The Green Abyss

ELP Cornell
May 7, 2018 · 9 min read
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A mother’s love © Ana Verahrami

ELP volunteer, Ana Verahrami, has been in the Central African Republic for two months — juggling the emotions that come from a life-experience working with forest elephants at the fabulous Dzanga Bai, and the unpleasant physical reality of living in a remote camp where new little biting things are everywhere and, in Ana’s case, the body is slow to acclimate.

In April Ana wrote from the field:
As my rash had spread to my arms and further up my legs, I returned to Bayanga on April 8th, only a few days after I had left. There was talk of me needing to go to Bangui to see an expat medical doctor there, but after hearing about some tension that ultimately left 1 UN peacekeeper and 17 civilians dead, I decided to stay in Bayanga and see if I could sort the rash out with the resources here. I ultimately made my way back to Emilia, a Polish doctor working in Monasao (see this recent New York Times op-ed article regarding her work if interested) with Stefan, who kindly offered to drive me as he had business to sort out that way anyways.

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Things that bite, itch, and nibble in the green abyss © Ana Verahrami

The drive there was uneventful besides a few big, and fun, bumps that jolted me out of my seat and practically onto the other side of the car! When we arrived in Monasao, we were greeted by the typical stares as two white people driving in a car tend to receive everywhere here. But then, a new experience! Two young men, probably around my age, began to run at full speed towards our car as we slowly moved through the village. I quickly realized that the one in front was carrying two shoes and his intention was to throw them at us and the car. I relayed the information to Stefan who rolled his eyes. Just another day in Monasao I suppose.

After spending a few hours in Monasao getting more medicine and stocking up on nutrients with a splendid lunch (I will mention here however that prior to this splendid lunch, I did try my very first and possibly last caterpillar), Stefan and I headed back towards Bayanga but had to make a quick stop first at Sinfocam, the Chinese-owned logging company in the area. As we turned left onto the road that leads to Sinfocam, I suddenly acknowledged the strange feeling in the pit of my stomach. It was a mixture of the curiosity I felt to witness the logging and the anger that I knew would come as soon as we arrived.

However, my anger ended up arriving much sooner than we did. As we drove down the winding and bumpy dirt road, we were passed by several trolley trucks, each carrying more than a handful of giants on their beds. The trees were held in place by chains, with technical words branded across their width in white paint. The drivers themselves gave me little chance to attempt and reconcile the feelings of pure hatred that were flying around inside of me. They drove like pure maniacs, practically racing down the dirt road, throwing the truck into the air with each bump as the trees remained captive in the bed and thrashed for freedom with each sway of the car.

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Better alive © Elephant Listening Project

After making it past the two security checkpoints, we made our way down the road to the main Sinfocam building. As we approached, the forest on both sides of us suddenly disappeared; we had passed into an area recently logged. I stared out at the open space to my right that stood empty except for the carcasses of trees discarded on the side of the road. We drove through more of this nothing before finally reaching our destination. There, we were greeted by the two men in charge of managing the concession. I was immediately struck by how uninteresting both of them were; I felt no life in either of them as if the dullness of the surrounding landscape had crept into them and taken over. I had always imagined that those managing the logging would have a certain charisma about them — a tool to capture government and NGO cooperation. But even on a sunny day, I could feel their dullness. I suppose this is the price you must pay when reaping benefits from destroyed ecosystems.

Since this outing, I have remained in Bayanga as I wait for my legs to heal. While I definitely have been missing my forest life and seeing the magnificent elephants, living in the village over the last 2+ weeks has been an incredible experience in itself. Now, when I go to the market or bakery, instead of being called out to as “moonju”, which means “white person”, I am greeted by name (though occasionally I do get called “moonju Ana”). It has been so wonderful befriending the villagers and shop keepers and each time I go down to the market, I look forward to seeing and speaking with so many people. There are Debaunet and Pepen, who work at Arie’s shop, and I consistently will find them dancing to the radio as they fill small bags with oil and sugar or stock the shelves. A short distance from Arie’s shop is often where I find Evelyn, her one-year old son Prince, and the most delicious beignets. And if I continue through the village, it is not uncommon for me to stumble across Yupi, one of the village dogs, who will hop alongside me on three legs, howling for affection and sardines. The three faces that fill me with the most joy however have to be those of Genne, Caroline, and Sapelleh, who are three young Bayaka girls aged 7, 8, and 9 respectively.

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I have been lucky enough to have spent a great deal of time with the girls since I have arrived in Bayanga and often find myself giggling madly along with them as we dance and play tag. The girls live with my friend Liz, a PhD student from Purdue University studying Bayaka health and who has become their adoptive mother of sorts. Last weekend, Liz and Becca (a Masters student who happens to be from Buffalo, NY!) came over with the girls to hang out one night. Stefan had kindly offered to let me stay with him as my legs heal but as he had departed to spend the weekend at the bai, I was eager for some company. As the girls watched Step Up on Liz’s laptop, Becca, Liz, and I hung out on the patio and talked. By 6 PM, the sky was unusually dark and we acknowledged a coming storm, not an uncommon occurrence in the rainforest! However, as we experienced just a few minutes later when the storm commenced, this was not your typical thunderstorm. Within a matter of minutes, the power went out and we were faced with darkness. I pathetically and unsuccessfully attempted to light a few candles sitting on the patio so that we could see better as the rain poured from the skies; I felt as if we had suddenly been flung into an Indian monsoon!

Hours passed and the rain refused to relent as the sky flashed with hues of purple and blue and the forest roared around us. By around 10 PM the three girls had fallen fast asleep on each of our laps, seemingly unaware of the chaos around them. We carried them inside and placed them in bed, hoping that the storm would end soon and Liz could take them home. By 11 PM, Becca, Liz, and I had decided that we had seen and felt enough of the storm and decided to move the conversation inside to drier land. As Liz and I began to do the dishes, we heard a soft “Guys….” come from the other room. Unsure of what was going on, I walked into the main room where I found Becca standing in the middle of a river. By the time I had processed what had happened, Becca had made her way to the front door. As she flung it open, we discovered the source of the water; a newly created white water rapid attraction was lashing up against the house, eager to seep in.

Becca and Liz each grabbed a broom and I grabbed a squeegee, and within a matter of minutes, we had a system down. I would push the water towards Liz, who was standing just behind the door’s threshold. She would then push the water outside to Becca, who would push it into the river flowing in the front yard. Luckily, Stefan’s night guard had taken pity on us and also joined our cause, and with a shovel in hand, he began to build a wall of mud around the perimeter of the front of the door. The battle felt as if it lasted for hours, but in actuality probably only lasted for twenty or so minutes. I occasionally would glance over to where the three girls lay sleeping, checking to see if any of them had woken. To my surprise, none of them did, even as the three of us let the occasional loud profanity slip from our lips as we slid and fell and became more soaked than I thought was possible. Eventually, we found ourselves standing on a mostly dry floor. Exhausted, but victorious, we called it a night and had a slumber party.

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night sky in Central Africa © Ana Verahrami

The next day, I began to mentally prepare my explanation to Stefan as to why some of his stuff was a bit wet and why it looked as if a tornado had spun through his living room. As I stepped out onto the patio in the backyard to do some thinking, I quickly realized that my explanation was going to be a lot longer than I originally had planned. Every millimeter of chair, table, couch, wall, floor, and house was covered by green, prickly caterpillars. One fell onto my arm as I stood there, mouth agape trying to figure out what to do and even though I flicked it off almost immediately, I soon felt the spot become horrendously itchy. I sent a quiet plea to the spirit of the forest, begging for mercy and willing to exchange the itchy caterpillars for another flood. Alas, no mercy was given and one week later, I am still flicking caterpillars off myself. And thankfully, I have not been evicted yet.

I am now realizing as I write that this chapter of my Dzanga adventure has similar thematic undertones as my last. When I arrived in Bayanga, I felt quite depressed for having to leave the forest. But as I have realized over the last two months, in reality there is very little I can do to avoid the forest’s reach. Even here in Bayanga, among the roads, the houses, and the somewhat dependable electricity, the land belongs to the forest. It may be naked in some places and resemble more of a desert. It can also look artificial at times with its flashing lights that beckon for the attention of potential bar-goers. But it is the forest. You may be faced with a river in your living room or thousands upon thousands of caterpillars racing up your walls as they commence their journeys to settle into their cocoons, even among the artifice and desert.

My time in Bayanga has reminded me that there is little any of us can do to avoid the will of nature. Some may choose to fully embrace Her will, flooded houses and all. Others, like Sinfocam, may instead fall victim to greed and work to mold Her breadth and bounty into fields of nothing. But in the spirit of this week’s designated Earth Day, I remind each of you that this sort of disrespect will do nothing but precipitate our own demise. We have the tools to destroy habitats: logging, urbanization, human population growth, etc. but the continued destruction of the forest and of nature only guarantees that nature will emerge emptier. Empty of trees, empty of caterpillars, empty of us. And I fully believe that she, this generous giver of incredible moments where you find yourself suddenly surrounded by thousands of caterpillars or sleeping among a hundred elephants at the bai as they roar and rumble through the night, she is definitely worth protecting.

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painted forest elephants, Dzanga Bai © Ana Verahrami

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