Changing Planet

Heart of Africa Expedition: Tongo Tongo

The guys talked this morning about the Tongo Tongo or Lord’s Resistance Army. They said that they are still thick in this area. They attacked Fodé, just south of us only last week. Both Raymond and Herve have firsthand experience here; most people do. They say that usually when they take you and you are not a young boy or masika ti wali (girls with no children), then you are taken to carry loot. The story goes that they make you carry two times the load that you could normally carry, and if you don’t they shoot you. If you do carry for them, usually after some days they let you go.

We could easily run across the Tongo Tongo in our travels, they said. They also talked about the Nzakara that had become Islamicized in Bangassou, but who did not follow the Seleka. They said, however, that the Mbororo in a lot of cases joined with Seleka, which is why Herve in particular said he refuses to sell gozo (cassava paste) to Mbororo now. When the Sudanese meet Tongo Tongo, that it is war, they declared. When they have been poaching they have come across Tongo Tongo camps that have been abandoned, with the Tongo Tongo leaving behind tons of good stuff, they said, adding: “ala bouba koumba mingui, sengue sengue”, they waste stuff for no reason.

We pulled out of camp late, at 07h45. It takes a while to get into the rhythm of eating quickly in the morning, packing up and getting out of Dodge. It doesn’t help that we have been freezing our butts off, if you can call 8 degrees C freezing. It is when you don’t have the proper sleeping gear. Herve doesn’t even have a proper sheet with him. They make a fire with three logs that they sleep around. I am still using my tent.

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One Enormous Cattle Trail

The road has become one enormous cattle trail; thousands of cows must pass here in the early season. We don’t see any large mammal tracks. In the morning walk we heard monkeys, especially putty-nosed; saw a few porcupine quills, crested guinea fowl feathers on the trail — and warthog holes, most of them very old. There is the occasional 12 ga shell on the trail, mostly MACC-brand from Pointe Noire Congo. For the past 35 years I have been seeing those cartridges. They account for probably tens of millions of dead animals in Central Africa by now. That whole time it has never been hard to get ammunition for shotguns. It is kind of seen as a right to be able to feed yourself I think, so 12 ga shells, even though nobody buys them legally, are ubiquitous.

As we were watching a chopper contracted by the Americans fly over around 10h00, two Mbororo guys came by with five burros loaded with foodstuffs, going south toward the Mbari. They must have pretty big bases along the river. It is a likely place, because it is mostly out of range for the people coming in from Zaco. Both guys had bows and a quiver of arrows. They were flashed with plastic ribbon. We asked them about the trail to Yalinga, and like Mbororos frequently say, they go “mbi inga ape,” I don’t know. I think lots of times they say this because their Sangho is very limited, so they just don’t want to engage in conversation. There is also not much we can tell them that they want to know, so they likely figure that as little time they spend with people they don’t know the better off they will be. They did say that there was a Banda trail that goes to the north, but that they didn’t know where it went. They disappeared south on the trail and we continued on our way.

It continues to be tough to follow the road north because most of the Mbororo cattle trails seem to be heading in the direction of Zaco, the major metropolis in this region. It is where the biggest diamond field is, and lies about 35 km to the west of our current position. I definitely want to stay out of there. Too many eyes suspicious of a white man walking through the woods without proper paperwork. Funny they understand people riding around in helicopters over their country, but a lone guy walking sounds alarm bells.

At 14h00 we heard a shot off to the east where we suspected there were Mbororo; it sounded like an AK 47 round, definitely not a shotgun. My guys say 100 percent of the Mbororo have AKs at this point. They frequently talk about PKM as well, but mainly they say the Tongo Tongo have these.

We made camp early; the guys said we might not find water until after dark so they preferred to stay where there was a creek. In reality, their bags are too heavy.   Seems crazy that we had as much stuff as we have. They started to unpack and I finally started to understand. Not only did they take all of the food we could have possibly needed from the stuff I brought, but then I come to find that they stuffed tons of sweet potatoes, plantains, taro, and manioc tubers in their bags, probably a total of another 15 kgs of roots. So they have started a campaign to stuff themselves with these foods to get rid of them. Their eyes were bigger than their ability to pack.

It is amazing that along this entire footpath there is no human habitation at all. Cherry would have passed many villages by now — but that was in 1899. There were still ten more years of raids by Senousi from the north and from the south by Bangasssou, followed by the colonial era with forced labor, which took people away from isolated roads. Then we have now had 50 years of the complete absence of any kind of contribution from the central govt. out here since independence. Mix that with Tongo Tongo and all the poachers and herders, and it has left this country empty of native villages.

There was an owl in our camp, and the tree hyrax call every night, everywhere we go. Funny, because in coastal Gabon they are absent. Around midnight, a 12 gauge shotgun went off and about 20 minutes later some guys showed up in our camp. They said they were scared to come, but spoke Sangho and got a response. They said that they had their hunting camp off to the south. They had come 40 km from Zaco just to hunt.

Follow Mike Fay as he retraces William Cherry’s footsteps, sharing the experience in words, photos, video, maps, and social media: Expedition Through the Heart of Africa. This link contains all of Fay’s dispatches.

Mike Fay has spent his life as a naturalist—from the Sierra Nevadas and the Maine woods as a boy, to Alaska and Central America in college, to North Africa and the depths of the central African forest and savannas for the last 25 years.He has worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society of the Bronx since 1991.In 1996, Fay flew over the forests of Congo and Gabon and realized there was a vast, intact forest corridor spanning the two countries from the Oubangui to the Atlantic Ocean. In 1997, he walked the entire corridor, over 2,000 miles, surveying trees, wildlife, and human impacts on 12 uninhabited forest blocks. Called Megatransect, this work led to a historic initiative by the Gabonese government to create a system of 13 national parks, making up some 11,000 square miles (28,500 square kilometers).In 2004, he completed the Megaflyover, an eight-month aerial survey of the entire African continent. He logged 800 hours and took 116,000 vertical images of human impact and associated ecosystems, many of which are now visible on Google Earth.In 2008 Fay completed the Redwood Transect, a new project to learn more about the redwood forest. He walked the entire range of the redwood tree, over 700 miles.Since then he has participated in the 2011 BioBlitz at Saguaro National Park, and is a regular team member of fellow NG Explorer Enric Sala's Pristine Seas Expeditions, recording the life and land above the waves.

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