These first few months of 2012 have been far too busy, but things are settling down so I reckon it’s time to re-start telling the stories I collected in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2010.
The stories that follow are rather different from those I’ve told so far. The first part of the journey, in Kinshasa, was over. After a week there with Save the Children, investigating the phenomenon of child witches, I took a trip with a company called Go Congo deep into the country. I flew first to Mbandaka, right on the equator, where I was met by my guide, Peter. We spent the night in a tent on the banks of the Congo river – such a huge river, you couldn’t even see the opposite bank.
The next day we drove across country to the village of Samba on the Lulonga river.
It was a pretty odd experience. Samba and the other villages I was taken too had no roads, no electricity, no services of any kind. We went from place to place in dug out canoes – pirogues – which were basically the only way to get from A to B in that part of the world. There was myself, my guide Peter, six paddle men, a cook, and one other to deal with the putting up my tent and so on. When we set off, I was sitting like Lord Muck in one of those white plastic chairs people often use in this country for patios; Peter sat behind me also in a white chair, while all the others stood and paddled. Seven black men all for the purpose of pushing one white tourist along the riverways! – I felt like a fraud. But I reminded myself of something some friends of mine who live in Nepal once said. When they first went trekking over there, they carried their own bags, and did there own work; but the locals were furious with them for taking work away…
In fact, everyone was delighted to see me. What’s he doing here? A tourist! Great! We want more of them! I was certainly the only tourist I saw in the whole week … So I reminded myself that I was good for the local economy, and tried to enjoy myself.
The trip was pretty uncomfortable in many ways. The DRC is a Lingali and French speaking country, so I was reliant on Peter, and Peter’s English was poor to say the least. Anyone who is immersed in language as I am, and who finds themselves struck dumb by being both foreign on an idiot monoglot abroad will know what I mean. It was uncomfortable, hot, sweaty and damp, there were mosquitoes everywhere. Kulu, who was doing the tents, had forgotten much of what he’d been taught so I was frequently dripped on. But hey – how often do you get to go visiting villages deep in the forest, that can only be reached by canoe? The people there saw a white person once in a blue moon, they all came thronging round wanting their picture taken to see themselves on the screen. It was fabulous – what an experience!
I should say a few words about the nature of the trip – the package, because that’s what it was. That part of the DRC has two main tribes – the Bantu and the pygmy people. The pygmies are not the very small people you sometimes see on TV documentaries, who live deep in the rain forest. The pygmies I met were slight boned, usually not so tall as the Bantu, perhaps, but certainly not much smaller than the rest of the population.
There is unfortunately, a good deal of racism from the Bantus towards the pygmies. In the villages I visited, no one had much. This was the tropics, and there seemed to be enough to eat, so long as you were happy with manioc root and manioc leaves, bananas and a few other fruits and vegetables. But no one had any money – not a penny. As such there was no economy; it was all subsistence farming. Even so, the Bantu had more. Their homes often had mud walls, roofs made of banana leaves or even corrugated iron. Often the pygmy houses were little more than shelters made of leaves and branches. Their houses were in a separate part of the village, on the outskirts, away from the centre; and they were generally looked down on by their neighbors.
My trip was an anthropological trip, as Michel, the founder and boss of Go Congo put it. The villages that we went to all had pygmies in them. My guide was a pygmy man and some of the paddle men were also pygmies. I think it was a novel experience for some of them to have a pygmy man in charge over Bantus, although I never saw any decent or arguments – everyone was very good natured. Even so, Michael had recently had to re-vamp his trip because the previous guide, a Bantu, had diverted the visits away from pygmy villages to those exclusively Bantu, were his own family and friends lived. He was determined to ensure that his trip favoured the pygmy people
And of course, I collected stories everywhere I went … So; tomorrow – The Boy With no Hands or Feet.