A further installment from last summer’s research trip to the Congo
Within an hour of sunrise, I was woken by the heat. Outside my tent, Jerome sat on a makeshift bench, with his laptop open in front of him.
“If you want to work with these people, you’re going to have to get up earlier than this,” he said.
It was 7 AM.
Next to Jerome sat three Mbendjele men. As I set about making coffee, they watched me carefully, occasionally chatting and laughing, and passing around a joint. The men, it turned out, were brothers, and founding members of the three camps in this part of the forest. Over the following weeks, they became well known to us, as during the days we mapped their family trees; and on a few occasions we followed them along forest trails as they went out to check traps.
We’d traveled here to learn about their lives in a part of the world — the Central African rainforest — where, more than anywhere else, hunting and gathering remains a viable way of life. In line with Jerome’s advice, for the rest of the three months of fieldwork, we woke up earlier, and started work soon after first light. By a couple of hours after dawn, many people would head out into the forest to gather food.
Our work — which in addition to interviews, involved weighing and measuring, and taking saliva samples for genetic analysis — amused some people and perplexed others. But for the most part they put up with it all with patience and good humour.
By afternoon, women would begin drifting back into camp from the forest, carrying whatever they’d found in baskets on their backs: koko (leafy greens), miya (wild yams), bambu (a very sticky, sweet fruit); and sometimes palm-fruit or a few small fish.
As the sun started sinking in the sky, we’d walk down to the river to bathe, and Ndambo, the team’s cook, would prepare our dinner — most often, rice and roast antelope.
After dark a new shift began for the forest community, and sometimes we heard gorillas or elephants calling to each other.
(The gorilla makes a sound (bo-bo-bo-bo!) that inspired their name in BaMbendjele: ebobo).
“They’re the owners of the forest,” the locals said.
Other times the insistent cry of a tree hyrax searching for a mate would echo through the trees.
And on certain nights — we never could predict when — we’d hear the deep voices of those men who’d first welcomed us to their camps, joined with those of the women and children in song.