We were all caked in a red hot dust, none moreso than Matt, one of our camera operators. It was his turn to follow the action, and I gladly obliged. The sun bore down on us intensely. I ducked under my tilley hat and leaned against a building for some shade, waiting for the painful dullness of the afternoon to pass. I thought it was odd that anything could be dull in the Congo, but that was how things became after a couple weeks filming on the road.
The initial burst of excitement upon touching down in Bunia was still present but somewhat dampened, the heat had sapped it continually. Small shabby offices sat next to a burnt out airplane and an airstrip. This was our entryway into the D.R.C. Fees were paid in cash and all official documents written by hand into a ledger by two women in a tiny back office. Armed guards examined my bags while I stared out across the span of concrete, eyeing U.N. barricades occupied by armed soldiers and sandbags. There was a tension in the air, the kind that sets in when you are only half sure of what’s going on around you, and guns are laying around. I heard someone say “chinoise”, one of the only French words I happened to know, and I turned around, now aware I was quite an oddity, even amidst a crew of white people in an African country. The luggage examiners smiled at me. Our guide had explained that I boxed. We shared a laugh, presumably in part admiration and part amusement at the thought of me in a boxing ring. Before long we caught a missionary plane into Epulu. The view from above gave me the indication that we were essentially in the middle of nowhere.
A healthy crowd of villagers (mostly children) and some Mbuti pygmies welcomed us. Before long we found our way to our lodgings at the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. I was lucky enough to be able to fix myself a cup of tea before a few of us decided to explore the camp. We were situated next to a river (populated by alligators in some parts, we were told – but didn’t quite believe) which is also where we took our breakfast. I was weary from all the flying and gear hauling, but it seemed a waste to take a rest when you were in a dangerous place. Rangers armed with AK-47’s were present throughout the camp, and although we were somewhat accustom to armed escorts, there was an edge to their presence. Their easy-going smiles belied the very real threat which lay hidden in the forest surrounding us. It was easy to forget.
In the mornings I would find monkeys leaping between low hanging branches, calling out while a heavy mist rolled off the river. In a veranda next to the water we were served thick slices of white bread, jam, butter, and fruit. It paired well with a cup of tea, but got a little tiresome after having it for breakfast and lunch for 3 days straight. The evenings we dined with our host, Rosy, and her parrots whose names I can’t recall. She was a Swiss ex-pat, so it was imperative that the camps cooks learn a few Swiss dishes. Each evening we ate a mix of Swiss and Congolese food as her parrots would attempt to nest in my hair. Rice with braised cassava leaves, stews, rosti (potatoes), and “pile pile”, a condiment of fried, smashed chilis were accompanied by wine and Tusker, a light Kenyan beer. After dinner we would be sufficiently filled with enough booze to get to sleep while moths the size of our fists fluttered in our rooms.
The first day we found ourselves trekking through a length of thick forest. The aim was to film at a hidden ranger training camp. The leaves of the trees lining the path were broad and heavy, they hung low and hugged us from the sides. My collar was damp from sweat and in between my labored breaths I think I may have been smiling, but maybe not. The camp itself consisted of a makeshift obstacle course, a firing range, and a bit of cleared out brush for various drills. I believe the instructor was a French ex-pat, now overweight but presumably experienced, and fit. I saw him bite into an onion as if it were an apple and thought perhaps I might start doing the same when I got back to the States.
It was easy to become lost in the surreality of filming in the D.R.C., the casualness with which guns and RPG’s were wielded, the remoteness and proximity to wildlife. The heat tempted me into becoming lazy with my work, and I would have to remind myself that we were, in fact, doing something special. Matt put things into perspective for me during our hike up a mountain, “Two years ago I was making videos for lawyers and now I’m being lead up a mountain in the Congo with a guy holding an AK-47”. One afternoon some men from the local pygmie tribe stopped by the camp, eager to sell their wares to us. I bought a bow and arrow and shared a few cigarettes with them, to the dismay of our director. “What do you think they’re going to buy with the money we’re giving them?” I asked. The next day we would visit their village to find them well liquored and dancing. There seemed to be a correlation between how many teeth one had and how wild one might get during their celebrations.
Somewhere in the process of it all, I managed to find myself wandering some of the villages alone. I only had a vague understanding of what the daily lives of the Congolese people was like, despite the number of interviews we were conducting. I peered through wood fences and found women washing cassava leaves, sitting and laughing with their children, their grandchildren. Salted fish steeping in pots of water and girls carrying baskets of firewood back to their homes. At some point a gang of young children found me and began mugging for the camera, following me as I guiltlessly distracted kids in classrooms, filming them through windows, looking for moments that appear when there is a thin veil of understanding between a photographer and their subject. I could only communicate through smiles and vague gestures, hoping peoples interpretations would lean toward the more positive end of the spectrum.
Another tiny plane would take us out of Epulu, back to Bunia where we stewed in the boredom of their airport till we caught our plane to our next filming location. Not too long after we filmed returned to the States, we got news that the reserve had been attacked, buildings destroyed, and all the Okapi in captivity were killed.