The world of wild animals by Andrey Gudkov

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Little ghosts of big forest

There remain less than 200 thousand of them on the planet. Precise figure is not known to anyone. They do not have passports and permanent addresses. It's hard to find them within endless green sea of tropical forest. Small groups of these people maintain roving life, do not know borders and move around boundless and impassable forests of equatorial Africa from Cameron, Gabon and Congo on the west till border of Congo Democratic Republic, Uganda and Burundi on the east. Forest is their home and environment. Forest gives them shelter, food and protection. They orientate perfectly in the forest and feel safe. Civilization has not practically changed their way of life. They divide people on “big white” and “big black”, being the shortest people on the planet. Their life mode remains a secret for us, inconceivable and exciting, mysterious, frightening and inaccessible, firmly hidden from strangers' eyes under rank and gloomy shelter of tropical forest.

Slightly visible path has been twisting within impassable jungles for the sixth hour, sharply rising up and falling down, crossing numerous streams and rivulets with yellowish water, at times suddenly disappearing and in some time appearing again. Air was stale and damp, sated with dense evaporations. Though February is considered as dry season month, however all equipment was wet from sweat and evaporations. Porters, young men of Bantu tribe, were tired while still were trying to keep vivacity of spirit. Each subsequent halt was longer than previous one and during the last hour it was already the sixth halt. The guide was assuring us that not that long way remained. But it seemed that he dissembled. We were looking for pygmies in the boundless green sea of equatorial woods in the north of Republic Congo, Sanga province. There were but few chances to find them, and we all realized that, but until the last minute were relying on luck, joss and God's mercy.

Our forces were far spent. And suddenly a small pygmaean village of eleven low huts, located on a circle, appeared in the midst of the forest. In some of them, embers were hardly smudging. A gray smoke rose lazy to crones of very tall trees, filling air with a pleasant smell of decaying tree. Pygmies were not in evidence. However considering the environment, apparently the village was habitable. The guide lifted the hand up and stopped. Everybody stopped talking. We had strong feeling that the forest around was observing us by thoughtful pairs of eyes, listening to each our sound, watching each our movement. The guide whispered:

“Speak low and do not hoick. They are close and they are watching you. They will appear soon”.

Time of painful expectation went slowly. It seemed that the whole eternity passed. Questions were reeling in head with no answers. How pygmies will apprehend our occurrence? How many of them are in the village? Will they accept us as their guests and allow staying with them for some time? And above all will they come up now or just disappear noiselessly in gloominess of the forest. Another thirty minutes passed.

Suddenly we heard rustle behind the back and little aged pygmy came out if from under the ground in front of us holding machete in his hands. Carefully, staring hard on us, he approached the guide and they exchanged a few phrases in strange language, which reminded birds whew, with plenty of melodious throaty sounds. In a few minutes he disappeared in the forest in the same quite way.

The guide explained this was the village chieftain asking who these “big whites” were and what for they had come here.

“They are afraid of you!”

I explained him that you would make no harm to them, that you would like to stay with them for a few days, to have a look on their life. And you have brought many presents to them. Pygmy promised to think about it.

We didn't have to wait for long this time. In a few minutes a few men stood in front of us, weaponed with machete and spears. When the guide and the chieftain were discussing something, other pygmies were examining our equipment and ammunition with cautious, but unveiled interest, pointing and gently laughing. The guide came to us. Negotiations succeeded.

We were allowed to camp in close vicinity to the village on a small glade. We bounded chieftain's decision with a gift new big machete. He is satisfied and he is smiling. The contact took place! “Diplomatic protocol” was adhered. We mentioned that there were no women and kids in the village. Pygmies kept silence on our question “Where are they?”. We decided not to insist on answers today.

The tribe we found was called Baka and belonged to group Ubangi. Pygmies spoke Libaka language.

Less than an hour was spent to build camp for “big whites”. Bossing machete with dexterity of the virtuoso some pygmies cleared away a small plot on which we put our tents and helped us to build a fire. Together, we coped up before darkness.

When twilight comes the tropical wood get filled with every possible sounds cicadas crick-cracks, sounds of night birds, single monkeys shouts, sounds of falling fruits, crunch of branches, rustle of leaves all merges in entire night cacophony. The impression is made, that life in forest begins only at night. Forest, as one live organism, lives its own life. It darkens early and very quickly in a tropical forest. Dense darkness falls down whence from above, from huge sprawling crones of forty-meter trees, instantly absorbing last rests of light and filling all the space. And here there is continuous black chasm around you. Darkness is so dense, that your own outstretched arm is not visible.

Pygmies guide perfectly at night, quickly and silently move on in forest, thus not using lanterns. At night they become absolutely imperceptible, finding us unawares when, as if from nowhere, appears behind our backs, forcing us to give a start of surprise. In the morning we learned that pygmies didn't fall a sleep the whole night. They were keeping the fire, talking and looking doubtingly on “big whites” camp, which so unexpectedly burst into their life. It was a great match fro the little forest people.

Pygmies do not believe in God in the way we believe. Everything, which surrounds them, has sacred sense. They make a god of forest, animals and trees. When they feel bad, they call to the Forest, so that it will give them protection, stave off misfortune, help to cope with illnesses and bad luck. That night they asked the Forest to stick up for them if “strangers” brought troubles with them. They could not realize that "big whites" are defenseless in this forest even in more extent, that for “big whites” the Forest is full of dangers, it is alien's home for them, alien's environment aggressive, strange and dangerous, practically not suitable for habitual life.

The next day women and kids appeared in the village in the same quite and not visible way. They tried do not look into our eyes, hiding the gaze and turning away from camera's lens. They shuddered at work of flashlight, trying to disappear hasty in hut's twilight. We tried not to break their habitual schedule with our presence. But soon village's inhabitants got used to camera and did not pay attention to it, being easily engaged in the daily affairs. The daily life of pygmies is monotonous, tough and is similar to constant struggle for a survival. Early in the morning all man's part of the tribe goes on hunting or, if it is a season, to collect wild honey. They hunt basically on monkeys and dwarfish antelopes or birds-rhinoceroses. Practically nobody uses bows and arrows now. These instruments of hunt are in the past. More and more pygmies prefer a gun. It is more quickly and more effectively to get meal with it. Sometimes they invite to hunt people with guns from Bantu tribe “big blacks”, showing them the most productive hunting places. In exchange they receive part of trophies. Once we asked the old leader whether he knows pygmies who still hunt in the old manner, by means of bows and the poisoned arrows. He took thought and shook the head.

“When I was born, nobody in my tribe already used this weapon. Now we have this”, and he proudly nodded to old, a good bit frayed and hard-boiled French gun.

Pigmy's women also have strictly determined circle of responsibilities. Every day all women go to forest to collect nuts, roots, tropical fruits, berries, insects' slugs to the “house diet”. They carry kids with them. During dry season, when rivulets shallow, women organize women's fishing. This is tough, exhausting and dirty work. A rivulet is blocked off from two sides by logs with clay. It forms a small artificial pond from which water is bailed out. A pond shallows. Then simply and solely everything that moves is collected to a basket. Catch is not that rich, but it's enough for the tribe to have one meal.

By lunchtime everybody comes back to the village. Men have killed several monkeys. Today the Forest was boon. Buoyancy reigns in the village. There are smiles on pygmies' faxes. There will be a feast this evening. In one of the huts we find induma high tam-tam and ritual rattles for legs. One of older pygmies is already cutting carcasses, settled them on a pole. Catch and bag is divided equally between families. Women are busy with cooking. During this time men are discussing the hunt past, deliberately smoking a grass, rolled up in a leaf of unknown origin, at odd moments roasting on the fire monkey's liver spitted on long and thin stick. Finally the food is ready. Men eat separately of women, but all at the same time.

Pygmies are nomadic people. They do not stay on the same place for a long. Several times in a year pygmies leave their houses, collect the simple belongings and leave in the deafest areas of tropical forest on the tracks known only to them. And the thrown tiny villages grow with vegetation very quickly and already in some time are completely absorbed by the forest.

Today there practically remain no pygmies who to some extent would not adjoin to the civilization. The twentieth century has brought to pygmies only a metal kettle, machete and something from clothes in which they try to dress children. But contact with civilization inevitably leads to disappearance of original culture and traditional way of life of this mysterious people. Unfortunately, it is objective and inevitable thing. That is a sad reality of the modern world where seems to remain no place for small forest people.

But still they gather in a circle just like before where in the centre their simple meal is spread out on arrowroot leaves and silently begin their meal, thanking gods for gifts, which were given them today with their Forest. They are still quiet and slow. It was so yesterday, it is so today and it will possibly be so tomorrow. For it is not known to anybody, even to their most important God.



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Acknowlegements:
Special thanks to designers Dmitry and Vladimir Jakovlev for professionalism and original creative decisions;
to translator Irina Kharakterova for qualified texts translation.