November 29, 2010
‘Mozugwe’ means hello in Baka and is one of the many things I learnt over the last three weeks, which have been so rich in experience that it feels more as if three months had passed. I visited the two regions in Gabon where the Baka live, around the towns of Minvoul in the North close to the border with Cameroon, and Makokou, in the North-East close to the border with Congo (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minvoul and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Makokou).
The aim of the trip was to introduce myself to the different communities, to find out whether they want to work with me and what the practicalities of living with modern hunter-gatherers are. I spent a few days in five different villages in total and the photos below show some of what happened whilst I was there. The Baka are indeed still living a highly mobile or nomadic lifestyle, as half the village was always away ‘en brousse’ (in the forest) when I arrived, but they are also partly sedentary with all the involved health issues, such as alcoholism. I was unlucky in that it always rained (it is officially rainy season), and so I didnt get to see any of their famed singing and dancing, but am looking forward to seeing it during my next trip to the field. I am now back in Libreville, digesting all the information and experiences, and planning the next steps.
Meeting some of the Baka female village elders. Traditional huts in background
One of the official research sessions in the village meeting hall, which also functions as a church
Lying in front of me is one of the most dangerous snakes here: the Gabun viper
Anita building a traditional hut called 'mongulu'
We started off with only three people in the boat...but there had been a death in one village, and when we journeyed on to the next village, many Baka joined to share the sad news with their relatives. Thankfully, I had the sub-prefect's large boat so I could invite everybody along.
A quiet moment on the Ivindo river
Will be posting more over the next week, now that I have better internet access here in Libreville. In rural Gabon it’s difficult, as the connection is very slow and unstable . . .
November 1, 2010
Gabon Expo is an exhibition currently showing in Libreville and covering five central topics: Gabonese prehistory at the heart of Africa, the richness of Gabonese flaura and fauna today, the ritual diversity in song, dance and maks of the 50 ethnic groups that make up Gabon, independence and the State today, and finally, modern art and design. The exhibition is well thought out, and I really had fun learning about this country, together with many Gabonese for whom it was also a chance to discover their own heritage (www.legabon.org). For example, the Sugar Loaf in Rio de Janeiro and the so called “Inselberg” in the Minkébé area I will be working in, are of the same geological period, and were part of the same formation before the continents split.
Libreville itself has truly lived up to being the paradox of developed and developing this week, an example being that you can drink the tap water without any problems, but we also had a water cut for a day and a half starting last Monday. One of the crazier things that happened this week was meeting a Gabonese documentary maker, Luc, who studied in Germany (Darmstadt) and has just spent three days with the Baka in order to make a TV film on them. I bumped into Luc on the street after a jazz concert at the French Cultural Centre.
But more importantly, if everything goes to plan, I will be heading off to my field site and finally meeting the Baka myself this week. I have been busy trying to learn more of the Baka language, which is as complex and rich as any of the European languages (trust me, I would be happy if this were not the case). I will be travelling to two places, Minvoul and Makokou in North-Eastern Gabon, to find out whether I can work in both, or only in one. This pre-study will take about three to four weeks. So excited to see how this project is developing …
If u want to know more about the exhibition, checkout http://www.legabon.org
October 25, 2010
My first week in Gabon has been great. The Gabonese people are very friendly and relaxed, and the capital city Libreville is an interesting mix of urban modernity and developing city. I have been busy visiting some of the institutions I had contacted from Germany, and met with people at the University Omar Bongo (UOB) and the WWF Gabon to discuss the details of my research project. One PhD student at UOB has just completed his thesis on cultural mobility and it was good fun to talk about different theoretical perpectives on mobility. Speaking of which, the public transport system in Libreville consists of communal taxis.
Public transport in Libreville: ubiquitous red and white taxis
There are hardly any road names, and addresses and locations are given in relation to something else – which is difficult if you are new in town and don’t know where you are going yet. When you get in the taxi, you greet the other passengers, and it has been incredible to witness the cordial exchanges that take place.
The other thing I love is that people sing along with the music in the supermarket – something I will certainly miss when I return to Europe. There is no substantial tourist infrastructure yet, and I have very much enjoyed just discovering things as I walked through the streets, such as the memorial to Gabon’s first president Léon Mba, where a group of dedicated students is setting up a new research archive on Gabon. I immdiately settled in to find out what information they had on historical and current migrations in Gabon.
Yesterday, I took the day off and went to Pongara national park, a turtle breeding ground which forms the Southern side of the estuary south of Libreville called Komo, and, as you can see, it was a magical Sunday afternoon in the tropics.
Skyline of Libreville
Magic waves: standing at the confluence of the Komo and the Atlantic Ocean
Anyone fancy a sunset drink?
September 26, 2010
I just attended the ICCBHG, the International Conference on Congo Basin Hunter Gatherers in France, a meeting of specialists on the people living in the Congo Basin in Central Africa (www.cefe.cnrs.fr/ibc/Conference/ICCBHG.htm).
I was very lucky, as it was the first time in ten years that the conference took place, and it has been an amazing week, where I learned so much about Central Africa, its peoples and the current political issues as well as practical stuff I will face when I travel there. I also gave my first academic talk…
The best thing was that I got to share all the information and the excitement with my friend and colleague Cathryn, who will also be working with the Baka (like me), but she will be doing her field research in Cameroon, where the majority of the Baka live.
Cathryn and me enjoying the Mediterranean sights of Montpellier, South of France
September 21, 2010
Going on a one-year trip to the jungle necessitates quite some preparation. Many people have already given incredible support, and over the last few days, I started taking photos of some of them…
Juergen took me on a ‘forest orienteering course’, in a large woodland setting in between Cologne and the old German capital Bonn …
Juergen explaining the finer points of using a compass
Returning from our 'expedition' with beautiful fresh mushrooms for dinner
My local chemist Uschi patiently explained to me the purpose of medications I have done everything to avoid for the last ten years. It seems a good idea to take them though; the jungle bugs might be stronger than me, at first.
Uschi's expert advice left me feeling really confident, and healthy
After due consideration, I decided to get a second-hand so-called Toughbook, a laptop which is supposed to withstand humidity and other extreme conditions. Getting the Toughbook was a little adventure in itself, travelling to Mönchengladbach, a town about 45 mins north of Cologne, where shop-owner Alex introduced me to the technology of tablet PCs.
Alex with my new 'jungle data box'
My 'Toughbook' business look
September 5, 2010
Keeping up with the title given by wordpress, hello world! I am about to spend one year with the Baka, a group of forest foragers who live in the tropical rainforest in Gabon in Central Africa. This project is the fieldwork part of my PhD, but more importantly a ten-year old dream come true. I am very excited, and decided I would like to use a blog to document my experiences and share them with you. I have never blogged before, and am not sure how often I will be able to post once in the field, so I hope you will just enjoy the posts as they come.