This morning, a smaller hunting party went into the forest but Bara and I decided to remain in camp and spend the day with the BaAka women. With the exception of honey, it is the women who do all the gathering of forest products. They collect wild fruits, mushrooms (ngugu), nuts, caterpillars, grubs, yams (ekuli), and koko leaves. The BaAka are a strictly hunting and gathering forest society and do not cultivate any foods. The only cultivated food they consume is manioc (cassava) which is typically bartered for from the bilo.
Their tree climbing skills are a feat they are widely known for and has been documented on the BBC Earth series- Human Planet. A few years ago a British tv crew came to film one of our trackers, Mongonje, scaling a 140 foot tree to harvest the honey from a hive perched in the canopy. The aerial footage they captured is mindblowing. Today, I was able to watch a similar effort but on a smaller scale. A small group of pygmies had left camp early this morning to locate the tree that someone had spotted yesterday. When I arrived, Ndiki was already about 60 feet up in the tree and harvesting the hive. He had fashioned a harness for himself and was secured to the tree with a vine which wrapped around his waist and then looped around the trunk. In order to smoke the bee's out of the hive, Ndiki carried a smudge which he used as a smoke torch. When I saw him today, he was being swarmed by the bee's and had already taken a few stings.
Ndiki yelled down that he needed a basket so Mbuya immediately took one and began scaling a tree just next to the one Ndiki was in. He lashed the trunk with machete cuts to make foothold's for himself. In sections where the trunk was impassable, he hoisted himself up using liana's. Within a few minutes, Mbuya had raised himself level with Ndiki. They both leaned towards each other and Ndiki slipped a few honeycombs into the basket. With two drooling munzu's and a few impatient BaAka waiting on the forest floor, Ndiki and Mbuya lowered themselves quickly to share the sweet bounty. Immediately, we all sank our teeth into the dripping amber. By far, the sweetest and most organic honey I've ever tasted- no preservatives, no additives. Honey is the nectar of the BaAka and they will go to great lengths to get it. They will walk miles and scale ridiculous heights to get this food of the gods. And it is the one sacred forest product that they would never trade for.
We moved on and followed some women down to a stream to watch them fish. Unlike the Sangha Sangha River people, the BaAka are not traditionally a fishing tribe. However, they do catch fish using prehistoric methods. During the short dry season when water levels are low, they will find a stream or river tributary. They isolate a 30 foot stretch of water and then build dams using branches, mud, and silt at either end. Then they dig a series of canals and ditches and begin draining the water. Once the stream bed is nearly exposed, they simply scoop up the trapped bottom feeders with their hands or bowls. Their catch is generally very small fish, most commonly spiny catfish.
The fishing seems to be about social bonding among women as much as it is actual food harvesting. They spend more time joking and laughing with each other than actually fishing. Mbuya and I watched from a distance as another more interesting activity was initiated- water drumming. While standing in waist deep water, the women slap the surface of the water and then punch the undertow created below the surface. The effect produces deep resonant tones and when multiple women do it, it sounds like an aquatic drum ensemble.
The classic face of a BaAka is adorned with features that represent a unique vision of beauty. Their aesthetic involves cutting facial tattoos, called matele, with a razor onto their foreheads, cheeks, temples, and chins. Unlike other indigenous tribes like the Maori of New Zealand, BaAka designs are very simple. Most tattoo's are just a series of zig-zagging parallel lines that have no symbolic meaning. They are purely decorative. The BaAka collect a plant called ndembe (Rothmannia welwitschii) which has multiple uses for them. They take the fruit of this plant, remove the seeds, and then extract the dark juice. This liquid is then mixed with ash to make a charcoal powder in order to dye the skin. Other forest mammals also harvest this fruit- monkeys and squirrels eat the seeds of the ndembe fruit. The BaAka also use the twigs from this plant as a toothbrush. They don't use toothpaste but the near absence of sugar in their diet minimizes oral decay.
However, the signature feature of the BaAka visage is their teeth. They literally chisel all of the front teeth, top and bottom, into sharp points. Small pieces of wood are inserted on either side of the tooth to be chiseled. Then, with hammer and chisel, they break off pieces of the tooth. Finally, a metal file is used to shape the tooth into its triangular form. The process is extremely painful and often gives them a migraine for days. Because of the intense pain, not all BaAka have this done. But both men and women submit to this regimen of beauty. Chiseled choppers give them the cannibalistic demeanor which central Africans have been historically known for. [I don't know if the BaAka pygmies have a tradition of cannibalism. It's something I need to research.] Another popular treatment at the pygmy day spa is head shaving. The women shave their heads, either completely bald or clipped very short. Between the triangular teeth, the round shaved head, and the symmetric facial tattoo's, the resulting geometry of their head gives the BaAka people an extremely striking warrior appearance.
As the afternoon aged, I walked back to camp, had a bite to eat, and then picked up a plastic jug and started to beat out a drum rhythm. One by one, children approached, magnetically drawn to the pulse (or just intrigued by the honky freak show). Within minutes, I was surrounded by kids who weren't shy about dancing. At times, their laughter was louder than the drum. I was the only adult in camp and I think the children felt unrestrained, freed from the watchful glare of parents. We shared great moments together, especially when the kids took over the drumming and I hammed up the stereotypical white dork death-defying dance. Meanwhile, Bara had stayed in the forest with the women collecting leaves and fruit. The most widely consumed leaf is from the koko plant (Gnetum africanum). These leaves are cut into thin strips and then boiled to make the staple sauce of this country. In addition to koko, the baskets also returned to camp full of payo (Irvingia excelsa). This is the wild mango fruit (no relation to the tropical Pacific fruit) and is also widely used in sauces when it's in season.
By early evening, everyone was back in camp tending to pots cooking over the fires. I noticed one teenage girl, Mezan's daughter, weaving a traditional basket and approached to watch. The baskets of the BaAka (ikoua) are woven from either kpongbo (unknown latin name) or gau (Ancistophyllum secundiflorum). [Gau has extremely thorny vines and is a favored gorilla food]. The vines are cut, split into thin strips, and then scraped with a knife until they are light and malleable enough to weave into rattan. It's a labor-intensive process but the craftsmanship is unbelievable, considering the tools they have to work with. Given how light the baskets are, the strength is impressive and can easily hold 40 pounds of weight.
Tonight, the collective energy level was low so there was no music or dance. People drifted off to sleep early. I stayed up contemplating and absorbing what I have just experienced over the last 3 days. It's been an incredible ride. My time in the forests of the Congo Basin is almost expired. In fact, tonight is my last night in the forest. Tomorrow, I will sleep in Bayanga and the following day I will be driven to Bangui, the capital, in order to catch my flight home. Of all the amazing things I have seen and done over the last year, spending these 3 nights in the forest with our BaAka trackers and their families has been the single richest experience. To be welcomed by this forest tribe, one of the last few hunter/gatherer societies on the planet, into their home and to get a glimpse of their unique life was truly a gift. To witness how they conduct their lives in harmony with the forest was an education in both humility and self-reliance. These people have nothing. They need nothing. But as the contagious claws of globalization creep ever closer to their traditional way of life, they are beginning to want the modern crap that civilization tempts with.
I am lulled to sleep tonight by the polyphonic symphony of the forest. Insects dominate the harmony, with the ceaseless cadence of the cicada's and crickets. The rapid-fire snickering vocalization of Gray-Cheeked Mangabeys provide the percussion, accompanied by the amphibian bassline, legions of frogs croaking in unison along the streams. Elephants bring up the brass section, with their trumpeting. The jungle orchestra is occasionally accented with high-tenored call of fruit bats and the soft-wooing of bushbabies.