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Monday, June 14, 2010

Take a Pygmy with a Panga . . .

And other travel advice, from Congo.
1. Don't wander around taking too many pictures in large towns. On our stomach-churning all-day journey westward from Nyankunde, we passed villages, and old Belgian administrative posts with their abandoned but still impressive brick villas with steep clay tile roofs. Mud and thatch homes, cassava and corn, bright fabrics, ingenious little raffia containers of charcoal. Bridges, some spanning rivers turned brown by gold-mining upstream. Long stretches of nothing. Bumpy marrum, bold driving. Then we pulled into Mambasa, a major trading town, where the East-West and a North-South route intersect. And where the sense of oppression mingled with car-sickness. As we stretched waiting for our WCS colleagues to confer, we were accosted by two very agitated and aggressive immigration officials demanding some sort of tax. It took Joel's WCS co-worker about an hour to talk our passports through. Meanwhile a schizophrenic man harangued Joel about Obama, some beggars materialized asking for handouts, women stood around selling murky substances from previously-used bottles, and I sat on any available spot trying not to throw up. It was a harsh town. Prayed weakly through the hour or so there, and wondered how much of Eastern Congo has emerged from chaos into the hands of the unscrupulous.
2. Hook up with a good NGO. Wildlife Conservation Society is a remarkable organization. Efficient, dedicated, disciplined, helpful. We have been well cared for. We entered the forest soon after Mambasa, the vast Okapi reserve, which is itself the size of some small countries. Dense rain forest in all directions. WCS works with the community to define restricted agricultural zones near the roads, working to protect the environment and feed the population in a sustainable and cooperative manor. Joel is another hero, a young American in his mid-20's, immersed in an all-Congolese staff at a remote jungle station, living locally and learning language. He was a short-term missionary with us, which is how we know each other. If more young believers would spend themselves like this applying science (GIS mapping skills in this case) to both preserve the beauty of creation and make the planet sustainably live-able!
3. Believe what you read in the news. Our trip into the rainforest could have been scripted by CNN. We passed men with "bush-meat", dead monkeys tied by their tails in bundles, smoked and ready for export. We passed swathes of deforested areas, trucks of planks for lumber export, new gardens springing up. We passed bags of charcoal. The bush meat trade, the population pressure for agriculture and fuels, the foreign market for wood, all threaten this environment.
4. If you want to enjoy the World Cup played in Africa, watch it with Africans. We saw the opening match outdoors under a tarp, the TV powered by solar panels and connected by a satellite, deep in the forest, monkeys scattering and rain threatening. By the time the game was well under-way I counted 47 people watching, having collected from the WCS network and the village nearby. South Africa represents the image, the concept, the pride of the whole continent, and as 5 Americans (us and Joel) we were caught up in the energy of 42 Congolese.
5. And most importantly, when you leave the thin cleared line of the road and venture into the forest itself, take a pygmy with a panga. We hiked about 15 km in the Ituri yesterday (Friday). led by a wizened man of uncertain age who had long ago traded his bark cloth for a Puma hat and Nike tennis shoes. But he still managed to wind us through confusing footpaths, hack out vine-encrusted spaces, and point out okapi footprints, evidence of their grazing. And aardvark holes. And elephant dung. He didn't say much, but along the way Tambo managed to collecct a large mushroon "very necessary for eating" and hack off tree sap "for candles", which he exported in little leaf pouches he constructed while walking. We passed a former Bambuti (pygmy) encampment, the small branch and leaf shelters already dissolving back into the forest. Dripping glistening leaves, speckled sunlight, hidden birds, sucking mud. Trunks too large for even two people to encircle with their arms, necks craning to look up at the soaring leaf cover danced by monkeys, straining to look down for treacherous footing. Our trek ended on an "inselberg", a kind of kopje or rocky outcropping that rises here and there in the sea of the green canopy. And then we traversed the forest back again.

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