A TRIP TO LEGU (Zaire)
The settlement of Legu is about 500 kilometers north of Kisangani and about 100 kilometers south of Isiro. To get there is a rather complicated task. First we must take the plane to Kinshasa, then another plane to Kisangani (the third largest city) There is no road between the two cities, so the only way to get there is by boat sailing up the Zaire River (to start with, 7 days of sailing) or by plane. Once you have reached Kisangani is when the problems begin if you plan to transfer to another plane for Isiro which you don't know when it might depart. Lack of fuel or lack of planes are the reasons why you might find yourself trapped for days or even weeks. On one trip I had to wait 15 days and finally had to return to Kinshasa without going to Isiro. Once in Isiro, in about three hours you can get to Legu on a road that has some sections in decent condition, the ones nearest Isiro, and the rest of it a series of potholes, but in these latitudes it is considered a good road. The other alternative would be to cover the distance between Kisangani and Legu (500 kilometers) in a car but we would know when we left but not when we might arrive. Whether in rainy season or dry season, it is impassable with potholes big enough to hide a whole truck, and if a vehicle is stuck in the mud, you can be days waiting for someone to get you out only to find yourself stuck again a little ways further on and have to wait again and thus, little by little (pole, pole) you begin to realize that in Africa time doesn't matter.
In Legu there are no towns as we are used to seeing in movies and documentaries, and although we may see clusters of 7, 8 or more huts (pallottes), it is a family. They are polygamous and in each of the huts lives a woman with her small children. Another hut is the baraza (where one receives visitors and gets together), the equivalent of the living room in our houses. Cooking is done in the streets and life happens out of doors. From one family to another there can be a distance of 500 meters. Each family has its own plot and one animal or another which makes then self-sufficient, and they have a small tam-tam that is their "telephone" and also the instrument to enliven their songs and dances. The tribe living in this area is the Wawudu, ethnically a branch of the Bantu.
In spite of all that has been written, told, and filmed, Africa is yet to be discovered because, jealous of its secrets it hides from the scientist, the explorer, the tourist, revealing itself only to someone who approaches to love it. Together we are going to discover some of the aspects of the daily life of people who inhabit this corner of Africa. We shall begin with food that consists basically of tapioca, a tuber, that is eaten as purée and its leaves are made into Zaire's national dish, sombe or pundu. The leaves have been mashed thoroughly in the kinu (a sort of giant mortar with a stick). For us to add oil or salt is something very simple and economical but for them it is a total luxury not always within their reach. Salt is obtained by burning papyrus leaves (this is a zone of marshlands). The ashes are filtered with water and that is allowed to evaporate. What remains is the salt, but it is a salt with a high content of potassium chloride and is used to recover from diarrhea, but its continued use leads to water retention, which is not good.
The oil that they use is from the palm tree. A man climbs the palm tree with considerable anxiety that might be a snake (ñoka) up there. He will cut off a branch that will be mashed in the kinu and then, mixed with clay, pressed by hand as drop by drop with considerable effort the precious condiment will be obtained.
The wine is from the palm tree. It is the sap of the raffia palm trees that are tapped by cutting the tip. It is quite sweet and has only 3% alcohol content. The trunk when putrefied produces a delicious, much sought after food in these latitudes, the waposes, worms that are eaten fried (a flavor similar to chorizo [Spanish/Mexican sausage]) or smoked (in the African district of Le Matongue in Brussels, you can buy them smoked for about 25 Euros a kilo).
In the diet there is little meat, although everyone has a goat or a hen. Basically only the eggs are used. The animals are used to repay favors, to give as gifts, or to sell. On the other hand very nearby they have the Nepoko River where they can get fish. Occasionally, if they have been lucky, they go out to hunt, and if they catch a monkey, it is a banquet.
In every mugini (group of huts) there is always a fire lit which with a torch is distributed from house to house. To deny fire to someone is one of the worst offenses. The tam-tam even nowadays and for these people continues to be the means of communication with which messages are sent between settlements. To inform of a danger, of a birth, of a death, to call a meeting, to invite to a celebration, etc.
One should not confuse these calls of tam-tam beats with a Morse code transmission in which one can encode all kinds of words and numbers. That is not what it is. These are pre-established beats just as the sounds of bells in our churches. Or the txalaparta in the Basque Country, for example.
In the equatorial jungle there are no winds, and even less at night. There are only hurricanes that unleash storms and last about 20 minutes. In the dry season, January to March, for 11 to 13 hours a very hot wind blows from the Sudan desert and people go crazy, aggression increases, dances are even more frenetic. It is called the Upepo, a Swahili word meaning wind. To get lost in the jungle and have to spend the nigh there can be fatal due to the heavy humidity and the drop in temperature characteristic of nights in the tropics, aggravated by the probable fear one would feel at being lost in the jungle. Perhaps being in the jungle one would imagine we are surrounded by animals, but no, if one is thinking about lions, tigers, elephants, etc. In this region as in the rest of Africa it is very difficult to see one of these animals roaming free. They are all in reserves or nature parks. But there are some very small animals, almost invisible and even nowadays still very dangerous and a principal cause of fatalities. I refer to mosquitoes in general and the Anopheles in particular that transmits malaria and other diseases. Also in this region lives one of the most poisonous snakes in Africa, the Black Mamba or "African Widow". I asked why they call if the African Widow and they told me because of the deaths of men that it indirectly causes. As I have said, it is the man who climbs the palm trees fearing there might be a snake up there, and if there is a man, seized by panic, may throw himself from the tree top to certain death rather than be bitten by the cobra which would also cause certain rapid and very painful death (there is no antidote).
A White Friar gave me a black stone and told me that if a snake bit me, I should make a tourniquet and apply pressure on the wound with the stone to absorb the poison. Fortunately I didn't need it. It is rare that you encounter a snake and even more rare that it attacks you unless you have the bad luck to step on it or it feels you have invaded its territory. Do not believe the tales in which snakes appear everywhere.
In this region of the Zaire jungle the space of time between the moment of birth and the moment of death is very short, perhaps because life happens very quickly. They marry very young, by age 18 they already have 3 or 4 children, by age 30 they are grandparents, and he who lives to be 50 is considered an old man. To compensate for such rapidity, daily life moves very slowly. They are never in a hurry, and if you ask how do they live or what is it that they do, I can only tell you that I ask myself the same question, for in truth signs of activity are very few. Everyone seems to be busy doing nothing and when something moves it is always a woman in the dance, be it carrying water or heavy bundles of kindling on her head, working the cultivated plot, or preparing the meal, all with the youngest child on her back, for during the first years of its life the child if like an integral part of the mother's body. But there is one special day during the week, market day in Obongoni. That day men and women will get up before dawn, will put on their best clothes, and the women, always the women, will carry on their heads a basket with some liters of palm oil or palm wine, a dozen hen's eggs or some pineapples or bananas from their plots. And, always with the smallest child on their back, they will start off and walk more than three hours under a hot sun, all to obtain a few coins. But, friends, for them that is a small fortune that they will exchange for cloth, salt or kitchen utensils. However, the market is not only a place to buy and sell. It is also a meeting place to have some social life and to meet a partner. That is why they put on their best kikwembe (outfits) and the Obongoni market even has a bar (a roof with sticks and thatch) where beer is served and a radio on a pedestal of beer boxes rises majestically and plays music so that people can dance. When the market is over they will gather up their things and return home. Perhaps it has not been a good day and they have not sold the merchandise that they will have to carry another three hours home, although under a weaker sun. But they say it doesn't matter, it has been worth it. Have they not seen a new daybreak, seen new faces, chatted with their friends and exchanged news? certainly it is a way of life and concept of living very different from our own.
I remember one night, lying on my bed inside a pallotte, in total darkness with the mosquito net fastened, I was listening to the sounds of the jungle. Suddenly I heard the sound of a tam-tam that was accompanying chants of grief from a kilio (wake). Not far from my hut there was a celebration and another tam-tam was beating out a dance rhythm. Depending on the direction of the wind, I would hear the two tam-tams separately, or at the same time, or as if two radio stations were interfering with each other, one tam-tam superimposed on the other. Thus all night long, with the tam-tams mixing in the darkness their songs of grief and joy, I felt like a part of Africa.
When a person dies a vigil is held (there is a kilio) during two or three days and nights. The chants and cries of grief occur with a frantic rhythm as each relative arrives at the hut of the dead person, reaching its most dramatic heights at night. The kilio is a very intimate ritual and very difficult for a stranger to attend. Thanks to Julián Azcona I had the privilege of being able not only to attend but also film a kilio.
Also of exceptional beauty are the Masses in the jungle churches (built of sticks and mud with straw roofs). They last hours and hours but actually they seem shorter due to the rhythm and joy of their songs that, once Mass is finished, continue for some time outside. Like the markets, they are also an important social event.
There are three things about Africa that have a special appeal for me. One is the light and the colors, another the scents, and the third the sounds, including the sounds of the tam-tam and the songs. I would spend hours and hours listening to the boys of Legu (Bana Legu) performing songs to the rhythm of the tam-tam, and I felt so happy that I wanted to bring back with me this piece of Africa, by means of its sound, so that others might feel and share in this special attraction of Africa. So with very few means and considerable imagination we were able to record a sampling of their songs, which was not easy because as you were recording, it was as if some were shaming their culture by singing songs of Mass, and others wanted nothing to do with it. In the end, since the language of music is universal and as one more example of the mixture in which humanity lives, I decided to market a CD on which are songs of the Babudu tribe and a track of the different tam-tam calls that bring us the freshness of a jungle always green. Listen and the tam-tams will sound.
The people who inhabit this corner of Africa, in general and by nature, are very friendly, even overly friendly, but that friendliness includes not acknowledging their ignorance about something. If you ask them a question, it doesn't matter that they have no idea, they will have an answer. The best way not to find some place if you are lost is to ask them what road to follow. But this attitude that in our culture we would call indolent simply doesn't relate to them. And perhaps it is due to their always saying what they think you would like to hear. It is another culture and another way of looking at life.
I would not want to end this without mention the Pygmies of Imbau. It is one of the colonies of Pygmies that still exists in Africa and is about 70 kilometers from Legu. To get there one must go to Bafwabaka, where there is a hill about 30 meters high, high enough to see sunsets. In the jungle one does not see them because the trees are in the way. And here in this settlement one crosses the Nepoko River in an old bac (floating platform) left over from World War II that uses human traction (or sombe as they say around here) but gives reliable service for crossing the river. Once across, a few kilometers further on is the settlement of Imbau. All the houses are grouped around a large central town square. The Pygmies live by hunting and are nomadic although at times they adopt a more sedentary life (a few photos are worth more than words) . This settlement is exclusively Pygmies, which is rare, because usually when they are not hunting in the jungle they live in symbiosis attached to Bantu settlements.
Africa is very big and one cannot generalize about anything since the language, customs and lifestyles change from one place to another (between Legu and Imbau I have found three languages and three different tribes: the Babudu, the Balik and the Pygmies). At times you go only a few kilometers and it seems that you are in another world. I have been speaking only about a place called Legu (Legu, in the Kibudu language, is the tree from whose bark garments are made) and it is in the jungle of Upper Zaire.
Here in Africa music and dance is life itself and the tam-tam is what keeps the beat and the rhythm of life for the inhabitants of Upper Zaire.
Of the people who populate this zone of Africa one cannot say they are hungry but the nutrition is poor Illnesses feed on them and they have no means to combat them. They die young, but they dance, they sing, they simply let time pass. They have survived one more day and once again the sun will set, very rapidly along the line of the equator, so that once again at dawn it will flood this land with light and energy and once again the tam-tam with its rhythm will keep the beat of the life of the inhabitants of the jungle of Upper Zaire.
I am not a missionary nor a scientist nor an explorer, nor do I belong to any organization. I am only a traveler who one day stepped onto Africa and was entrapped by it.
(Published in Mundo Negro, January 2003 edition)
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