The bus to Epulu was at least two decades old with fine red cloth interior and an opening on the roof to let air in. We took our tickets from the skinny old man from the restaurant, got on, and saw that all the male passengers on board had taken their shirts off. The bus engine had not yet been turned on, so the cabin was hot and smelled like sweat. David and I promptly removed our shirts too.
Immediately, all pairs of eyes shot to our hairy chests. This wasn’t the first time Africans were amazed at the body hair we white men grew. A few minutes later I felt a tug on my arm hair. A curious bare-chested boy of about six was stroking the hairs of my arm as if I was some kind of pet. His mother didn’t stop him. Instead, she gave me a puzzled glance as if to ask if it was possible to touch my arm hair as well. I nodded and smiled and together mother and son petted me, their new furry friend.
The driver started up the engine. Our hearts sank when the air conditioning didn’t come on. We tried to pry open the windows to get some fresh air, but they were locked shut. The last person on the bus was a child ticket collector. He yelled in some local language for everyone to take out their tickets in an impressively deep voice. As he walked down the aisle checking tickets, we saw that he also had a thick mustache and some nice facial hair growing on his jaw.
I looked around the bus and started noticing some other children with facial hair as well. Why did everyone in this country have facial hair?
When the ticket collector approached us, I realized he wasn’t a child, just an extremely short man. There was no way he was taller than four foot six.
“Holy shit, dude!” David cackled. “He’s a Pygmy!”
The word Pygmy is a general term for members of an ethnic group whose average height is unusually short. Pygmy adult men are on average less than four feet eleven inches tall. Most Pygmy communities are located in rain forest environments and operate as hunter-gatherer societies. It is estimated there are 250,000-600,000 living in the Congo rain forest. Our bus ride to Epulu also showed that some Pygmies are venturing out of the forest entirely and taking up in employment in sectors beyond subsistence living.
At the end of the Second Congo War in 2003, Pygmies had been hunted down and eaten by militias as if they were animals. Both sides of the war viewed the Pygmies as “subhuman” and many people believed their flesh granted magical power to those who consumed it. The group primarily responsible for the violence and cannibalism of the Pygmies, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, is currently the main opposition party in the Congolese government.
Three flat tires and twelve hours later, the bus stopped in front of Epulu’s major military checkpoint just after three o’clock in the morning. Naturally, when we two hairy white guys came off from the bus, soldiers pulled us aside.
“Registration,” a droopy-eyed soldier said calmly in the quiet dead of night as he led us to a fairly well-preserved cabin a few dozen feet away. We looked around and saw an array of other nice cabins. It felt like we’d arrived at a forest ranger station, not a military posting.
We walked up a flight of steps, entered the cabin, and were met by a tired officer who spoke a bit of broken English. He asked to see our passports. Handing our passports back to us, the officer told us half-heartedly we’d broken the law by entering Orientale Province without a permit.
“We have transit visas and nowhere do the transit visas state that we’re restricted to one Congolese province,” David explained.
It wasn’t clear if the officer understood every word of what David said, but he nevertheless told us we had to pay a fine for our transgression. Worn out from the drive, but still not wanting to pay a corrupt officer a bribe, we played dumb and pretended we didn’t understand what he said.
This frustrated him badly, so he switched tactics and tried to usher us into one of Epulu’s fine hotels.
“Combien pour une nuit?” David asked in French. How much for a night?
“Cent dollars,” the officer replied. One hundred dollars.
“Non, non! Very expensive!”
The officer shrugged his arms. He thought he totally had us and would make a nice bit of money off a hotel referral. But then I pointed to the tent attached to my backpack.
“We can sleep outside in this?” I asked.
The officer stared at me confused, as if he couldn’t comprehend the unfolding situation. “There are white people who sleep in tents? This must be a joke.”
He uttered oui as if it were a question, like he himself wanted to see where this was going. David and I left the cabin with the officer walking right behind us. He called over a bunch of his soldiers to witness the spectacle. We found a nice patch of clear grass a few tens of meters away from a river embankment, took out our head flashlights, and began to pitch our tent. All the while this officer watched us in disbelief.
When our tent was ready, we put our backpacks inside along with the sewed up bed sheets we used as sleeping bags and bid the officer bonne nuit. Puzzled, the officer and his soldiers smiled and wished us bonne nuit in return.
|David and I taking a selfie in front of our camping site in Epulu.|
We woke up late the next morning to the calming sound of the nearby river. We took our dirty clothes along with some soap and brushes to its banks and scrubbed them down, using the river water to wash them clean. When our clothes were mostly dry, we packed up the tent and the rest of our belongings and left the military outpost. The soldiers on duty during the night had since been relieved, and their replacements didn’t seem to know who we were or why we were coming from the river.
We walked a few kilometers up the dusty dirt road until we reached an area lined with a few dozen mud-brick buildings with thatched roofs. Other than a few corner stores selling basic provisions like tomato paste and eggs, there wasn’t too much going on there. Mostly naked, unsupervised children ran around the road kicking various pieces of garbage. Adults sat in front of the different buildings staring into space. This was downtown Epulu.
|David on the main drag in Epulu.|
After booking a room with two beds in a mud-built hotel for ten dollars a night, we asked an exceptionally short Pygmy man which way to the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. Without saying a word, he sullenly looked over at the direction down the road leading out of town and pointed straight with his entire hand.
As we walked, we saw dozens of Pygmy men and women in mostly torn clothing carrying various goods in the opposite direction. Not one person had a smile and no one made the slightest eye contact with us. It was as if they were ghosts. They looked mentally and physically broken down. As each Pygmy passed us by, David and I felt we were entirely invisible.
We thought it would be awkward and insulting to ask Pygmies to pose in pictures with us, so David and I snapped pictures of each other while carefully capturing the unknowing Pygmies in the background.
I couldn’t imagine the kind of horror and pain these people had experienced in the decades prior to our visit, so I didn’t judge their behavior. I considered the possibility that they were just beat and hungry. But I also thought that maybe these forest people just preferred to be left alone and couldn’t trust someone not of their own kind, especially not scary giants like David and me.
Giants? Me and David? The idea sounded preposterous. I was just about six feet tall, but David was only five foot four. Still, David looked huge next to these people. It wouldn’t have been too surprising if these Pygmies were naturally afraid of men like us.
We encountered Africans in extremely remote villages without much exposure to white people who reacted in all sorts of ways to us. Some, like the mother and child on the bus to Epulu, stroked our body hair like we were pets. Others, we discovered, believed that white men had magical powers, were extremely dangerous, and not to be trusted. Some small children even cried when they saw us walking down a street, as if they didn’t know what species we were.
The Okapi Wildlife Reserve itself was beautiful. The park is 24,000 square kilometers but the area accessible to visitors was the small Epulu Conservation and Research Center. It was directly underneath extremely dense forest cover in the Ituri Forest.
There, fourteen shy okapi and their half dozen Congolese and foreign caretakers maintained a tranquil existence that seemed far removed from the chaos and instability that plagued Congo. The staff, led by a British conservationist who had lived in Congo with her husband on and off for decades, were very excited to have us as guests.
“Having visitors is an extremely welcome treat,” she said. “We’re mostly just left out here all alone.”
A year after our visit, on the morning of June 24, 2012, I’m sure she and the rest of her staff would have preferred it that way.
That day, fifty men from the Mai Mai rebel group emerged from deep in the Ituri Forest led by a feared elephant poacher named Morgan. Armed with AK-47s and machine guns, they looted and burned down the research center and murdered two park rangers, the wife of another, and four more people in the town of Epulu. Women were taken hostage and raped. Other buildings and businesses in Epulu were looted and burned to the ground. Thirteen of the fourteen okapi were shot dead during that horror-filled day. The fourteenth okapi, wounded and severely traumatized, died shortly after.
Ironically, I heard about this tragedy the day after it happened from a zoo worker while visiting the okapi section of the Cincinnati Zoo. Looking at the tranquil okapi and thinking about the people I’d met who worked there at the Epulu Center, I thought I might throw up. It reminded me that in Congo, even in the most seemingly tranquil setting, danger and catastrophe always lurk close by.
After our day at Epulu, we decided we needed time in real authentic nature. We got up at a decent hour, bought some bananas, bread, and water, and headed in a random direction inside the Ituri Forest. We walked for about six hours through uninterrupted rain forest. We climbed up to see magnificent views of Congo’s scenery and really felt as though we were in a part of a world untapped by humanity.
Until we came across a totally authentic Pygmy village of eight huts and a fire pit. The village was completely empty, but there were traces of life. Some recently burned wood and a few gutted animal carcasses were lying around. Each of the huts was less than a meter and a half tall and made entirely of tree branches, leaves, and mud. There were no identifiable valuables to be found of any kind, not even a sleeping mat or a cloth pillow-case filled with leaves.
These habitats were more basic than anything I’d ever seen before. It was like the Pygmies of Congo were living in the Stone Age.
Ironically, David and I had started asking ourselves that same question and we were fast coming up with the definitive answer: It sucks.
This was the fifth day of our Congo excursion and we were starving. The only meal we’d had of substance in the country was the feast of chicken and chips with the South American generals. We’d been surviving on bananas, mangoes, and bread. Everything else we ate we bought in what we called “food huts.” Calling a “food hut” by the term “restaurant” would have been giving it way too much credit. In the food huts, we were nearly always served barely edible soggy rice and bush meat, of which we could stomach very little.
Bush meat refers to wild game hunted by locals. The meat could have literally been anything: rabbit, goat, ox, pig, or ape. I prefer not to think about what we ingested out of sheer necessity. Frequently, many food hut owners regrettably informed us they simply didn’t have any food on a given day. The night before, when David and I returned from seeing the okapi, almost none of the food huts in Epulu had anything to eat. One food hut owner, an older aggressive woman who was taller even than me, laughed off our hungry plight and told us to come back the next day if we wanted to eat.
Instead, we went to a corner store and purchased raw eggs, tomato paste, and rice from a woman working there. We tried our best to explain we didn’t have any way to cook it and begged her to prepare it for us. At first she shrugged off our request, even after being offered extra money, but then agreed when she understood how desperate we were. She went down the street to a few of her friends and returned with a pot, a frying pan, oil, and a large bottle of water.
Only then did we really understand. Her initial refusal to prepare the food really had nothing to do with money. It was really simply a huge hassle to collect all the ingredients and dishes necessary to prepare a simple meal. It was easier to let us starve.
When we arrived back in Epulu after our hike that day, we were extraordinarily hungry and starting to feel extremely irritable. Hunger changes people. Without consistent access to basic nourishment, a human being can turn into an angry animal incapable of empathy with others. Although Epulu had been fairly calm and pleasant, David and I still didn’t feel safe trusting many of the Congolese, who continued to watch us from afar with guarded suspicion. Our hunger only fueled our feelings of paranoia.
We returned to the woman who had cooked for us the night before. This time she offered to sell us only the eggs, tomato paste, and rice. She refused to go through the hassle of cooking for the two white men. When we insisted she change her mind and offered more money than before, she looked on at us with scolding eyes.
After the intensity of our hike, we were truly, desperately hungry. We nearly started screaming and cursing at her in English. Luckily, an angel came to save the day.
“My brothas,” a male voice called out from behind us. We turned around and saw a tall, muscular man in his mid-20s with unkempt hair and very dark brown skin. “Come join me and mah fellas. There will be enough food for you two.”
David and I smiled. We recognized this man’s facial features and accent. He was from Kenya. The best part of our adventure in Africa up until then had been in Kenya. Though Kenya certainly has its issues with safety, we found the vast majority of Kenyan people exceedingly friendly, warm, and fun to be around. Compared to the Congolese at least, this man whom we’d known for all of five seconds was like a brother.
No questions asked, we followed him down Epulu’s main road to a small encampment he’d set up near a large eighteen-wheel truck. He introduced us to his two companions, older men with beards who were drinking ice cold Tuskers, a popular brand of Kenyan beer.
“It is an honor for you to be with us,” he said as he patted us on our backs. “Today is a celebration because tomorrow we get to leave this dark place!”
While his companions cooked a vegetable stew on a burner and heated up some bread, our new Kenyan friend explained that the three of them were truckers delivering construction equipment from Mombasa on the Kenyan coast to Kisengani, a few hundred kilometers west of Epulu, for a Chinese company.
“We stopped the truck right here in this town only for a night,” he said. “But in the morning, the truck was broke! My fella here checked the engine and saw that a very important piece of the engine was missing. The people here broke into our truck and robbed us of our ability to leave! I found a phone to call the Chinese boss and he was very upset.”
“So he sent you some help?” David asked.
“No sir! He just told us he would not pay us until we made our delivery.”
“But how could you make your delivery with a broken truck?”
“I don’t know. He is a bad man! He refused to send us any help. So we took the money we had and we sent our other fella back to Kenya to get the missing part! He arrived back here a few days ago. He fixed up the truck and now we are going back to Kenya.”
“You’re not going to make the delivery now?”
“For that China man? I don’t think so! We’ve been here for three bloody months! We had no money for anything. Our families don’t even know where we are! We don’t have a phone. We don’t have Internet here. My wife was pregnant when I left. Now I am a father. I have to go see my family.”
“How did you survive without money for three months?”
“It was so hard. We did little mechanical jobs for people on the trucks and cars. We barely got paid anything. The people here are animals. They are not like you and me!”
David and I looked at each other and back at the Kenyan and were flattered by the feeling of commonality.
We told him about our Congo trip thus far, including of our adventures that day in the forest.
“You are very naïve men! There are elephant poachers in the forest at all times. They would not hesitate to kill two white men like you and feast on your meat! These people don’t care about the human life. If they smell weakness they will eat you alive. This place Congo is very bad. I will leave and never come back here. This is not civilization. This country is hell! You have been lucky so far. But you must get out of here while you can!”
After that story, we didn’t need much convincing. The Kenyans said we were welcome to hitch a ride with them on their truck and that they’d give us a good price for the journey. We politely declined. They were making their way to a border crossing north of Kasindi, where the roads were much easier to navigate, while we were en route to Rwanda.
Part 4 to come