Adventures With Opera Jack – Part 1

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.

4 Comments on “Adventures With Opera Jack – Part 1

  1. Hello to you ..I am a friend of Jack’s Mom. Is is great to read about your trip with Jack..thanks . What travels you have well. Ginger Birdsey

  2. Thank you for sharing. I’m loving your adventure. I. Got linked to the site by way of Jack’s mom. I knew Jack as a young child as he was a classmate of one of my daughters from age 2 to 17. He was an awesome kid and Im sure you believe that. If you are ever in Little Rock, Arkansas, USA, let me know. I’ll cook you dinner.

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