Pygmy populations have existed in Africa for tens of thousands of years. The term itself — defined in Chambers as “a member of one of the unusually short peoples of equatorial Africa” — has occasionally been blighted by pejorative, colonialist usage, but it is the only appropriate coverall used by anthropologists to describe numerous indigenous peoples. Pygmies are typically slightly less than five feet tall and are semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, who live in or around a rainforest.
The Ba’aka, a local rendering of the more widespread “Baka”, are believed to be the oldest inhabitants of the forest regions of the southern Central African Republic, parts of northern Congo and south-eastern Cameroon. It is all but impossible to determine population numbers, with the most durable estimate around 30,000. As befits a group whose name can be literally translated as “forest people”, they seem at times almost supernaturally in tune with their habitat. Ba’aka can instinctively navigate vast areas, recognising animal tracks or foliage patterns, and have an innate knowledge of which fruits or berries to eat and from which to distil poison for weaponry or extract for medicine. They are expert house-builders, fashioning characteristic “bee-hive” shelters from branches that are still sometimes living, and can climb trees with extraordinary balance and speed, returning to share the gooey sweetness of honeycombs plundered from the canopy. Their protein comes from the animals they can trap in the nets they weave from strips of liana bark, else spear from the trees — antelope, porcupine, pangolin, monkey. Their staple starch comes from manioc (or cassava), traditionally obtained by trading the treasures of the forest with the Sangha-Sangha, the fisher-people who live by the imposing, life-giving Sangha River.
Despite prospering in this manner since the beginning of civilisation, however, the delicateness of the lifestyle has been made chillingly apparent by the encroachment of the lumber industry during the late 20th century. Ba’aka have long been exposed to abuse from their Bantu neighbours, who have often “owned” them as slaves, but the new outsiders’ pollutants — chiefly a cash economy and guns — present manifold new issues. The international bush-meat industry regards the rainforest as a self-replenishing larder, yet the logging companies have reduced its size so dramatically in the past 50 years that it can now barely support those people most dependant upon it, let alone outsiders. Pygmy groups across different regions in Africa may encounter problems specific to their area, but all are commonly threatened by the same three factors: other settlers, poaching and deforestation.
“If you don’t have your own environment, you can’t live, so you can’t be a pygmy,” says Camille Oloa Bilou, of the Hunter Gather Resilience project at the University of London.
The wretched demands of contemporary industry had not yet reached its unsustainable scale in 1984, when Louis Sarno developed his obsession with life in the forest. At that time, the Ba’aka’s international renown came only from the method with which they celebrate their habitat and offer benediction to their surroundings: the songs they sing during dances and rituals, where the forest spirits are summoned from the deepest jungle.
“I felt I knew them because of the music,” Sarno says, explaining how he arrived to the rainforest with few survival skills and no anthropological training, yet no burning desire ever to return to a life in the west. “Music is an important part of my life. I just felt I knew them because of the music.”
We were talking in Yandoumbé, the village near to Bayanga in which Sarno has lived among the Ba’aka for close to 30 years. After a day to recuperate from the exertions of our journey across Cameroon, I took a 40-minute ride on a motorcycle taxi from my base at Sangha Lodge, the only viable accommodation option in the area, to visit Sarno’s home in daylight. I arrived to find him in conference with an ailing old widower who, Sarno explained, had recently lost the second of his two daughters to illness and was reduced to climbing trees to pick nuts to sell. He was looking for financial assistance from the world traveller, but Sarno had already parted with all of the money — approximately €600, from sales of CDs at film screenings — he had brought back from Europe, paying off debts run up by his family during his absence. At Sarno’s request, I handed over 2,000 Central African Francs (about £2.50) to the man, who departed leaning heavily on tall splinter from a tree trunk he was using as a crutch.
Sarno’s house, made from wood scavenged from a now-abandoned lumber mill in Bayanga, sits at one end of a clearing, around which are scattered eight or nine low dwellings occupied by other Ba’aka families. The village has three of four such clusters of housing (it is constantly in flux), either side of a typically uneven track. When Sarno first arrived to the Central African Republic, the community of Ba’aka who would eventually become his close friends lived on premises closer to Bayanga, where they were frequently bothered by the Bantu. But Sarno secured permission to a plot about a three kilometres away and encouraged the founding of what is now Yandoumbé, named after the stream that runs behind the village. After receiving a windfall from the production of the first film made about his life — 2010’s OKA!, directed by Lavinia Currier — Sarno was able to purchase the land. Sarno himself had to move in first to encourage the other Ba’aka to leave their former home, but they gradually joined him and built new houses close to his.
“The community already existed, I just changed the location,” Sarno says. “I didn’t really found the village. After three nights, the Ba’aka started coming because they knew it was a better place, in every way. Back then, there was forest all around, it was beautiful.”
Now, at close to 600 residents, Yandoumbé is probably the largest pygmy village in the region.
Sarno’s first two trips to central Africa lasted three months each, the maximum permitted by the tourist visas he could obtain from the government in Bangui and by rapidly diminishing finances. He slept outside on the ground on the first night he arrived, but gradually grew to be accepted by the community as he became ever more accustomed to the ways of life. As the Ba’aka began to acknowledge that he was in no hurry to leave, they helped him build a house and gradually embraced his presence. “They are very tolerant people,” Sarno says.
Back in New York during an enforced break from his new life, a literary agent read a brief essay he had written about his time in the rainforest, and secured a commission for a full-length book. Sarno successfully negotiated with the publisher for an advance and then with the consulate for a longer permit to remain. He purchased a one-way ticket back to Africa.
“I just felt at home,” Sarno says. “The Ba’aka were happy to see me because they knew me already and they knew I liked the music. And then I fell in love with this Ba’aka girl and the idea of leaving was not something I could contemplate. That’s what drew me deeper into the culture, that’s how I started learning the language, and going into the forest with them and staying in forest camps for two or three months at a time. The only language I would hear would be their language.”
Traditional life for the Ba’aka exists in two distinct locales. For at least half of the year they live in the village, sometimes referred to as “by the road”, where they are in easy reach of the manioc plantations, shops and neighbours of Bayanga. But at other times, for periods of up to three months, groups from the village up sticks and roam into the forest, vanishing deep into the jungle on extended hunting expeditions, which are also filled with revelry. The Ba’aka undergo extraordinary transformations as they head into the forest: dissolute drunkards in the village become keen and capable hunters; inveterate wasters rediscover a vivid purpose.
“In the village, or in the presence of even a single negro or European, the pygmies behave in a certain way,” the anthropologist Colin Turnbull writes in The Forest People. “They are submissive, almost servile, and appear to have no culture of their own. But…way off in the forest, those same pygmies were different people. They cast off one way of life and took on another, and from the little I saw of their forest life it was just about as full and satisfactory as village life was empty and meaningless.”
Sarno, the child who had transformed New Jersey back yards into jungles in his head, could not have been more at home.
“I loved the forest from the first instant I stepped into it,” he told an interviewer from Philadelphia City Paper in 1996. “I never understood these 19th-century accounts about going in the jungle and pushing oneself to the last ounce of their strength and there’s these bees and these sweat beads. They make it sound like a hell on earth. That’s nonsense. It’s paradise. I love the rainforest. I feel protected in it.”
Sarno also grew quickly accustomed to carrying his recording equipment wherever he went. He knew immediately that he was seeking more from his recording project than the mere tourist performances that the Ba’aka could sometimes be persuaded to put on in the village. He was intent on recording the music they produced when the only audience was themselves, an endeavour that would require complete immersion in the culture. In the forest, with the canopy operating as the cathedral roof, the Ba’aka produce sounds that have captivated musicians and musicologists for centuries. While hunting, groups of 50 or more singers combine in vast polyphonic chorus: several vocal strands are stacked atop one another to produce densely layered songs. While loitering in camp, they entertain themselves with harp playing and flute music. Even while bathing in rivers, they are capable of beating out rhythms on the water that magically come together to form coherent compositions.
Nothing is quite as spectacular as the ceremonies of benediction, however, where Ba’aka who are properly initiated dance and sing in specific ceremonies, appearing incognito in masks and costume fashioned according to ancient and complex tradition. The ceremonies can last hours on end and deep into the night, among them bojobe, during which a choir of women singers plead the spirits for their blessing ahead of a hunt; linboku, a women’s ceremony to which men are not permitted; and ejengi, the biggest celebration of them all, which can last several months. On the first night after he returned from Germany, Sarno was invited to an enyomo ceremony in memory of the girl whose father had come looking for financial aid the following morning.
Sarno and I ambled up to a gazebo in his garden, among trees bearing jackfruit, breadfruit and avocado, among others, in a splendidly peaceful glade. The darkened rainforest surrounds the house on three sides, and small parties of Ba’aka, typically women, wandered to and fro, clutching handfuls of mushrooms and forest garlic and baskets of manioc. The forest emits a continual pulse of wildlife sounds — to all but the experienced ear, a monkey is indistinguishable from a bird; an insect chorus similar to those of frogs — but there is a near complete absence of artificial sounds. Barely one vehicle per hour passes along the road.
We occupied the two wooden chairs on a slightly raised platform, while a group of Ba’aka, who had accompanied my motorcycle taxi from the moment it had arrived, assembled themselves around us, some sitting on the floor, others standing propped against the wooden pillars. The children tumbled up and down the slight, grassy hill and became entangled in play-fights. The wooden table, on which Sarno likes to write, rapidly became a jewellery display, with scores of necklaces and bracelets, all made by the Ba’aka from beads and dried vines and carved wood, offered for my delectation and at a price of my choosing. (Sarno said he had asked them not to attempt to sell me anything, but the opportunity was apparently too good to be missed.) A neighbour named Mkouti sat at Sarno’s feet, resting his head against the chair, and began plucking at a geedal, a six-string bow-harp. Its sound was mesmeric, especially when accompanied by his mumbling vocals.
Sarno was wearing a white T-shirt bearing the words “Smoking since 1879 — Rolling Experience”, the advertising slogan of a brand of cigarette papers. He was smoking some of the weed he had picked up from his friend on our journey a couple of days before, and looked comfortable for probably the first time since I had met him at the airport in Istanbul. He said, however, that he was still exhausted from the trip and was not yet ready to take a walk into his beloved forest. His first day back, on which he had hoped to do little but sit and relax, had in fact presented a mountain of administrative issues and debt repayments as he made good on promises made by his extended family in his absence.
“I wasn’t searching for a simple life,” he admitted. “I was just coming here to record music. I loved the rainforest and I ended up just loving being with the Ba’aka. They’re a great society to be with. It’s true I hate paperwork, but I didn’t think about that when I came here. It’s more simple in terms of paperwork, but it’s much more complicated in terms of human interactions. I was just looking for a life that I would enjoy, and I found it.”
It began to rain, and the heavy drops beat a refrain off the roof and coated the tumbling, naked children in a wet shimmer. They looked as if they had been basted head to toe for the oven. After about an hour, Sarno wandered back down to the house to meet Agati, who had returned from a shopping trip to Bayanga, and I was left in the shelter between the 15 or 20 villagers who had sat with us, mainly young men chatting among themselves. They were dressed in a raggedy assortment of sports jerseys and T-shirts bearing other slogans, above cargo shorts or jeans that were either turned up or cut off. The unofficial uniform of Yandoumbé is a T-shirt promoting the BBC World Service’s World Have Your Say programme, around 30 of which Sarno received from the broadcaster when he last visited the UK. Some of the children of the village wear adult-size versions, as though a ball-gown that drags along the floor.
Mkouti, who now took Sarno’s seat, continued to play his harp and was joined by another young man wearing a Nigeria football shirt and with a Turkish Airlines luggage tag clipped to his belt loop. Either Sarno or Samedi had provided the gift, which had little function beyond that of incongruous decoration. (He also had no affiliation to the Nigerian football team.) The new arrival began drumming with a stick on to the back of the chair, which in turn prompted another boy to join the band, cupping his hands to produce an echo-like clap. A bowl of roasted manioc arrived, from which a couple of the youngest children feasted, swelling further their rotund bellies. When it was empty, the bowl became another instrument: a new musician tapped against its sides with the metal spoon. Soon enough, but also somehow imperceptibly, the orchestra had swelled to six or seven, with five voices or whistles. Mkouti accompanied the music with a succession of throaty anecdotes, which invariably left his audience roaring with laughter. The tales Ba’aka tell tend to focus on the animist god Komba and the moments at which he creates the various jungle animals, usually as punishment for an impertinent creature’s mythical activities. They frequently wander along paths determined by the personal whims of the storyteller, and end with a sharp punch-line, and a shrill roll of teller’s lips. Mkouti seemed to be a master and would quickly re-tune his harp at the end of each story, before, when he was ready to go once more, leading his band-mates into another song.
I first noticed something else afoot when three women arrived and crowded the harp player, clapping and singing and dancing with an elastic swivel of the hips. They plunged forward from the waist, then shimmied their way vertical again, their shoulders rolling from side to side. The new voices increased the volume and the activity grew more frenetic. I also noticed Samedi for the first time since arriving that day, among a clutch of teenagers who had previously been horsing around beside Sarno’s house. The teenagers swelled the group around the summer-house and were armed with vegetation, long, leafy branches, with which they were busy beating the undergrowth that led towards Sarno’s orchard of avocado trees. Pretty soon, with the teenagers now also hollering into the bushes, I made out what looked like a short, green shrub quivering of its own volition in the undergrowth. It was somehow also edging nearer to where the teenagers were slapping the trees: a figure from the forest, made of the forest, was approaching.
The figure was comprised entirely of green — top to bottom sheathed in leaves, glistening in the rain. It was about four to five feet tall, but no human skin was visible. As it stomped into view, the music grew ever louder and the activity more frenzied. It even dared at one point to step up on to the terrace, which prompted an explosion of what appeared to be either terror or jubilation. It was whipped with branches and gradually retreated back whence it came. The forest spirit had danced.
“They’re spontaneous,” Sarno said, when I asked him about it later, suspicious that he may have instigated a performance for my benefit. He denied he had had anything to do with it, and insisted instead that he had just wanted to get away from the attentions of his fellow villagers for a while, and had figured his best hope for a moment’s peace was to employ me as a sacrificial decoy. I never learnt the identity of the pygmy beneath the costume, and was cautioned that further investigations would represent a grave faux pas. “You don’t even indicate that you think there was someone in it,” Sarno said. The forest spirits simply dance when they are moved to.
These spirit dances are the subject of countless anthropological studies, and arguably no westerner has seen as many as Sarno. Yet despite his presence at hundreds of ceremonies over the years, Sarno keeps details of his own initiations close to his chest, leading many to assume he has never played an active role. Anthropologists, who typically stay in the field for a year or 18 months, consider initiation to be a crucial component of their studies; cultures can only be properly understood from within, and only through initiation can one peer behind the scenes.
“I wanted to fully understand and also wanted to show that I was willing to be a learner/beginner and was not afraid (or not fatally so anyway) to commit my voice and body to participation and scrutiny,” Michelle Kisliuk, author of a greatly-respected study of Ba’aka ceremonies named Seize The Dance!, told me in an email. “Participation was crucial for me for many reasons.”
In her numerous trips to the pygmy villages of the Central African Republic, Kisliuk endeavoured to obtain sufficient skills to be able to teach the movements on her return to the United States, and now integrates theory and practice in her teaching at the University of Virginia.
Sarno told me that he had, in fact, been initiated in both ejengi and bojobe, but prefers to keep it more or less secret. He is happy, however, to discuss the dazzling beauty of what he has seen, and some of his and the Ba’aka’s funniest anecdotes originate from the ceremonies, usually featuring infuriated westerners as the stooges. According to Sarno, speaking during a seminar at the Pitt Rivers Museum, the BBC’s Human Planet series once attempted to film a bobe ceremony in the pitch darkness of the jungle night. During bobe, spirits are coaxed from the forest and are only faintly visible because of a bioluminescent fungus daubed on their bodies — an image notoriously difficult to capture on film. The BBC crew believed it had a technique that could obtain footage and dispatched Sarno to negotiate a deal with the spirits, whose price for performing on demand suddenly became remarkably high. Good to their word, however, and with pockets lined, the spirits duly appeared and struck poses that even Sarno had never seen: they mutated their bodies to appear like elephants and then antelopes, glowing magically in the dark. “It was amazing,” Sarno said at the seminar. “But the photographers were going ‘Oh shit! I can’t see anything.’…The photographers were doing this for two hours, and finally they said, ‘OK, tell them they can go now’. And the spirits went back into the darkness and they didn’t get anything. Nothing came out on film.”
During the same presentation, Sarno told the story of a Catholic nun, working as a missionary, who grew frustrated by an ejengi ceremony that had apparently lasted two years. It caused the Ba’aka of the village to neglect their work, and any hope of conversion to Christianity, in favour of the never-ending animist carnival. “She drove her car right into the middle of an ejengi dance and she opened up the door and she told ejengi: ‘Get in’,” Sarno said. “So ejengi actually got into the car, and she drove ejengi down the road to where it was just forest and she stopped the car and said, ‘Now go home’. And so ejengi got out, the poor guy probably had to walk miles to get back to the village. And so then they didn’t have another ejengi dance for a generation.”
After the spirit danced in Yandoumbé, I handed 6,000 Francs (about £7.25) in small notes to Sarno and asked if he could figure out a way to share it around the dancers and musicians in a commensurate way. We made a play of showing me hand over the notes so the musicians would know its source, but Sarno withheld 1,000 Francs, in what he said was a lesson to his friends that their ceaseless pleading would not always yield such immediate gains. Mkouti, the harpist, made at least three subsequent plays for the money, all of which were rebuffed, and I heard the phrase “mil Franc” in countless subsequent conversations as other Ba’aka dropped by. The banknote’s presence in Sarno’s pocket had become the focus of keen attention. But soon it was gone: Sarno handed it to a carpenter he had commissioned to mend a hole in his fence with a hammer he had brought back from Germany. He had not been exaggerating about having spent all his money, and my dwindling supply of local currency was much in demand.
The notion of life in the rainforest being separate from the toils of economics is now sadly much outdated. The bartering arrangements between indigenous peoples are a thing of the distant past. During the 1990s, a lumber mill in Bayanga, operated by a Yugoslav logging company, offered employment to around 370 people, mostly Bantu, and for a short period the area was relatively prosperous. However the mill was an enormous and unpopular drain on precarious natural resources, and was eventually closed before it could cause irreparable damage to what remains the world’s second-largest uninterrupted rainforest.
Many people drawn to the area by the prospect of employment remained in Bayanga, however, and turned back to the rainforest in the hope of finding further profit from its natural resources. Although the World Wildlife Fund attempts to limit hunting, and has designated areas of the park into which unauthorised visitors are not permitted, poaching has depleted the forest’s stock of small mammals, the Ba’aka’s staple food, to near critical levels. The Bay’aka are now often forced to rely on what they can buy, but are notoriously ill-equipped at either making or saving money; they have a world view that focuses tightly on the present moment, and a hunter-gatherer lifestyle that is not geared to regular employment. Poverty is widespread.
Sarno, like any father, needs to provide for his family. Although family groups tend to be more flexible among the Ba’aka, and children will often choose the adult with whom they most wish to live, Sarno is the “official” father of both Samedi, 16, and Yambi, 12, who are brothers and whose father was killed when they were young. Their mother, Gouma, still lives in the village and her daughter, Mamalay, whose father is still alive, is also a regular visitor to Sarno’s home for food and affection. Sarno’s current girlfriend Agati also has a 6-year-old son, Mosio, who lives in the family home. Sarno has also cared for Gouma’s brother since their mother died when he was an infant. The shy child could only be lulled to sleep in Sarno’s arms. That boy now has children of his own, including another Samedi, and Sarno provides whatever support he can. “I love them in a way I would love my own child,” he says. “I would give my life for any of these children, there’s no question about that. They’re the most important thing to me.”
Much to the dismay of many of Sarno’s western friends, conversations about his presence in the forest often veer into deeply personal territory. Questions typically whispered from behind a hand are obsessed with his relationships with Ba’aka women. Sarno told me that he has never wanted to be the biological father of any children and that he finds the prurient interest in his sex life to be both baffling and intrusive. He has been in a hardly-extraordinary tally of three relationships over 30 years — his first love, who now lives in another village; Samedi’s mother Gouma, to whom he was attached for six years; and Agati — with long, unattached spells in between.
My introduction to Sarno came from an old university friend named Noel Lobley, who is now a leading ethnomusicologist and in charge of the sound collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. In 2012, Lobley told me that he had been working with a hoard of ethnographic field recordings he had unearthed in a museum store cupboard and tipped me off that the recorder of what he described as some of the most sophisticated music in the world was still alive and living in the rainforest. Lobley, who is now a close friend of Sarno’s, is also mystified by the interest in anything about him beyond his life’s work. “To me, it’s all about the music,” Lobley says.