What We Learned From the Pygmies


“Take off your shoes. We are going to walk through water and then cross the elephants’ trail. Follow my instructions very closely. If we meet up with a gorilla, crouch down and do not look him in the eye. If we meet up with an elephant, freeze.”

RELAXING on the veranda of the restaurant, we think over all the things we have just seen. The Sangha River flows in front of us; and on the other side, we can see the dense forest in all its beauty. We are at Bayanga, in the southern tip of the Central African Republic, situated between Cameroon and the Republic of Congo.​—See the map on page 19.

As soon as we arrived at the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park welcome center, we forgot about how exhausting the trip had been to get here. This park is located 300 miles [480 km] from Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, and to get here we drove for almost 11 hours on a narrow trail. In some places clusters of bamboo grass grow right beside the road. At Ngoto, we had to take a ferry to cross the river. This ferry is very unusual in that it does not have a motor; it took us across the river using only the force of the current. The boat is held in place by a pulley that slides along a huge cable, and a few young men only had to guide the ferry into position.

Farther on, at the Bambio River, there is a floating bridge, which is very practical, as it can adapt to the  fluctuating height of the river during the dry and rainy seasons. The area is magnificent, and we get to see the animals in their natural habitat and get to meet Aka Pygmies, * who still lead a traditional life.

Would you like to come along with us on this wonderful visit, be it, alas, only in your imagination? Our guide is a Pygmy named Benoît. We head off to his village to meet two Pygmy herbalists, Germaine and Valérie, who will accompany us. They take us from one wonder to another as they show us the different plants in the forest that are used for medicinal purposes.

Plants That Cure and Heal

After we drive several minutes along a forest trail, our new companions ask us to leave the car and follow them into the forest. They cut a trail with their machetes, while we do our best to keep up with them. Now we have our first surprise, the mo nzambu nzambu, a plant called a water creeper. Our guides quickly cut off lengths of about 20 inches [50 cm], and we drink the water that flows out. It is pure, fresh, and thirst quenching.

A little farther on, we are shown a leaf from the guava tree. The Pygmies boil these leaves to make a tea for treating coughs. Another tree, the ofuruma, produces white latex, which is a perfect eye lotion for treating conjunctivitis. “Is there a remedy for snakebite?” we ask. “Of course there is. We pound bolo leaves [Aka name for a type of liana, a tropical vine] and put them on the bite,” answer our guides. At every step, we discover other plants that, our guides assure us, have healing properties. There are remedies for healing wounds as well as for intestinal parasites, ear infections, dental cavities, and even sterility.

These peoples, sometimes viewed as primitive, have many things to teach us. As we continue on in the forest, our two herbalists “shop” for their food​—mushrooms, wild lettuce, roots that replace garlic. Some leaves must be extremely tasty because they are eaten on the spot! How wonderful it will be to continue learning in God’s promised new world!​—Isaiah 65:17; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1-4.

They All Gather at the Salt Lick

In the afternoon we go to see the forest elephants at the salt lick. It is on the way there that our guide gives us the instructions mentioned at the beginning of this article. But what is the salt lick? It is a huge clearing where the ground is full of mineral salts that are the delight of certain animals. For this reason it is a daily meeting place for forest elephants, buffalo, antelope, giant forest hogs, and other wild animals.

As the forest is very dense, making it extremely difficult to see the animals here, the park has constructed a mirador, or observation platform, at the edge of the salt lick. However, to get to the platform, we have to cross a swamp with water that reaches up to the middle of our thighs. Our guide listens carefully to the noises around us and also regularly makes sure that we are staying close to him. Why? Because the elephants sometimes take the same path!

Once we arrive at the mirador, we take time to look at the animals​—more than 80 elephants, some buffalo, and a few antelope. A scientist who has studied the elephants for 11 years is also here. She tells us: “Each one has its own personality. I have indexed 3,000, and I know 700 of them by name.” Unfortunately, the ivory of the forest elephant is extremely  desirable for making personalized seals that are used in some countries in the Orient to identify the author of documents and paintings. *

How to Hunt With Nets

Early the next morning, we follow a group of ten hunters to see with our own eyes how to hunt with a net. Men and women come with their nets made from lianas. Each net measures about 65 feet [20 m] by 4 feet [120 cm]. As we penetrate deeper and deeper into the jungle, the group spread out and pull tight the nets, which they have fastened one to the other, so that they cover a distance of over 600 feet. Then our hunters make a big circle around this barrier, and while retracing their steps, they shake branches and cry out loud to drive the animals, if there are any, into the nets. This time, there were no animals. The hunters undo the nets, go deeper into the forest, and start all over again. Once, twice, ten times.

By the end of the morning, we are exhausted. The Pygmies have seen three blue duikers, small antelope, but these managed to avoid the nets and escape. We are not interested in seeing an animal caught in the nets. Rather, we want to learn about the ingenious ways these people survive even when they seem to have so little to work with and none of the tools of the industrialized world. Thus, we are not at all disappointed, since what we just witnessed was extraordinary.

A Dugout Ride on the Sangha River

Who would not like to glide silently through the water? In a dugout it is even more interesting, as you are practically at the same level as the water. Our ride in the afternoon takes us to see gray herons and numerous other multicolored birds, each one more beautiful than the last. Some of the birds fly from branch to branch along the riverbank, giving the impression that they are following us as we glide through the water.

In places, we watch the chimpanzees jumping from one vine to another solely for amusement​—or maybe they want to amuse us! Alain Patrick, the boatman, is working hard to take us several hundred yards farther, as yesterday he saw some hippopotamuses there. Will we be able to see them today? Sadly, no. They have moved away. On the other hand, this extra distance allows us to see several villages along the edge of the river and to admire the many children maneuvering their little dugouts with surprising skill. Truly, we will never forget our ride in the dugout on the Sangha River.

Our Impressions on the Return Home

During our drive back to Bangui, hundreds of sights and memories replay in our minds. Many things have profoundly moved us, while others have astounded us. In particular, we will never forget the harmony between the Pygmies and the forest or the wisdom that allows the Pygmies to benefit from all that is found in their natural habitat.

Moreover, even if we did not have enough time to see everything, we had the privilege of visiting a unique part of the world, where forest elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, hippopotamuses, antelope, panthers, and multicolored birds and butterflies can be found. We were told that the dense forests of the Dzanga-Sangha Reserve and the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park shelter some 7,000 species of plants and 55 species of mammals.

All this matchless biodiversity reminds us of a Bible verse: “How many your works are, O Jehovah! All of them in wisdom you have made. The earth is full of your productions.” (Psalm 104:24) This unforgettable learning experience has fortified our determination to apply the following words found in the same psalm: “I will sing to Jehovah throughout my life; I will make melody to my God as long as I am. Let my musing about him be pleasurable. I, for my part, shall rejoice in Jehovah.”​—Psalm 104:33, 34.


^ par. 6 The Pygmies of equatorial Africa are known for their small stature, having an average height of less than five feet [1.27 m].

^ par. 15 These seals, called chops, are also made of other materials. For more information, see Awake!, May 22, 1994, pages 22-4.

[Maps on page 19]

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Dzanga-Ndoki National Park

[Picture Credit Line on page 18]

© Jerry Callow/Panos Pictures