We pushed off from Opala with two pigs, four goats, several chickens and a duck to eat along the way.
We had to make the trip. It was the only way to know if armed rebels still lurk the banks of the Lomami River; the only way to know if the doomed village has entirely disappeared; the only way to make good on the new law proclaiming as Provincial Park more than 6000km2. Without phone, Internet or even other travelers along the river – we had to do it ourselves
The Parks director, Dedieu, signed onto the mission. We borrowed 15 park guards from Maiko National Park. Freddy Okangola from the provincial consul (CCPF) came to deal with Obenge’s displaced people, at least those in Opala.
Dedieu inspects the shotgun we confiscated from a poachers’ camp on the 7th day of our dugout trip.
A very short background: In February 2013 a poaching gang turned rebel and ripped the village of Obenge into warring factions; they murdered one of our TL2 workers, whipped him to death. Although military moved in, presumably to capture the rebels, the brigands nearly assassinated a second Obenge villager, the new chief, Alacho.
Okangola gesticulates as he speaks with the Obenge refugees. Alacho is second from his right.
Fired on from the riverbank, Alacho dove in the water and swam to safety. Afraid even to go to their gardens, the villagers decided to abandon what had become a cursed village. Each family built a raft from bamboo and stocked it as well as they were able. One or several rafts at a time shoved off downstream towards Opala.
Were only the military left in Obenge? We had to find out. And we had to show (or not) that the river was safe and the park clear of its rebel threat.
Here is the trip:
22 November : Dedieu and I make a motorbike trip from Opala to Yawende and back to inform local chiefs that a mixed team of park guards with a TL2 project leader will be entering their forest to cross to Obenge on foot (7 day march).
22 – 24 November : Okangola meets with the displaced people from Obenge who state and sign a document confirming :
“We refuse to return to Obenge; we ask the government for protection and aid.”
25 November : Dedieu and I, with the remaining nine guards, our TL2 team leader Bofenda, several other TL2 workers, our helmsman and an army captain start upriver in the dugout.
First night (25th Nov.): sleep in an empty fishing camp
26 November : My watch says 5:15 AM. The tent has become precarious in a sudden downpour; will the moorings hold? But still, as a shelter, it is much more secure than that of my 15 companions – all men. When I slipped out of the tent, as quietly as I could, at 4 AM, I saw others sleeping on their thin mattresses, open beneath the deepening clouds. I held my head lamp low and half covered as I stepped carefully around tents and bodies to the back of one of the decayed leaf hovels to relieve myself.
The snoring never stopped. The loudest was from the tent of the lieutenant. The Army captain seemed to sleep more quietly – self-possessed. But the nine guards – did they even sleep? Singing, talking all night and where did they scatter in this torrent? There are at least two leaks in my tent.
Late morning: The goats were fed all the banana peels and totally squished bananas that I bought in Opala. It is still raining – almost since we pushed off, and it is now now 10:30. Only the pig got no bananas. I think maybe that is why he bit the captain’s calf. Anyway it is still raining.
Second night (26th Nov.): sleep in fishing camp at the mouth of the Ilipa River
27 November: Yesterday we finally pulled into the mouth of the Ilipa after 18 hours. We had been on the Lomami for more than 11 hours without even a stop to take a leak. The men have a certain facility for taking care of their problems over the side of the dugout. I am drinking very little.
The park guards sitting on the bow with the goats , as well as those in the back on the baggage, manage without rain coats or even proper jackets. At one point when the heavy patter against the Lomami turned to a downpour the captain passed forward his poncho for the guards to duck under. Frequent cigarettes seem to replace the heat of the sun. Bolenga, at the outboard motor, complained that he was being drugged by cigarette smoke sweeping aft. Although my guess is that he has already been quite adequately drugged with the tobacco that he snorts.
Following our progress on the plasticized map, it is disappointing to see how little progress we have made. Lomami is very high, the current is strong and we have only a 25 horsepower motor to push a heavy load.
We stopped at Ossio at the mouth of the Ndulu River where we met the army soldier, Willy, who was apparently sent out with three others from Obenge to wait for us. The army Lt knew that I was coming (our thuraya), but feared I did not have an adequate armed escort. We stopped for a few minutes at Ndulu, where there is a permanent tiny fishing village. I was glad for the chance to slip off into the trees, then I sat for a few minutes on a wooden chair while others went to relieve themselves, and while Willy regaled us with conditions in Obenge. I knew in minutes that the chair was infested with bedbugs. We all piled back in the dugout along with Willy and one other soldier; I was already scratching the rising welts.
Cramped in a complicated position for his long legs, Willy, none-the-less, pulled out his version of a local hookah for hashish. It was a plastic bottle from some woman’s beauty product and a piece of pastic tubing– the kind used to siphon gasoline out of barrels into jerry cans.
Black mangabeys spotted in a large group before we get to Masasi. Wherever there is high ground behind the freshwater mangroves, I see patches of Gilbertiodendron forest with its new leaves like small red flags in the wall of green. A large group of red colobus along the banks and Masasi still ahead.
Third night (27th Nov.): sleep in the tiny village of Masasi.
28 November: Only four families of refugee families from Obenge here at Masasi. Others are at Ungwaina and Chekecheke.
Along the edges of the water: hanging roots, trailing branches. Branches that were once high are now pulled downstream by the flooding water. Few flowers, mostly red; they light up the wall of forest as our heavy dug-out churns past.
White Ibis in the branches of a Uapaca. Hadada registering our passage with their haunted repetitions.
Now we only have one recorded song playing. I objected to having two different songs, one fore and one aft. A drunken soldier is sprawled asleep in the base of the dugout. A woman with a child and her pots was also added; she is the pygmy “wife” of one of the soldiers. All headed back to their “military base” at Obenge.
Now, in the rains, the Lomami has spilled over its banks into many back waters. They seem to expand endlessly in brief glimpses through overhanging branches. Stilt roots and leaves shimmer on an unmoving plate of reflection.
A little kingfisher with a bright red breast watches the climbing in and out at Ungwaina.
We left our worker, Janvier, in Ungwaina. Instead of hiking across the forest with Omo’s team, Janvier came upriver with us to see his mother who is a refugee from Obenge – their home village. Janvier worked through the year at Obenge until he took his family to safety in Opala in July. Now, before returning to work, he wanted the blessing of his mother. She did not give it. Instead she said that if he returned to Obenge she, herself, would commit suicide. Truly Obenge is cursed in the eyes of many, most particularly the people of Obenge, themselves.
Fourth night (28th Nov.) : sleep at Katondo, empty fishing camp
29 November: Pull out from Katonda at 6:25 AM.
There is a grand emergence of small mayflies everywhere over the river. From bend to bend on the flat river, or on slight ripples , here and there on a spinning surface, the Lomami has raised millions and millions of tiny wing sails. Myriads of mayflies emerged, exulted, mated and fell while I still slept. Still the air is full of them: a diaphanous, weakly fluttering curtain stretching up as a continuous layer over the water from its surface to the height of the canopy. We part it with the bow of the dugout, heading upriver, heading south.
The soldier who was so drunk yesterday is still disoriented and now sound asleep in the hold of the dugout.
When they carried my sack to my tent last night I realized that it had been urinated on by the goats. Now I have a distinct redolence…
We arrive at Obenge at about 12 noon. We walk up immediately to our basecamp. Yes, it has been burned and knocked level.
We went to greet the section of military still present; Lt Alpha said that our camp was destroyed for security reasons. They couldn’t permit rebels to sneak up on them by taking cover in abandoned buildings…not in our camp or unused houses in the village.
Fifth night (29th Nov): sleep next to our destroyed base in Obenge
30 November: The pirogue is roomy now and comfortable. Even the goats, the two that are left, seem content chewing their cud up on the bow. They had all yesterday afternoon to browse in Obenge camp. The dugout is so much lighter it seems to skid over the green-brown of the Lomami.
As we left Obenge, still waving, we passed a tree growing out parallel over the Lomami, Six egrets stood poised among the leafy branches like six banners raised in salute against a sky of varied green.
We left Bebe Bofenda at Obenge. He has once again taken responsibility for the base camp. He and three park guards and Manzaka are now in charge of all the rations that we unloaded. I continue with six guards including their lieutenant, Justin,and the parks director, Dedieu.
Shabani, an Obenge native still working for us, pointed out where his Obenge brothers brought Kapere’s body down to the river after finding it rotting beneath the tree against which he was beaten to death. He showed where the assailants – Col Thoms and his gang had taken off.
Although not littered on the river like yesterday, the air is still glittering with the wings of mayflies hovering like a lacy stratum above the dense water. It is shot through by hunting dragonflies and swooping swallows, the latter in close formations of two, sometimes with a third matching their speed and swerves at ½ meter behind.
All seems to be well in Obenge and the collaboration guards-military will, I think, be cordial at the very least. Alpha, the army lieutenant, is a commanding figure; tall, erect with broad chest and obviously at ease as a leader of his troops. Bofenda knows him well, as they travelled together from Opala to Obenge for an August mission in a hand paddled dugout.
We saw a large group of bright red colobus – totally unperturbed by the passing pirogue.
I just started to doze off over my Sept 2012 issue of the New Yorker when I was wrenched awake by a crack of terror. All seven guards who were still on the upstream trip – including the lieutenant – were testing their weapons. I saw just briefly the thrill that they felt. The empty bullet casings popped out. One hit my arm. One guard had to tell the others to stop. That was mid-morning.
Now mid-afternoon there is thunder and lightning to the southwest although the sun still has us like vermin under its heel. Not even a fisherman’s dugout on the river. Completely empty. Several of my companions having fallen into deep sleeps : stretched out in the hold or slumped over a chair. Asleep under the sun.
Pratincoles, appear over the water, one by one. I watch to see where they will land, but they don’t. They throw large loops over the water, again and again and again and away. One flew towards us; I was certain it thought we were a rock and then veered up and around and away.
Sixth night (30th Nov.): sleep at the mouth of the Lifongo
1 December: We have been traveling 6 days in the dugout. Up until yesterday I was healthy. No malaria, no nausea, no pains…. But unfortunately last night at 3:15 AM I woke up with an urgency to get out of my tent and sprint. Diarrhea. Fortunately there was a fairly clear – though abandoned – fisherman’s path along the Lomami. I did not really go back to sleep again. Now I sit by the fire. Tiny mayflies explore the cracks of these pages under the beam of my headlamp. I listen to the sounds. There was the hyrax – different from the Ituri forest hyrax – but clearly a hyrax. I hear a second one. And there are other sounds that I don’t know. One is throaty like a Guereza colobus, but not, as it keeps repeating itself. Shabani just woke up and clapped his hands. “Tokende.” he called. A few groans, a clattering of rifles against rifles. Now a black mangabey is calling.
We raided three poachers’ camps today. One in the park with smoked antelope, one with red colubus among a huge stash of other dried game, and one with an AK clip – an elephant poacher.
Seventh night (1st Dec.): sleep at Kakongo
2 December: We did not pull into the Kakongo landing last night until 22hrs. Both Henri and John were at the river. John later told me that they had been down waiting for an hour. John and Henri had walked across forest to the Lomami from Bafundo a couple of days ago. When we climbed up to the village of Kakongo, we found a meal ready of sombe and mboloko meat. We were all fed and happy, but not in bed until one in the morning. So a slightly later start this morning.
Now – dark again. We are sleeping in a tiny fishermen’s camp. A few small – mainly dilapidated leaf huts. Two young fishermen are in one; their nets strung for mending between poles. The older brother of the two, but certainly not older than 30, is called Sala.
Eighth night (2nd Dec.): sleep in a fishing camp
3 December : It rained during the night. The camp already muddy from yesterday’s rain got muddier. It was essential to place feet carefully to avoid slipping over the slick clay. Still people moved around during the night. All night. I made two exits down the path with diarrhea. John went twice before bed and three times between 5 AM and take off at 7 AM in a still light rain.
“OK – how did everyone spend the night? How is everyone’s belly?” John asked as the tents started to come down.
“Pacific diarrhea” was Bolenga’s answer. I guess that dismissed it as unimportant?
Dedieu was drinking some local concoction that Sala prepared from a bark boiled in water. Sala held up a large piece of the inner bark of a tree, saying that it was particularly good for the kind of diarrhea that made you feel that your innards are being twisted and turned. Henri seemed to agree that that was what was bothering him too and sipped some of the brew. It was extremely bitter. “As bitter as quinine”, Henri noted, pressing his lips tight then braving a second sip. Another of the guards said that he had taken a cure of leaves back at Kakongo and his diarrhea was already gone. Bozi and John were suffering the most. Bozi waited at the top of the path for John to emerge and then took off into the trees himself.
Now, nearing noon, and we have passed BeneKamba.
Ninth night (3rd Dec.): sleep in Katopa
4 December: We did not get into our southern camp of Katopa until well after dark – but the festivities were great, the baths were hot, the food was good.
The results of this trip: No villagers left at Obenge. No shoot out with rebels going upriver. Maybe just maybe, 2014 will be a good year for the Lomami wilderness and its animals. Maybe it will be a quiet year for the populations living on the park’s periphery.