October news – Central Africa and Ivory Coast

Much of the summer has been taken up with our first departure of our ‘Rhythms of Central Africa’ trip, travelling through southern Cameroon, Gabon and Congo – a challenging trip travelling through parts of the continent where tourists are an absolute rarity.

We started off from Douala, visiting the chimpanzee sanctuary of Pongo Songo to meet young – and rather mischievous – chimps as well as their older relatives on islands along the river. From Edea we travelled into the nearby forests to meet the Badgeli ‘pygmies’, staying overnight with them and heading out into the forest as they searched for food, finding a rather impressive bee’s nest along the way. A rough and difficult track took us across the mountains to Lolodorf – with help from local villagers when our vehicle got stuck in the mud….

Travelling off the beaten track in Africa offers special rewards, and it was in southern Cameroon that we experienced perhaps the most magical and enchanting ceremony that we’ve ever come across in Africa – the Bwiti ritual. Practised by the Fang people, Bwiti has its roots in the forests of Gabon, among the pygmy communities, but has spread both geographically and conceptually, embracing parts of Christian religion but changing them into something wholly African in flavour. The Bwiti ceremony lasts all night, with all members of the community taking part from the nganga (priest) to small children, each with their part to play. Involving frenetic drums, harps, fire, frenzied dancing, and centred around the use of the mildly psychoactive iboga root, the sheer spectacle and energy of the ritual is one of the most spellbinding cultural sights you can expect to see on the continent. After a night of chanting, singing and dancing, the ritual culminates in the sick person being bathed in a combination of specially chosen herbs, while a sacrifice is made nearby – the purpose of which is to drive out whatever may be harming them.

Very few people have even heard of this ritual, and fewer still get to see it – yet it is often in the hidden places that Africa is at its best.

Travelling south through Gabon, we entered a land of lush forests, better roads, and difficult bureaucracy. Outside of Loango National Park the country receives almost no tourism, and so our presence at the frequent police roadblocks was more than a source of confusion to the bemused officers. Patience is definitely a virtue when travelling here – but a smile and a joke can often go a long way. Not always though, and so on a few occasions we decamped to the nearest bar while our guide ‘negotiated’ with officials to let us continue. In Lambarene we stayed in the historic Schweitzer Hospital, and looked for hippos on the mighty Ogoue River, traversed by early explorers looking for a route to the interior. In the thick jungles surrounding Mimongo we camped with a Babongo ‘pygmy’ community, discovering the secrets of the rainforest and with some fairly ‘lively’ festivities in the evening. Our last stop in Gabon was the small town of Ndende, where we were privileged to witness the traditional dances of the Punu people, renowned for their amazing craftsmanship and their ‘geisha’ like masks.

From Gabon, we entered Congo, driving on dusty roads to Dolisie and then Brazzaville. Along with neighbouring Kinshasa, Brazzaville is home to the ‘sapeurs’, who place a high priority on sharp clothes and looking stylish. We met some of Brazzaville’s finest on a Saturday night, including Brazza’s oldest sapeur at 82 years old – and still dressed a lot better than most of us were at that point in the trip! The trip ended with a visit to the Lesio Louna gorilla reserve, a couple of hours north of the capital, where we stayed in a beautiful camp in the forest, with baby gorillas on a nearby island, and looked for their relatives along the river banks.

This is not an easy trip – long drives, bad roads and obstinate policemen all took their toll on our patience at some point during the trip. But it showed a side of Africa that makes no concessions to tourism, Africa as it is, not how we may want it to be. There is no tourist trail whatsoever here, and this trip was the result of painstaking research – how to connect with the Babongo people and be sure they would allow us to camp with them, how to be sure we could witness the Bwiti ceremony, where to find the sapeurs on a Saturday night – that made it an utterly unique, and pioneering, experience.

For real Africa enthusiasts only, our 2016 departure is ready to book – full details here…..

 

We’ve also spent time in Ivory Coast earlier this month. Off limits for a while due to civil war and social tensions, Ivory Coast is much less developed for tourism than better known neighbours like Ghana and Burkina Faso, yet has a certain charm better suited for experienced travellers to the continent. Old colonial towns like Grand Bassam and Sassandra hug the coastline, with old French buildings and colourful fishing ports to explore, and a little further north lies the ‘unusual’ capital Yamoussoukro, with reputedly the largest church in the world, a monument to the excesses of the country’s first president. Around the northern capital of Korhogo lie the villages of the Senoufou people, who still follow the animist traditions of old and maintain wonderfully decorated fetish houses, adorned with the skulls of recent animal sacrifices. Deep in the bush lies the small town of Kong, home to one of West Africa’s most impressive traditional mosques, while further afield and close to the border with Burkina are the villages of the Lobi people, where one can still find old women with elaborate lip piercings. As with much of Africa, the roads are often poorly maintained, the cities crowded and the infrastructure lacking, but look beyond this and you can still find ancient traditions, picturesque adobe villages and a very vibrant nation that welcomes visitors effusively. Our next available departure is in March 2016 – details here.

That’s it from us, until next time….

The Native Eye Team

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