Friday, November 10, 2017

Visiting the Aka Pygmies

In the mid-90’s I was VP of International Training with United World Mission.  Missionary Paul Ohlin invited me to visit he and his wife, Dianne, and observe their work among the Aka pygmies.  The Aka live in a rain forest deep in the jungles of northern Republic of Congo. 

The Ohlin’s lived in a city called Impfondo, several miles from the capital city Brazzaville.  There is only one flight a day to Impfondo but it’s an important flight as it carries the daily mail.  Paul and Dianne lived just outside of town, a compound that has been in existence since the 1950’s used by early pioneer missionaries working in that remote region of the country.  Former missionaries concentrated their work among the Bantu people but Paul early on felt the leading to work among the Aka.

On the morning of our journey we loaded Paul’s fourteen-foot motorboat with supplies that included his motorcycle.  We traveled six hours up the Ubangi River, a twisting passage snaking its way up to where the Aka live.  Along the way we saw a large riverboat going down river on its way to Brazzaville.  The journey on this boat takes over three weeks and at every village where they stop they buy goods to resell in the capital, including “bush meat” (deer, ground-hogs, monkey and whatever else they can kill in the jungle).

Arriving at a small village several hours later, we then traveled another two hours by motorcycle deeper into the interior.  It’s amazing what two people can carry on a bike.  Paul, in the front, had a backpack and frontpack, I had a backpack holding a jerrycan of petrol while trying to balance myself behind on the back.  Obviously we had to stop a few times to rest and readjust our carry-on.  That night we slept in a mud hut on the floor.  Though the ground was hard, after traveling all day we did get some rest

We began our trek into the jungle mid morning.  Paul purchased some additional supplies and hired some local fisherman with a dugout canoe to take us to the edge of the jungle.    The day long trek in the jungle consisted first of following the river outlets into the marsh.  Once in the marsh the fisherman used long poles to push the canoe toward land.  When the water became too shallow to move the canoe with poles we rolled up our pant legs and trudged, sometimes waist deep in water, toward the bank.

One hears about a jungle, maybe read and see pictures in National Geographic, but one has to truly experience the jungle to fully appreciate its magnitude.  The tall trees and under growth was so dense that if, somehow, a person got off the narrow path even twenty feet it’s a good chance they would never find their way out again.  With our guides, who carried most of our camping gear, we walked the narrow path for nearly three hours.  Throughout the trek it rained, sometimes it was a downpour, thus the term "rain forest."

 Arriving at a clearing was the Aka village of perhaps no more than one hundred people.  The houses were made of  sticks and brush and so small that I had to almost get on my hands and knees to go in and out their huts.  The Aka’s themselves were no taller than five feet, the men wearing trousers or shorts, the women wore grass skirts, no upper covering.  Paul and I slept in, what can only be described, as utility building where people meet and talk when they are not in their houses.  It was open structure, sticks with a grass roof.  Our beds were really just elaborate benches of sticks.

Next post:  Monkey meat for supper, the Aka hunter/gathers and saving Paul’s life.