. They couldn't understand why Bob wanted such large rooms.
In July, Bob's colleague and friend, a handsome woman from Chicago named Nadine Peacock, came to Opoku; both were going for doctorates in anthropology at Harvard. In November, they were joined by two British scientists, Richard Wrangham and Elizabeth Ross. Richard had studied chimpanzees in Tanzania, and Elizabeth was an immunologist, and they had got married in May. The team was now complete. Bob and Nadine would study the Efe men and women, respectively; Richard and Elizabeth would do the same wi th the villagers. Such was the interdependence between the two societies that you could not understand either without studying both. A lot of the four anthropologists' work was sociobiological-concerning factors like nutrition, energy expenditure, time allocation, and patterns of cooperation and their effects on reproductive success in both populations. The four scientists had done anthropometry (measurement of height, weight, subcutaneous fat, and other body characteristics) and demography (data about age, residential history, kinship, birth and death rates) on twelve hundred people, and they had completed hundreds of hours of "focal samples." "We follow a person for an hour," Bob explained, "quantify what they eat, who they talk to, who they sit next to, who they fight with, who they laugh with, how much time they spend working; we observe about a hundred of their activities. It's based on primate-observation techniques." During hours of conversation-in firelight, in kerosene lamplight, at the water hole, in meditative strolls on the road, and, months later, when we had all returned to the United States, on the telephone-the four anthropologists generously shared what they had learned about the Efe and the BaLese and the natural history of the region. This article is permeated with their ideas and observations and could never have been written without them.
When he heard that I had two weeks' free time, Bob suggested that I walk southwest from Opoku through the Ituri Forest. After about a hundred miles, I would emerge on the big road to Kisangani (the city that inspired Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" and V. S. Naipaul's "A Bend in the River"), at another village, called Epini. Four days into the forest-he was allowing eleven for the whole trip -there were some small BaLese villages that no white man had been to. He said that this had to be one of the wildest parts of Africa.
One evening, he and I went to Opoku to see if anyone was interested in going with me. The older men averted their eyes. They were afraid of being alone in the forest with a strange muzungu, my friend explained. Mzungu is the Swahili word for white man. I had been hearing it a lot lately-mostly from children, who would point at me and scream it excitedly when I passed. Like the word "gringo" in Latin America, it can carry a derogatory connotation. The BaLese and the Efe are convinced, along with many other rural Zairois, that bazungu eat people. The conviction is based partly on stories that are told around a fire in the evening about brutal Arab slavers in the last century, Belgians during the colonial period, and white mercenaries during the risings of the sixties-and partly on a confusion about Holy Communion: people who eat the flesh and drink the blood of their god must be cannibals. Until several generations ago, the BaLese themselves sometimes ate parts. of enemies they had slain, and this may have enhanced their credulity.
Two of the younger, more progressive men in Opoku, who were not as scared of muzungus as their neighbors were, wanted to hear more about the trip. Their names were Baudouin and Gamaembi.
Baudouin spoke a little French-the official language of Zaire, which few BaLese and no Efe speak or understand-and Gamaembi knew it quite well, so we could communicate. They also spoke their own language, KiLese, as well as Swahili, the lingua franca of the region, neither of which I knew. Like many male Zairois born in 1955, Baudouin had been named for the King of the Belgians, who had toured the Congo that year. He had another, "authentic" name, Apabu, probably given by his father. President Mobutu, in his authenticite decree of 1972, had ordered the citizens of Zaire to stop using their European names, but Baudouin was one of many who had not got the word. He was about five feet tall, with a large head, a high, shiny forehead, and lighter skin than most of the .villagers. He thought he had pygmy blood, although his father was a Lende, from near Uganda, and his mother a Lese. He had grown up with her in her village-his father had abandoned them when he was little-and his strongest connection to Opoku was a leprotic aunt, whose claw hand I shook, reaching into an enclosure where she and two other women were gaily shelling peanuts. People liked to employ him, but they did not feel obligated to him, because he was an immigrant and not in their fungu, or clan-the patrilineal kinship group to which every Lese's allegiance is unquestioning. In many ways, he was more like a pygmy than like a villager. His best friend, Manuele, was an Efe. So was his wife. It was a mark of his low status that he didn't have a BaLese wife. His personality-the air of mischief, the spoiling for fun, the way he dissolved into laughter at the slightest provocation-was Efe, and, like the Efe, he loved marijuana. After it was introduced to the BaLese in the last century, by Arabs, they cultivated fields of bangi, as the drug is called here, but the Belgians outlawed it, and the BaLese now frown on its use, although some of the older people still smoke it, and the more politically powerful villagers, who are left alone by the police, grow it to trade to the Efe.
Baudouin had the nicest manners I had encountered in a long time. Once, as he walked beside me, with his hands clasped shyly in front of him, I tripped and he said, with a look of real distress, as if it were his fault, "Oh, pardon, monsieur."
GAMAEMBI (ex-Dieudonne-the European name, it seemed, of every third man in Zaire) was twentytwo, four inches taller than Baudouin, darker-skinned, and well built, with broad shoulders, strong arms and legs, a slim waist, and not an ounce of fat. "Gamaembi" means "the man without a chief." He was the last son of the late capita, or headman, of Opoku. One of his brothers was almost sixty, one of his sisters was married to a son of the chief of the collectivite, and some of the capitas of the villages in the forest were his relatives. Besides being well connected, he had walked to Epini a few years earlier and knew the way, so I couldn't have had a better guide. He was about to plant a peanut shamba, but when I offered to pay him five zaires a day, he decided to come. Five zaires was then officially worth about a dollar-fifty. At the "parallel" (black market) rate-the one that mattered-five zaires was worth only fifty cents, but that was still good money to Gamaembi: double what the Greek coffee planters in Digbo, twenty miles up the road, were paying. He and his half brother Kuri were raising money to open a store in Opoku. (The nearest store was in Digbo.) I made the same offer to Baudouin, and he accepted. The three of us shook hands and agreed to set out in the mornmg.
That night, I made a final inventory of my gear. For clothing, I had shorts (long pants are cumbersome in the jungle ), jogging shoes, heavy knee socks, a couple of T-shirts, a blue cap, a poncho that doubled as a ground cloth, a sweatshirt to put on at night, flannel pajamas, and bedroom slippers. I had a bottle of alcohol to rub down my arms and legs with; cuts and insect bites infect easily in the humid tropics, and alcohol not only disinfects them but reduces the urge to scratch. My medicine chest-an empty coffee can -contained Merthiolate; a course of the broad-spectrum antibiotic ampicillin; paregoric and Lomotil for diarrhea; chloroquine and primaquine for malaria; effervescent Vitamin C tablets; and gamma globulin, which offers imperfect protection against hepatitis, and a syringe to inject it with. I had already given myself a shot that was good for thirty days. Elizabeth supplied me with a handful of aspirin for "public relations," and some little white pills to be taken twice a week against African river blindness, which is transmitted by black flies. Richard lent me a lightweight sleeping bag, and Nadine told me three good sentences to know in Swahili: K wenda nzuri (Go well); Bakie nzuri (Stay well); Lala nzuri (Sleep well). I had field guides to the birds, butterflies, and large mammals of Africa, and a stack of empty notebooks. All this fit into a long brown canvas duffelbag, whose strap I put over my forehead as a tumpline, letting the bag hang behind. Once your neck muscles have got used to it, this system-which most of the people in South America, Africa, and Asia use to carry heavy loads-works better in the forest than a backpack, because your shoulders are not pinned down and it is easier to raise your arms to negotiate vines and branches.