Talking Drums and Bongo Hunting from the book Campfire Tales
I was on safari in the extreme north of what was then known as Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. My client and I were traveling by bicycle down a well-defined path that ran parallel with the border of Zaire and Sudan. This area was known as Azande, after the local Paramount Chief Azande, ruler of a vast area of northeastern Zaire. Our temporary hunting camp had originally been located in one of the guesthouses in the large village where Azande lived with his fifty wives — yes, fifty. And he had 109 children! I actually counted them on one occasion — the chief was celebrating some special event, and all of his living children were present. I counted the entire lot as they lined up to congratulate their father.
We subsequently reestablished our main camp some five miles down the main road toward Isiro. It was much quieter in the forest there, and it felt much more like a hunting camp than had our brief stay in the main village.
It was February 1972, and it is difficult for me to describe just how remote and primitive everything was in that part of Zaire. This entire area had been virtually abandoned by the world since the disgrace of the fighting between the Zaire government and the rebel forces that had ravaged the entire country. The main road from Isiro, the provincial capital, was a joke. It took an hour to travel six miles. There was absolutely no infrastructure for the local population. No schools, no hospitals—nothing. The whole country north of Isiro had reverted to the subsistence-level village life that existed before the coming of the white man and his colonial government. It was as if the entire nation had retreated one hundred years.
I jokingly called our company the Southern Sudan Bicycling and Bongo Association. The reason? We used bicycles as our main form of transport into the remote areas along the Sudan border. The roads put in during the colonial times had long since deteriorated into hopeless disrepair. There was, however, a good system of paths that connected the various villages. The villagers used these well-defined and cleared paths to travel from one small rural community to another.
The surprising number of bicycles in the area indicated to me that the people must have been quite prosperous at one time. I came from Zambia, and there, bicycle ownership and use were a sure indicator that the community was well off by current standards. Most of the bicycles were made in either India or China, meaning that they had been imported and purchased since the Congo became independent in 1961. These cheaper bicycles would not have been imported during colonial rule. Back then, only European-manufactured bicycles were imported.
Most of the paths were wide enough for a bike rider to speed along the low, sloping hills that led to the frontier. Here and there small rivers crossed the paths, and travelers had to ford the streams. Larger, deeper streams were crossed using large trees that had been felled across them. The top side of each crossing tree would be cleared of branches and then planed flat using a large adz. The traveler had to balance the bicycle over his or her shoulder and then carefully walk across the narrow “bridge.” These bridges were only twelve to eighteen inches wide and sometimes as long as forty feet, so balance was very important indeed!
My clients and I carried our hunting rifles strapped under the seat, on one side of the bicycle frame. The straps were strips of rubber cut out of old inner tubes from bicycle and car tires. Above the bike’s rear fender would be a package containing a second set of hunting clothes, a toothbrush, and any other toiletries that we required.
Normally, three of our group rode bicycles. The bulk of our camping gear and food was carried by foot porters who followed us. The entire entourage would regroup later at prearranged village locations. The bike riders included the client and me, plus Jeeves, my Sudanese interpreter and general factotum. I never learned Jeeves’s real name, but his nickname suited him admirably. He really believed that he was a gentleman born to serve visiting sportsmen. His English and French were quite good, and because he had been born just over the border, he was fluent in Zande and Lingala, the local languages. Jeeves was a hilarious character. He never failed to amaze me with his pretentious airs and his intimate knowledge of the Zande people.
In the classic way of most Third World guides, if he did not know the real answer to any question, he would simply make up an answer that he thought the questioner might like. If the truth was not good news or Jeeves feared the questioner might not want to hear it, the answer would be modified to make it more satisfactory. Questions like “How far is it?” and “Is it nearby?” should never be asked of anyone like Jeeves. His untruthful but encouraging answers simply provided the basis for future conflict.
I found this especially true with the current client. Despite my warnings and requests not to do so, the client persisted in asking Jeeves how far it was to the next stopping point. Though Jeeves had never been along the path before, he would cheerfully reply that it was not far now or that we would soon be there. This cockeyed information had the immediate effect of making the client a bit happier. An hour later, when it became obvious that Jeeves had again lied, the effect was quite the opposite. What the client wanted was for the journey to end. I could not make the path any shorter, and misinformation from Jeeves just made the whole thing worse.
Of course, I never really had any idea how far it was either. The reason for this lack of information was twofold: One, I had never been there before; two, I did not know where we were going! We were following (or attempting to follow) instructions from Jeeves (who had never been there either) to the best, the greatest, the most famous bongo hunting area in the world. The bongo were as common as birds, and all had huge horns. They wandered about in herds in broad daylight among the forest fingers. We would hunt in this paradise just as soon as we arrived. This fantastic information came from Jeeves, who had obtained it from the other real character in our group, the tracker I named Mad Jack.
Mad Jack’s real name was Jacques something; I could not even pronounce his surname let alone spell it. He was the official meat hunter for Paramount Chief Azande. He was completely crazy—in a nice way. I finally discovered, after a month with him, that his craziness was due entirely to the prodigious quantities of pure hashish that he smoked every day all day.
Mad Jack was a runner—he hardly ever walked. As we rode through the forest edges on our bicycles, it was not unusual for Mad Jack to pass us on foot. He would streak by, and then we would catch up with him at the next place where he decided to rest. Jack’s ability to run was absolutely astounding. In fact, the question, “What makes Mad Jack run?” took on special meaning when I finally determined that what fueled him was the hashish. So there we were, finally, in the jungle, with Jeeves and Mad Jack as our mentors and guides. The vegetation was fascinating. For the most part, we were hunting along the edges of long, thin, fingerlike extensions of rain forest created when the vegetation followed the smaller river valleys out of the main watershed, growing along the permanent water. Each of these smaller streams seemed to create its own miniclimate.
The fingers varied in width from over half a mile at their juncture with the main forest to only a hundred yards or so just before they petered out for lack of water. Elephant grass grew on the low hills around the small valleys containing the streams. At the dry time of year, this grass was burned by the villagers or by naturally occurring fires. During the time we hunted there, it was only six to ten inches high. From time to time, however, we would come across a patch of grass that had not been exposed to the seasonal fires, and it was quite something to see—up to ten feet tall with stems as thick as a man’s finger.
It was called elephant grass because when it was mature, only elephants would have the strength to push their way through the stuff. I assumed that elephants were the animals that opened the pathways through this grass used by the other creatures that lived in the area.
A very well-defined edge marked the place where the grass met the forest fingers. Usually, a game trail ran just along the edge between the grass and the forest, obviously used by all the animals living both in the forest and out in the grasslands. The grassland antelopes would use the paths on their way to water in the valley bottoms, and the forest antelopes appeared to use the paths regularly when they ventured out into the open.
I often wondered what grassland antelopes such as waterbucks and hartebeests did when the elephant grass was fully grown. Perhaps there were patches of shorter grass well away from the forest fingers. This must have been the case, for no ordinary antelope can live for months on end in a sea of ten-foot-high grass. I never saw any of these shorter-grass areas in Zaire, but I was to see many of them years later along similar forest fingers in the Ivory Coast and in the Central African Republic.
On this particular safari, my client and I had finally passed through the larger forest fingers and were well up on the watershed toward the Sudan border when I decided to stop and take a rest. We were just outside a small village, so I suggested we carry on into the village, where we would try to talk to the locals about the animals to be found nearby.
We walked our bicycles slowly into the village and soon found the large center-round, thatched-roofed mud house that belonged to the headman. It was midday and the headman was napping under the eaves of his house. He woke and cordially greeted us. I have often wondered why these native folk never seem to show any surprise. Here we were, two white men on bicycles in the middle of nowhere, and this chap acted as if we were the norm for his midday visitors. I would be surprised, indeed, if ten white men had entered that small village since the beginning of time.
The headman asked where we were going. Fortunately, Mad Jack had appeared and was able to give him some vague idea of our destination. I could just make out his comments that the area we were heading for was crawling with bongos, and apparently was not very far off. Both the headman and Mad Jack insisted that it would be less than one hour’s travel to our hunting place, so I felt safe in telling the client that it would be two hours. If I was wrong, it would be a pleasant surprise.
After a short while we decided to get on our way. We had explained our mission to the headman, and he had said we could sleep in the next village. He added that we could also hunt from there—it was the last village before we would reach the uninhabited border area.
As we were leaving the village, drums started to sound very loudly. The Azande forest drums are simply sections of hollowed-out tree trunks. There is a slit in the top about four inches wide, and both ends are plugged with large wooden stoppers. The drum lies on two wooden trestles, one at each end of the cylinder. The local folk beat the hollow drum with short, hard sticks to make a very loud reverberation. I was impressed by just how loud the drums were.
We were still walking next to our bicycles when my client asked me what the drum noise was for. I replied I really didn’t know but had understood that the Azande people were able to communicate using the drums. The client scoffed and said, “Sure they do. Then ask Mad Jack what they are saying.”
I shouted for Jeeves, who was still back in the village, and as usual he came running up. I asked him to carefully inquire of Mad Jack why the drums were making all the noise and what they were saying. Jeeves appeared to carefully translate my question into Zande. Soon Jack began to talk. He carried on for a few minutes, stopping now and then to listen to the drums.
Jeeves turned to the client and me and translated what Mad Jack had just told him: The drums told the story of three strangers (two of them white men) on bicycles traveling toward the next village. These strangers are followed by a small caravan of porters who are carrying the bulk of their supplies. The strangers intend to sleep in the next village and hunt for m’bangana (bongo) the next morning. The drums, Jeeves went on, then said that the white men want to buy some eggs for their breakfast.
My client promptly said “Bulls—!” and began to get on his bicycle. I asked what he meant, and he answered, “There is no way these primitive folk could have developed a drum code that would let them communicate such details. If you believe all this nonsense, you are just as bad as they are! How could you think people who can’t even draw a straight line could develop such a message system using hollow logs?” I decided not to argue, even though I knew he was wrong. We both mounted our bikes and off we went toward our next campsite and bongo heaven.
Strange as it seemed to me, Mad Jack and Jeeves were correct about the distance to the next village. In just under one hour I saw some smoke ahead in the forest—this could only mean that a village was nearby. We rounded a corner and were gratified to see a neat, small village perched atop a small rise. It was near the edge of a forest finger—in fact, I could see patches of open grassland through the trees. We were still some three hundred yards from the village when the drums announced our arrival. At least, that’s what I assumed the drums were saying, so I did not ask Jeeves about it.
The drums were still beating as we walked into the village square. I asked Jeeves what the drums were now saying. He pointed to a middle-aged woman who was approaching us with a basket and said, “The drums say that your eggs have arrived.” I turned to the client and told him to look into the basket before he said another word about the talking drums of Azande. The basket was full of fresh eggs!
The hunting area was about one hour farther north toward the Sudan border. We left early the following morning just before dawn. On that first day of hunting from this village, it began to rain lightly. In my diary, which I still have, it is noted that during the course of that day I saw forty-seven bongos! One herd of thirty-two animals was actually frolicking in the light rain, in the burned area between two forest fingers. I watched them long enough to count the herd, and noted in my diary that bongo look much like forest eland. Unfortunately, this client was too excited and mistakenly shot and killed a female. That sounded the death knell for this bongo hunt.