She had been in the forest that morning. With her machete and her basket she had walked deep in the greenery to collect the special leaves she needed to make “manioc sticks”.
I was sitting in her kitchen, a hut made with pieces of wood and corrugated iron. In a corner, there was a gaz cooker sitting unevenly on the earth floor but she was cooking on a wood fire. There were two of them burning in the hut that was filling up with smoke making my eyes water.
A blackened pot sat on a tripod above one of the fires, inside there was a huge rodent like the ones I had seen on sale hanging from pieces of wood by the side of the road. Every now and again the woman took the animal out of the pot and scrubbed it vigorously with a sharp blade, its hair came off uncovering the grey skin underneath. As far as I could tell, the animal hadn’t been eviscerated yet. I wondered whether the creature was one of the protected species I had seen in a poster at the border crossing.
Sitting on low stools we chatted. “The forest is generous” she told me “it provides everything we need – drinking water, meat, fish, leaves to make manioc sticks, fruit… “ I asked her about the dangers of the forest and she told me how she would never venture into it without her machete and how she was always very careful where she put her feet. Should a snake be on her path, she would bring her machete down and “wham” cut it in two.
After a while, she asked me whether I wanted to wash before it got dark, stood up and went to a big oil drum with a bucket that she filled with water. She then showed me to an enclosure with a wooden floor. Along one of its sides there was a low wooden stool where I could leave my things.
After the shower she showed me where I could find the toilet. This time the facilities were “interesting”, huge gaps on the floorboards gave full view of the pit below alive with what looked like blowfly maggots. I prayed that the floorboards had not been weakened by termites and looked around to see whether there was anywhere else I could go to avoid setting foot in that place.
There may not be water in the villages and the sanitary facilities could be improved but in a lot of them I saw very new looking, bright orange satelite dishes. Billboards in some houses read “Access to Satellite TV for 10,000 African Villages”.
The idea of the China-Africa Cooperation project was to reduce the digital divide in African rural areas by giving villages access to digital television. In their vision, through television the villagers would acquire useful information about the world to expand their horizon and help them to get rid of poverty.
In another village I saw what the project in action. I was cooking my evening meal when someone arrived to set up the equipment. From the village chief’s house a projector and a decoder appeared, a folding screen nailed to a wall was unfolded. A solar powered battery made the whole thing work and images of a newsreader appeared on the screen. The evening TV show had started.
A woman came with her plastic chair, sat for a while and then left. After her a man came and plugged his phone in one of the USB ports of the equipment and sat waiting for it to charge, then left. In the end, only the man who had set up the equipment and one other villager stayed. I went into my tent with the sound of an involved political debate in the background. No wonder there were no takers!
In the morning left the village to enjoy another glorious day in the African forest. The forest in Gabon is impenetrable and it is beautiful – huge columnar trees, climbers everywhere, ferns, huge clusters of bamboos providing thick cover and where there is enough light purple and yellow flowers everywhere.
The sounds from the forest were wonderful too, birds, monkeys and buzzing insects. The bike moved silently and the sounds surrounded me, I listened to them trying to figure out whether the cry was from a bird or a monkey but the only sound I recognise was the squeeking of the springs of my saddle.
The crossing of the Ecuator was in the middle of the forest. It was nothing fancy like the ones in Kenya or Uganda but for me it represented a huge milestone. I was back in the Northern hemisphere, I was getting closer to home.
It was after crossing the Ecuator that I allowed the wave of tiredness that for a couple of weeks had been threatening to engulf me to finally reach me. I let it wash over me and acknowledged that I was getting tired – tired of dirt and discomfort, tired of villages with no running water or electricity, tired of smelly (or worse) latrines, tired of crappy guesthouses where the only way to have a comfortable night is by setting the tent on the bed, tired of being the centre of attention, tired of feeling cheated. I had hit a low.