Thursday, March 19, 2009
Mists of the Ituri Forests.
We were lifting Potatoes when he came walking up to me as I was busy weighing the filled pockets. He was shorter than short; a shock of tight wooly curls on his head and his skin was so black that it had a purplish shine to it. He was stockily built with well muscled arms and legs. His most striking feature, though, was his smile. It was a smile full of pointed teeth as if they had all been filed to sharp points, and it gave his face the effect of a Halloween pumpkin.
Planting himself squarely before me he smiled his wide Halloween smile and said. “Jambo Bwana, My name is Jam, and I am looking for work. I may be smaller than other men, but I can work much harder than them.”
Lifting potatoes requires labor, so I engaged him immediately, and told him to fall into the line of pickers. He worked like a dynamo. Soon there was a stack of filled bags at his station, and he would move up to help the next person in line ahead of him.
My stepfather was driving the tractor powered potato lifter, and when he came level with Jam I could see him reel at Jam’s toothy smile. He said nothing, and kept on with the lifting. Jam worked and sang a song which only he could understand. He had spoken to me in Fanagalo, the lingua franca of black Africa, a language which had no defined origins, but believed by some to have sourced in the mines of South Africa, and spread all through southern Africa. When the vernacular was not understood by the Europeans, Fanagalo was spoken and the parties could communicate. His greeting of “Jambo Bwana,” was Swahili, the language of East and Central Equatorial Africa.
Jam worked like a demon, and throughout the two weeks we spent lifting the crop he was handy at every aspect of the job. I liked his friendly banter and his cheerful disposition. My stepfather did not. To him Jam looked like a cannibal, and he treated him with utmost suspicion. I had a room vacant in my backyard, and I allowed Jam to move in there. All he had in the way of belongings were a bedroll composed of three really threadbare blankets and an old feather pillow. He also had a cheap cardboard suitcase with a change of clothing and a wet bag which contained a piece of soap and a face cloth. A duiker skin bag which contained some bones and other paraphernalia of the witch doctor completed his outfit.
I needed a house boy, and when Jam told me that he had worked as a cook for a Safari company in Kenya, I immediately employed him to work in the house. We had cement floors, and they needed to be polished once every week. Jam would be on his hands and knees waxing and polishing the floors till you could see your reflection in them. He worked out a rhythm with the polish brush and the soft cloth as he progressed over the floor. My daughter was two years old, and would ride on his back while he polished, screeching with mirth. Jam would smile his toothy grin, and seemed to enjoy the game as much as she did. He spoiled her terribly, and as far as he was concerned Michelle could do no wrong. My parents were concerned that he was a cannibal, and unsafe with my young family, so one day I asked him, “Jam have you ever eaten human flesh?” “Ndio Bwana,“ was his affirmative reply, “I have, but that was when I was very young, and now the government has stopped that practice, and I have become a Christian so that it is no longer something I would want to do.” When I enquired as to which part of the human body was the tastiest he slapped the palms of his hands and said, “Here,” and taking me by the under part of the upper arm grinned his evil grin and stated, “This is the softest part.”
One day after Jam had been with me for about a year He came to me and asked me for leave of absence to go home to his village in the Congo. I enquired where his home was, and he said it was in the Ituri forests near the shore of Lake Tanganyika. He said that his mother was a Babenzela pygmy of the Mbuti peoples, but his father was a Bantu who lived at the edge of the Ituri forest. I asked him if there were Gorillas near his home, and he replied that they were his neighbors. This prickled my interest, and soon I was making plans to accompany him in my Land Rover. I had not had a break from the farm for about three years, and decided that a trip of this nature would be very therapeutic. The first thing I loaded was a forty four gallon drum of fuel for the Landy, and then two bags of maize meal and about fifty pounds of coarse salt. I had a wooden crate which housed my tinned food as well as my eating utensils. A sturdy suitcase held a few changes of clothes, a pair of extra velschoens and my toiletries. My rubber mattress was wrapped together with my two blankets and a sleeping bag into a small tarpaulin. This would serve as a ground sheet for my bed. A ten gallon cream can was filled with clean borehole water for drinking and cooking.
I purchased a range of gifts such as hand mirrors, combs, face cream, hair oil, glass beads, assorted cheap knives, four axes, a few hoes and two bow saws, and a few lengths of cloth for wrap around dresses. Then also some assorted pieces of clothing like shorts and shirts, Head scarves, belts and socks. Tobacco, sugar, matches, hard candy, snuff, Wilson’s toffees, and gob stoppers (Known colloquially as “Nigger balls”) completed the gifts.
I had a sizeable medical kit with bandages, gauze, iodine, aspirin, Quinine, burn ointment, zinc ointment and a large tin of zambuck herbal salve, including a big jar of petroleum jelly, a large bottle of castor oil, some Epsom salts and boracic crystals. A Fitzsimmons snake bite kit made up the complement of medicines. A case of forty eight quarter bottles of cheap brandy was loaded with four half bottles of gin. I also included two bottles of better brandy and a bottle of good scotch in case we had some discerning visitors.
After some contemplation I decided to take my Brno .22 hornet centre fire rifle, mainly because it had good hitting power, and the ammunition was easy to carry. I could bring down a kudu with it, and it was adequate for smaller game for the pot. It was put into a padded bag and sequestered behind the seat rests. A hundred and fifty rounds of ammunition seemed enough for the trip. I did not contemplate hunting earnestly.
We set off at four a.m. on Sunday. I had serviced the Land Rover which ran like a Swiss watch. The two tanks located beneath the seats, each holding ten gallons of fuel were full, and with a forty four gallon drum extra I reckoned we should go far before filling up again. Driving through the farmlands I skirted Lusaka and met the Great North Road at Mkushi, heading for Mpika and ultimately Abercorn at the tip of Lake Tanyanika. It was a three day trip to get there, and we passed through some really desolate countryside. The villages along the road were so poor that they did not even have fowls, and I spied one emaciated dog scavenging for scraps near our one camp. It seemed the villagers survived on porridge cooked from the cassava root, which was a glutinous mess that was most unappetizing. Fortunately we had enough food so that we could eat without having to barter for some of their Cassava.
Travelling along the Great North Road the country was devoid of all animal life. The forest along the sides of the road was composed mostly of tall miombo trees and dense scratchy undergrowth. Where the forest opened up the grass was tall and coarse. At dusk we selected a camp site and Jam soon gathered up a pile of firewood for the night while I broke out some provisions for supper. I placed my bedroll next to the back wheel of the Landy while jam nestled down close to the fire. With the dawn we would pack up and be on our way. The road was corrugated and dusty, and I tried everything to alleviate the dust barreling into the canvas tent of the vehicle and covering everything with affine layer layer. The best solution was to roll up all the sides of the canopy, but the dust still permeated everything and by the day’s end we were still covered in the stuff.
Late on the fourth day we came over a rise and there lay Abercorn ahead of us. We found a shady spot just outside of the town and made camp. I splashed some of our precious water into a basin and washed off as much dust as I could, and when the sun set we went to sleep. I was utterly exhausted and slept like the dead. When we awoke we made a leisurely breakfast and cleaned out and repacked the Land Rover, and headed out for the town. The first stop was at the filling station where we refilled the fuel containers and the water can. Then I went shopping to replenish some groceries before setting off for Lake Tanganyika.
The night was spent at the tip of the lake where the Northern Rhodesian authorities had a fishing camp at Kasaba Bay. It was a beautifully clear day that we awakened to, and the Lake sparkled in the early morning sun as we drove off around its tip heading north with the lake on our right hand side. We hugged the shoreline, sometimes using motor tracks, and at times single footpaths. There were many small settlements along the shore where fishermen launched their dugout canoes to go fishing using gill nets which they set at night and emptied in the morning. They would be back at about ten in the morning, and it was a chance to buy some delicious tilapia fish. This fish, gutted and cleaned and basted on the coals using some butter, which I carried in tins, was the most delicious I had ever tasted. The fishermen were friendly and cheerful, and sometimes would not even accept payment for a fish or two, so I traded them for tobacco and sugar.
I did not have a passport, so I stayed out of the towns and travelled on the minor paths. Jam knew the countryside, and spoke the language, so I had a ready interpreter, as well as a shrewd trader. The people were friendly and always smiling, and gave Jam all the relevant information as to the movements of officialdom. I had found a John Bull Printing kit which consisted of rubber letters and grooved wooden blocks and by inserting the letters any form of rubber stamp could be made. With three stamp pads in green, black and purple a letter could be filled with a variety of stamps making the document look very official. I also had a few letterheads with some very smart looking symbols, and with the use of my portable typewriter I had written a few letters asking the assistance of any officials to which they were presented. I had discovered that all Africans are suitably impressed by rubber stamps, and the more a letter carries the more impressed they are by it. I therefore carried a number in my bag, and had never found them not to work.
Our progress north up the lakeside was good, and each evening we made camp in a scenic spot. I enjoyed the lake scenery, putting out a fold up chair next to the fire, sipping a scotch while contemplating the waters of one of the great lakes of Africa. When Jam declared that we had reached the turnoff point I was very reluctant to leave the lake. How he knew where exactly we needed to turn away I cannot tell because all the tracks turning away from the lakeshore looked alike to me. But I bowed to his superior knowledge and followed his directions.
As we drew further away from the lake the road began to deteriorate, and soon the tracks became two ruts with massive potholes and the going slowed to a crawl. The track we were following ran in a north westerly direction, and we soon found ourselves in a vast grassy area. The grass was often as thick as my forefinger with creepers entwined around the stems. The grass had fallen over the road and the going was slowed even more.
“Bwana now is the time to take out the rifle, as there is much game here, and some fresh meat will be welcome. Also we are near to my father’s village, and if we can bring them some nyama (meat) they will be very pleased.” Jam rolled back the canvas from the windshield and stood on the seat with his head and shoulders above the screen while he surveyed the plain. I had clipped the rifle into the holding brackets against the dashboard, and soon he bobbed down and touched my shoulder. I stopped and climbed onto my seat and looked in the direction he was pointing and saw a small group of Topi not thirty yards off. Sighting over the screen I gave a fat cow a neck shot, and it collapsed in its tracks. Jam was off like a hare and ran straight to where the animal lay. He could not even see over the grass but he ran absolutely true.
We gutted the Topi, and loaded the carcass to be skinned out at our next campsite. The weather was hot, and I was afraid that it may spoil before we could cut biltong strips and cure the meat. Jam was not worried however, and when we reached an isolated patch of bush I insisted on putting up camp and cutting up the carcass. That night I hung out the strips of meat so that they could dry in the wind and form a hard film on their surface. The bony cuts Lam smoked over a slow fire. I hoped that we did not have too far to go, because that smoked meat was not very well done and I feared the stench it would create as the day became hotter.
Around mid morning I saw a flash of sun on a corrugated iron roof, and Jam announced that it was his father’s house. In The distance I also spied a line of dark green, and he said that it was the start of the Ituri Forests. I could scarcely contain my excitement. We rolled into the swept yard of the small group of buildings, some thatched rondavels (round buildings), with a brick built iron roofed house dominating. I could not help feeling that an iron roof was impractical in such pressing heat and the thatch so much cooler, but it was also the prestige that counted. Parking in the shade of a spreading hook thorn tree I got out stretching my legs, and Jam approached the house.
A tall spare man came to the door, and when he saw Jam he smiled broadly and held out his arms to welcome him. Jam clapped his hands respectfully and knelt on one knee. The man pulled him up by the elbow and pounded his back. His name was Mlambo, and he was Jam’s father. When he grinned at me I saw his rows of pointed teeth.
We made camp just outside the village under a few Camel Thorn trees, a nice shady spot, and while Jam cleared and swept the ground I stretched some wire and hung out the biltong. The meat Jam had smoked was carried into his father’s house. That evening the old man and his wives came and sat at our fire, bringing with them a large pot of Pombe, the local brew made from millet. I took a courteous sip, and passed on the pot. Afterwards I poured a shot of scotch and sat listening to their chatter. Now and again Jam translated for my sake, and I gathered the old man was asking if my rifle was strong enough to down a warthog. Jam gesticulated the slaying of the Topi, and assured the old man that in the morning we would find him a warthog and bring it home.
We set out at the crack of dawn, and about two miles from the village I saw a massive warthog boar standing watching us with tusks raised I aimed for the base of the neck and when the shot sounded the boar went down kicking up a cloud of dust and immediately got to its feet and ran off at top speed. Jam grabbed his spear and set off after it running like the wind. I followed in the Land Rover, and soon came up to where the pig had gone down. Jam was standing a few yards away and I could see that the pig was not quite dead yet, but was lying on his chest grunting furiously. I stopped and gave it another round high up on the head and it rolled over on its side. Jam ran up to the pig and slashed the neck just below the jaw severing the jugular vein and the pig bled out profusely.
We loaded the pig and headed back to camp using a circuitous route along a crystal clear fast running stream. We encountered a large Reedbuck ram, and it succumbed to a neck shot. This was a welcome find as I am very partial to Reedbuck meat. Back at camp I skinned the buck myself, and carefully cut a saddle for pot roasting. The rest was cut into biltong strips, and the bone cuts again went to the village. The warthog was presented to Mlambo, and he showed his pleasure by displaying his set of pointed teeth. I supposed pork tastes almost like human flesh, so that the pig was a good substitute, and must have reminded the old rascal of days gone by.
We stayed three more days at the village, and every night the feasting and dancing lasted well into the small hours of the morning. By the third day I had had enough of all the nightly racket and I told Jam the time had come for me to move on. We packed up the camp late the third day, and slept on the ground next to the Landy. With the dawn we were off heading for that unbroken line of green, the track becoming worse with the Land Rover swaying and crashing through the deep ruts. I was afraid of breaking a spring, so I took great care to negotiate the best path. Late that day we entered the forest and it was like going back in time to primeval days. Massive trees reached for the heavens with the canopy closing in over our heads. Dense undergrowth hemmed us in from both sides. The track became ill defined and the vehicle could scarcely proceed without being stopped by undergrowth and trees in its path. In places Jam needed to walk ahead to find a suitable route. We crossed a myriad of small streams where only a few logs served as a bridge.
Abruptly we came to a clearing next to a giant of the forest and I could see a number of crude huts dotted around. They were constructed of bent saplings and covered with broad leaves. There was no one to be seen, and Jam got down and started to call. Soon the Pygmies came back by ones and twos as they regained courage and curiosity. We had arrived in the Ituri Forests. It felt as if we had gone back in time to the dawn of creation. The forest was overwhelmingly big in every way with tall trees of huge girth sporting vines as thick as my arm, and the undergrowth was thick and almost impenetrable. Jam cleared a spot for us not far from the Pygmy village, and we set up camp. I sat on the campstool and waited, and soon some pygmies came shyly towards us. They were a bit smaller than Jam, but not as small as I had pictured them to be. The children came up to me when I offered them some sweets, and could not resist feeling my hair and touching my white skin. I noticed that their teeth were not cut into points and their smiles were sunny and cheerful. I instructed Jam to dole out some maize meal and coarse salt to them and hand them a pile of dried biltong.
The men had been told to look for signs of the gorillas as they hunted in the rainforest, and about nine the next morning a small cluster of them came to our camp and told us that a family group had been seen not far from where we were. We set off immediately, as the ground mist had started to lift, and I had to crouch and duck through all the undergrowth fairly running to keep pace with the Pygmies. Suddenly the leader stopped dead in his tracks and pointed forward with his spear. Crouching I moved forward and looked in the direction in which he was pointing. I could see nothing, just vegetation and the bole of a huge tree. He stood stock still pointing, and I sighted down the length of his spear. As my eyes focused I suddenly made out the bulk of a massive ape. He was sitting on his haunches eating the pith of what looked like a banana tree. He sat serenely like an elder at a meeting, while gazing fixedly at us. I had not seen him because I was intent on looking at least twenty yards further than where he actually was. The ape stood up on bent hind legs yawned wide, showing a dangerous set of teeth, and beat on his chest with cupped hands. Then he turned and sauntered off into the undergrowth turning his back on us. I could see the silver hair on his lower back, and his shoulders gave the impression of immense power. Carefully we stalked forward, and soon we spotted the rest of his family. They were in a shady glade sitting and grooming each other. We stopped just inside the dense bush and the pygmy leader motioned for us to sit down. Maintaining silence we watched the family sitting in the shade, and I marveled at their beauty. To me they were an attestation to the brilliance of our Creator’s ability. After about an hour the Patriarch got tired of our presence stood up on all fours, gazing at us he lifted his brow a few times as if to say, “Follow us if you dare,” grunted and led the group of into the jungle. I had seen a sight which very few people are privileged to behold.
Over the next few days we saw the group four more times, and then they disappeared further into the rainforest and we did not see them again. I was satisfied, the sightings I had enjoyed were sufficient. The old silverback was etched into my memory, and I will always cherish the encounter as one of the natural wonders I have had the fortune to experience.
On our way back to camp we also spotted an Okapi female standing broadside on before melting away into the forest. Jam had urged me to shoot it for meat but I refused feeling that it would be sacrilege to kill such a perfect animal. But later that day we drove back to the plain and I shot another warthog, and on the way back a big bushbuck ram.
The following day we broke camp, and after handing out some gifts, Knives for the men and cloth and beads for the women and sweets for the children, we headed back to Mlambo’s village where we spent a few hours. Jam presented him with a bag full of maize meal and I gave him some tinned meat and two packets of biscuits; then taking our leave we went off the way we had come. Before leaving the plain we saw a herd of about fifty Eland standing well within rifle range, but I refused to shoot at them with the low caliber rifle I had with us. I explained to Jam that we had achieved our objectives for this trip, and next time I may again come back to view the Virunga range of volcanoes and to see the Ruwenzori; the Mountains of the moon.
This time we travelled through the pedicle (that strip of the Congo which almost dissects Zambia) after crossing the Luapula River by ferry, and showing the guard at the barrier my “travel document,” he raised the boom and we were off to Mufulira and back home again. The road this time was tarred and we made quick time to the farm. I was just in time to start plowing for the coming maize crop. The trip into those dark damp forests will live in my memory forever. Jam stayed with us for another year, and then the restlessness overtook him and he left for fresher pastures. We never saw him again, and years later I heard that a skeleton had been found in the long grass next to the road leading from our farm into the native reserve, and the skull had pointed teeth. Jam had come to a tragic end. He was a good friend, but did not fit in with the local population. I will however remember him with fondness. His killer was never found.