Monday, December 10, 2012

Velveteen Rabbit

 A two day journey by plane, tear-filled.
Leaving with tears streaming down my face... the longing, the love, the people, the pain, the Experience of being in Gabon and seeing its rainy shores shrinking away from the airplane window. 

 I listen to Bwiti music over and over and over again in my headphones... trying to make it stay.

I land in L.A., and am picked up by old friends. No strangers to culture shock themselves, they know to head straight to the In-N-Out Burger drive thru; seeking something hearty, familiar, and warm. French fries and the comfortable poverty of Long Beach, old cars, tiny apartments, orange city lights, greet me. I don't stay long enough to get sentimental... we are leaving for Mexico the next morning, going out to a place in Baja where the river meets the sea. Three women, and the quiet resident of a beach house, cooking beans together, walking near the ocean, trying to heal from the stress of life. Going to somewhere quiet, and clear.

My third day there, I go walking alone along the banks of the river, startling occasional sandpipers and water birds resting in the reeds. I get as muddy and leaf-covered as possible, letting the fresh air seep into my hair and clothing. I lay there alone and silent among the dry grass and sagebrush, watching the changing light of the sky. Longing hits. A gentle wave of reality re-adjustment. It is peaceful here, it doesn't smell bad, or make my ears ring or my ass hurt... no one is fighting or honking, no chickens are rifling through dumpsters, no Afro-pop is blaring out from speakers... it is calm...but still longing comes, seeping up from somewhere deep within me.

I watch it inside me. Like watching a spider spinning a soft web. Like watching a single feather float down through the air. I recognize it as being those things... a longing for Magic to be Real. To be surrounded by those moments always.

I sit there realizing, that is what it has always been about-- the longing for travel, for the sacred, for the intensity of foreign experiences, for contact with something beyond the forced routine of my life. The longing that drives me is my self trying to make my life mysterious and golden in that way. To increase the moments of awe, of universal connection, of seeing the sacredness of life. Chasing signs and bird calls. Listening to dreams. Aching for a way to live wild and alive outside, barefoot; to have nature answer me back. To have it not be just a story in my head that gets overrun with modern distractions. To connect with others through a deep, beyond-me and expansive kind of love... where the light in our eyes matches up. Where the other being is fully Seen. I Seek this.

This happened to me in Gabon, in Ossimba village. More than once. Life in the rainforest, living deep within the heart of diversity and creation, makes people cognizant of it. Grandmother Francoise and I would just look at each other in the eyes and laugh, and laugh, and hug each other, and keep on laughing. Just because we realize we are here, and life is strange, and we both love and depend upon each other to survive. Because we know the truth about the forest... that it is both a source for life, food, water, shelter, beauty, and at the same time holds the most terrifying animals, diseases, poisons, and sources of death. You love it anyway, because you can't help it. Because there are metallic blue butterflies, and cool mountain streams, and forest elephants, and luminous stars at night. Because there is unbridled beauty constantly being produced, imagined, grown, within its green depths. Because it is intense, and terrifying, and wonderful.

And then there is America. Modern cultural expectations. Business. Work. College education. Mandated tax forms. Executive decisions. Unreasonable laws, motivated greed, absurdity, total and complete disconnect lit by the glowing screen of an Iphone. I make eye contact with people and they wonder about me. They get uncomfortable.

If I were to stand in the university library and scream that, “You are all asleep and dreaming and you don't know what you are missing out on!” I would be hauled away. My passion, knowledge, and lack of desire to contain it would become a liability somehow. Cultural shock. Maladjustment. Insanity. Overly-emotional. You could label it however you want, but I doubt anyone would call it what it is: Heartache. Knowing what is possible, then returning to what some people call “normal life.”

The thing about magic, about the reality of creation, is that with it comes great danger. Once you see it, you can not un-see it. Once Pandora's box is open, you can't stop what comes out. It tails you the rest of your life, whispering in your ear, pulling at your heartstrings, urging you out, out, of mundane routine, of self-avoidance, of pre-occupation with the inane. Like a hungry beast it demands to be fed, to be recognized, to be honored; for in the seeking of it, in the Seeing of it, you have made it real and cognizant of you, your Self. Like a child, a pet, a partner, it wants nothing more than to be loved and recognized in the same deep way that you do. You and this force have something profound and un-ignorable in common: the ability to recognize the sacred in each other, and the longing to have that acknowledged-- the heart-wrenching, unquenchable desire to have someone know that you are Real.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


It's time to leave. Kudu is being called back to Libreville, and while I don't want to leave the village, I definitely don't want to try to make the journey again alone. His quiet, reassuring presence has been a solid anchor this past week, and I have no interest in being away from it again. My French is still not great, and neither is my ability to negotiate fair prices or describe where I need to go. I am also very aware of my need to send word back to my parents and professors that I am indeed alive, and have not fallen off the face of the earth entirely-- as much as I may want to.

We leave the village with the usual amount of chaos of car, sacks of plantains, and people stuffed sweating together in the cab of the truck. We reach Sindara as the sun sets, skimming over the river in the dusk. The usual shuffle ensues. Money here, baggage there, let's see how many people can we cram into the front seat of the taxi.... The stars come out, and we weave down the road, pot holes and rocks banging the car miserably, going right into our bones.

An old man we picked up is swaying in the back seat, and is so sick he can hardly walk. One woman rides on the lap of another, another propping him up.  Four in the backseat, Kudu and I in the front, afro-pop blaring, people shouting genially to each other in their tribal language.

Kudu is sitting on my lap, his manhood damaged by the fact that I entered the vehicle first, and am holding on to him. It is quite un-masculine, and he is obviously embarrassed. I am loving it. He is not the cuddliest of people, and I am enjoying not only being close to him, but feeling him bristle like a wild dog, unaccustomed to these things. He silently tolerates the situation, but is obviously not as excited as I am about it, and I take every opportunity to squeeze him affectionately or blow in his ears. I wish I knew the French word for payback, because that's what this is. A small bout of teasing that makes this strange sort of normal he's drug me into more bearable.

Hours later, we drop bags at our hotel, the good old Mami Wata, and I smile at the familiar mermaid mural painted on her side. We walk to the sole restaurant open at night, and I stare at the strange collection of Gabonese artifacts and tacky posters of American landscapes that decorate the walls. It is a strange change from the soft mud of the village and the constant drone of Babongo. Here, a television blares terrible Afro-pop, and flashes different variations of the same. Fucking. Shit. African women dance in tight, revealing clothing, and men in sunglasses and oversized gangster hoodies try to flash hand signs and look cool as the camera zooms in and out.  The key word there is trying... trying too hard.

I reflect that there really isn't a cultural concept here for that, trying too hard. I am more and more exasperated with the shallowness of urban Gabonese culture, especially after living in the simple, non-material peace of the backcountry. What to me is painfully “trying too hard” is seen here as, “hey, that guy is really making it.” After a month in the gritty reality of the village, the entire outfit makes me nauseous. Luckily, the crocodile I order is superb, and makes up for the lack of substance elsewhere.  Kudu and I  both look at the television and roll our eyes. “At least they have meat here,” I quip.

Part of me can't believe I'm going back into the chaotic, non-sensical maw of the big city. Why... why? I remind myself that I have things to do in the modern world, that I have friends, and obligations; stories to tell, and another sense of reality to pass on to others, but I can't help but think that I am just returning to something familiar for the sake of some kind of ease. For all the love and romance in the backcountry, the truth remains that the village is hard. Food is scarce, there is no toilet paper, and little soap. There is rampant alcoholism, and more fighting and corporal punishment than I would like to see. There is also little medical care. But I love it.  

So here I stand, caught between worlds, belonging wholly in neither one, knowing the full reality of them both. I am a grey area. I am a ghost. In the village, memories of movie theaters, art shows, sledding, and fine dining haunt me. In the city, I long for the solitude of the forest, butterflies, starlight, sheep smells and story time. I want it all... I don't want to choose.

But for now, I guess I have. Tears run down my cheeks and into my alligator broth. “Pindi....” Kudu sighs, staring at me.

I don't know what to say.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Holiness of the Night

Night time is by far the most peaceful in the village, the most magic.  The huts are lit with kerosene lanterns and handmade tree-sap torches, and everyone crawls into their homes to talk until they fall asleep, or sit by fires in the temples, sharing stories of the day.  My favorite evenings are when the chief is in the mood for music, and brings out his Ngombé harp, one of the sacred instruments of Bwiti.  With it he will sing in gentle falsetto, some songs traditional, some made up on the spot, all of them soothing and heavenly.  I lean on the bench next to him, watching the kids play in the torchlight and the women cackle about something, and can't imagine wanting to be anywhere else.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Good Dog

Eager to prove myself as a hard-working village citizen, I offer myself up for work as often as possible. Today we are running low on food, so I elect to head to the plantation myself, and dig for yams and manioc. I've been with Estelle on food recon twice already, and Kudu doesn't want to come, so I decide I will go myself. “Take a dog with you.” Grandpa advises. It's a very good idea, and my favorite dog here, an energetic young thing who I've named Bella, is thrilled to have someone to go into the forest with. Basket, machete, water bottle, dog. Check. I head off into the forest, following her yellow tail. The paths are only vaguely familiar, and I get turned around more than once, always calling the dog over for advice. She knows where we are going.

We have spent the last few weeks getting to know each other, and I can tell just how intelligent she is, and I trust her completely. I am one of the only people who feels sympathy for the pack of skinny, starving canines, and feed them secretly whenever possible. To Bella this makes me the greatest thing in the world. Out of all the dogs, she is the least skittish, and also the most playful, and many times we have entertained the villagers with our games. I have lived with dogs since the day I was born, and have always had a close connection with them, an innate ability to communicate and play. Everyone thinks I am crazy for even petting them, let alone giving them food or attention, but the more time I spend with Bella, how clear our affection for each other is, the more I see the villagers smile, and accept it.

I've spoken out a few times against how mistreated the dogs are here, I can't help it. I respect the way of life here, and how hard it is to feed everyone, but I love these dogs as much as the children, and it pains me to see them kicked and hit for trying to pick up yam pieces that have fallen to the ground.
“Don't do that-- dogs are dirty,” one Mama scolds me, catching me tossing a burnt piece of yam towards a lactating dog. “They are hungry too,” I say as the dog runs off to feed her puppies. “They suffer just like we do.” It's hard for me to understand how people so in tune with the forest, the animals, so full of love and reverence for it all, have singled out one of the most intelligent, and loyal animals to be the village scapegoats. To me, these are exceptional dogs-- keen hunters, our eyes and our ears when walking in the forest, and asleep at night. They are also loyal, which is more than I could say for most people, especially once I find my only pair of shorts missing after my ceremony.

Down the hill, over the stream, up, and staying on the left path, not the right, Bella and I make our way through the spongy forest floor, the diffused light making the greens and browns stand out against each other. We arrive at the new plantation, and I am pleased to see the seedlings I planted with Estelle are taking root. However, I can't find the path I know lies somewhere along the edge of this open swath of land. I explain to Bella in English where I want to go, and she listens intently, quickly taking off towards the edge of the plantation, stopping, looking back and waiting before continuing out of sight again. She is right on. The path for the older plantation appears and we are there within minutes.

Around me towers the umbrella-like leaves of the leggy manioc plants and winding vines of yams. There are a number of plantain trees peppered throughout the area as well, but none of them with big enough fruit to harvest. I grab my machete and get to work, chopping into the soil around the manioc plants, feeling for a solid hit on a tuber. It's not easy. The soil is heavy with clay, and full of the roots of countless other plants competing for a place to grow. I go from one plant to the next, finding only small roots, or needing to crawl through a mass of fallen logs and tangled vines to get to a plant that hasn't already been harvested from. I feel good. Tough, mud covered, pushing through vines and chopping through soil, gathering food for the village. This is what I've always wanted, to sustain myself, others, like this. I realize the sky is getting darker and more overcast, but I am so determined to bring home a good harvest that I ignore the signs of the onset of the usual afternoon thundershower, and instead busy myself chopping manioc leaves to cook like spinach. They are quickly becoming my favorite food here, and are really the only source of green vegetables we have.

Bella walks up to me, whining, looking around her, and I know I should have left a half hour ago. “I'm kind of bull-headed,” I explain to her, but I know she is right. Just as I am gathering the last of the piles of roots into my back basket, the sky opens up. Wham. Thunder, lighting, and instant downpour. Bella runs for cover under a fallen log and I hide under the broad leaves of a banana tree. “Oh shit.” It is exhilarating, and terrifying. The roar of the rain and wind is deafening. I am relatively dry under the tree, and Bella snakes her way under more logs and leaves until she is sitting near me. She looks at me square in the face and lets out a loud, whiny, howl. “I'm sorry!” I apologize, and she just looks at me. We wait for five, ten, fifteen, minutes hoping the storm will pass. It's growing cold. I decide I'd rather brave the walk and be back in the village, than stuck here for maybe hours, waiting out the storm. I gather up my things and step out into the rain. Bella looks at me like I'm crazy and whines loudly. “I promise I'll feed you a huge meal if you will get me back to the village. Please!” She sneezes impatiently, still staring at me, and I know she understands. “C'mon, let's go, please.” She shakes herself, and reluctantly steps out into the down pour, running quickly for cover, and looking back at me expectantly. Already we are both completely soaked. She whines again, not at all happy with my decision, but accepting it. We pick our way back through the forest.

It is a long, hard journey, and without her, I would have surely been lost. It's impossible to see in rain that heavy-- everything is torn asunder, blown around, and glaring with the bright sunlight reflecting off the sheets of water. Nothing looks familiar. Bella runs ahead down the path, finds a place to hide for a minute, then pops back out again when I catch up, leading me step by step back to the village. At one point, I question her judgement when a path branches and go my own way, only to find myself at an older, abandoned clearing. That damn dog is right every time. I apologize to her and follow her unquestioningly the rest of the way to the village. The last few meters, she sprints ahead and dashes into Grandpa's hut, where she knows there will be a good fire going. I go back to my room and peel off my clothes, shivering. The villagers shake their heads at me, out in the middle of a downpour... don't I know anything? I just laugh and shrug, enjoying the experience, and giddy I didn't get completely lost. I owe that little dog my life, and she knows it. One of the ladies has made lunch for everyone and I make myself a large plate of steaming manioc and open a can of sardines. Bella arrives on schedule and I give her as much as she can eat. The chief comes in and laughs at me. “This dog saved my life!” I tell him. Finally he agrees, “she is a good dog.”

Monday, November 5, 2012

Heaven in Vignettes

The days that follow are some of the best I have in Gabon. The love and camaraderie from my ceremony still hangs in the air, and everyone is happy to have more supplies, and the good-natured Mwana Kudu back in their midst. Years ago when he was first hired on in the parks service, he was sent on a six month trip out in the bush to do field work with the forest people and report on their state. He developed a deep connection with the all of the villages there, and even had houses build for himself in Ossimba and another village further down the road. It is not often that outsiders from different tribes, and with modern city habits, were so fully accepted, but Kudu has a way about him, and quickly won everyone over. The fact that we were together pleased everyone. The two stray Babongos from the other parts of the world had found each other here, in the forest.  We happily relax in the village, watching the kids roll an old barrel down the hill and squealing, sitting by the fire and sharing gossip with the others.   "Mamezoba tzenge retabé" -- Everything is nice and tranquil on the earth.

---   ---   ---

Thankfully, Kudu has been given a break, and though he is here to do some fieldwork, he is free to spend much of the day with me. He knows these forests much better than I do, so I beg him to go exploring.  He grabs his Nikon, and we head off down the river, wading in the shallow waters, ducking under fallen bamboo, and enjoying the beauty of the forest. I couldn't be happier. We splash each other, and hunt for insects, and he captures the most beautiful things we find with his camera.  

Something has changed in me since my initiation.  There is a special kind of intimacy that develops, with a place when you  are forced to lie in contact with it for days.  I've seen the transition between the morning and the night, listened to the songbirds take over, and the frogs bed down.  I've watched the fireflies come to entrance of the temple, pulsing their lights to the rhythm of music, and respond to my thoughts.  The forest has changed in my mind from "the place outside the village" to "the place we live inside."   It feels more intimate, responsive, more open to me than before.  Everything I look at is full of color, texture, intricate artistry.  I call Kudu over to look at aging stalks of bamboo... "it looks like someone painted them..." 

Equally exciting is the realization that I have developed a level of immunity to the fourou that once caused so much itching and suffering.  Now the bites last for just a few hours, then fade away. I am able to walk outside the house without constricting long sleeve shirts and pants, and in this heat, that is a great blessing in itself. My skin exposed, my feet bare, I feel free, alive, teeming with possibility. “You could quit the forest service and just stay here with me,” I tease Kudu. “It's a possibility” he smirks.

---   ---   ---

A Good Wife

Now that I am an official member of the village, I am also expected to contribute to the daily workload. My years of farming and manual labor have instilled in me a great appreciation for hard work, and so I happily grab a pair of back baskets, a machete, and Mwana Kudu. “Come teach me how to gather wood here!” He obliges, and camera in hand, we march into the rainforest. Everything is constantly soggy, due to the large amount of rain we get every week, so there is a special method of finding standing dead wood and hanging branches that have snapped off and have had time to dry out. The machete becomes an ax, and I am impressed by how effectively it can chop through the smooth, gray-green bark. The biggest challenge is making sure that the pulling and hacking doesn't accidentally coat you with tiny poisonous ants. Their bites are very painful, and if you get enough them at once, you fall ill with fever. I get a few down the collar of my shirt, but not enough to worry about. Between the two of us, we have two full baskets of arms-width branches, enough for a few days of cooking. I march down to the village, straps digging into my shoulders, but head held high. I will make a good Babongo wife.


Somehow, I have turned into the village doctor. My intent in coming here was to learn herbal medicine, not to end up teaching it. My first trip to the village in Spring ended abruptly when I contracted a vicious staph infection on my ankle, and I was determined I would not leave for the same reason again. I brought with me many pounds worth of tinctures, capsules, vitamins, and salves that would prepare me for anything topical, internal, or otherwise. My favorite medicine has become Sangro de Grado, or Dragon's Blood, the resin of a tree “from the other rainforest” I explain to everyone. It is a panacea in South America, and has certainly proven itself here. It is the only thing I've found that alleviates the itching of fourou bites, is antiseptic, and also closes wounds like a second skin. I catch another infection starting on my foot, and this time, cover it with a paste of the stuff, and watch it disappear within days. Miraculous.

My village Grandmother, Francoise, is currently suffering from an advanced infection of the same kind, and one of her toes is painfully swollen with the bacteria. She doesn't know anything that she can do to heal it? No. No one does. I furrow my brow... how can they not know how to treat such a common infection here? “The medicine men left to make money in Libreville,” Estelle explains. I don't want to believe her, but I am becoming convinced that it is true. I guess that makes me the most competent healer in the village, and I agree to treat Francoise's foot the best way I know how. I cut off a piece of clean banana leaf, find a clean, smooth stone, and wash them together with my hands. Using my treated water, I grind dry chunks of Sangre de Grado with the rock and make a thick, chunky paste. I have Francoise sit with her foot propped on a wooden bench, and gently clean the swollen toe with cotton swabs and betadyne solution. It doesn't help that she is always barefoot, and has mud caked in between her toes. After it is relatively clean, I apply the thick paste to the area, and rub the rest of the toe with antibacterial, herbal salve. A light cover of gauze and paper tape and I send her limping on her way. I pray it will help.

Within an hour, she calls me over, gesturing frantically. The wound has popped open, and a thick yellow pus is oozing out. Beautiful-- the medicine had worked even more quickly than I hoped, extracting the infection out of the wound. I carefully squeeze out what pus I can, and clean everything again thoroughly, repeating the process. She acknowledges it feels better already. I wish I could tell her to wear shoes and socks, but that is just not an option here. I worry about how an infection can ever subside under those conditions, but remind myself that she is in her seventies, and tough as nails. Surely this is not her first staph infection, and she has survived before. I continue to clean it in the coming days, but am not sure how well it can heal during muddy, wet rainy season. Antibiotics is the final step when topical treatment doesn't work. What do people do here? With no resources, and lost knowledge? “When it gets bad enough, we go to the hospital,” is the only answer I get.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Things That You Know


I haven't slept in three, maybe four days.

I can't explain to you what happened, only tell you that it did.

Chaos, love, magic, song, fire, dance, pain, and frustration all smashed together in the night.

I am a member of this village now, and always.

I'm not just that crazy white girl anymore. I have been Seen. I'm family.

I have begun the first of many stages that will allow me to begin learning traditional medicine, in the real way. I have the equivalent of a bwitist membership card... a certain quality of light in my eyes that other bwitists recognize. I don't know how to explain it... only that they know. People on the road can pick me out, and laugh and smile, having never seen me before. “You are a banzi (initiate) aren't you?” I smile and say that I am. Bassé.

--- --- ---

Kudu has finally arrived... late in the night, we hear the truck roar to a stop at the base of the village hill. Someone runs down to the road with a kerosene lantern, and shouts back up the hill, “Pindi! Mwana Pindi! Kudu is here!” I can't believe it. I absolutely can't believe it. I wasn't sure I would ever see him again. I'm shaking as I get dressed and find my headlamp. He made it.

I run down the hill along with everyone else, and there he is, headlamp askew, carrying bags, and a large backpack. He stops and looks at me as tears and rain run down my face. “Mwana Pindi,” he smiles. We hold each other tightly, in the mud and the rain. He is every bit his namesake, Kudu, turtle-- solid, stocky; a quiet strength.

The rain starts coming down harder, and we pick up his bags and walk into the chief's house, followed by a few other parks employees and boxes of goods. Everyone crams into the livingroom and asks Kudu what took him so long. He smiles and gently laughs. “Ahhh... it's complicated.” Everyone laughs with him. We all know... we all know.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Clouds Break

sunset on the river

I have been too angry for too long. My frustration has reached above and beyond what I am capable of tolerating. It's all the bureaucracy of my college, but spread over weeks, and sound tracked with grueling heat and rain, ridiculous, muddy roads, and stinking taxis crammed with drunk people and heavy boxes of canned goods.

I talk to Kudu on the phone, and in a calm moment of clarity, ask, “Is it always like this here? When you try to get things done, is it always this hard?” “Oui,” he replies sincerely. “C'est habitué, I'm used to it.” I sit silent on the other end of the phone, reflecting on that. This is normal?

Somehow, that fact had never occurred to me. I had been angry at him earlier because he had seem so cool and collected about the entire series of events. All I could think about was how easy it was to be detached when he had a nice chair in an air-conditioned office and was listening to the chaos from far away. Now I understand. This is normal to him... he's probably been in a similar situation a hundred times, and is therefore not ruffled, or surprised by it. It's incredible, really, the things you can get used to.

For an American very accustomed to procedure, resources, options, and relative consistency of steps when working one's way through an organization, or a challenge in the world, this version of normal is a lot to handle. Despite how open-minded and flexible I consider myself, I realize how closely I hold the expectation that people by default are honest and treat you with respect, consideration, and due process. To me this is the golden rule, the humanist standard I learned in kindergarten and live my life by. A bit of gratitude and patriotism swells in my heart as I realize why I was taught these things. I get to observe first hand now, how absolutely deranging it can be when that value agreement isn't mutual between people.

So my frustrations are cultural.

Now is the perfect time to practice my buddhist training. To quietly reflect on how I react, and why. Maybe if I wasn't sweating profusely, maybe if I had eaten more than once today, maybe if I wasn't coated in bug bites, these things would come easier. “Start where you are,” Pema Chodron taunts from the back of my head, and I wonder if she has ever been to the jungles of Africa, where everything wants to bleed you dry. You question the nature of God when you go the heart of the world, and find it is filled yes, with abundance, but also, with in-discriminant carnivorism, struggle, and apathy. The insects are vicious, the plants strangle each other, and brotherhood is only selectively practiced among people here. The rainforest may be the seat of the sacred medicine, the heart and lungs of the world, but the romantic, Gaia, cuddly earth-mother archetype, is only a small element of reality here. This place revels in destruction, fermentation, and gore, as much as it does producing silky orchid flowers and colorful butterflies.

Every time I try to accurately convey my experiences on this continent, it all boils down to one word... intense. I have met women here that are salt-of-the-earth GOOD. Untouched by the absurdity of materialistic pop-culture, they truly believe in devotion to their family, kindness towards strangers, and hard work, dawn to dusk, with a smile, singing. I have also seen a level of unrivaled cruelty, of a man senselessly beating a puppy in street, screaming, yelling, flogging it as it yelps, and whimpers, broken, dragging itself through the mud, dying. I've seen the happiest, free-est children, and also the sickest, and most miserable. It's all here, in full color, the city saturated with reality, the forest unfiltered from any sense of right and wrong. Raw. Living. Intensity.

I begin to accept this.

--- --- ---

We are finally returning to Ossimba, and I find myself back on the forest side of Sindara, waiting while the men pack up the car. I go down to the river bank and stand in the water as the sun sets, its contrasting light rippling in the current. I wash and soak, savoring the coolness, the peace.

As I head back up to the village, three older women call me over. They are toothless, with eyes full of light, and hair wrapped in bright fabric. They want to know what brings me here, and I explain to them that I am here for initiation, and wag my butt in imitation of traditional dance. They laugh and laugh, grabbing my hands, “Oui! Oui!” they cry. “Yes!” The women here know that there exists a unique woman's magic, special and ours, and they agree it is good I have come to be a part of it. I ask the youngest of the three, whose French is less heavily accented, what she knows of traditional medicine, of “les feullies,” --the leaves. The answer is always the same, “un peu, un peu, just a little, not really much.” It seems the knowledge has left. She thinks if still exists somewhere, there is more of it far into the forest. Here, the knowledge is lost. The women shrug their shoulders. “The knowledge is with the pygmies,” they think.

The Babongos are said to be the holdouts, the most nature-oriented, the most traditional of all the people residing here. That is who I live with-- and yet, when I ask them these questions, they also shrug their shoulders, they don't know either, and what they do know, is very hard to translate. Some plants they use don't yet exist in recorded English/French knowledge, and the forest is mostly closed to scientific people interested in these things because of its inherently dangerous nature. Westerners are not accustomed to the venomous things, the spiders, the thickness of the brush, and larger, more aggressive animals. To even begin to know these things, you must know the forest intimately, just to survive. So what happens if modern life encroaches too close? If the people are forced out of the forest? If the children are sent to school and not into the bush with Grandma,--where does this knowledge go?

I can't yet answer these questions, but have a sense that if I am here for any reason, it is to bear witness to it, to carry in my memory, in my blood, its existence, to have that become part of my life somehow. Already the forest has shaped me into something stronger, more realistic, more aware. I hope initiation will only deepen what has already begun.


My left arm covered with bites from Fourou gnats.  They turn into itchy welts that last for days and make sleeping, holding still, and staying sane impossible


The next few days fade into an emotional blur.... The Western Union office has closed early this Friday due to a holiday, and will not be open again until next Tuesday. I have no money. I can't eat, pay for three days of hotel, and also pay for groceries. Giselen can't get medicine for his children and must drive to another city to find it. Mary Paul is returning to Libreville. Kudu isn't here. It's painfully hot, and muggy. I need to find a mirror, needles, and other things for the village, but I can't remember the names or enough French vocabulary to ask for them at the market. There are few taxis here, and I am being shuffled from one person's car to the next, not allowed to go walk alone by the river, but wait here-- wait there, sit in the stifling heat. I am treated like a child, everyone makes plans for me and insists that I follow, but doesn't take the time to explain what we are doing. “Just give $50 to So-and-so and we will work this out.” I am clearly at a low point, and people are still trying to take advantage of me. I try to articulate myself enough to refuse, and my French fails, lost in the emotions and the heat. Finally, it just gives out.

I become so upset and overwhelmed that I lose my ability to talk. I become fully catatonic. One of the men in our group tells me one more ridiculous lie about how he'll need money to make it better, and this time, I completely lose it. I turn and walk away. Pacing, crying in front of the grocery store, unable to get my vision to focus, I am beside myself; imploding. At some point I find myself sitting on the dirty stairs of the Cecado market, head swimming as angry, despairing, out-of-control thoughts shoot like machine gun rounds through my head. I keep thinking things can't get any worse, and then a sick teenage boy stumbles up and sits down next to me reeling, delirious. Other people on the porch stare, and urge him to go to the hospital, but he refuses, and eventually stumbles off again, dragging his hand along the building for support. No one moves to help him. It occurs to me that I might be dead, and this might be hell.

I am numb, vaguely cognizant of the goings on around me. I gaze straight ahead, saying nothing, hot tears running down my cheeks as various people come up and shake me. “Angie... Angie....” Angie who? I gaze vacantly ahead. Drunk men stand with beers in their hands, staring at me, trying to strike up conversation, slurring their bad street French.

The level of dysfunction, of inconsideration, of lack of people willing to help each other in this place, is beyond what I can comprehend. I have never experienced such apathy, such complete failure by others to consider those around them, to want to help them, to feel emotionally compelled to aid or comfort people. I have never seen people try to so blatantly take advantage of people in such difficult moments. This is not just about me. This is everything I see. Cars don't stop or slow down for people, just blare their horns. The doctors come, blankly stare at the children in the hospital, and shrug their shoulders. We don't have the medication here. What do you want us to do? The men ignore the young boy who is so sick he can't walk straight, and leave him to stumble in the hot sun. The boutique owners try to up charge, bully, negotiate the highest prices they can for their clothing and goods, despite the poverty most everyone struggles with. Businessmen elbow women carrying children out of the way to get a place in a taxi. The men ignore their hungry wives and children, and instead buy jewelry for their mistresses. How can people be so cruel and unfeeling towards each other!?!? I sit here, brain swarming with these terrible thoughts, no longer able to think, no longer able to talk, and still these damn drunks are hitting on me, trying to hold my hands while the park service men turn a blind eye. I can't believe it. I rip my hands away, and put my head between my knees. I wish to God that I was dead.

--- --- ---

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase "each other" doesn't make any sense.


I can not fully convey the deep appreciation I have for kindness, for sisterhood, for the compassion of other women. While the men hung around and watched culture shock, frustration, and heat rock my sensitive American psyche, it was Zita, and her friend who had the kindness to give me a soda, gather me up, and take me off of the cement steps of the Cecado, and away from the relentless harassment of the other men. Short, fierce, and one of the sole females on the parks service field crew, Zita was not one to take shit from anyone, particularly her co-workers, and she knew exactly who's face to push hers into, and who's car to order to take us back to her family's house and out of this mess. “This is ridiculous,” she repeats to herself and the others she's yelling at, in reference to everyone being drug around and strung along for days, as the men take their time making plans and drinking beer. She puts her arm around me, and urges, “Let's go.” Leaving is the only thing that sounds good at this point, so I follow her into a friend's car, where I am given a cold 7up and assurance that I have a place to stay tonight.

We drive to the other side of town, and are dropped at a small compound of rectangular wooden houses perched on cement foundations. I am introduced to her elderly, quiet father, and her kind, smiling mother who welcome me into their home and offer me a place to sit. I start to calm down, to be able to answer basic questions like my name, and if I'm thirsty or not. Zita's friend runs down to the corner store and returns with gray, individually wrapped hamburger patties, processed cheese, and hot dogs. We go sit together in the semi-outdoor kitchen with her mother, and young daughter, and cook, and talk, and keep each other company. I have always been one to poo-poo traditional female roles, but I have to admit how comforting it is to do these things, how safe I feel surrounded by other women, sitting over the kitchen fire, chopping and cooking food; how nice it is to talk about clothing, and hair, and girl stuff. I relax.

I bite into a piece of hamburger, and although it is nothing like any burger that could pass for good in America, I start to cry because it was such a kind and thoughtful thing to do, to seek out some kind of familiar food to me, in the middle of the rainforest, in Africa and prepare it for me at the end of such a frustrating day. “Oooh-OH! Why are you crying again?!” Zita asks, and I choke down my bite of hamburger and explain it is one of the first truly kind things someone has done for me here, and thank them over and over. “Shhh... it's ok,” her mother reassures me. “Ca va aller. ca va aller.”

We finish eating, and I take a bucket shower and go to bed early, hoping I can sleep off the stress of the past few days. I am welcome to stay here as long as I need to, until we can make it back to the village. I put up my little tent in the open space between buildings and fall asleep to the sound of frogs and crickets. Safe from mosquitos, safe from fourou, I sleep well.

Friday, October 26, 2012


Back on the road

The villagers are playing hardball. Everyone has been making liberal use of the supplies I brought, and in less than a week, they are mostly gone. Estelle wasn't joking when she said it wasn't enough-- but my feelings of why supplies aren't lasting vary greatly from the villagers. I, for instance, use one cube of sugar and one spoonful of instant coffee in the morning. To my amazement, everyone here uses four sugar cubes each, and closer to two spoonfuls of coffee. Rice is eaten alone, not as a side dish, and oil is used by the cupful, not the capful. “But we really need the kerosene,” Estelle insists. On my long list, that item was missing, but so natural to them to buy it wasn't included. To them, you always bring kerosene when you come back from the city. It's cheap, and essential.

It was never particularly clear if I was to be feeding myself, the chief's family, or the entire village with the supplies I brought. I only went by recommendations from Kudu and others more experienced in this type of thing. Unfortunately for me, Mary Paul has gone on to another part of the forest, and I am alone, without anyone to advise me or help negotiate. There is no sign of Kudu, and no word from the others. Every few days, the truck passes by the village, and the sound of its engine makes my heart skip a beat every time. Is it Kudu? Is he here? I run down to the truck with the rest of the village, eagerly hanging off the drivers side door along with everyone else. What news? Is the park service coming to visit? Is the village favorite, Mwana Kudu, coming to see us? The answer is continually no.

I am giving in to the pressure of Estelle and the other villagers, who continue to ask me for cans of sardines and tomatoes. I don't have any more, and I feel bad saying no... they are only thirty five cents a can here... it is the smallest thing in the world, and it provides nutrition, flavor, and novelty everyone craves after living on a diet of mostly manioc root and yams. After visiting the meager plantation, and seeing little meat in the village, I am realizing that having another mouth to feed here is quite a bit of pressure. The food I brought was a welcome supplement for a few days, but now that it is finished, we must gather more yams, peel more manioc, boil more water. I am wishing we had more food now too, and decide it is best that upon the return of the truck from the other side of the forest, I travel back to Fougamou and purchase more supplies. The anxiety and resistance I have towards another long ride in the truck, and spending more money, is outweighed by the anxiety of not having enough healthy food and suffering from a weakened immune system.

Thankfully, Estelle negotiates a more reasonable price of $20 for my ride this time, and I find myself and my traveling companions back on the truck, bumping down the logging road to Fougamou.

This trip goes smoothly, and I arrive in Fougamou in the late afternoon. As soon as I am able, I call Kudu to have him wire me more money from my bank account. It is incredibly inconvenient, but he is willing to oblige and promises to send it once he can duck out of the office for a moment. He reassures me he will be able to come to the village, and will bring more cash and supplies with him. I spend my precious emergency money on a small lunch, and carefully reserve enough for groceries and a hotel room. It looks like we might be here a few days. Sadly, our parks chauffeur, Giselen, has returned to news that his children are very ill and in the hospital, and he must visit them immediately. We are all dependent on him and the parks car this side of the river, and have developed a camaraderie and friendship over the past couple of weeks, so we all accompany him to see his family in the hospital. His wife is there with a couple of relatives, looking worried, and rubbing the forehead of her young daughter. She is around seven, but has no seven-year old energy. She is shivering, covered in perspiration, and coughing every couple of minutes. The youngest, a toddler, is in a bed on the the other side of the little room, sleeping with a tube in his nose. She says they have something called “ le paludisme ”... a mosquito-borne illness similar to malaria. They have no screens or mosquito nets in their house, so the children have fallen ill.

It is difficult to see Giselen's usually bright and smiling face look so worried and so sad. I go through all my medicine in my head, trying to think if I have anything that could possibly treat what they have. I have a small herbal pharmacy with me, but outside of echinecea, reishi tinctures and vitamin c, I can't think of anything that can treat something so advanced. My knowledge of medicine here is based largely in prevention, and catching things early. Severe illness leaves me at a loss. I stare at the scared, pained face of Giselen's daughter and my heart aches. There is nothing I can do.

We sit outside on cement benches outside the hospital room for hours. Nothing like the sterile mega-centers in the United States, this hospital is just a series of buildings, open air, without screens on the louver windows. The rooms are tiny, tiled, with aging hospital beds and plastic lawn chairs. There is a doctor's area with basic microscope equipment, but I don't see much else. At one point, I realize I need to go to the bathroom, and ask one of the nurses to show me where. She gives me a long look, and I sense I am getting “white girl treatment.” I'd be happy to go pee in the grass somewhere, but my instinct is always to ask for a place indoors. You are damned if you do, damned if you don't. No one wants to lend out their outhouse and toilet paper, and will often say there just isn't one available, but then people also complain about others shitting behind their buildings or out in the street. I sense the protocol is to pee where you want, but pretend like you don't. If my stomach was not so upset, and the situation not so pressing, I would do that. But this is a different story.

I am led down cement stairs to a locked building with piles of rusty hospital beds thrown behind it. The nurse lets me in the back door, and gestures down a dirty hallway. At the end is a white tiled room that looks like something out of a nightmare. Every surface is covered, absolutely covered, with thousands of dead and dying flying termites. The tiles are stained brown with the juices of their bodies, and hundreds more are stumbling all over themselves, throwing themselves into the light, skittering in the sink... everywhere. I can't believe this is a hospital. I almost run out in horror, but force myself to hover, backpack on, over the seat-less toilet. I try not to be any more sick than I already am. Insects fly into my hair and writhe along the floor at my feet. My stomach turns. I glance around, and notice there is no toilet paper, and my personal stash is almost gone. There is just a rusty, termite-covered sink, and no soap.