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Heart of Africa Expedition: Back to the Pirogue, New Team

I was up at 06h00 with the whole village. Fires were already lit, water was already hot to wash my eyes, as they say — and the coffee was on. What more could a guy want. I sent a kid out to buy some fritters, but there were none. Pretty quick the drunk dude from...

I was up at 06h00 with the whole village. Fires were already lit, water was already hot to wash my eyes, as they say — and the coffee was on. What more could a guy want. I sent a kid out to buy some fritters, but there were none.

Pretty quick the drunk dude from last night showed up. I gathered his name was Sim. He made the same proposition as the day before. They would take me downstream all the way to the confluence. They said, I had bought the pirogue and so there was no trouble here in the village. I didn’t really know who this dude was, so I said that I was going to walk to the trail to Aza and then walk in from there. He didn’t sit around.

Then I heard that the guy who I had bought the pirogue from, the gang leader, was around, surely in the night word travels. He came by, his name was Nanga Bernard, I found out. He said the same thing, that he and Sim could get me downstream in one piece. Now I had more confidence since I had already met him and was sure that it was cool with the piroque. He said it would take two days, at least to get to the big rapids, but it might take half a day to get by them. I decided to go for it.

We went into the dark of the chiefs house to negociate a price. I said 50,000 apiece. Sim said it wasn’t enough; 80,000 he said.   I said deal, not here to bargain. I said if we could assemble and could be out of Dodge by noon then I was in. I gave them money to buy manioc, sugar, cigarettes, oil, coffee and asked about a shotgun. They said no problem on the shotgun. Cartridges cost 750 cfa. We would take 10.

They went off and I sat around kind of holding court as various visitors came by. The village schoolmaster came by. He wanted to know the objective of my mission so he could communicate it to his class. In fact, he just wanted to get the facts clear, just in case there were inquiries about my presence here in the future.

I told him about Cherry, the fact that the Kotto had many rapids so Cherry had come in from the east via the Mbari. I told him about the village names, the game, etc. He listened and wrote everything down that I said in French. He didn’t know about Senoussi or even the French colony, but he also mentioned this Issa guy who was the fist Chef de Canton in a village 17 km from Bria on this side. Maybe this was the old village of Yaggo that Cherry speaks of. He did say that the Seleka had grouped in Bria, perhaps for the last stand, but they are no match for the French. He said the Sangaris that came out this way had taken the guns, without resistance, from the Seleka at the road barrier 3 km from Bria so the road was now open. There was another battle between the anti-Balaka and the Seleka yesterday in Bambari, many were killed.

Turns out the teacher was actually a nice guy. He said that the school where he taught in Ngoulia was burned down by the Tongo Tongo, but that they are going to rebuild it. He said that there about 150 kids if the school functioned. I asked if he got a salary from the State. He said they hadn’t paid him in years, but that each student pays 2,000 cfa a year, about $4.00, and with that he lives out the year. So for him that comes to about $600 a year. Sounds like a miniscule sum, but $50 a month worth of soap, sugar, salt and coffee is sufficient. The rest comes from nature pretty much. Of course even that source of income is now gone for him. How long would it take to rebuild the school.

I was prepared another chicken that I shared with the local nurse, Bale Faustin. He had been taught by the missionaries. When I talked to him he actually had a pretty good knowledge of diseases and the drugs needed to cure all the common ailments here. He too makes his money locally with private consultation. He said that Medicins Sans Frontiere were in Bria, but that they wouldn’t give him medicine because they couldn’t get to where we were sitting because of insecurity. Funny how these people who are supposed to be on the front lines never are. They are cloistered in their camps with generators and Internet and television with food flown in on helicopters. They create their own world here and never see the reality of the ground. It is only via walking solo that one can get a reality check.

I knew I had arrived here at the end of an era. The chief told me that the road has not been worked since 1967, and this by hand and wheel barrow. The international community is not going to leave this place quickly this time. They will rebuild this road and bring this place into the 21st Century. I need to walk eastern CAR before the State arrives there; it never has really, not even in the colonial era. Just like Dar Fur was never really successfully colonized; the French never really reached the border with Sudan. It has escaped the last century of human development, other than the elimination of the wildlife.

It got to be around noon but my two guys were still MIA. I had given Sim an advance of 10,000 to give his wife, he said, but in actuality it was to pay for booze. Then there was this woman who showed up making a public scene about how Sim owed her money and that there was no way in hell he was going to leave the village until she was paid in full. Sim showed and the antics between him and the woman reached epic levels; turns out she was drunk too. Sim came to me, saying out loud this women, she is the ganga, that she smoked lots of weed and that she cuts the clitoris of every girl in this village, and she is a drunk. She retorted, walking from face to face, saying that Sim was a scoundrel and a cheat and that over her dead body she would allow him to leave the village without payment in full.

From the looks of it they were actually drinking buddies. I did verify though, and she was indeed the lady who removed the clitoris of every single girl in the village by the time they reached 10 or so, right at puberty. I was surprised that it was still practiced. You kind of wonder what other things are still done out here. In Cherry’s time in these same villages no human flesh went to waste after a battle, it was systematically smoked just like the baboons are today.

I rattled Nanga’s cage and said we needed to get out of the village. Turns out he is like the uncle of Hissain and it was never clear who’s piroque it was. Like Hissain Nanga was Sara from Chad. Lots of these Sara have come in to do diamonds; they are big, strong and are somewhere between the Muslims and the Banda organizationally, so they run the crews in the diamond camps for the Runga, Wadians and Bornu.

They asked if they could bring a bicylcle to carry the baggage. I said yes, affirmative employment, I guessed. It took a long time for the bike to get there. Sim was being loud and obnoxious with everyone. How many times have I had to endure this exit from a village with drunks in tow? Perhaps hundreds of times. Over all of central Africa it is always the same. This is one reason why people have come to dominate these Bantu.

Finally the food was there, and the hunter with gun, bicycle, and the men. I made sure we left the village together. I gave the chief 10,000 CFA for his hospitality and we were back on the trail. It always feels great to get out of the village. I walked out ahead with Nanga, even with his limp he walked fine. He said that it was in Chad as a child that they injected him for polio and ironically he lost the use of his leg forever because, as happens frequently here, the needle skewered his sciatic nerve.

About 3 hours in, we spotted a group of helmet guinea fowl that scampered away. We called the hunter. Like the Pygmies go into hunting mode, he shed his shirt and his shoes and took just his gun with 2 extra shells. He ran silently through the grass and disappeared into the woods. Sim caught up, he was coming out of his drunk and was getting tired, and he was carrying my pack. He started saying let’s go when the blunt boom of the 12 ga was heard maybe 400 m off. Soon our hunter was trotting back with two guinea fowl; so he got two with one shot, or 350 CFA apiece.


Talking to Nanga turns out that my guys had only paid 100,000 CFA for the pirogue, so they had ripped off the rest. But they gave the money to Hissain. And Hissain had given Nanga 2,500 CFA. That is about average in a money exchange out here. He got the 2,500 CFA because he was the uncle! He now had the bright idea that I should give him the 100,000 and then recuperate my 100,000 from my old team. I said that rather I would try to recuperate from my old team and send it to him, but now regretted telling him of the financials of the pirogue. I thought somebody is probably going to die eventually because of this deal.

Nanga has a colorful history, born Sara in a village east of Sarh, then traveled to Khartoum as a young man a few times with the merchants, then up the Aouk to hunt and fish. In fact he was there poaching when I was on the other side. He said the white people had paid for the area but it was the best place to hunt. Then he went to Sam Ouandjia to do diamonds and made good money. Went back to Chad, bought cattle, but the Missireye Arabs stole them so he came back to do diamonds. He said diamond money is elusive. He followed diamonds down the Kotto to the Ndjé and slowly made his way up the river, took a wife here in this village and has been here ever since. He is still doing diamonds, but also fish, hunting, cultivation, anything to make a buck.

These guys are all coming here because the abundance of resources. They are capable of moving thousands of kilometers to leave poverty and find riches. This is what humans do. He said if he didn’t come along with me they were to wash gravel today. Hissain was there doing it for him, maybe once again to take his money. He said that the diamond camp south of the village, 16 km away, was attacked by Tongo Tongo two days ago. I had heard something of it in the village, but didn’t realize it was so close. They held up a local store and took shoes and cloths but didn’t take any people, or shoot anyone. Strange how they have no means to communicate with the U.S. special forces to tell them where the Tongo Tongo are in real time.

Nanga told me about the Sudanese, he speaks Sudanese Arabic from his time in Khartoum. He went through the motions of being a Muslim. He said that the Mbororo that come in from Sudan are called the Ouda from a village called Toulous, south of Nyala. He said this is where all of the owners of the cattle live and that the people who come here to herd are just hired hands, or maybe still slaves in some way. They do not mix with the Arabs or with the Mbororo from the west that Nanga called Garoua. The Garoua Mbororo do not venture deep into the east for fear of these people.





We arrived back in the same camp for a third time around 17h30. The guys were all there. They had just come back from “iri ngou,” emptying a pond for fish. They had a about 30 kg of small catfish, tilapia and crocodile fish. They were just putting them on the drying rack.

They had already recuperated my pirogue and in particular the booty. The ate just about everything, probably the best party they have had in a long time: manioc, koko, peanut butter, spaghetti, sugar, tea, salt, rice and dried shrimp. They sent the sardines out to their wives. And of course Masa got the big knife. Funny now we are back but even my water jug is no longer mine but I still need it. These things have now become precious possessions of these men who would never part with them except by force.


I was given my same bed. We ate fresh guinea fowl, maybe my favorite food, and hit the sack.

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.

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Meet the Author

J. Michael Fay
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.