I woke up with the sun already high. And it was strange. I almost felt sorry.
The insects had resumed their chattering, the fleas to jump on the blanket, and the rats, back in their burrows, stopped looking busy. In the mud and wood shack, pregnant with the smell of smoke mixed with the dampness of the night, even the embarrassing stench of my clothes-sweat and the acrid stench of humanism-amalgamated into that little piece of the world.
It was going to be a different day from those spent so far in Mfan village at Valentine’s home.
I could feel it. Days were spent running through the bush hoping for some rodent to throw on the fire, assuming the dogs wouldn’t eat them first. And sometimes it happened.
Outside the shack, the eyes took a while to adjust to the strong light. In Africa, everything is exaggerated: the scents intoxicate, and the light blinds. The darkness is pitch black, the stench nauseating. The air you breathe is pure oxygen with little nitrogen, drunk. Red ground does not soil, it colours. Rain does not wet, it cleans. The wind does not stir, it makes dancing.
There is no middle ground. It almost seems to tell – Africa – I am everything. And they are nothing.
Outside the shack, the eyes took a while to adjust to the strong light. And as I heard a whetstone rubbing insistently against the machete blade, Valentine’s wife was intent on preparing breakfast.
They called them puffs: a simple amalgam of water and cassava flour fried in palm oil.
He saw me and smiled, motioning me to sit on the floor and serve myself. I was hungry, and that was certainly not the place or the occasion to have regards. After eating rat stew and toasted termites, a stir-fry in palm oil certainly would not have worsened my health.
I appreciated the cream puffs, thanked the woman, and set out in search of Valentine.
Fishing in the forest
I found Valentine and his son intent on sharpening machetes. He greeted me and, in a French shyer than mine, let me know we would not be running around the savannah that day. That was a fishing day.
I was relieved. Running has never been among my main passions, not even in the eventual-and very rare-healthy periods. In the days spent on the savannah during hunting trips, I had gathered enough material to compose the photo shoot so finding out that we were going fishing that day made me happy.
It must be said that my father never initiated me into hunting activities; they are not family traditions, nor did I hang out with enthusiastic friends. And except for a few early risings as a kid — more to fill some lazy and boring summer mornings in a seaside and border town –, my experience with fishing was reduced to frequenting the market counter. With my mother. I remember that during those lazy summer mornings, from the pier of the small marina something pure I fished and proud as a new Sampei I would return home and wait for my mother’s compliments.
Summer passed, and winter came. Interest in fishing disappeared as quickly as it began.
A few kilometres from the village of Mfan flows a large peaceful river, the Nyong, the same river that provides the urban agglomeration of Akonolinga with a hydroelectric power plant, as important as it is useless.
Built by the French to provide power in that interior area of Cameroon, the power plant was now too old and shabby to fulfil its role. And the Nyong was certainly not coming to her aid: too much water during the rainy season, too little during the dry season. The turbines, which had seen brighter times, were constantly getting stuck.
The Nyong, however, had been there for centuries and had contributed to the evolution and livelihood of the locals for centuries. People turned to the river to wash, do the laundry, play, meet and tell stories, and to fish. But also to dump every possible filth, thinking that the river would carry it away, somewhere; convinced that it could wash away consciences as well.
I let the two men continue with the sharpening work and finished the breakfast puffs, not before sharing one with my guardian angels during those days in the village: Balotru and Mbulia, Valentine’s two dogs. We set out along the red earth road that cut through the village in the direction of the forest. Along that road, two young and “strong-looking” men joined us. One of them struck me in particular: every muscle of his drew a curve, every curve exuded power and strength. He looked like the son of Euclid, so perfect were his forms.
But what surprised me were his eyes: a deep well. Black. And dumb. A glimpse incapable of any words. The gaze of one lost in glittering madness inside the small cell of a large prison. And now he was back.
Without great greetings, without long words, each armed with his machete, and a basket on his head, with Balotru and Mbulia happily wagging their tails, we entered the forest.
The blinding sun of that African morning began its dance and its hiding among the branches and leaves of those trees with exotic names, memories of a young boy dreaming of the adventures recounted by Salgari and Stevenson. For almost an hour we wandered into that magical world of shadows, reflections, and noises now jarring now profound, stopping occasionally to pick some mangoes, or bananas, or any other fruit that would dampen the mid-day hunger.
I have always been able to rely on a very fine sense of orientation and space, and I realized that we were not approaching the Nyong River; in fact, we were continuing on the opposite side.
I had imagined a day of fishing on top of a dugout, careful not to capsize it; navigating the lazy waters of the river, dragging a net or fishing with a rod, who knows. But now I was following three silent men with marked physiques, armed with machetes with a basket on their heads, and their shadows in the forest made them look like warriors.
I didn’t understand where we were going and, without a doubt, I was the only one who cared.
At some point in our now drunken wandering by the emerald green of that forest, with sweaty faces and after defiling a thousand cobwebs among the intertwined branches, with the camera smeared with mud and gnats, the three men stopped in a small clearing among the trees.
Dense undergrowth of brambles and lianas and insects. Unsteady steps with the fear of falling who knows where.
The three men, strong, resolute, with shadows in the shape of warriors, put down their baskets on the ground and became mere men again. The dogs squatted under a tree and began a sleep that seemed like waiting.
And I waited. Not knowing what, but expected.
The three men, with machetes and the heat of silence, began to rape the ground of that magical forest. Precise and deep slashes. Every four slashes, a clod of the earth came away. Each clod, a hole. Each hole a mud pit. The mud was removed and a kind of dam took shape. A muddy lake was emerging from the undergrowth of brambles and lianas. Bodies submerged up to their faces moved arms under the sticky slime in search of the slimy bodies of eyeless, scale-less fish. White fish, born to move through the dark mud of the forest. Slimy, elusive white peaches that turned black as soon as they were taken out of the ground.
And there were no nets, no fishing rods. There was not even a river or a dugout.
There were only three men with marked physiques, submerged in slime up to their mouths, fighting insects and fatigue, and with only their bare hands stealing slimy white fish from the roots of that emerald green forest becoming themselves, at times, part of it.
The three men throughout the morning sank machetes into the undergrowth of brambles and lianas, removed quintals of mud, and diverted hectoliters of muddy water. They raped their forest by giving it another face.
Then they stopped. Suddenly. In the silence of a muted forest.
They put the baskets full of white fish turned black back on their heads, and their shadows, drawn by the sun dancing among the branches and leaves of that forest, made them look like proud warriors again.
Without asking forgiveness from the raped and denatured land we set out on our way back and the forest said nothing. Within a few days, she would take back what belonged to her: brambles and lianas would grow back, footprints erased, and more fish would be born feeding the underbrush mud.
Everything would go back to the way it was before.
As has been the case for centuries.