A Reporter At Large (The Ituri Forest), Page 2
New Yorker, February 6, 1984
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I had a small, cheap steel-stringed guitar, made in Korea, with a black vinyl case. I knew from the Amazon that a guitar is useful not only for breaking the ice with people who have never seen anybody like you before but for killing time. My valuables were in a side bag: a Nikkormat camera with a macro lens for close studies of butterflies and flowers; a small Sony tape recorder; a small pair of six-power Nikon binoculars; a money belt with my passport, traveller's checks, and return air ticket; and, wrapped in a white plastic bag, a brick of one thousand crisp, newly minted ten-zaire notes that I had bought at the parallel rate in Kinshasa, the capital. The bills were large and green, with images of earnest, bespectacled President Mobutu, a springing leopard, and a sinuous black hand holding a torch, and with a warning: "LE CONTREFACTEUR EST PUNI DE SERVITUDE PENALE." I felt nervous carrying so much money, but I would need it later on to get around the country and back to Kinshasa. I had also brought a large folding knife, such as the longhaired carpenters in my home town wear in cases on their belts. I figured I owed it to my family to have it along (although I should point out that, in nearly a year spent in various jungles, I have yet to be threatened by anything ).

The provisions and trade items were in a burlap sack. I had picked up a dozen small hand mirrors in the central market of Kinshasa. If the Ituri Forest was anything like the Amazon, they would be appreciated. So would some bags of salt, soap (a dozen bars), and cigarettes, of which I had bought a carton. The local brand was called Tumbaco and was filled with strong, unprocessed black tobacco. I smoked them until somebody a few weeks later had me exhale a lungful quickly against a sheet of paper, and the paper turned brown. I had two cans of sardines and enough rice, beans, peanuts, and plantains to last three people two days. After that, we would be dependent on hunting and gathering and on trading with the people in the forest. For cooking, I had a small aluminum pot with a lid and a detachable handle; for illumination a flashlight, a dozen candles, and several hundred matches. I had also brought a dozen plastic Ziploc bags. They didn't weigh much and always came in handy for sequestering things.

AT three o'clock the next morning -it was a Thursday-I tapped at the small wicker door of one of the huts in Opoku and whispered "Baudouin," and he came out, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. The darkness quaked with frog and insect din. A troop of black-and-white colobus monkeys-a slow-moving, leaf-eating species that fills approximately the niche howler monkeys occupy in the New World-called to each other. They sounded like several motorcycles being revved. Every minute or so, a bloodcurdling scream, as if from a woman about to be murdered, would sound in a nearby treetop. Its perpetrator was the tree hyrax-a small, edible gray mammal with a white dorsal tuft, whose family is most closely related to elephants. The BaLese (except in clans that have a taboo against eating hyrax) mark the tree in which a territorial male is calling and, returning in daylight, chop it down and find the hole to which the hyrax has retired (just as Amazonian Indians do with owl monkeys). But by the time we were under way, walking through the misty shambas behind Opoku, it was strangely quiet: the lull before dawn, when bees would begin to hum and birds to give their position.

At daybreak, we reached Ondikomvu, a suburb of Opoku, consisting of three huts, one of which was inhabited by Gamaembi and his wife, Anna. When Henry Morton Stanley passed through the Ituri Forest, almost a century earlier, on his way to rescue Emin Pasha from the fanatic followers of the Mahdi, the villages he saw consisted of "a long low wooden building. ..200, 300, or 400 feet long," in a clearing "quite a mile and a half in diameter, and the whole strewn with the relics, debris, and timber of the primeval forest." But early in this century, probably as soon as inter-village wars were stopped by the Belgians, the BaLese adopted the single-family huts that are standard in much of the Third World. Gamaembi came out of one of them, looking dapper in red shorts and a red T-shirt, with a red vinyl side bag that contained a toothbrush, a comb, and a change of clothes. He contributed some palm oil and some peanut butter that his wife had ground the night before. I had watched two barebreasted women in Opoku making mafuta, as the viscous, orange-colored palm oil is called-rhythmically mashing nuts of the oil palm, Elaeis guineensis, in a large wooden mortar; as one raised her stake, the other brought hers down. The oil palm is a native of West Africa; its oil is an ingredient of Palmolive soap and an important source of fat for the BaLese. A bottle of mafuta is worth a day's work. Baudouin put the oil, which was in a plastic bottle, and the peanut butter, which was wrapped in leaves, into the burlap sack. He wore a white shirt and a pair of long brown pants, which he stooped to roll up over his strong thighs when, soon after leaving Ondikomvu, we entered relatively undisturbed forest.

It was a world of overpowering vegetable intensity. Huge buttresses flared at the bases of ancient trees; vines streamed down in cool green galleries; ferns and air plants encrusted branches. A large butterfly, flashing creamy turquoise, rose in front of us and, after several dozen yards of erratic flight, landed in a patch of sun and let the light pour through its half-open wings. A member of one of Africa's most spectacular genera, Charaxes. A large brown moth settled on the pungent, leafstrewn floor and blended in so closely that I could see only the faint outlines of its wings, like the edges of a jigsaw puzzle. The canopy was coming to life: I could hear the huffing and groaning of hornbills flying over, and their raucous contentment as they settled in a tree. The horn bill is a large bird of the treetops which resembles the South American toucan in its behavior and appearance. During incubation, the female hornbill imprisons herself inside her hollow-tree nest by plastering the edges of the entrance hole until it is just wide enough for the male to pass food through. Africa has forty-five species; these were probably white-thighed hornbills, the most common of the four larger kinds in the Ituri Forest.

Some of the plants looked very familiar. Many of the most abundant ones, whose leaves, on long stalks, stood like pennants in the understory, were in the arrowroot family. The roofs of Opoku and Ondikomvu were thatched with it, and Gamaembi said it was called mangungu. The arrowroots are also well represented in the Amazon, as are other plant families found in Africa. The floras of the two great rain forests overlap a lot at the family level, and considerably at the genus level, and they even have a few species in common. There are also cases of convergent evolution-plants in completely different families which, in filling similar niches on different continents, have come to look alike. The cacti of the New World and the succulent euphorbs of Africa are ready examples of this type of morphological convergence (to which animals-like the hornbills and the toucans-are just as prone), while the cecropia tree of Brazil and its Zairian counterpart, the umbrella tree, Musanga cecropioides, which both have palmately cleft foliage and flourish on disturbed sites, are an example of parallel evolutionmorphological convergence between generically separate members of the same family.

The flora of the Zaire forest is less than half as rich as that of the Amazon, however. Africa and South America began to separate soon after higher plants evolved, about a hundred and twenty million years ago. Interchange was still possible through the Oligocene epoch. About twenty-five thousand years ago, Africa suffered a widespread desiccation. The forest contracted to a few small refuge areas, and it is thought that many kinds of plants were wiped out. The whole continent has no more than twenty thousand species, while the Amazon alone has between twenty-five and fifty thousand. In the higher parts of the Zaire Valley, trees form almost pure stands. But the Amazon is so diverse that you can walk for hundreds of feet from one tree and not find another like it.

"Do you have forest like this in America?" Gamaembi asked. He was in the lead, carrying my duffelbag and holding a small bow and about a dozen arrows. Baudouin was next, carrying the burlap sack by a tumpline he had made from the inner bark of a tree. I followed close behind, with my side bag and Gamaembi's and the guitar.

"No, not exactly," I said. "It isn't as thick with shrubs and vines. There aren't so many kinds of trees, and it isn't so green." 

Gamaembi's response was to turn over a leaf with a silver underside. "This is another leaf," he said.

Baudouin and Gamaembi walked with slightly bowed legs, gripping the ground with spread toes. I said I envied them that contact. "Of course, we would like to have shoes if we could afford them," Gamaembi told me, "but in the forest we prefer bare feet." He sidestepped a column of driver ants, relatives of the famous South American army ant. They were small and brown, and looked harmless enough, but they could make quick work of a nestling bird or a small injured mammal; the reputation they have for tearing down people is a Victorian exaggeration. I watched two medium-sized butterflies with long, narrow orange-and-black wings-mating acraeas-whirl up a shaft of sunlight that had pierced the canopy. Another patch of light, for some reason, reminded me of an incident in my early childhood. I could almost bring the specific place and time into focus, but at the last moment they faded into only a sensation.

After a while, we came to a smoky clearing with half a dozen domes of mangungu thatch in it. They were the smallest dwellings I had ever seen, like tropical igloos or the nests of some gregarious ground creature. I could not quite have stretched out in one. Two Efe women, squatting before a little fire that smoldered at the meeting point of three logs, got up and, without daring to look at me, bravely took my extended hand. A man and another woman came out of one of the huts. The four were a completely different physical type from the BaLese: they were shorter, of course; their skin was light copper-brown; their hair, except for bushy black brows, was in golden peppercorn tussocks; the pink lips of their large, wryly pursed mouths were thinner ("convex and uneverted," in anthropological jargon, as opposed to the "roll-out" lips of Gamaembi); and their noses were broad and flattenedso broad that the ends of their nostril wings were plumb with the centers of their eyes.

Pygmies used to be described as one of the four original races of Africa, along with the Negroes, the NiloSaharans, and the Bushmen, but by now there are so many gradients that many anthropologists question whether four geographically and biologically distinct "races" ever existed. Pygmies may have originally lived in the savannas of the Upper Nile and, according to the physical anthropologist Carleton S. Coon, may have been driven into the forest by a drought that affected both their water supply and their hunting. "Pygmy" is a Greek word. Homer mentions '&VOpES llv'Y,ucxtot, "men a cubit high," to whom overwintering cranes brought slaughter and death; later texts place these men in Africa. "Once they were in the forest," Coon writes in his book "The Origin of Races," "one or more mutations for dwarfing, which had already occurred among them outside the forest, now acquired a survival value, and natural selection soon spread this new trait through the forest populations." Both the size and the anatomy of pygmies are clearly adaptive for life in an equatorial forest. Smallness is advantageous not only because it is easier to move through the low-hanging branches of the shrub layer, and because less food, whose availability in the forest varies seasonally and from place to place, is needed but also because the ratio between surface area and body size increases as size decreases, and the smaller one is, the faster one passes off heat.

In the Ituri Forest, not only human beings but buffaloes, elephants, antelopes, and giraffids are reduced. The ratio of the pygmies' limb length to their torsos, which is the highest of any humans, is also advantageous for shedding body heat: the larger the limbs, the greater the surface area, in proportion to body mass, from which heat can be lost. The relatively small development of their bodies-pygmies tend to be fifteen per cent smaller than other Africans-has recently been found to be caused by a lack of the somatomedins, the hormones that mediate between growth hormones and organ development. This lack seems to be programmed into every pygmy, although the exact genetic mechanism by which the trait is transmitted is not known. Whether the body develops normally until a certain age, and then its development slows down or stops altogether, is not known, either. Perhaps at some point very long ago, one or, more likely, several mutations took place in the parent race of the pygmies, whoever they were (Coon suggests that they may be descended from Rhodesian man, but this is a highly speculative theory that is based on only one skull); and because these mutations were adaptive for forest people they gradually became a "trend in evolution," and ultimately a character. The evidence that such a process did indeed occur, however, is purely circumstantial. Nothing has been proved at the molecular level.

The Efe man standing before me was very muscular, like a wrestler, and his arms and legs seemed, indeed, slightly long in relation to his torso. He stood about four feet nine and, except for a rag tucked through a vine belt, he was naked. The women, who were a few inches shorter, wore similar loincloths. They had black circles of plant juice painted on their arms and legs and black lines on their faces, much as Amazon Indian women have, and their teeth were chipped to points. Two of them were old-over thirtywith wrinkled breasts sagging over their bellies. The average life span of an Efe, with infant mortality taken into account, is forty, although some live to be eighty. Twenty-six per cent die before they reach fifteen. I passed the man and each of the women cigarettes, which they took, still not looking at me even when I lighted the cigarettes for them. I took out my guitar and played them a high-stepping rag called "The St. Louis Tickle." Their reaction was guarded, but they understood that it was music. The man went to his hut and, returning with a little five-string harp, plucked a single open minor chord over and over for about a minute. I recorded it. Then I recorded the women, who, after much giggling and several false starts, broke into a haunting three-part yodel to a cross rhythm that one of them kept by slapping her thigh. "It is a song of joy," Gamaembi explained when they had stopped, "about their child being old enough to be sent to his hut for the first time after disobeying his mother." They listened intently as I played it back to them, and when it was over they looked at each other with sly, knowing smiles, burst into laughter, and slapped each other's open palms, like basketball players who have just scored. I had always thought that "giving skin" was something American blacks had invented-part of a routine that the members of a particular oppressed minority had made up to support each other. It is equally intriguing that the BaLese use the word "bad" in the approving way, and "brother" in the loosely fraternal way that some American blacks do.

WE crossed a little river called the Afalabombi. Baudouin's tumpline had frayed and was coming apart, and while he was off peeling a new one Gamaembi picked a nearby mangungu leaf, folded it into a cone, dipped it in the river, and passed it to me. The Afalabombi was an acid, relatively sterile, blackwater river, steeped to the color of tea with leaf tannins and safe to drink from. (Tropical forest rivers are of three basic kinds: whitewater, blackwater, and clearwater.) There were bilharzia parasites in the rivers near some of the larger settlements, but the Afalabombi came out of the forest, and no one lived on it. It ran clear amber in the sunlight and sooty blue in the shadows, and its reflection flickered on the undersides of the branches that overhung it. Thousands of little purple butterflies swirled over the riverbed and puddled on moist sandbars in dense groups of fifty to a hundred; this sucking up of moisture and eliminating it through the anus has been interpreted as a thermoregulatory device. One group, perhaps attracted by some chemical odor, settled on my left shoe and completely covered it. I moved my foot slightly, and the insects flew up in a blizzard of metallic lavender flakes. They were lycaenids-a large, complex family with more than a thousand species in Africa, or almost half the butterfly forms found below the Sahara. Most of the ones I was looking at were the same species, but a few with copper undersides were mixed in.  In the past few days, the first rains of the wet season had brought forth all kinds of insects. Not only lycaenids but skippers, an equally complex family of small, stout-bodied butterflies. And, at night, winged adult termites had been emerging in fantastic numbers. I had seen the same lycaenids in Opoku. Maybe they were the kind that Stanley wrote about:

We saw a cloud of moths sailing up river, which reached from the water's face to the topmost height of the forest, say 180 feet, so dense, that before it overtook us we thought that it was a fog, or, as was scarcely possible, a thick fall of lavendercoloured snow. The rate of flight was about three knots an hour. In the dead calm morning air they maintained an even flight, but the slightest breeze from the banks whirled them confusedly about, like light snow particles on a gusty day.

The females of most butterfly species, including lycaenids, can lay more than a hundred eggs in the course of their brief adulthood. In most species, however, the majority of the eggs addle or are attacked by pathogens and parasites. In some years, more of the eggs survive than usual, resulting in a banner crop of butterflies.

Gamaembi had both metal-tipped arrows and arrows with plain, sharpened shafts which had been dipped in the sap of a vine of the biologically active genus Strophanthus-a sap that paralyzes monkeys and makes them release the branches they are holding. I asked if he was a good shot, and he said, without a trace of ego, "We are all good shots." I never got to see him in action, although we ran into quite a lot of game. He carried the bow in case of attack from animals or spirits, not for hunting. Baudouin returned with a long strip of bark and wrapped it around the neck of the burlap sack, leaving a loop that he slipped over his head, and we started out again.

After several hours, we reached the top of a viewless hill. "This is where we stop and rest whenever we are here," Gamaembi informed me. He spread out a few handy mangungu leaves for me to sit on, while Baudouin tore a square from an old, khakicolored mangungu leaf, sprinkled Tumbaco and bangi on it, and rolled himself a joint. The leaf had the body of thin sheets of paper etched with tough little fibres. M angungu seemed to have a thousand and one uses.

We were sitting in a grove of hundred-and-fifty-foot strangler figs, The species, Ficus thonningii, is partial to high, well-drained sites. Each tree had started as a seed dropped by a bird in the crotch of a different species of tree which had originally occupied the site. Like wax melting down the side of a candle, the roots had descended from the seed, mingled and merged, and eventually smothered the host tree out of existence. At the same time, usually about thirty feet from the ground, a trunk had ascended from the seed and shot up for a hundred feet or so before finally branching into a crown. Gamaembi cut into a huge buttress of anastomosed fig root with the edge of an iron arrowhead, and a sticky white latex bubbled out. "Along the rivers, we line traps with the milk of this tree and bait them with seeds," he said. "Birds walk in and get stuck," He said the tree was called popo and was one of those whose inner bark the Efe and some of the older BaLese pounded into loincloths.

As we sat eating peanut butter with our fingers, Gamaembi told me how the BaLese and the Efe first met each other: "One day, an Efe wandered into one of our shambas, smelled the sweet, small bananas, ate some, and fell asleep. A villager found him and, thinking he was a chimpanzee, was about to shoot him when he saw that he was two-legged and his eyes were different. The Efe awakened and asked the villager for some more bananas to take to his wife. A few days later, he returned with some meat and honey to give to the villager. The two men became friends. The villager and his wife did not know how to have children, so the Efe made love to her, to show him how. The woman had a boy. The Efe made love to her again, and she had a girl. Now the Efe men complain that they can't have our women; we take theirs, and it was they who taught us about sex."

WHEN we started walking again, Baudouin pointed out on the edge of the path a bent-over branch with a noose on the end of it for snaring little forest antelopes. Most of them are duikers, six species of which inhabit the lturi Forest. The smallest and most abundant, the blue duiker, is not much bigger than a dachshund. There are also Bates's pygmy antelope and the water chevrotain, a diminutive relative of deer which has some affinities with pigs. Of these, the wildlife ecologist John Hart, who has spent five years in the forest, has told me, only the pygmy antelope, which frequents the edges of shambas, subsists on leaves. The rest subsist on fallen fruit, seeds, flowers, and mushrooms.

There are very few deep-forest leaf-eaters in the lturi. All the monkeys (except the colobuses), and even the forest elephants, are frugivorous. The reason for this may be that here the cost to a tree of losing its leaves is tremendous. Most of the trees are not deciduous, and because they do not flush a new set of leaves each year their foliage is heavily protected-in most cases by toxic or indigestible secondary compounds, but sometimes by thorns or prickly hairs or by sophisticated symbiotic relationships with stinging insects. A few species have evolved extra-floral nectaries, which attract fire ants; no one would want to brush against these leaves, let alone try to eat them. Life for a tree in such a forest is not easy. Many trees spend years, or even their whole lives, no more than a yard tall, waiting for a gap to open in the canopy, and at this stage they are most vulnerable. When an opening does present itself, they shoot up with amazing speed.

Gamaembi picked some white-gilled mushrooms with light-gray caps and foot-long taproots. He said they were called imamburama and were good to eat. That evening, we ate them sauteed in mafuta with rice and sardines, and they were good. We would sleep on mangungu pallets in a lean-to on the Afande River which two men from Opoku had recently built as a fishing and trapping camp. After supper, I tried one of Baudouin's joints. The bangi was very smooth and relaxing, but it wasn't conducive to clear thought, and when I got up to poke the fire back to life I discovered that it made tedious demands on motor coordination. Gamaembi didn't touch the stuff. "For me, life is already wonderful," he explained.

He and Baudouin were fascinated by the color plates in Jean Dorst and Pierre Dandelot's "Field Guide to the Larger Mammals of Africa," which we pored over with a flashlight. I wrote down the Swahili and KiLese names of the animals they recognized. I asked about leopards. Gamaembi said that a day in from the road they were quite common-especially along rivers. "We can hear him sing, cry, etre dans la folie pour rien, purr happily after killing an antelope," he said. He told me that you could hit a giant forest hog with a hundred arrows before it died, but that with a spear it only took once or twice. I asked about butterflies. The B"Lese have many names for bees, but for butterflies they use only the general Swahili word, kipepeo. "Butterflies are bad for us, because we have no use for them," Gamaembi said.

"To me, the butterfly is the insect that climbs trees and eats the leaves," Baudouin remarked.
"Butterflies are metamorphoses," Gamaembi said. "We eat the caterpillars but not the butterflies."
 

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