Adventures With Opera Jack – Part 2

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….

2 Comments on “Adventures With Opera Jack – Part 2

  1. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading about your adventures with Jack and the BaAka people. I’m a friend of John Gates, one of Jack’s former instructors at Lawrence Univ here in Appleton Wisconsin.
    You write very well, capturing both the action on the ground with your travels with Jack and the big picture of the fate of the people. Thank you for sharing.

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