Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Standing Tall – The Pygmies of Cameroon

Map picture

Well, it is Africa after all! So, it will come as no surprise to you that our ship anchored at the city of Kribi, Cameroon precisely at 7:30 am as scheduled; however, when our Zodiac reached the shore to transfer the clearance authorities to the ship, they were nowhere to be found! Sound familiar by now? An hour later, officials started to arrive, so many “officials” in fact that additional Zodiacs had to be dispatched to accommodate the crowd. While this delay is taking place, the entire ship is “on hold,” and our carefully timed schedule is rapidly starting to spin out of control. We finally received our “clearance,” and as I was going down to embark, I happened to see a large number of the “delegation” happily chowing down in the dining room; enough said!

I really know very little about the country even after spending much of the day ashore. Sadly our guide did not speak great English. I did look the country up and can see that it is officially called the Republic of Cameroon, and it has a population of over 18 million. The average life expectancy is 52 years, and the annual income per person is $2,300. That comes from an iPhone app. My impression, from what I saw, is that the place was pretty clean, albeit still a third world society. Everyone appeared to have electricity and water, and since the city was relatively clean, I have to assume they had sanitation services. The rivers ran clean with dark brown water from the mountain stream runoff, and the ocean was trash free.

The ship had to anchor about a mile offshore, and the large swells made the trip both there and back quite an experience. Not only was it very difficult to time the jump into the Zodiac, but the swells were so large and the tidal flow so strong, that the little boats had to run at full speed to keep from having the following waves sweep over our craft. When we arrived into the small marina it was surrounded by guard towers manned by soldiers outfitted with large machine guns. It appears that our marina was actually located at the small naval facility. We boarded our buses, which actually had working air conditioning, and headed south along the coastal highway towards the Lobe River. We drove perhaps no more than two miles before the paved highway stopped and we once again found ourselves on a narrow and rut filled muddy road. After bouncing around for what seemed forever, we came to the river whereupon everyone had to climb into a small dugout canoe for the remaining trip up the river.

Here things got a little dicey! Let me explain that a dugout canoe is one in which the keel or bottom of the little boat is carved out of a log. Since every log is of different size, so too is every little canoe of different size. Some of the boats could take five people and some could handle as many as ten people. The keel, as I mentioned, is one piece of solid wood, but to create the sides, hand sawed wooden planks are carefully fitted and in between the boards they put pitch to seal the seams. When the little boats are new the seams are watertight, however after time unless they are maintained well, the seams begin to seep water. You can guess that most of our little boats were not well maintained, and so bailing was a constant task passed around the passengers to avoid everyone taking an unexpected plunge into the surging water.

The first big challenge was to get in the little things! The bottom of the boats were slimy with accumulated moss over the years, so climbing into one without slipping and falling into the water was not easy. Once you got your foot or feet into the boat that still left the matter of walking back to the next available seat. The boats were terribly unstable, so good balance was required. Now here comes the problem for Lisa and myself. With her artificial knees, she could not raise her legs high enough to clear the cross beams, but our team did a wonderful job of literally lifting her across the boards. When it came to my turn, I felt almost helpless. I gamely tried to put my foot into the boat, and promptly my foot slipped out from underneath me on the slippery wood. I would have fallen, but for the fact that the team reacted swiftly and caught me in midair. It was quickly decided after a big discussion among the tribesman that I should not try to move further back in the little boat, and so even though there was empty space, they left me to sit where I was – thank goodness.

As I said, the river was surging from the heavy rains of the last few days, and at times our two oarsmen seemed to be making very little headway. They had to carefully dodge the unseen rocks which were making little eddies in the water. At times we went backward, at times we became caught in little whirlpools, and at times, we got caught up in the thick rainforest vegetation. Steadfastly our little boat crawled up the river as part of our long caravan. Soon we begin to hear the steady beat of a lone drum, which signified that our guests had been alerted to our presence on the river, and that we were welcome to proceed. You see we were on our way to visit a small clan of the forest-dwelling pygmy people of the rainforest.

Our little canoe finally turned a sharp corner, narrowly missing an almost invisible rock in the swollen river, and there was our landing site – a muddy embankment full of tree roots and only the narrowest entrance into the dense forest. Our canoe was pushed up on shore as far as it would go which was not very far, and now came the part where I was to stand up and walk out of the boat. Only a couple of problems with this scenario: the slippery floor made standing up without my falling almost impossible for me given my balance issues, and in addition, sitting on the little low bench with my legs curled up underneath me for over an hour had caused both legs to go numb. So I sat there with a dumbfounded look on my face and explained to the waiting staff my dilemma. They never missed a beat. In the flash of an eye, five strong men climbed into the water, and as impossible as it sounds, they literally lifted me on to the shore where I stood on wobbly legs while holding onto a guide until I got my feet and legs to where they would again work.

Our walk to the native encampment took about 10 minutes through the dense jungle, although the trail had been freshly prepared for our visit, it was a muddy mess. As we entered the small camp, the natives started with their songs of welcome. The first thing we realized was that these “pygmies” were anything but pygmy in size. That is when our guide pointed out that aside from scattered tribes of true “pygmies” in South East Asia and Northern South Africa, these people should more correctly be referred to as “forest-dwelling” natives. Recent genetic research has shown that they are related to the surrounding farmers, but many generations ago they broke apart and elected to remain living in the forest. In fact, there has never been an accurate count of exactly how many “forest” dwellers exist in the Congo Basin and the tribes themselves do not understand the concept of one country or another, they simply migrate throughout the Congo River area. The day to day existence is quite basic and the average life expectancy is estimated to be around 35.

Fortunately our canoe was one of the first to arrive, and so we had some time to photograph the area, and in fact I had my picture taken with the village chief. But as our group grew in size, it quickly reached the point that we could hardly move in the small clearing. At that point, Lisa and I elected to start the journey home. With only a small number of us wishing to return, the trauma of getting settled into a canoe was reduced, and believe it or not, our trip back to the landing took only 20 minutes because this time the strong current was swiftly carrying us along.

The ship had arranged a lovely lunch on the beach at a local resort, but since it was mostly seafood, which is not our cup of tea, we elected to return to the ship. It had been a fun and educational day to say the least.

Overnight we are headed to the city of Limbe, Cameroon.


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