My guide, Ekhsan, parked the motorbike, and showed me the small track threading between the trees. At the edge of the village we met a line of barefoot Ba-aka children, who fell silent and stared. The smallest one began to howl. ‘They’re not used to seeing munjus [white people]!’ laughed Ekhsan. A man strode down a slope towards us. The first thing I noticed was how short he was, and the second, as he drew close, was the wooden crucifix around his neck.
The vast majority of Central Africans (about 80 per cent) identify as Christians. They’re mainly Catholics, a direct legacy of the French who colonized the Central African Republic (CAR) at the end of the 19th century. Muslims make up 10-15 per cent of the population, though numbers have plunged these last few months as communities have fled spiralling political violence and anti-Muslim militias stalking central and northern CAR.
But not everyone in CAR is Christian or Muslim; hundreds of thousands of Central Africans are animists, who often combine strands of Christianity with indigenous worship and celebrations.
A hundred kilometres south of Bangui is a little-visited region called the Loubaye, a vast area of lush equatorial rainforest, where the Ba-aka forest people hunt, forage and venerate their forest god, Kombo.
Central Africans usually refer to the Ba-aka as ‘pygmies’ – another throwback to the French, whose missionaries were obsessed with converting and ‘civilizing’ the forest peoples. Even now, 55 years after the French left CAR, the Loubaye is swamped with foreign Catholic missions. Many missionaries fled the most recent violence, as even its remoteness has not spared the Loubaye from militia attacks.
Intrigued to meet the Ba-aka people, and see the impact of the missionaries for myself, I hitched a ride to the Loubaye on a logging truck, and hired Ekhsan to guide me around.
Back in the forest village, the Aka man (Ba-aka is the plural) with the wooden crucifix round his neck greets us. Ekhsan asks if we can speak to the Chef de village, or local chief.
A few minutes later the Chief appears in a red Hawaiian-style shirt. We introduce ourselves; his name is Al-Fons, and he says we’re welcome here.
I ask Al-Fons whether missionaries have ever come to this village.
‘They used to come here, the munjus missionaries; but we have not seen them for months now,’ he says, looking me straight in the eyes.
‘Did you and the other villagers like them coming?’
Al-Fons pauses, as more villagers settle themselves around us.
‘Some things were good; they brought medicine, and we need it because we have no clinic near here,’ he says. ‘They brought cooking pots, too. But we are a mixed village – you see not everyone here is Ba-aka – and the problem was the munjus only gave cooking pots to us Ba-aka. This created tensions between us and our neighbours.’ He says the missionaries also talked of building a chapel and a school in the village, but then they stopped coming, and no other outsiders visit now.
I’m about to ask Al-Fons whether the local Ba-aka are Christians, when suddenly the people around us all stand up. Young women and men begin to clap and step out a rhythm, an older man sits down on a wooden box and starts to drum upon it.
Al-Fons’ grave face breaks into a grin. ‘They want to show you our dance!’
Some of the dancers grab palm fronds for head-dresses, as others sing. I’m torn between delight at the music, and suddenly feeling very like a munju tourist, especially when Al-Fons shouts, ‘Take photos!’ Beside me, Ekhsan shrugs and lights up another cigarette.
The man with the crucifix around his neck sits beside me, and asks if I like the music.
I tell him I do, and take some photos. Then I ask what he thought of the missionaries, and his face lights up.
‘They were wonderful!’ he says. ‘They came to civilize us – you can see our lives here. It was good for us when they came with medicine, and cooking pots too.’
‘So, are you a Christian now?’
‘Oh no!’ he smiles. ‘We all worship the forest spirits, and this is our dance to our God, Kombo. But I hope the Christians come back with more medicine, and finish the school.’