‘I said I was going to Odzala. They said : Wear the fox hat..’.
To explain the title of the post, Odzala was officially taken over under African Parks Network management on 1 September.Along with the other partners, we fall under the dubious moniker of FOK – Fondation Odzala-Kokua.
Needless to say, Christelle and I have been having fun with exploiting this hilarious acronym.
On the way back to the base after the last road trip I met up with Leon and Christelle and headed north to Yengo where we met up with the three intrepid gents doing the para-military scout training. Driving down a derelict track towards a likely camp spot by the river, we passed through a deserted village whose last inhabitants were completely decimated by the previous Ebola outbreak. It is the eeriest place I have ever experienced. There is not a soul around and nobody has moved back. Because people here do not touch the possessions of those who have passed away, there are still a few tattered shirts flapping on the washing lines. Outside, a bicycle mid-way through repairs and cooking pots standing overgrown with grass and weeds. At the risk of a cliché, it truly feels as if the jungle is holding its breath here for something. It looks like an entire village community simply disappeared in the night.
The spot we scout at the end of the track, and thankfully not near the village has been transformed since the guys tamed it. Pitching our tents in a small clearing next to the river that night, the stars mixed in with fireflies and lightning in the distance made for the most incredible setting. Catching a pirogue up river the next morning, I felt ridiculously colonial as we parked our camp chairs in it. An old diary extract tells of this Victorian woman who crossed the continent with her greatest hardship being breaking her parasol while beating her porter for not walking smoothly enough. Aaah, such is life in the tropics.
Faced with insufficient space to set up their training camp, I glanced across river to an abandoned ferry. ‘We should commandeer the ferry,’ I say. A couple of hours later sees five of us incrementally manhandling this barge across the river. Prime waterfront property a la Congo.
Life at the base has been quite intermittent for me the last couple of weeks as I have spent most of my time on the road. Before leaving for the northern villages we were lucky enough to get permission to see part of a circumcision ceremony which was being held in our village. I did not envy the solitary candidate. Apart from everything else, they rub hot chillies into his eyes. Naturally the whole village shows up for the festivities and for hours all you hear in the distance is this incredible singing accompanied by the drums.
For anyone who knows me, a great trail run is one of life’s pleasures, and I am stoked to say I get to run in the forest every day. Not exactly the Virgin Active but so much better. And with the humidity, especially as we head into the rainy season, it’s like training in a sauna. Spending even a small amount of time in a place as remote as this, you get to experience the incredible generosity that still keeps these small communities so tightly knit. From the gardener who brings me the odd avo after he saw me scrambling through the avo tree on a raid, to the lady who brought Christelle an obscenely large pineapple purely because they share the same name (keeping in mind this is an unemployed mother of two) and the askari who last night brought me a freshly baked bun because I am home alone. But like any story told of Africa, the grinding poverty and youth vulnerability is continuously adding tension to a people desperate for any chance of improving their circumstance. To say that opportunities and education are limited is a gross understatement. Hence the value a place like Odzala could have in terms of community development. But investments need to be made wisely. Every other village has a school building. I am yet to see one which is actually functioning. As vital as social infrastructure is in this region, getting trained people to run it and take responsibility for it is even more critical.
But for this evening I am enjoying the simple pleasures of a run in the forest after work. The drizzle is coming through the canopy in between pools of baking sunlight and the sound of thunder as a storm builds. Sitting on the stoep after dark listening to music and jungle all around until the generator gets cut at 20:30. No TV or even company for distraction here.