An impression of life between Lokolama and Lompole

Lokolama has about 7000 inhabitants and is the regional administrative centre. There is a small local market where best-sellers in Africa like flip-flops, cigarettes, soap, batteries and Chinese-quality torches are sold. Lokolama also has a harbour: it is the furthest upstream city where relatively big ballinière boats start their three-week journey to Kinshasa. There are several old buildings from the colonial time, including a beautiful church. Women sell beignets, fried dough balls, a luxury in a region where flour is scarce and expensive. In short, Lokolama really is the place to be.
Lambert and I spent several hours wandering around the dirt roads of Lokolama to deal with the officials, to change dollars in francs congolais, to repair the bikes and to arrange provision for the next days. It seemed everyone in Lokolama knows Lambert, tata Mule, as he is nicknamed. Everyone had to greet us, shake hands and small talk to know what our programme was. We had to see the priest, the bishop, the school director and the engineer who was going to saw planks for Lambert’s new house over the next days. Lambert is well-educated and wants to surround himself with the higher layer of the society, I think. All very time-consuming and rather frustrating after a while, but I guess it is inherently part of the African culture.

The plan was to stay in the guesthouse, but Mara, the project coordinator in Lompole, offered us the old house of his other who passed away two years ago. Mara’s family was an important missionary family and the missionaries provided the money to build this house three decades ago. It is a really good house according to the local standards: it has a corrugated metal roof, a concrete floor, several rooms and furniture like a table, couches and a wooden bed (with bamboo top layer). The bricks are simple sun-dried mud bricks. Only the church and the hospital are made of oven-backed bricks. Running water and electricity are absent, as in probably every building in the region. The shower used to be a toilet and features a big mirror. After spending nine months in a place where there is no mirror bigger than the size of my palm, I was shocked to see the image of my torso. I’m curious to know my weight when I will step on the balance before taking the domestic flight in less than three weeks from now.

We spent three nights in Lokolama. The second day we went to Inako, a village five kilometer away. One of the village hunters, called Lango, had located golden-bellied mangabeys the previous day. We went out, heard mangabeys, but were only able to find them the next morning. This group is under constant hunting pressure and as a consequence reacted much more fearful to us than the one I saw south of LuiKotale. I was able to get a quick look of them, some recordings of their alarm calls and a fecal sample. In the forest we also came across a coffee bush, a witness of a bigger plantation from the Belgian times, Lango told us.

The third day, and after a lot of frustrating delays, we arrived in Mimia, the village from which a southern talapoin (Miopithecus talapoin) has been recorded as a freshly killed kelo monkey in the literature. We gathered the hunters in the village to get to know more about the kelo monkey. I wanted to hear what they had to tell about the kelo’s body size, the habitat in which they live, their behaviour, their calls and the local methods to hunt them. Afterwards I showed pictures of both species of talapoins and Allen’s swamp monkeys (Allenopithecus nigroviridis). All hunters immediately pointed to the swamp monkey pictures. Every piece of information they provided also fits with swamp monkeys. It is impossible to prove the absence of a species, but my conclusions are there is only one kelo monkey in the region: the swamp monkey. We went in the forest the next day, but the rain destroyed much of our plans and we got to see only guenons.

In the centre of the village of Mimia one can find a two-meter long wooden drum that was used to send messages from village to village in the past. A kind of coded language system existed and that is how villagers often knew about the arrival of the first white people like Stanley before he even left the previous village. The piece of antique is placed under a shelter used as a general place for village discussions. The village chief, wearing a hat of leopard skin with magical power, gave us an egg as a gift and showed me the drum. During the discussion concerning the authorization to go in the forest, I cautiously tried to avoid the hunting dogs that surrounded the traditional chief.

Mimia is also home to a hospital created by the missionaries. The missionaries left in the nineties after they accomplished their mission of Christianization. Lambert recalled that the last four-wheel vehicle passed through Mimia and the nearby villages in 1982 or 1983. The hospital is still running, now run by the Congolese government. We were welcomed in the house of doctor Liévin (the French version of my name)
where I spent the night. The doctor grew up and studied in the big cities of Kinshasa and Lubumbashi. After several years of work in Lubumbashi he came to Mimia to provide his services to the population in this remote region. Doctor Liévin’s family is still in Kinshasa and he only goes there every couple of months (luckily the missionaries also left a small air strip). I think doctor Liévin does important work here. He is clearly a man with a mission.
Mimia is also the place with internet. Super slow internet of course, but I was able to send two emails and click some “like” buttons on Facebook. After an hour the solar system shut down, as did the laptop I was using. For an hour I was immersed in a virtual world and all of a sudden it felt very strange to realize I was in a remote village in the Congo.

Between Lokolama and Lompole we biked eighty kilometers from village to village on the old road built in the colonial time. Nowadays the road only allows one bike to pass at a time, but the ridges at both sides of the road are still visible. Now and then a deviation leaves the original track to go round a fallen tree, up and down the side ridges. We passed the thirty-meter wide Lokeli River on a bridge with pillars made of stones transported from far away during the colonization and logs placed between them three decades ago when the last tractor was still working. Now the logs start to fall apart. It will need a considerable amount of investment to allow cars to get to the most remote villages of the interior of the Congo basin. Our bikes were not the best and we had to stop in several villages to repair them. The seat of my bike was not well attached and very uncomfortable to sit on. None of the bikes had brakes and the last five kilometers before reaching Lompole we drove in the dark with only one head torch.Some of the villages were almost empty. Only a handful of people were at home and most houses were locked. During the fishing season everyone wants to make money and they all temporarily move to the fishing camps along the river. However, Lambert told me that fishing is a relatively recent activity. The singangali, who came from Senegal around the sixties to hunt crocodiles, taught the Congolese the skills to commercially fish the river. Traditionally the people in the villages between Lokolama and Lompole mainly rely on meat and kwanga. Fish and especially vegetables like greens, pumpkin and aubergines are recent. In the past the people hunted mainly duikers, hogs and porcupines using a communal net-hunting technique. Every family brings a net made of natural fibers and together they span a semi-circle of several hundred meters. Some men drive the game in the net and others are waiting at the net to give the final stroke. Larger prey like buffaloes and sitatungas were also caught in giant pitfall traps and monkeys are traditionally hunted with bow and arrow, using poison from a specific tree. Nowadays, net-hunting and pitfalls are rarely used. Shotguns and especially cable snare traps are more profitable for individual hunters and since the deterioration of the roads and the disappearance of trucks that could transport agricultural products, the people have shifted more and more to commercial hunting. Meat is smoked and transported to Lokolama, from where it goes on to the bigger cities. While biking between the villages, I had in-depth conversations with Lambert about the local traditions and the way of life. The picture is complex, but I feel like I get to understand it more and more.

On the road we came across Congolese vehicles, as Lambert called them: bicycles on which traders transport sacks of rice, beans, smoked or salted fish, as well as bush meat. The bikes are so overloaded that the drivers steer them with strings attached to the handlebars from behind the bike. The road is not flat all the way and from the sweat on their forehead I can tell you being a Congolese farmer-trader in the interior must be a heavy job. We even met people on their way back to Tshikapa to sell salted fish they bought here. Tshikapa is a big city in the diamond area of southwest DRC, approximately six hundred kilometer from Lompole.

In the villages I met two remarkable women. The wife of the school director in Mimia prepared us several meals. She was very cheerful and gave all of her best. The men around were commanding and often complaining she had to hurry up. I didn’t feel too guilty as she really seemed to enjoy the rare visit of a Lingala-speaking mundele white person to her simple thatched roof house. The food was simple but good: kwanga with fish and avocado for dinner, rice and bananas as breakfast. I secretly gave her some money after every meal. When in the end I took a picture of her with her children in their best cloths, she was smiling proudly in front of her house.Another woman I will not forget is the oldest sister of Lambert. Mamu is not one of these fat, powerful, slow and sometimes grumpy African women like the wives of Lambert and Mara, but a hard-working, submissive mama for whom I had a lot of respect. I wanted some variety in diet after all these days of fish and kwanga, so I asked for mbika, a nut sauce made of pumpkin seeds. I also asked if Mamu could show me how to make mbika. I ended up sitting next to the fire in Mamu’s open kitchen with the whole village around me commenting on everything I did or said. When most people had finally left, I had a good conversation about making mbika and the Congolese way of cooking in general. I was happy that my Lingala has reached this level which makes it possible to really talk to the people (if they don’t talk fast and with difficult words).

Ten days after leaving LuiKotale we spent a lazy morning at Mara’s place in Lompole, slowly preparing for the twenty-kilometer walk-in to camp. The children of Mara spontaneously started singing. When I asked if I could record their songs, Mara suggested that they took a barrel to drum on. Probably because of the drumming more children of all different ages came to join in. They visibly enjoyed singing all their favorite songs. An hour later they were still singing. All villagers were walking around doing their normal thing. I just sat down, listened and enjoyed. What an enormous privilege, I thought. I have seen many things on this ten-day trip that no tourist will ever see. I got an authentic insight in the Congolese culture and way of life. As I realized this, sitting down, listening to the children’s songs, I felt happy and moved at the same time. Around midday we started heading south, direction LuiKotale, and arrived just before sunset. I felt exhausted, but I was happy to be able to share this impression of life with the others in camp.

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Lieven in congo

At the moment Lieven Devreese is staying at LuiKotale, a bonobo research site of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in the vicinity of Salonga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo. Lieven is a research assistant working on habituation of a second group of bonobos and he hopes to get to see some golden-bellied mangabeys as well. Here you can read more about his 10-month adventure.