Ungoverned Spaces: A Sneak Peek

The Elephant Bone

Baka 2

A goat bleated sickly from the darkness.  I stood next to the Rambo poster, looking out the door at the faint horizon across the dirt road.  It was my fourth beer and the bar was soon to close down for the night.

Moses, Hunter, and Depak were sitting across the uneven concrete floor at a checkers table underneath a dangling bulb laughing about the safari guide who reportedly got airlifted to Germany two weeks before after getting gored by an indignant elephant.  Hunter and Depak were inventing scenarios around the incident, hypothesizing about just what may have piqued the elephant to violence.

“And this–” Hunter stood up, pantomiming, “is called a wanker.”  He made a slapping motion with his hands in the air, striking an imaginary elephant wanker with great force.

Depak fell off his chair.  They continued to invent variations upon the general theme, each one funnier than the last.

We were the only customers.  The bar tender was asleep somewhere behind the counter.  We helped ourselves to the refrigerator and stacked the empty bottles neatly so when we were about to go to our room in the back, Philippe could rouse himself and count how much money we owed, then turn off the generator for the night.

This was before the Central African Republic Bush War (2004-2007) and long before the Séléka rebellion (2012-present day).  And anyway this was much further west than where the Christian/Muslim violence got really bad, where Christian militias inflicted ethnic cleansing against Muslims.  Libongo was a little logging boom-town on the border of Cameroon and Central African Republic.  When the logging operation moved in, deep into the rain forest, the town exploded; houses were slapped together to accommodate the loggers.  Then the merchants with their lighter skin came down the river from the north, bringing Islam, flip-flops, umbrellas, and bread.  Pretty soon, women arrived and voila there was a town.  The only indigenous people here were the Baka pygmies who walked by with their sharpened teeth and stocky features, but they lived on the outskirts of town in temporary camps only coming in for the beer and women or to sell their bush meat or to buy machetes.

Philippe’s sister, a prostitute named Celeste, came through the door into the light with a grin and shook our hands.

“Tu veux dancer?” asked Hunter and opened up the fridge and handed her a 33 Export beer.

“Make yourself at home,” she said.  Moses, Hunter, and Depak burst out laughing all over again.

She and Hunter danced around the floor.  Hunter was an enthusiastic dancer, bending over at the waist and wiggling, pumping his hands to the sky.  He grabbed Celeste by the arm and twirled her around.  I watched them from where I stood by the window.  There was no screen, and the breeze blew nicely past the open shutters, drying the sweat on my forehead.

The thing about extractive industries, like oil, mining, and logging, was that you could never keep up with in-migration.  Because of the sudden availability of jobs, whether from the company itself, contractors, or up and down the supply chain, the population exploded, putting unmanageable pressure on public services and infrastructure, like sanitation and roads.  Sometimes fires broke out in the shanty-towns and wiped out neighborhoods.  There weren’t sufficient health services or education.  In such an environment, identity groups tended to band together.  When they had conflict over jobs or land, they sometimes might turn against the company.  The company worked out an arrangement with any existing local authorities to make sure there was armed security, in case things got out of hand.  In this case, there hadn’t been any major problems so far.  But still, there was growing distrust between the Muslims from the North, the Bantu from the South, and nobody liked the Baka.

I heard footsteps outside in the dark, then a voice from the shadows.  “Ho, Baruch–Comment?” said the voice.

“Bon soir, Napoleon,” I said.  Napoleon was Baka.

“Are you ready for tomorrow?” I asked.

It was Spring Break, and it was our last year of high school.  In just a few months, we were all going to leave for college in different parts of the United States.  We all knew that we would miss Africa.  We didn’t know how lonely we were each about to feel.  Hard to know who ended up feeling the most lonely.  Probably Hunter or me.  Moses landed on his feet.  Depak was dead within the year.

To celebrate our last year together, Moses and I took this trip by train and bush taxi to this village at the edge of nowhere to hike out into the forest for a week or two.  Hunter and Depak joined up with us half way through.  We wanted to see if we would fall off the edge of the world.

The next day we got up early.  Moses stayed back at the village because of his infected blister.  His foot was feeling better, after he got that shot of penicillin stuck into his ass at the Polish clinic down the road towards Mouloundou.  But it wasn’t feeling that good, so he sat and stared at his wooden staff, glassy eyed and miserable.  We left him in the village with Celeste.

Hunter, Depak, and I stood in the back of the pickup truck laughing like maniacs, hanging on for dear life as we whirled around, breaking and accelerating, collecting Baka guides equipped with spears, hatchets, and bunches of plantains.

When the back of the truck was full of people, we made a beeline out into the forest.  At the end of the road, we got out and stepped across the threshold.  We trekked for days underneath the canopy, through flocks of butterflies, pushed through spider webs, clambered over fallen trees and ducked under flowering vines, slapped at bug bites, peered into the mist, and floated across rivers in leaky pirogues.  Hornbills coughed overhead.  Deer darted.  Snakes slithered away.  Monkeys chattered.  Gorillas barked in the distance.

One evening it began to rain and we were in the middle of a swamp, having been in the swamp since as long as we could remember, walking knee deep in water, not sure exactly where dry land was to be found.  The five of us climbed up into a tree and sat there.  We hung there, in the tree, in the rain, in the swamp, in the forest, miles from the nearest road, hundreds of miles from the nearest city of any kind.  Depak began to laugh.  He laughed and laughed until the tears rolled down his face.

“We should make camp,” Napoleon said.  He was the one who spoke French.  So we stepped grudgingly back into the water and spread out, looking for a rise in the ground on which to build a shelter.  Napoleon called in the dark, and the rest of us made our way towards his voice.  He had found a tiny island and was busy clearing it of trees with his machete.

“Are you going to make one of those dome shelters?” I asked.

Napoleon looked at Henri, then said, “That is for the women.  Can we use your tarp?”

Henri pulled out a root from his pocket and also a flint and steel.  He used his flint to ignite the root and made a fire in the rain.  Then he made another.  One fire was for him.  The other was for the three of us to share.  Henri got his own fire.  We boiled plantains, rice, soup, and a fish that Napoleon killed with his machete.  We also made tea.  We shared the food among the five of us.

As we sat around the fire, Hunter and Depak and I sang “Oh When the Saints” and other songs we knew.  Hunter asked Napoleon, “Do you have any songs?”

“Of course,” said Napoleon.

They discussed for an hour just what song would be the very best song to teach us that night.  They argued, humming bars and interrupting each other with different ideas.  Henri was smoking cannabis.

“No,” Napoleon said to us before we even asked.  “Ca risque de vous souler.”  Seems that was reserved for Henri, just as the fire was.  They never did teach us a song.

Eventually we drifted off to sleep. Napoleon and Henri took turns tending the fire throughout the night.  It was cold and wet.  I clung to Hunter for warmth.

I woke up in the dark to Napoleon tapping my foot and saying, “Patron, patron.  Un beufle!”  I sat up and heard it in the dark, huffing and heaving its head with its horns.  I heard the sound of water splashing.  Depak was sitting up.  Hunter slept.  Henri was out in the dark with my flashlight.  I could see the dark form of the buffalo splashing, snorting, running away.  Henri came back and handed me my flashlight.  He put down his spear.  I went back to sleep.

No one got gored like the unlucky German safari guide.  The closest we came to an elephant was their tracks and their shit, which were everywhere.  Once we found a femur.  That meant there must be tusks around.  We looked everywhere for the tusks.   My friends and I got tired so we sat in the shade while the Baka men looked for the tusks.  Probably the bones were scattered by animals, so the men walked in a spiral trying to find the ivory tusks while Hunter and Depak and I smoked cigarettes.  The men kept looking for those tusks, but alas, the femur was all there was to this elephant.  We let it lie.

Napoleon and Henri brought us safely back to Libongo much to the relief of the commissariat and that night, Hunter, Depak, Moses and I went to the bar again and drank more beer.  Napoleon walked on in the darkness to join his family at the outskirts of town.

“I don’t know about you,” said Hunter when he woke up in the morning, “but I’m going to take a bath.”

The three of us clambered off the bed, stretched our sore muscles and loped off to the Sangha River which was the place people went to get clean.  We walked down the road and then down the trail until we reached the river’s edge.  A pirogue was pulled up on the shore and across the river was the nation state of Central African Republic.  Somewhere across the river, monkeys chattered in the trees.  The current flowed strong and slow north to south, trees thick on either side.  Flowering vines punctuated the green of the panorama.  We took off our clothes and jumped into the water.  I lathered up and rinsed off, then climbed back onto the shore, dried off in the sun and put on my clothes.  Moses and Depak joined me on the shore.  Hunter took his jolly good time.  He soaped and rinsed until he was squeaky clean.

I didn’t want to wait for him to luxuriate so I left.  First, as a joke I moved his clothes around the bend.

I was sitting in the café with Moses and Depak a half hour later drinking warm sweetened condensed milk and chuckling about the German getting gored by the elephant, so I didn’t see it happen, but apparently there was a commotion in the street.  A mob of people were yelling and shaking their fists.  It included Muslim merchants, Bantu loggers, and Baka pygmies.  In the center of the mob strode Hunter, butt naked except for his boots.  He strode with his head high, blond hair clean and dry, shining in the sun.  People around him were waving fists and shaking sticks, cursing and yelling in many languages: “You may do that where you come from, but we do not do that here!”  They invoked the wrath of the God of Mohammed, the God of Paul, and the spirits of their ancestors.  Hunter had brought the entire fractious town together.  Celeste swooped in and took Hunter by the arm and pulled him to the safety of the bar.  She unlocked the room and Hunter put some clothes on.  When Hunter and Celeste came by the café, where we sat drinking warm sweetened condensed milk, he said, “That wasn’t very funny, Baruch.”  But I could see that Celeste was smiling.