Adventures With Opera Jack – Part 3

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.

6 Comments on “Adventures With Opera Jack – Part 3

    • Love your colloquialisms, “that’s the way the mop flopped” brilliant.

  1. Tanya- I cannot tell you how much – still- you guys made a difference in Jack’s life – and in mine!
    This blog is fantastic. I think that your showing up in Jack’s life was a miracle, if you believe in them- and I do!
    You have a home here anytime you decide to come. I started to make a joke about asylum but I’ll refrain!! ? Actually I may end up looking for it in Australia!
    I hope you and Mick are well and happy and I’m serious about your visiting. Love to you both!!! xox

    • Hi Lucie
      We are so glad you’ve enjoyed the blog. Our chance meeting with Jack, time spent together and days in the forest were such a highlight of our time in Africa. We’d love nothing more than to have you guys come and stay with us so that we can share stories and show you the beauty of West Australia. I’m sure we will get to visit you guys one of these days.

  2. Well guys I read now every blog entry and really enjoyed it 🙂 thanks for the great read and pictures! Cu soon

  3. Guys you was so amazing and huble I remember the day I was together in Kigali -Rwanda, I checked the hand and give me the card I am still with that , miss you so much guys.

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