“Le petite”, “Le Sac”, and the “Lost”
by Ian Markham -- July 16th, 2014
There are plenty of things that go ‘bump’ in the night whilst camping in the Central African rainforest. Glowing eyes staring back in the faint torchlight might set one’s heart racing when peering through a tent flap. The crescendo of escalating shrieks from the treetops might give others pause. The snap of a branch when desperately needs a pee in the middle of the night, might send one’s mind leaping to the thought of a stalking leopard. And it sure doesn’t help that even if they were awake any Gabonais you might have with you will refer to all wild animal as “bêtes sauvages” (savage beasts).
But the Biologist must steel his heart with the armor of knowledge (or perhaps more aptly, he wraps himself in the comforting blankets of rationalizations). At least I have the comfort of recognizing the reflected eye-shine of a palm civet or Galago, the territorial cry of the tree hyrax (an arboreal hamster-like animal who bizarrely represents the closest living relatives to elephants outside the group). I can also acknowledge that things fall from the trees all the time and the only snap you’d hear if a leopard were serious about eating you would be that of your neck.
There is however one animal whose presence in the forest truly frightens me. Knowledge of this beast offers scant comfort. The more I learn of it, the more it scares me. It was the howling of that creature ringing out from the forest at 10:30 at night that set my heart racing on my second to last night of my first camping transect. That cry came from the most dangerous creature this world may have ever seen: man.
But first to backtrack here a bit… Though off to a bit of a faltering start with our necessary palm nut bait proving as elusive as the third member of our party, things really proceeded quite swimmingly with our work on Trasect #15. We convinced Moliere (pronounced “mow-lee-AIR”) that he really didn’t need for the park’s Chief Conservator to call him personally since it was he that recommended Moliere to us in the first place. We managed to find some palm nuts in a small side market and we managed to get off with some gnashing of teeth at a reasonable hour.
Though we arrived in the village of Etakanyabe whose impacts on the forest we’d be studying a bit behind schedule, our conversation with the chief was quick and mercifully uneventful. He welcomed us into his wooden and mud home with its tin “Domicile du Chef” placard by the door. Everyone smoked a cigarette and Rowjay asked permission to work in the forest for the next five days while Moliere and I sat quietly. The chief taking a long drag from his cigarette, looked fixedly at each of us in turn, then nodded solemnly and acquiesced.
This was to be our first time porting not only our 60 steel traps, but also 8 metal cages, transect tapes, water, and machetes but also five days worth of canned food and manioc into the field. As such I figured there’d be some adjustment to this reality of the rest of our work, so I took a couple measures I which I look back on now as key for moral. The first was to make my pack nearly ten pounds heavier than either of theirs (not hard to do given the camera gear I lug about). This proved important for dodging a mutiny as Moliere lifted his pack about a foot off the ground before dropping it and claiming it to be impossibly heavy. Made of tougher stuff, Rowjay, did not say much but his repacking strategy looked odd and upon asking what he was up to he frankly told me he was going to take two trips. This was not really an option and certainly wouldn’t be for future sites. Thankfully all I had to do was offer to trade with them my sack (which given the weight they most certainly wouldn’t do) for the pride of not being outdone by “le blanc” to suddenly make their packs manageable. The second perhaps more crucial step was to brandish the beers I had cached and suggest a toast to the success of our work.With that we began a cheerful work week and plunged into the forest.
It turned out to be the perfect transect to break us into camping because the distance from the road to campsite was quite short. Even better (though probably not from Dr. Poulsen’s perspective) the Lidar team whose job it is to cut and collect data from the 1 hectare vegetation plots, which I’m taking advantage of for my work, had broken protocol and instead of putting the plot another 1.5km away in the center of the transect and off to one side, had put it right at the beginning. This allowed us to camp much closer to our daily work.
Our luck continued in finding a flatfish wedge of terrain between two hillslopes within 200ft of a spring which with a bit of machete work made for an excellent campsite. The picture of me and Rowjay in the firelight at the end of my last blog shows off the handsome buttress roots of the massive tree that towered over our camp. Finding an appropriate site and making camp was a point of some uncertainty in our schedule and squaring that away efficiently before lunch was a relief.
The other great relief was over my concerns of whether a third person might change our personal dynamic for the worse. I had become increasingly wary over whether or not the healthy dynamic Rowjay and I had established would change with a third. Much of this wariness came from the increasing realization of the importance of age in Gabonese society. A sort of automatic power dynamic emerges almost immediately when two Gabonese work together. The younger and assumed less experienced person, automatically gets referred to as “le petits” or literally “the little.” My worry was that the sharing of decisions and mutual respect that Roger and I had developed working alone might dissolve in place of a more typical Gabonese social dynamic in which the elder takes charge and les petits are expected to take more of a speak-when-spoken-to stance.
As it turned it this was not to be the case, or at least not exactly. Indeed Moliere was readily referred to as “Le Petit” which he accepted without protest, but our dynamic remained more or less unchanged. Rowjay continued to have a good many strong opinions on how to prosed with the work, which we would discuss and I would accept most of and Moliere would go along for the ride. There was an added dynamic of around the fire Rowjay would often take on a more classic Gabonese role and essentially have unidirectional conversations with Moliere. He would tell increasingly animated stories, the first of which I mistook for a dispute between them because from Rowjay I had not often seen the typical Gabonese style of somewhat aggressive, emphatic speech. But really he just tells animated stories about the other people in the village they live in and Moliere would just watch and listen and occasionally make a small comment here or there. I’m increasingly coming to enjoy these times as opportunities to sit back and work on my French comprehension and am finding myself catching more and more of whats going on in these rapid-fire, passionate demonstrations.
The nice part of the “petit” dynamic was however that Rowjay took quite seriously and thoroughly the task of getting Moliere up to speed and involving him in our work. It was gratifying and massively more efficient to watch, Rowjay teach Molier the parts of our methodology he was to assist in as well as explain some of the things I was doing. In truth it made me see the “petit” dynamic in a bit of a different light. In April when I saw it first with the boat drivers and the younger men who would pole us frantically down rocky spots while being barked orders, I regarded it as a sort of default condescension toward the younger or less experienced. But I see it now more as an effective socially codified assumption of apprenticeship. Those that call others “les petites” seem to have for their little ones a sense of responsibility to teach them their experience, whatever that may be. In a way it avoids the awkward tensions that arise in group dynamics as people subtly assert dominance or try to prove they know what they’re doing. Instead its just accepted and assumed if you’re young, you’ll pick up a bit more of the slack and a bit of ribbing in exchange for being instructed.
The nickname also doesn’t seem entirely unfitting for Moliere given his somewhat shy boyish attitude, although I’m quite certain he’s well older than me. I haven’t asked for fear of broaching the topic of my own age. I’m glad I seem to be given a different age scale as a foreigner and employer but I’m probably aided in the respect I’m given also by the fact that Rowjay confidently predicted that I was thirty four. I deemed it imprudent to correct his assertion.
While I’m still getting to know Moliere in my second week now working with him, Rowjay and I have become completely comfortable with one another (sometimes perhaps too much so), and its a good thing too because I spend the large majority of my time here with him. In truth I find the style of communication that is the norm here, something of a mix of direct, vocal, and perhaps somewhat willful in some ways easier to deal with than some of the more delicate styles of communication that typify life in Academia. Fieldwork of this sort is by its nature intense (spoken, I would have cornily pointed out “pun intended” having scrawled this first in my ten…but alas puns are wasted in ink). Moreover its tiresome, without personal space, repetitive, and often frustrating. My advice to anyone anticipating fieldwork that involves someone else would be that if you can’t speak frankly and readily about problems and frustrations with that person, either drop your plans or find a new partner. I have seen before how quickly resentments and anger can simmer when issues go undiscussed and how easily tense working environments develop. Thankfully very few Gabonese I’ve met thus far put much effort into concealing their emotions. When Rowjay is happy he whistles or sings or often makes funny voices and jokes to himself. When Rowjay is miffed, I know because he talks loudly and looks mad. The awesome thing about Rowjay though is the transition between the two. When he’s “of bad humor” as they say here, I need only to ask in my bad french “ Rowjay, why are you annoyed?” The hard shell cracks immediately and he almost always laughs good naturedly. Most of the time he explains some problem in the village or some friend or family member he’s thinking about. When it’s has something to do with me he chuckles and goes “Oh! Monsieur Jean!” (he only calls me Monsieur in these moments), then he says he’s not annoyed and we figure out whatever the confusion or disagreement is. The nice thing is that to a remarkable degree there is almost no memory held on to of any dispute. Either of us can let off a little steam and be laughing about it within minutes and continue on with the work that much lighter.
There are some sticking points which Rowjay just stubbornly won’t change, and I’ve gotten worked up trying to get him to when I thought it was just defiance. But I realize more and more that some things are just his nature and habits are hard to break. None of these are so challenging that they can’t be accepted. His own line that I think marks those things he just accepts with me always gets us both chuckling: “Moi, je suis le sac” or “Me, I’m the bag”. He explained this to me the first time I objected to it that basically he’d carry what I’d ask him to and sit where I left him just like a backpack. He uses the line whenever I ask one too many questions and he doesn’t feel like weighing in. But it has become something of a running joke between us to argue about whether he is indeed the sack or various other things, like “le machete”.
Okay but admittedly I shamelessly tried to hook you with my intro to this blog and then dragged you through this personal interest piece. If you’re anything like my worried mother (sorry, Mom!) you’ll be chomping at the bit to know what went down with this shouting person in the dead of night. So there I was peacefully retired to my tent having photographed a charismatic green tree frog, when through the forest comes the faint but distinct howling hoot of an H. sapien seeking a reply. To be honest, the sound made my skin crawl. I had to take a few deep breaths to calm my racing heart.
The howling “woooooh ooooo” came again, this time a bit closer. I recognize my response to this sort of thing may be atypical, perhaps unduly fearful. In my childhood in Nigeria I learned to be wary of nocturnal humans. Our favorite activity whenever we could convince our father was to do night drives around the agricultural research compound on which we lived to look for wildlife, but the best parts were always off limits. He did so kindly and without intent to frighten us, but Dad explained to us just how dangerous poachers could be and what the desperation that drives a person to cut through razor-wire fence and risk patrols of armed guards could make a cornered person do. The sounds of gunshots from the secondary growth forest not so different in appearance from where I was now working, perhaps instilled a fear in me that never quite let go. I do realize this about my thinking though, so I reminded myself that people could legally hunt here, there’d be no reason to want to do us harm.
Again the voice cried out. I was perhaps also primed for fear by a conversation I had earlier that day with Rowjay. An old shotgun shell prompted me to ask what might be the best course of action if we ran into someone on the trail. I wondered if I should worry about my gear jeopardizing us, being somewhat hopeful he would assuage my fear in this quite peaceful and lightly armed country. And he did for the most part soothe those fears explaining how tightly knit the village communities were and how there’d be no way for someone to hide stolen goods without severe repercussions. But when I asked about more serious poachers, the types that are often armed from outside the country and go for elephants, the great apes, and other rare species his answer was more vague and not so comforting.
After fifteen minutes or so the meandering voice was clearly coming closer. It suddenly seemed very close, perhaps just on the hill above us and I wondered if I should get out and hide some of my more valuable looking gear and wake Rowjay. I told myself if I heard it one more time I would wake the others and figure out a course of action.
But then it didn’t sound again. I comforted myself with the thought that it had been a hunter searcher for the rest of his party. And when it went silent I assumed he’d found them and all was well. I tried not to think much more of it and fell asleep.
The next morning we continued our work laughing and joking in high spirits. It wasn’t until after lunch that our day took a turn for the more challenging. On the second to last trapline of Rowjay and I stopped short. In a heap a few feet from one of my traps lay a pile of stripped lianas. Someone had stopped here the night before and made themselves one of the impromptu backpack customary for hunters in Gabon. What’s more they’d done it on our trails against the chiefs orders.
Rowjay’s first response was anger. He spoke loudly of how no one should be out here disobeying the chief. I wasn’t too bothered really since the evidence corroborated my comforted rationalization of the night before. I assumed that person the night before had found some quarry, then made the backpack to port it out, and called to their friends to make their way out. We found he had also left a pile of marantaceae leaves, that they use for all sorts of things from cooking to impromptu cups for drinking on the next trapline.
Then the howling call came again. This was when I began to worry. Rowjay explained that was the noise people normally used when they were lost. He confirmed then that he too had heard it the night before. I asked if we should call back and help the person and both he and Moliere in unison turned and resoundingly said “no!”
I asked “why?” They explained that people lost in the forest, especially overnight became “mechant.” This translates directly to “mean” but the usage is more like “ferocious” or “vicious.” Its a word they normally use to describe dangerous animals. I tried to wrap my head around this and remembered in my rescue diver training the stern warnings of caution with people panicked on the surface. The worry is that the floundering person will drown their would-be savior in crazed attempts to push themselves out of the water. So I accepted that part of their response given their confidence. I started to worry thinking about how cutting leaves and making backpacks seemed like odd things to do if one were really lost. Also what had happened between the night and early afternoon, had the person been un-lost and lost again? Or had they walked back to the village to rest and returned? Even more it seemed hard to believe that someone could be lost for very long in this particular forest given there were several large logging routes one could easily intersect and follow back to the village. In fact, given that they were on our trail system really it wouldn’t take much walking at all to get back to the road even if you walked all of it. All these thoughts made me a bit paranoid perhaps and I asked Rowjay what he though we should do.
Rowjay said we should all walk straight back to the village and ask the chief why there was someone on our trails. I was a bit surprised by this response and counter suggested that he walk back to the village as he had done yesterday in search of cigarettes and Moliere and I remain at camp. This suggestion was partially motivated by concerns of our safety. We would be easily spotted, followed or held up if all three walked the main road back leaving prints and sporting big bags full of tempting gear. Rowjay by contrast would look just like any other villager if the howler were indeed a poacher with mal intent, and be unlikely to bother him.
Rowjay’s answer to this was also a resolute “no” and his frustration seemed to be rising. He said if we were to go it must be all three. I inquired as to why, given his blasé attitude about it yesterday. To this he explained that he realized yesterday he had committed an “infraction.” Essentially he felt he had done wrong going off by himself no matter how close it were, potentially jeopardizing our mission for the cause of a few cigarettes. I was surprised by this response. It seemed my cautioning and contingency-plan making of the day before had had some impact. I accepted that response then tried to figure out exactly his motivation for the need to go. I wanted to understand whether the pressing need, was because he expected the person was in genuine need of help and we could provide it indirectly, or whether other factors might be in play.
Unfortunately he kept speaking very quickly and forcefully, often turning away as he did. I then tried to lay out options of why we might go to simplify the issue. The first, I asked if he felt we should out of concern for the person’s well-being and to help them by sending others to search. I wanted to know if this were the case or whether it was a matter of avoiding blame by telling the chief we’d heard someone. Having heard a story of a lost village guide resulting in threats from the villagers unless he were located, I was wary of this sort of retribution. Frustratingly Rowjay just got more worked up instead of choosing between those options I’d laid out, asserted again that we must go ask the chief why there was someone on our study site. This was the most impatient I’d ever seen Rowjay and in that state of stress I found him almost incomprehensible. It was Moliere who related that response more calmly to me and I become irritated by Rowjay’s refusal to answer my question.
Nevertheless I was concerned for the other person and continued to think. I suggested we quickly wrap up the work and think a bit before making a final decision. So we worked tensely and quietly as my mind churned through possibilities. Unfortunately our satellite phone had run out of batteries so I could not contact the others for advice. However, before I had realized this I explained that I was going to message to Dr. Poulsen and ask for his input on the situation and he could contact the chief if need be.
The answer to this question though logistically relevant because of the dead phone, helped crystalize the situation for me. Rowjay advised me not to tell the professor now. I asked why and he replied something very quickly with the operative term in his response being “show our culpability.” He was worried if Dr. Poulsen were to contact the village and let them know we had heard someone but we had not come back sooner we might be blamed.
Having finished the work for the day I then asked for a final decision between us. I asked if he thought we could return to finish the work the next morning after warning the villagers, explaining that without the last night of trapping the data would need to be thrown out. His response was “no” and he wouldn’t really explain why except that we couldn’t stay the night in the village. I thus resigned myself to the reality that we ought to try to help if a person really were lost despite the potential risks and losses. I told Rowjay that I also thought we should go.
Then he suddenly said that no we shouldn’t! No, we should stay in camp and the next day on the way out in the morning explain that we had heard someone near our plot, leaving out that we had also heard them Wednesday night. I was flabberghasted. I asked him to explain why he had changed his mind so completely.
His answer was equally perplexing as he launched into the same explanation earlier of “realizing his infraction” going to the village himself. Beffudled, I clarified again that we had settled that. The choice was between all going or all staying and had beed since lunchtime. I then asked him to explain his complete reversal. Bizarrely he repeated the same explanation of his “infraction” yet again. We essentially repeated this two more times with the same result.
I was very flustered at this point but my French comprehension was back up to speed since we had some quiet time to think. I knew I was understanding his words but the logic just wasn’t clicking. I explained that if he really thought that a person was lost, we had a moral obligation to try to help. To this he echoed the sentiment of not implicating ourselves as culpable. He also pointed out the roads and how the person should be able to find their way out if they really wanted to. My chest was tight with nervous tension at this point. I realized that I really had no idea how life in the village functions, how villagers perceive our presence, and what might be deemed evidence to implicate us if someone were lost.
The person had stopped calling for the past hour, the realization of which brought some relief. Perhaps he had found the route. Perhaps they’d met up with their group. I couldn’t get Rowjay to explain him self. I asked again what ought to be done and they both responded with equal confidence that we should finish our work and talk to the villagers on the way out. I asked for a compromise and if we heard the person call again we would head for the village for help. They seemed to accept this and we all retreated into a tired silence.
This situation was perhaps the most challenging of my trip thus far. It strained the limits of my one semester and several weeks of French. I debated some whether to write about it at all but I feel to omit it would almost be a dishonesty about the experience here. This is the reality of working in remote places. Things go awry in unusual ways. Its difficult too to understand the severity of a given situation in the midst of it.
To calm the motherly worries I may have exacerbated, I should say that it all turned out fine in the end. Hopefully I haven’t raised any blood pressures in my effort to convey how serious and confusing the situation felt. In the end arriving in the village we sought out the chief. He was away but his elderly wife greeted us and called over another grey-haired gentleman who turned out to be the chief’s brother. Rowjay perhaps in an attempt to deflect blame demanded to know what were people doing on our study site while we were there.
The old man laughed, apologized, and explained that so-and-so (I didn’t catch the name) had wandered out there and gotten lost again, as he seems to make a habit of doing. He called out to another three men and asked if so-and-so had come back. They laughed too and said that he’d made it back yesterday evening but had to camp out the night before. He had come and gone and didn’t seem to have any problem. I breathed a huge sigh of relief also for the villagers apologetic response. It had all worked out fine and we’d gotten bent out of shape for no good reason.
That morning Rowjay and I had talked too about the need to stay calm and patient in these sorts of situations. He apologized in his way (I have yet to here a Gabonese man use the word for “sorry” but it is expressed in other ways) and explained that was just the way people talk here. He chuckled and patted me on the shoulder exclaiming “Oh, Monsieur Jean!” It was another of those response that I find quite endearing.
As we drove back to Ipassa I processed what had transpired. Though his reasoning was unfathomable to me, Rowjay had ultimately come to the right conclusion while I remained lost in my contingencies. Watching the villages and trees flick by out the window, I reflected how good it was to have this man, challenging though he may be as my guide for the summer.