Blog 74 by Tan: Adventures With Opera Jack – Part 3

After spending the day in the village, we decided to go ahead and stay another night in order to hear some of this singing we had heard so much about. We also wanted a little more time to see Jack nicely settled. It was a brave thing for him to be doing and we had just met we wanted to make sure he would be well looked after all the way out in the forest.

Morning breaks. Funny how closely our tent resembled the traditional dwellings.

Morning chill session.

Our trail back to the logging roads.

Jack informed us the BaAka enjoyed few things more than singing…. listening to themselves singing is one of those things. Jack also told us that Louis Sarno had told him the forest people he lives with also enjoy watching his DVDs. The standout favourite film in his village is The Terminator.

Jack playing songs of Aka from Central African Republic.

Child rearing is a communal affair and as is common throughout Africa, kids play a central role.

Here you can see this young girl has had her teeth filed.

Most places in African babies are strapped to the mothers back with a fabric like this one. However the BaAka method is to strap babies to their sides – this gives the baby more face-to-face interaction with the caregiver.

We spent the afternoon just chilling and dozing in the shade in anticipation of the night’s singing festivities. The men of the village were particularly excited as they were keen to ‘get on the turps’ as we would say back home. Jugs of local spirit were purchased and shared around, but not nearly as freely as everything else we had seen shared. And it was the men who were hogging the booze and the women had to argue before getting some for themselves.

We never did figure out precisely what this was, but we had seen it eaten in many places in Central Africa. The leaves are piled together then sliced very finely. They are then boiled for a long time. The taste is something we just couldn’t get used to. It tastes extremely bitter. To me it tasted like sucking on coins.

One of this little baby’s minders. BaAka are extremely indulgent to children in infancy. Babies are held almost constantly by multiple care-givers and babies are attended to immediately if they fuss or cry. Despite this woman not being his mother or (even a current mother to another infant) she had the baby suckling at her breast. The baby didn’t get anywhere with it but it was a matter of comfort. I later discovered that anthropologists have observed in the Aka, the extremely rare practice of “male breastfeeding” where male caregivers have been recorded offering their nipples to babies needing comfort when no female caregivers were around. The BaAka have been dubbed “the world’s best fathers” as BaAka fathers are within reach of their infants 47% of the time, apparently more than fathers in any other cultural group on the planet. That is what I read on the internet anyway.

A young girl helping with meal preparation. Apparently, by 3 or 4 years of age children can cook themselves a meal on the fire, and by the age of 10 BaAka children have sufficient subsistence skills to survive in the forest alone if need be.

I cannot stress enough how important music is to the everyday life of the BaAka. This made it extra special getting the opportunity to witness their reactions to Jack singing German and French opera. Note the young fella on the left covering his eyes to better hear the music.

It is hard to imagine that they had heard anything like it until that point.

When Mick and I heard Jack sing it was arresting and we are hardly opera aficionados. The reaction of the group was fascinating. They listened with such intensity, most with eyes closed, and looks of deep contemplation on their faces. One woman’s reaction was particularly strong. When Jack’s song was finished she had the look of a person who had been underwater and just surfaced for air.

Jack would be staying with the BaAka for a couple of months and would miss Christmas. We told him to write his family a message and we would deliver it by biker post “the world’s slowest and least reliable delivery service”. We sent a photo of his note and him writing it to his mum on Christmas day. This is that photo.

Dusk settled and groups of younger people from nearby villages started showing up. It seemed the children and adolescents would be dominating proceedings. A fire was lit. And we soon came to understand what all the fuss was about. Hours of singing ensued.

Here is Jack is belting out some opera tunes.

This lady had a particularly strong reaction to his singing.

After all the concern that this group of BaAka might have lost a lot of their singing traditions with increasing exposure to the outside world, it was so lovely to see singing traditions alive and well in all the young people there that night. Most BaAka music is famed for its complexity and its polyphonic nature where several melodies are sung simultaneously. The melody and rhythm are repetitive and accompanied by polyrhythmic percussion.

More of Jack’s singing. Here is some audio to go with that.

Most of the singing was carried out by the children and youths but several adults stepped in from time to time for what seemed their general enjoyment and coaching purposes.  Here you can hear some adults singing along. 

This young fellow was deemed by everyone to be the best percussionist around. A big fuss was made when he arrived.

The night’s festivities came to a disappointing end when a protracted fight broke out. By all accounts physical violence is quite uncommon amongst the BaAka with violence against women being especially rare compared to other societies including our own. It was hard to determine the cause and what was going on with no shared language, but it appeared a young BaAka bloke from a nearby camp was making a nuisance of himself and pushed things too far. We had observed the fellow being obnoxious and pushing other guys about, getting in people’s faces and just generally appearing desperate for a reaction. Those he hassled had exercised a lot of patience by just walking off and ignoring him. But he wouldn’t quit. He was getting in their way grabbing at their clothes until someone finally had enough and went at him.

People were obviously enjoying themselves.

And the older ones in particular loved hearing their singing immediately played back to them via Jack’s recording device.  Some songs will have little variation throughout but there is a lot of improvisation involved.

The most curious thing about it all was that he was easily knocked on his backside, scarcely putting up a fight. We all thought that was that but he just kept coming back and harassing people and getting knocked down. Then it became a bigger affair with more of the blokes involved. The instigator ended up copping a sound beating. At one point a woman grabbed a big log off the fire and smacked one of the guys in the back with it sending embers flying. I assume she may have been a wife or mother trying to stop someone close to her getting involved. Totally outsized and outnumbered the guy was dragged off somewhere else where we had no idea what was going on. It was an unpleasant end to the night and I found it quite sad and confronting. Not long after that we went to bed.

Mick and I was stunned to hear such complex music coming from such young kids.

The next morning we set about packing our things and trying to gleam what had happened the night before. I couldn’t imagine we would see the instigator again and if we did he’d not be in a good way. So imagine our surprise when we see him strolling around the camp the next day. I would have thought it would be the last place he wanted to be considering the strife he went to so much effort to bring upon himself.
We did notice that Jenga the chief watched him very carefully as he went by, and that one of the kids in this camp now had his sunglasses that he seemed so proud of the previous day. They were just the lenses of sunglasses that he affixed to his face by a piece of string. But they were a material item he had that others didn’t. At least until he caused trouble and lost them as a result.

The ladies time to hang out in the communal area.

Some kind old ducks. They seemed interested in my hair, skin and clothes.

I must have been one of the biggest women they had ever seen.

As uncool as the previous night’s fight was it didn’t really have us worried for Jack and his plans to stay in the village for the next couple of months. We were by this point sure he would be treated well but suspected he would get bothered by the Bantu villagers looking to extract money, gifts and favours. Some had already come and tried to tell him that he needed to travel to a larger village and get permission from them to be there. He’d have to pay for a moto taxi to take them there…and they could arrange one for him. Hmmm.
Call us cynical but that looked a lot like an attempted extortion exercise but such is the nature of travel in Central Africa. Where poverty abounds, and corruption is endemic people will do what they can to get money from those who seem to have more than enough. Which relatively, of course, we do. After all this time in these parts it had started to play on my mind heavily. Each attempted extortion, be it a fabricated fine or an outright demand for money, I would get progressively more angry and resentful of it when it happened. Then I would have such periods of guilt for that anger and for having such wealth and security in life that I would be convinced we utterly deserve it.

But back to Jack – We were actually more concerned at how he would be able to physically hold up in the environment for that kind of time. I was worried about malaria or something waterborne and nasty not to mention skin conditions that were common in the forest environs. But he was a tough guy with a great attitude and would have people looking out for him. That is what we repeatedly told each other over the intercom after we had said our goodbyes and rode away. I had tears in my eyes and remarked how it felt if strange (if not totally wrong) to be leaving him there…even though that was the very purpose of this little trip of ours.
On the ride back we ruminated on the experiences we shared over the last few days. We were left feeling grateful for our mutual comfort of throwing plans out the window and acting with spontaneity when something and someone interesting presented itself. And Jack and his random solo quest certainly fit that bill. What a pleasure to have met him.

Here we were trying to communicate about tattoos and how they were done. Facial tattooing is common amongst the BaAka, particularly the women. I saw several ladies with lovely facial tattoos but was too shy to ask for a photo.

They were quite stunned at my tattoos.

Jenga and his son I am guessing.

We thought Jack would do well under his care.

The ladies.

The ride back to Ouesso was swift as we didn’t have to worry about breaking Jack and we knew where we were going. We were soon at the river loading the bikes and not long after that we were back and our favourite restaurant in town making up for lost meals. We’d been gone just a few days but it felt a great deal longer.

We asked if anyone wanted to get on the bike and this lady was keen.

If you look closely you can see some fine tattoos on her forehead.

We run PivotPegz footpegs which are an excellent Aussie product that I cannot recommend highly enough. At about $AUD220 a set I thought Mick was nuts to buy them. But I immediately fell in love and will never be without them. They are a wide and very sharp peg. When I put someone with barefeet on the bike I will always rest my boot on the peg and have them step on my boot and save their feet from the spikes. But this woman was so keen she beat me to it. Mick and I were shocked to see her stand barefoot on the sharp pegs like it was nothing. In this photo you can see Mick telling Jack to take his shoe off to get a sense of how tough her feet must be to have done that.

And here I am taking the big man for a spin.

He enjoyed it.

Showing one of the women how to use the camera.

So we could get a photo of our 3-man motorbike gang.

The ride out

The next day Mick serviced the bikes. Once again Mick dropped his oil and was greeted with unwelcome ‘glitter’ in the oil. He then cleaned out the oil cooler but didn’t manage to get much more metal out of it. Mick then got a long piece of hooked wire and pulled of the clutch cover off and went fishing for bits from the lunched clutch in DRC.

Before leaving Jack in the forest we recorded the GPS co-ords of the very spot he was camped. We then wrote his mum a message and left the co-ords with her. It was a small and simple act for us but we were to learn it meant a lot to her. It was a great demonstration that little gestures can mean the world to someone else. So do them at any opportunity.

Evidence of the butterfly massacre that was the ride out of the forest.

Mick could see some bits through the sump plug sitting underneath the oil which with difficulty he managed to extract. He was also able to see the sump plug thread has been damaged as a result of bits of clutch ali on the thread the last time he screwed in the plug. Not good news but that’s the way the mop flopped, he just had to be careful now on when tightening the plug.  After 3 flushings of the motor he got a fair bit of crap out of the sump and it was looking pretty good again.

With the power still out since the previous night in Oeusso, we hit the streets to escape the heat of our modest little hotel room. We returned to our favourite road side shack for dinner where we had a good feed of fried fish, plantains and rice, washed down with tolerably cool beer.

Into the belly of the beast once more

The next day saw more resting, organising and bike work. This time Mick pulled off the top of the motor and cleaned out more fine aluminium. He also pulled the stator cover off and determined it was ok in there. Mick got the bikes back together then we went to Nenophur restaurant for one last time. And just like that another day had passed in Africa.

Feasting after a few days of minimal food in the forest. Here is Mick rocking his new second-hand shirt.

Vegetables drowning in butter and grilled chicken. French African fusion.

This pic might not mean much to anyone else – but it shall be a life-long inside joke for us so must be included.

We met these lovely kids from China who were here working on the nearby big hydroelectric project. It was great chatting with them and getting their impressions of the place. They both saw working in Africa as a good opportunity for their careers but it was not without its difficulties. The young woman was a French translator. She bemoaned the corruption of the place and how the police were constantly showing up seeking money. She worried the unrelenting corruption would stop any progress being made in Congo. She pointed out that, “yes, there is corruption in China but we waited until we got richer first.” Not sure it that is exactly true but it was certainly how she felt.

Before leaving I broke Mick the inexplicably devastating news (for him) that his beloved principal riding shirt “Big Red” would not be joining us on the rest of our travels. His ride had ended. Mick’s clothing attachment issues had led to the shirt becoming outrageously indecent. Many Africans take a lot of pride in their appearance and when going out in public often dress impeccably. You can be in the middle of the jungle and find people in devastatingly white, perfectly pressed, long cotton dress shirts. And there we were in heavily worn motorcross gear. On the bright side few people asked us for money as the state of our dress deteriorated over time.

NSFW – Big Red’s last stand.

The reason we were sticking so doggedly to our clothing was that it was all expensive 100% merino wool. Merino is a wonder fabric and most of our on-the-road wardrobe (including our underwear) is made of it. The main benefit of wool is that it does not support bacteria, which is what makes you and your clothes stink. Provided your clothes are dry they can go weeks without a wash without smelling. Also, they keep you warm even if they get wet, unlike most other fabrics. This is why we didn’t want to get rid of them, as we would have to wash or cloths a lot more often in synthetic materials. But now….it just had to be done. Mick threw the shirt out, even though, as he reminded me many times since, “it still had a few more washes in it, easy.”

Mick grudging admitted its best days were behind it.

The next morning we finally set about leaving; more than a week after our planned 20 minute pit stop to the place. We packed up and said our goodbyes to the friendly Cameroonian caretaker that had looked after us. As I paid the bill I told him to keep the change thinking I was giving him a few extra dollars. Mick then informed me that no, I had given him $AUD10. It was an extravagant tip for these parts and it sent me stressing about money. Big time.

For us it is a delicate balance being conscious of spending whilst not allowing ourselves to fall into the void of stressing about money, expenditure and the real boggie man under the bed – lost income. It can become a slippery slope that sends you straight back to work and somehow into the arms of a gigantic mortgage and the feeling that you are safe and doing it all right.

Attempting to get fuel – hours and hours of getting nowhere in stifling heat and humidity.

My money thoughts were promptly high-jacked when we rolled up to the petrol station. It was mayhem and we quickly learned the reason was that the town had been without fuel for 3 days. The station had just started up again when we arrived. We waited and waited while the lines got bigger and more chaotic. We learnt some people had been camped at the station for days waiting. After 2 hours of the futility of lining up was painfully apparent. There was no order and most frustratingly the bowser operators were prioritising filling up the black marketers first who would give them a cutback and then take two steps from the bowser where they were trying to get double the price out of people. Annoyed with the whole state of affairs and sweltering in the heat I decided to go into the air-conditioned servo-shop and get some drinks and snacks.

Amongst the scrum at the bowser you can see the black market fuel sellers pushing in then creating more congestion and shamelessly selling the fuel at a remarkable price.

Inside waiting was a Chinese man who I got chatting to as I wasn’t one to miss the opportunity to practice my Mandarin. I found out that he was an engineer living in Ouesso with his father and brother and together they ran a construction firm. He said he didn’t mind it here, saying it was a good place to do business and that “China has just too many people.”

It turns out he was from Nanjing, a city near to where I had spent several years. After a nice chat I told him I had to return to the bikes and wait for a chance to get fuel. As I went to leave he became very thoughtful and said to me in a serious tone “because you speak my language, I feel that I must help you.” Then before I knew it he had ordered one of his workers to fill our bikes up with fuel from their black market stash. I told him it was not necessary but he was so serious that he ‘must’ help us. Afterward we tried to get him to take some money but he refused. He said the fuel was from the company and it is fine. I said, “but what about your boss”. To which he said “I am the boss”. In this part of Congo, 60L of fuel costs a not so small fortune. We were just stunned. Perhaps as the Cameroonian caretaker had been, but while my generosity (the extent of it at least) was inadvertent, this guys was not.

Our knight in shining armour.

We couldn’t get over his generosity.  Especially as it saved us more hours waiting in the sun.

Mick enjoying pointing out that he took me to Paris. Wrong Paris.

So half the day was over by the time we were fuelled and moving which made a border crossing unlikely for that day. On the bright side Mick had succeeded in getting his bike to run a bit cooler than before. But it was still outside the realms of the norm and running a few degrees hotter than mine.   We ended up making 275km for the day before finding a nice little auberge for the night in Souanke.

Tomorrow a new country awaited us.


Blog 74 by Tan: Adventures With Opera Jack – Part 2

The next morning we rode the short distance to the BaAka settlement and met Jenga, the village chief once more. As Jack had informed us the BaAka are considered by anthropologists to be one of the most egalitarian societies ever studied and considerably more so than our own western cultures. Sharing, cooperation, and autonomy are front and centre of BaAka core values.

More signs of malnutrition in these kids. Sad.

Quite a different look to the nearby Bantu village.

The dwellings were more rudimentary and easily assembled and disassembled when it came time to move on.

Having a designated chief is a relatively recent development and one thrust on them by the outside Bantu tribes. Formerly decisions were reached by consensus and there wasn’t an individual leader as such. However as the Bantu tribes came to dominate the BaAka group, Bantu traditions of having a single authority figure to serve as the point of contact have became the norm. Jenga, as chief, was the only member of the tribe with closed in shoes and corrugated iron on his hut. It was he who dealt with the neighbouring chief, but by no means was he on equal footing.

The BaAka camp was starkly different from the Bantu camp. The most obvious difference could be seen in the look of the children, who here showed greater signs of ill health I am sad to say.

Jack handing over the gifts he bought for the village who’d be putting him up for the next two months or so.

Mick and I also handed over some bits and bobs we carry as gifts like razor blades, needle and thread (always a big crowd pleaser) and lighters or matches.

Local Bantu bloke helping himself to the BaAka gifted cigarettes.

The first thing we did when we arrived was to present the gifts Jack had bought for everyone. Mick and I also handed over a few things to the Jenga. These would later be shared out between everyone. One of the ways the BaAka maintain their egalitarianism is through the practice demand sharing. This basically means that whatever someone has will be given up if requested by others. The idea of one person owning a fork to the exclusion of others even when it is not in use is something rather foreign to these guys. Whilst it does a lot to maintain the egalitarian nature of their society it is one of the reasons that the BaAka haven’t taken up farming with great enthusiasm. Demand sharing serves as a disincentive to invest the time and effort in crop cultivation when, come harvest time, everything is given away when relatives, friends and neighbours some calling.

The BaAka recognised the necklace given to Jack by some Aka from Central African Republic.

During all of this gift giving there was a young Bantu guy with us. He was there with us ostensibly to help translate as he spoke French and the BaAka language. But it seemed a lot more like he was there spying on what the BaAka were being given by Jack….stuff that they could later bully from them. We were really suss on the guy and took an instant dislike to him. Perhaps we were wrong but we picked up on unspoken tension between him and the BaAka and also noticed him skulking on his own around the BaAka village looking like he was up to no good.

After the gift giving we all went on a tour of Jack’s new home. We were taken on a walk to where he would be getting his water and where he would be doing his bathing. It sure was going to be an experience for him.

On a tour of the village. Here you get a sense of the small stature of the Forest People.

A bit of a walk to get to the water hole.

And there it is. Where Jack would be sourcing his drinking water. We were glad he had a filter with him.

These guys were really keen on a photo of them drinking water. They got me to take a couple.

We also met some more members of the village. These villagers recognised Jack’s Aka necklace from the Central African Republic and Jack explained it was a gift from when he met Louis Sarno. The BaAka, who refer to Louis as “Lu-yay” were overjoyed at the mention of his name. They recalled Louis from the visit to the village 5 years earlier. It was impossible to forget a big white guy speaking their language. Jack’s association with Louis made him all the more welcome and one older woman in particular immediately took to Jack. We soon referred to her as Jack’s BaAka mum and with him placed snuggly under her wing we knew he was going to be A-OK here.

Here we are on our way to the bathing spot.

At the dark shallow pool where Jack was told he could bathe.

These guys know the forest.

On his necklace was two pink plastic turtles.

While hanging around the village we were introduced to some of the hunting tools of the trade. The snares were pretty interesting but the big-ticket item was the hunting nets. The nets are all hand-woven and forest derived, 15-20m long and about a meter high. We were jealous to know that Jack would no doubt go net hunting with everyone over the coming weeks.

Jenga with one of their snares.

Me with one of the snares.

Showing us how it works.

The animal most commonly captured on these net hunts are duikers, which are small (and cute) deer like animals. The blue duiker is among the most commonly hunted animal for bushmeat in the Congo basin. Interestingly back in 1925, a market for duiker skins developed in France where they were used to make coats and chamois leather. The market peaked in the 1950s when 27,000 duiker skins per year were being exported from forest areas of Central Africa. The greater demand for meat during the forced labor period of the time combined with this boom in the European market for the skins prompted the Aka to adopt net hunting over spear hunting, which was until that time the primary hunting technique.

These guys really opened up at the mention of Louis. Jack was in.

Jack meeting his BaAka mum.

The net.

Jack’s BaAka mum loving everything he does.

Love the look on this guys face.

This orientation towards net hunting greatly altered the prevailing social order. The sharing of meat became less egalitarian and the influence of the nganga (the traditional healer who directs hunting rituals on the net hunt) increased. In a net hunt duiker meat is not divided among all members, but those that were in part responsible for the kill, such as the person who spooked the duiker into the path of someone who wrestled it to the ground and to the person who ultimately stabbed it. Elephant or hog meat on the othe rhand are typically spread among the village.

Chaos theory claims the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can cause a hurricane on the other side of the world. In this case, a post-war fashion craze on the opposite side of the globe resulted in profound social change of a remote tribal group in the depths of the Congo forest. Whodda thunk it!

Some little kiddies.

This guy was such a handsome little kid. The sharp eyed may be able to make out his forehead tattoos

A motorbike toy fashioned from a thong (that’s a flipflop to any North Americans).

In a classic example of the danger of good intentions, foreign environmental groups, in their drive to protect wildlife and endangered species in the Congo have create a bad situation for the BaAka. In doing so have they have also worked against their own cause.

Some of the young men. The guy on the right is the one that makes trouble for himself later in the piece.

Here Jack’s BaAka mum is teaching him the BaAka words for parts of the body.

Due to Jack’s opera training he had a great proficiency for picking up foreign words and a great ear.

Learning the word for face. Love this photo.

Showing Jack how to light a fire.

Following instructions.

The little kid in the back of this photo had found a bit of plastic and was imitating me using the camera.

These kids enjoying the show…..possibly amused that a grown man was learning to light a fire – something they had mastered by 4 years old.

BaAka kids learn life skills very early on.

In many areas of the Congo forest the goal of protecting wildlife and natural habitats has led to Baaka being moved off their traditional lands as their millennia-old hunting practices are seen to conflict with conservation. But the fact is that no one knows the forest as well as the BaAka do and no one has a higher vested interest to protect it. Conservation is fostered through laws handed down from their ancestors. They have strict laws pertaining to sites and periods of hunting. For example, during the dry season, hunting stops as that is the period when animals give birth. And people are not permitted to set traps near waterholes where the animals go to drink. It is also strictly forbidden in BaAka to kill gorilla.

The kids had slowly become fascinated by the camera.

The boy on the right was a really happy little guy. The poor kid on the left had a massive swollen belly.

This gorgeous kid did lots of work around the camp.

Here she is looking after the new baby.

They were all extremely proud of the new baby.

As few as 1 in 2 BaAka children make it to 5 years old. This baby looked strong and healthy and loved. We hoped she’d beat the odds.

Meal prep.

The kids slowly got over their shyness with us outsiders.

The horrible irony of all of this is that in a number of places BaAka have been kicked off land for conservation reasons and that same land has been instead passed on to Bantu tribes who have no such connections to and dependence on nor qualms about shooting whatever might turn a profit. Often they pay displaced BaAka to shoot animals for them, providing them with a rifle, paying them a dollar for five day’s work or alternatively in booze. And you can guess how well all that works out.

Would you look at these bludgers!


There seemed to be a some kind of schedule of access to the shade structure. This time was the blokes time.

Everyone was taking it easy.

These two looked like brothers.

Here you can see the BaAka tradition of teeth filing. It is an obviously painful procedure that BaAka usually get done between 10 and 15 years of age. It is really down to the individual if they want it. We saw both boys and girls with filed teeth and both boys and girls without.

The practice is usually carried out with a thick stick to bite down on, hammer, chisel and plantain paste to sooth the broken teeth.

Add to this the rise of large-scale logging operations in the Congo Basin and you find many BaAka caught between two worlds, neither of which cared to stake out a place for them in it. Forest life is getting harder for many BaAka groups. The increased access to their areas and the rise of the bushmeat trade has severely depleted forest once rich in wildlife. Hunting (and therefore eating) is less assured, making traditional BaAka life untenable for many.  Others still have simply developed a preference for more modern comforts.

The adults also wanted in on seeing their image on the display.

Jenga’s wife and the mother of the new baby. This woman was incredibly hard working and we never saw her stop.

A boy with some seriously filed teeth.

Kung fu movies are incredibly popular in Africa. Somewhere along the line these guys had manged to see one…or hear about it from someone who had.

The encroaching modern world pushes them further to the brink through displacement by large-scale logging or national park establishment, forced settlement, not to mention the need to flee the violence of militia that occurs from time to time, especially in CAR and DRC. In the face of this some BaAka venture deeper into the forest trying to outrun the future, others see its already arrived and leave the forest in search of jobs. Such jobs might include working for logging companies, destroying the very forests they once called home. It is a sad state of affairs.

Part 3 to follow….

Blog 74 by Tan: Adventures With Opera Jack – Part 1

So there we were in Ouesso in the far northwest of Republic of Congo. We had no plans to stay. We were only there to get enough fuel and oil to see us across the border into Cameroon that same day. We were focused. We were determined. And then we were totally spun out to see a young white guy in a cap, walking down the street.

Smooth tar for the efficient extraction of natural resources. Wow. Cynicism from the first photo.

It really isn’t the part of the world you expect to see tourists so we couldn’t help but wonder what on Earth this guy was doing here. We figured he had to be either an NGO worker or a missionary. However before we got a chance to stop and ask, the fella was gone. It seemed a mystery that would remain unsolved. We got to the service station, filled up, bought a snack and were about to jump on the bikes when mystery young foreign bloke walks through the door.

Not far from Ouesso, our fuel stop before the border.

“We know what we are doing here, what on Earth are you doing here?”

We found out his name was Jack, from Georgia, US of A and he was in this far-flung corner of Republic of Congo for a rather awesome reason. We learned Jack was a trained opera singer on an illustrious fellowship that had him travelling the world experiencing different forms of traditional signing. He’d just spent time in the Torres Straight Islands in the north of Australia and planned to venture to Sweden to learn about the once outlawed form of singing called yoking.  Afterward he would travel to the Tuva Republic to study their traditional throat singing. Jack was in Ouesso in order to gain access to Congo’s Forest People known more commonly as Pygmies (however by all accounts they don’t like to be referred to as this). The forest people are famed(amongst those in the know) for their unique singing. The Egyptians more than 2 millennia ago wrote about the Forest People of Central Africa who they held in high esteem for their singing and dancing abilities. Figuring the Egyptians were on to something, Jack had gone to much time and effort to seek some out.

Fast friends.

We gave Jack his first proper coffee in a long while.

Jack became a big fan of Aussie coffee culture during his recent stay Down Under. But the poor fella was so deprived of proper coffee of late he didn’t seem to notice the coffee grounds had gone bitter with age.

Despite our desire to cross into Cameroon that day we couldn’t resist the temptation of a good chinwag with an interesting person, so we all decided to go to lunch.  Then all of a sudden it was 4:30pm and we were checking into the same guesthouse that Jack was staying at.

That night Jack told us of his present challenges in getting into the forest and finding a group to host and sing for him. Jack’s hurdles to this enterprise were manifold. Not only did he have to get himself to a village on no maps and somehow compel the members of said village to put him up for a couple of months, communicating though no common language; he also had to find a village with intact singing traditions, willing to sing for him. He had been in Ouesso for some time trying to get some direction on where to go and how to get there. He had a few leads but they didn’t seem to be going anywhere in the short term. And of the quotes he had gotten to try to get out to a village that may or may not welcome him was looking very expensive. He was unsure of what he should do. But he did have a name of a village that might fit the bill.

Even nomads have chores.

While Jack was sharing his difficulties in accessing villages to us, Mick and I gave each other a look that communicated very clearly the agreement that we should abandon all plans and help this guy out if we could. We told Jack that if any other vehicle could get to this place then so could our bikes. We told him that if he was up for it, we’d put him on the back of a bike and get him to where he needed going.

Bangui Motaba was the name of the settlement that Jack had been advised may suit his goals. This information was passed onto him by one of the foremost experts on the BaAka people (as the Forest people in this area are known). Louis Sarno is an American who one day heard a recording of BaAka singing and went on to track them down in Central African Republic and ended up living amongst them for more than 30 years. Louis was a committed devotee of BaAka singing traditions and his prolific recordings have made him a famed ethnomusicologist despite his lack of formal training. Sadly Louis Sarno passed away in April 2017.

General store in Ouesso.

An interesting take on the traffic cone.

Forest People are found across Central Africa, through both Congos, the Central African Republic, Rwanda and Uganda. However it is the Forest People of Congo (the BaAka group) that have been most able to preserve their identity and traditions. This is largely the result of the lack of infrastructure and development. Poor quality roads are such an obstacle to movement that they have kept at bay the ills of the modern world, but also its benefits. Education and health services are wanting at best or more commonly non-existent.

But the pristine highway that bought us north to Ouesso has gone and changed things.  Large-scale logging has arrived. And it was those logging roads that would get us to the settlement Jack sought. Bangui Motaba was only accessible by river until just a few years ago. It was with no small sense of sad irony that we would be able to visit the BaAka to hear their singing by way of the very roads hastening its demise.

The BaAka have had a hard go of things for quite some time. Such is the fate of many traditional semi nomadic groups they are easily dominated by outsiders. The Koi (ie. Kalahari bushman i.e. the fellas with the clicking language in “the Gods must be Crazy” franchise) are another example of this. They are also close relations. Small in stature, traditionally nomadic they are often pushed off their own land and denied their own resources. BaAka traditions have long been under threat but perhaps no more so than with the rise of logging. Logging has opened up access to their areas exposing it to increased hunting, migration, displacement, ready access to alcohol and just the general slow loss of tradition.

At our humble guesthouse.

Mick is still attempting to get rid of metal shards from the oil.

We had agreed to take Jack to a BaAka settlement, now we had to figure out where this place was. With the name of a village to work from and some second-hand verbal descriptions, we set about putting together a rough route map. With no maps to speak of, Michael and Jack headed for the local internet café. It was rough and ready and painfully slow, but the hope was it would be able to crank up Google Earth so they could try to pinpoint the village.

Repairing the collapsed oil filter so we had a back up to the new paper filter.

A dodgy spare is better than no spare.

Jack had a rough description of the place from Louis Sarno from when he visited some 5 years before. Jack was told the village was located at a bend in a river and he had a rough and possibly not reliable distance to get there by road from another source. Mick and Jack got on Google Earth and identified all settlements located on the bend of a river and then guessed the most likely spot based on the assumed distance. It was tricky as only some of the logging roads were visible, they had to just guess and thumb-suck the rest. Foremost in our mind was that whatever we did, we didn’t want to accidently cross over into the nearby Central African Republic. The security situation there was dodgier than a week old curry and we wanted no part of it. On this side of the boarder we would be sure to remain.

Now all of this internet-ing took two nights of attempts as the internet strength was low and it struggled with Google Earth. Mick would zoom and wait for the internet to catch up and then zoom in closer again then repeat. The first night he finally got zoomed in enough to get some relevant information when the guy on the next computer knocked the power board overloaded with extension cords and plugs and it knocked out all the power. Mick couldn’t face going through the tedious process again so put it off until the following night. The next night they got the job done.

The distribution of the different pygmy groups in Central Africa. It should be noted however that it is only the Baka, Aka and Mbuti groups who exhibit the unique polyphonic form of singing that Jack was seeking out.

With a map sorted, it was now a matter of securing supplies and gifts for the trip. Jack had been advised of useful gifts to bring for his prospective hosts. These included machetes (especially those with the flat end that makes them useful to digging), cigarettes, sugar, salt, cooking oil and clothing. Mick joined Jack on his shopping adventures as he had been given strict instruction by me, “for the love of all that is good and holy,” to buy a new shirt. Mick’s principal riding shirt ‘Big Red’ had deteriorated to such an extent it stank just to look at it.

Mick’s mud map. It would then be supplemented by us asking “Bangui Motaba?” whilst shrugging shoulders with much exaggeration to anyone we came across.

Jack stocked up on clothing of all sizes, bought himself a bucket for washing and at our insistence a couple of malaria test kits and treatments. We told Jack of our friend Pat’s recent experiences with malaria and stressed the point that if he tests positive for malaria he needs to get to a logging road and on a logging truck back to town as soon as possible. The treatment for malaria relies on a strict timing schedule for the pills that is very hard to manage while rocking 40 degree malaria fevers and the BaAka wouldn’t be able to help him with that. Jack promised us he would and we stepped out of worried parent mode and got excited for the ride ahead.

After advising Jack to look out for malaria symptoms we thought we better practice what we preached and do a malaria test on me. I had been feeling lethargic for several days now but this day it struck me as an abnormal level of fatigue. I felt utterly drained and at one point it felt a physical effort lifting my arms up.

The results of the test came back negative for malaria, which we knew to take with a grain of salt as results can be unreliable when taking malaria prophylactics. However I was pretty sure it was something else going on with me. I suspected some kind of parasite was at play. We’d been carrying a de-worming treatment for such an eventuality so I went ahead and started it. After what felt like a couple hours worth of some sort of major conflict going on in my guts, I felt utterly fantastic. So much so I can only conclude I had gotten rid of some stomach parasite that had be riding along with me for some time. I therefore highly recommend carrying a de-worming treatment for long-term Africa travel.

It was during all of these preparations that we all thought we might as well try and see some gorillas while we (and they) were in the general neighbourhood.  Jack suggested we could drop in to the Department of Wildlife office in Ouesso and see if we could swing a good last minute deal, we readily agreed.

The remoteness and sketchiness of the location means Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park only receives a very modest amount of determined tourists…determined and cashed up I should say. Not like us. We were hoping by being on the ground and with access to our own transport for part of the trip we would be able to get an affordable visit. In the end we got them down to $US660 per person by skipping the $400 boat ride up the river and instead taking the bikes until the access to the park. Between the three of us we managed to convince ourselves to ignore the exorbitant expense of the trip and just go for it. We agreed to leave the next day.

We were excited for the gorilla trip but a bit anxious about the money we were laying down. We were finalising our packing the following morning when the parks people called us and cancelled the trip with no real explanation. We figured they probably couldn’t be bothered catering to busted-arse travellers like ourselves. It was disappointing, but budget-wise it was somewhat of a relief at the prospect of dropping over $US1200 had us sweating like the proverbial gypsy with a mortgage. But now writing this whilst gainfully employed once more, I am filled with regret that we didn’t go back and throw more money at the problem.

Nenaphur “Lilypad” became our local. Much shooting the breeze happened at that spot over the coming days.

The piggies stripped and being loaded into the ‘budget’ option dugout canoe.

The next morning we got ready to drop our new friend with a bunch of strangers in perhaps one of Africa’s last nearly untouched wildness areas. We had breakfast and left a bunch of our gear at the hotel for safekeeping so we could fit Jack and his gear on the bikes. We felt a bit uncomfortable to be fully decked out in safety gear when all we could off Jack was a spare pair of gloves. Even though it is very much the norm to ride bike gearless around these parts we still resolved to take it very easy along the route. We didn’t want to break him.

We headed to the river port to arrange for our river crossing. It didn’t take long for a copper of some description to spot us and tell us that we needed to go and lodge our planned movements with them. Jack had already crossed the river before so managed to avoid a second round of bureaucracy. We did the long walk to the police station in all our gear in the stifling heat so weren’t in a great mood when a number of police started to lay the familiar groundwork for requesting/demanding money.

We were really getting worn out by this kind of thing. Republic of Congo had been bad for it, not so much the requests for bribes but the way they went about it. We’d been in Africa over a year by now so were familiar with this kind of thing. However Rep. Congo was the first place where the requests had been menacing, aggressive and very mafia-esque. We were fed-up by the unrelenting nature of it. Like other times we were left just having to sit there and put up with copper after copper having a run at us for payment. In this case it was a non-existent payment for crossing the river.

Not too tough getting them in. Note the barge in the background we had hoped to take.

We stood our ground and gritted our teeth until they nearly cracked. When they saw we wouldn’t be paying to cross the river one of them came up with the idea that our documents needed to photocopied and we’d need to pay someone to go into town and photocopy them. They seemed pleased they’d found their in, but then we went and burst the collective bubble by provided them with our own photocopies. Eventually someone senior came along and said we could go but there were a few police that were really shitty at us as we left. It hardly puts you in a good frame of mind.

We got to the port and started trying to get across the river. There were two options; by canoe or by the barge that took vehicles and logging trucks across. Officially the barge is supposed to allow bikes on for nothing. But not in our case, obviously. The barge guy was licking his lips and quoted us a ridiculous price. The canoe option was a lot more hassle and it would require us paying helpers to get in and out. And while the canoe looked sturdy enough there is always a certain element of nervousness that comes (at least for me) with crossing a big river with the bikes precariously balanced in a dugout. Both the price of the canoe and the barge option were going to be an outlandish 25,000CFA (USD45).

Unlike past dugout rides with the bikes this huge one seemed safe as houses…sort of.

It is a little hard to describe how Mick and I were feeling at that stage. Semi-muted rage might come close to the mark. We were just soooooo over this sort of Congo stuff. The feeling of being set upon everywhere we went combined with big man tactics of police and those of that ilk; having to constantly stifle our frustration in the face of explicit and implicit demands. After weeks of being on edge with guards firmly up we were starting to lose control, starting to get way to worked up to achieve decent resolutions and our decorum was starting to fly out the window at an impressive rate of knots. Jack did well to put up both with us and the hard bargaining bargeman.

Getting the bikes out of the dugout proved trickier.

In the end we went with the canoe option. I just couldn’t bring myself to giving money to the bargeman. The nasty, arrogance sprawled across his face just got me disproportionately angry, it was the same look we had seen on the mugs of anyone with any level of power over others in Congo. I wanted nothing more than to wipe it off for him. I acted like a petulant jerk. It wasn’t such a big deal for us as we did have money and could leave the place. Not so for others, and I was angry for them as well as myself. The difficulty and injustice of the place was wearing us down.

Fortunately we had this bloke’s help who was happy for the payday.

So after spending a lot of futile time arguing with them about the price knowing that we were getting completely shafted we simply had to relent. Jack did really well at dealing with it even though he was obviously annoyed by the openness with which they were ripping us off.

In the end the canoe guy was allowed to load us from the shore and we basically did all the manual labour to get the bike in ourselves. We got the bikes in without too much difficulty but getting them off on the other side of the river was another matter. In the end we paid USD6 for a couple more pair of hands.

We didn’t know it then, but we were in a different world on this side of the Sangha River.

Once the bikes were repacked we were off and rolling. It was to be slow going with Jack on the back and we kept our speed at no more that 60km/h. It was interesting riding and our laid-back pace gave us plenty of time to take in the surrounds which were night and day to the Ouesso side of the river. As soon as we were moving we found ourselves passing people of such diminutive size that we knew they were members of the BaAka group. Apart from one World Wildlife Fund vehicle the road belonged to us…..and the dishearteningly steady stream of logging trucks.

It didn’t take long to encounter logging activity.

One of the many.

After not too much time we hit a small township of Pokola where we bought some deep fried dough balls and confirmed we were heading in the right direction.

This pristine, primary forest had be opened up like a banana.

We only progressed another 80kms down the road before we made it to the outskirts of a timber camp called Ndoki 2. There was a security gate, which I think was manned by people from the department of forestry. The fellas there were nice and helpful and said we could camp next to their offices. It was a pleasant change from how we were generally treated by men in uniform. It was getting late in the day so we took them up on the offer.

Mick had been taking it easy with Jack riding pillion and had seen this sinkhole ahead of time.

We set up camp around the corner of the office in front of the MTN cell phone tower. The security guards of the phone tower were similarly kind and offered us the use of their kitchen area and a place to sit. We made a dinner of noodles and then set about going to bed. But before we did so it was time for Jack get singing. Jack had agreed that as payment for taking him into the forest he would need to sing to us each night of the trip. So Jack paid his day’s debt and impressed us all by belting out a French opera number. After Jack had finished the cell phone security guy started singing what appeared to be bible verses in French. After retiring to our tent we were serenaded to sleep by the sound of singing combined with the dull hum of the tower and a forest full of insects. We couldn’t help but smile to ourselves at how unexpected a day in Africa can be.

Jack got out to inspect it and asked Michael what would have happened it they had hit it. Mick’s reply – “Nothing good.”

The fellas getting nice and acquainted.

Jack was an incredible sport. Our bikes down have pillion foot pegs. In Australia it is cheaper to register a bike as a single-seater so we remove the pillion pegs.

The next morning we packed up and said our goodbyes to the cell phone tower guys and hit the road. We were hoping to find somewhere to get a bite to eat in the nearby logging camp but found it deserted. After downing a couple of biscuits we continued on until coming to yet another logging camp. This one was of considerable size with some impressive looking accommodations that could only have been for foreign management level staff. All the logging operations we passed up until this point appeared to be French or Belgian owned.

“Sorry Jack – I need to get a photo of you like that for you mum.”

At this camp we were able to confirm we were heading in the right direction for Bangui Motaba and get some dough balls for breakfast/lunch. We were also able to stock up on some more food. Jack planned to take some general supplies for his time with the BaAka but apart from that it was his intention to eat as they did. We were worried for the guy and I found myself going into full Italian Nonna mode and wanting to load him up with food to take. Knowing he would be there over Christmas we got Jack  a small gift of a couple of single serve Nescafe sachets and a tiny packet of hazelnut spread. We figured after a month of a forest diet it would be as good as getting an X-box come Christmas.

Our digs for the night. Lots of infrastructure points like this have 24hr guards that live on the site. For what period of time and pay I do not know.

With more riding came more logging trucks and disturbing scenes of pristine wilderness permanently interrupted. As we rode onward Michael and I had the chance to think about all it was that Jack was about to do and we were increasingly impressed, and to be honest, a little nervous for him. He was going to be over 300km and a river from a town, that itself seems a long way from anywhere. At that point we didn’t even know if this village would accept his presence, and if they did, we didn’t know if the village would be at all interested in singing for him. This could be a lot of effort for a potential non-starter. But it was to be his best bet…. and time would tell.

Jack had a gift for make friends.

Looking for some food…and coming up empty.

The best way to deal with the logging trucks…

…was to get well out of their way.

Towards the afternoon we arrived at Mbouli village, where Jack would need to negotiate access to the nearby BaAka camp with the Bantu village chief. The fate of the Forest People was such that they were in a feudal-style, semi-ownership status with the Bantu tribes. The BaAka (along with the Koi) are among the first people in this part of Africa. Bantu groups actually originated in the north of the continent and have travelled south over time, overwhelming groups such as the BaAka in the process. Historically BaAka were slaves to members of the Bantu ethnic group. While out-and-out ownership is disappearing, Bantu attitudes of superiority towards the BaAka endure. The BaAka are perceived by many of the Bantu group as wild, hopeless, dirty and simple, and thus has followed a long history of exclusion and ill treatment. It’s the age-old clash of between farmers and hunter gathers at play, with the latter seldom, if ever, coming out on top.

There was no shortage of these trucks. The only bright side of their presence was that Jack would be able to get a ride with one if things went pear shaped in the village.

Me goofing off.

Upon arriving at the village Mick discovered that he was just one river bend off in his estimated location of Bangui Motoba. Not bad for some secondhand verbal details of a guessed location. After arriving there was a bit of waiting around until the village chief showed up and the negotiations began.

The tracks got narrower the closer we got to our destination.

The fellas in good spirits.

We were offered a cup of local booze while someone ran off to grab the head of the nearby BaAka camp. Mick and I sat back and left Jack to negotiate his access to the BaAka. It all felt pretty appalling to be doing so, as though the BaAka were the property of the Bantu village, but that was the way the mop flopped out here. Jack was well acquainted with the BaAka state of affairs. Luckily for Jack there was some semblance of a shared language as he had a decent amount of French to converse with through his opera training. There wasn’t a word of English spoken.

The negotiations begin.

Some BaAka from a neighbouring settlement.

Jenga, the chief of the BaAka that Jack would be staying with.

I don’t recall much of the details now but the initial price demanded for staying with the BaAka, (along with the gifts offered up to the chief) was an outlandish sum that was perhaps feasible to National Geographic photographers and well-funded anthropologists, but not a young, independent bloke like Jack. From very clouded memory they were after something along the lines of $US700, which they said would have given him several years worth of access. Jack explained that he was just a lone person not a rich, funded expert and that he didn’t have that kind of money. The negotiations continued. Once again we were impressed by Jack’s cool nature, patience and more than decent command of French.

Negotiations continued. Mick rummaging the French-English dictionary in order to keep up.

Getting settled for the evening.

Jack – one cool dude. After that ride and hours negotiating he was still in a good mood.

We were the evening’s entertainment for the village children.

Eventually a sum was agreed to that was nowhere the initial sum. Mick thinks in the end it might have been close to $100 that he ended up paying but we could be wrong. During the negotiations a number of BaAka from another community showed up and were dead keen to get the party started there and then. They knew most, if not all, foreign visitors to the BaAka were there to hear their singing. And they knew they could use that to get booze. Alcohol had become ever cheaper and easier to get since the explosion of logging. And in the face of a difficult and oppressive existence alcohol was proving popular source of temporary relief. And it was devastating communities and eroding traditions. We’d see hints of this during our short stay.

They were some cute kids.

The River.

Bath time.

It was at the insistence of the Bantu chief that we spent the night in their village before going on to the BaAka village that lied little more than 500m away. There would be no singing nor boozing that night.

We set up camp near the chief’s hut and swiftly became the source of much amusement to the village kids. We took advantage of a small window of privacy to have a wash in the river, which we later found out was home to a reasonable number of crocodiles.

We got just enough privacy to get washed before these guys showed up to gawk at us.

The only way to get to Bangui Matoba was to arrive by boat here.

Playing with the camera that night.

The village in the light of day.

Cut a pretty quaint picture.

The Chief’s lodgings.

Not a bad spot at all.

Shame about the crocs….but they paid us no mind.