By Gill Fickling
Cameraman Antonio Tibaldi and I were on assignment in the rainforest of Gabon, to make a story about the pygmies.
When we came to the first flood in the narrow path through the dense forest, we duly stripped off our boots and socks, and, amidst fears of water-borne disease and snakes, waded in. The water was refreshingly cool, the sand underfoot unexpectedly soft. Accompanied by our charismatic local UN security guard, Eric, we had set off that morning with pygmy hunters to film their hunt.
We had long-ago lost sight of the men — on arrival at the edge of the forest, they had forgotten our existence and shot off at a brisk trot along the over-grown path. We “townies” were left panting in their wake, abandoned to a cacophony of birdsong and the occasional buzzing of bees. As the hunters were supposed to be the subject of the film, this caused certain concern. And so did the knee-deep water that suddenly stretched endlessly along the path. At the NEXT flood, no shoes-off this time — having finally caught up with the hunters, we couldn’t risk losing sight of them again. As Antonio plunged straight in, boots and all, I suddenly felt myself scooped up onto the back of Eric who could not stand by and watch a woman get her feet wet!
Declining his chivalry at the next flood, I also plunged in fully-shod and we continued like that for several hours, as we filmed the hunters. The sensation of the water oozing between by toes inside my boots was surprisingly invigorating. But sadly, the outcome of the hunt was not so positive — one pigeon to be shared amongst the four families.
Often referred to as the first inhabitants of this part of Africa, the pygmies have inhabited the rain-forests for thousands of years.
Living in remote settlements deep in the trees, they have been largely forgotten along the path to development. Now, a project is afoot to count one particular group of pygmies and to register their very existence, giving them access to identity cards, to participation in the democratic process and to the wealth of services granted other citizens of Gabon. This census, funded by the UN Democracy Fund, was nearing completion when we joined the census team for a few days in the remote region of Mekambo, 800 kms away from the capital city, Libreville.
The welcome when we arrived in the villages with them was, without fail, warm, our arrival an excuse for several hours’ dancing to rhythmic drumming.
One of the high-spots was when we erected out tents to spend the night in the village of Imbong. The piece of equipment which caused the most hilarity was our battery-operated mattress pump. With the villagers at least 10 deep clustered around our tents, all craning to get a look inside, Antonio plugged in the pump to his crumpled mattress. A gasp burst forth as it started “fattening” and when Antonio triumphantly rolled onto his fully-inflated bed, they burst into spontaneous applause!
That night the village Chief sat on the floor next to our tents and ceremoniously ate the spoils of the hunt we had filmed — the pigeon. The pygmies are finding it increasingly hard to feed themselves through traditional hunting; logging and encroaching urbanisation are driving the animals ever deeper into the forest and making “game” scarce. Now the forest — referred to by some pygmies as their “supermarket” — is experiencing emptying shelves! The pygmies’ traditional ways are no longer sustainable and their very survival is threatened. Also as more pygmy children are encouraged to attend school, they have less time to accompany their fathers into the forest; the chain of passing on traditional knowledge through generations is being broken and skills like hunting could be lost, one of the sad costs of the transition to modernity.
A short trailer for the feature for 21st CENTURY “Gabon: People of the Forest”
WATCH THE FEATURE FOR “21st Century”