The Trip to Ngofi


MAY 12: The day began early, or at least early for what I have been used to:  it is quite light out here by five in the morning, and we were trying to get on our way by seven thirty or so.  Lily (the manager of community projects here) and Joe (Lily’s assistant for community projects and my guide and translator) were running around the office, packing tents, sleeping bags, and food for our eight to nine day journey.  One thing I realized right away was that my solar backpack was NOT going to be adequate for this sort of thing.  I had packed in it a few changes of clothes, toiletries and medicines, my passport, and all my recording equipment – audio and video, as well as the sheet music, a pitch pipe, and several wonderful pencils from the URI Department of Music to give out as gifts to members of the choirs (the types of pencils that change color from blue to white when you hold them or apply another heat source).  I felt pretty good that I had managed to cram all of this into my backpack and the dry sack I had brought along to protect equipment on boat rides.  When I saw Lily and Joe would have to carry my tent and sleeping bag because there was no way I could do it with the backpack I brought, I realized things were going to have to change for the next trip, but it was too late now.  They gave me a big water bottle (and each took one for themselves), and we were off.

We set out around eight in the speedboat, bound for Cobue (which is also known as Khango).  As you may be able to tell from the previous entry, Cobue is sort of the “big city” of the area; and Lily and Joe had to buy some more provisions for our trip.  At a market stall, they bought eight bags of pasta and five or six cans of tomato sauce, which Joe promptly loaded into his provisions bag.  His backpack was enormous – his was wide and Lily’s was tall.  Both of them were very kind and bore the extra weight without saying anything.  “Never again,” I resolved.

Normally, they would have disembarked in Cobue and have continued from there, but since this was my first time hiking in the Equatorial sun, we got back into the boat and traveled another hour or so to the next village north, Mataka.  Here we left the boat, put on our packs and got ready for the hiking portion of the day.  By now it was around ten o’clock or ten thirty, and the sun certainly was rising high in the sky.  The nights can get quite cool here – I estimate between 55 and 60 F, but the days quickly warm up into the upper 80s or 90s.

We had four villages to go through (townships, really): Mataka, Chigoma, Uchesse and finally Ngofi, the northernmost village in the Manda Wilderness.  The estimated time of the hike was three to four hours, but I learned quickly that all reckoning by a clock here must be an estimate.  At all times, if one meets someone that anyone in the hiking party knows, everyone must stop and have a brief visit before moving on.  This happened rather frequently, because both Joe and Lily travel extensively in the villages.    
I spent the first part of the hike simply absorbing the fact that I was actually doing this.  There are no roads in this area at all, only footpaths.  The paths are usually hard-packed dirt, but sometimes are stony.  In places, tall grasses close in to the path and hit your face over and over as you walk through them.  Streams and rivers often have bridges, but they are made of one or two (three if you are lucky) branches lashed together, and they wobble as you walk on them.  I was beginning to understand that I should not bring a dry sack next time, since I needed both hands for balance.  Still, I managed.  And I was looking around – everything – the plants, the birds, the houses, the smells – everything was new to me, and I was trying to take it all in.

While in Mataka, we passed the church during worship.  Joe and Lily asked to call out the chief of the village to remind him of our return in a week to work with their choir.  They had sent a letter to each village asking if each would like us to come on such-and-such a date to work with their choir.  These letters are not sent by post office, since I haven’t seen one yet; rather, they are delivered by friends or trusted acquaintances.  It is very important to follow up on a letter one has sent, since that friend or acquaintance may forget to deliver the letter, and it is entirely possible (indeed, fairly common) that it did not reach its intended destination.  While the three of them were conversing, I looked into the church (and felt a lot of stares coming my way, but that was to be expected).  The choir was singing and dancing at the time, and I really wanted my first glimpse of an African choir.  To my surprise, they were facing the altar, not the congregation.  As I thought about it later, it made sense, since this was worship and not a performance.  They were quite good, and seemed to be in their late teens or twenties for the most part.  I felt much better having an actual reference point as to what sort of choir I might be working with during the week.

After Mataka came Chigoma, which was my favorite of the four villages just from first impressions. We met five of the nine schoolteachers who worked at the village’s six-classroom school (a very large school for the area, I would learn later). Chigoma had a tidy central hub that was almost like a town square, with a few shops arranged facing one another.  Most of the time, these small shops appear willy-nilly and in the most unexpected places.  Sometimes we would be hiking and see nothing around at all indicating human habitation but a little enclosed stall and a sign advertising phone cards for sale.  I wondered who would be buying them.  Anyway, Joe bought some new sandals in Chigoma.  He was doing the hike in flip-flops, while Lily and I were in hiking boots.  Unfortunately, Lily’s boots were in disrepair from ten years of hard use, and the sole of one shoe was flopping loosely.  She changed into her sandals and kept going.  I had only brought my hiking boots, but they were almost brand-new.  I had a feeling they weren’t going to stay that way very long.

The day was getting very hot, and I was quite drenched by the time we got to Uchesse.  Here we stopped in the dooryard of the house of the chief (mfumu) of the village and had the lunch the Nkwichi kitchen had made us.  The chief of Uchesse is a very tall man and very funny.  I liked him right away.  A woman I learned later was his wife had a grandchild in her arms.  Lily asked if she could hold him (Eusebio was his name), and his grandmother gave him over quite willingly. Lily left her hiking boots with one of the chief’s sons to repair and to pick up on our way back.  We each had two rather dry sandwiches, which I had a little trouble choking down.  I was trying to conserve water, and I felt very jealous of Joe, because the amayi (woman of the house) brought him a whole pitcher of clear water, which I knew I couldn’t drink.  Lily had brought water treatment tablets, but we were not using them yet, since we each had water from the lodge in our bottles still.  I would gladly have downed all my water AND that in the pitcher if I could have, though.  I consoled myself with the thought that Ngofi was the next village, so we were almost there.

Unfortunately, Ngofi is a very large township, and the distance we had yet to traverse was more or less equivalent to what we had already done.  By now it was the heat of the day.  The terrain now seemed to me to be an endless progression of some type of saw grass, long stretches of open, hard dirt road in the blazing sun, and the occasional blessed lone tree that provided ten seconds worth of shade.  It wasn’t the distance at all (thank goodness for all that walking I did at home before coming!); it was the heat and that sun.  Of course I couldn’t say anything, because Lily and Joe were carrying my tent and sleeping bag, and they showed no signs of needing to stop.  Meanwhile, we were constantly passing women with huge twenty gallon buckets of water on their heads and children tied to their backs, or men carrying giant loads of firewood on one shoulder.  I made up my mind to shut up and do my best.  I was starting to feel a little chilled, though, and I stumbled crossing one brook, though I didn’t fall in.  I was recognizing the beginnings of mild sunstroke and knew I would have to say something soon.

As luck would have it, that was right about the time (about 3:30) that we reached the compound of the mfumu of Ngofi, who was nowhere to be found. The chief’s compound was a collection of homes, a common family arrangement, around a borehole well.  This is the best kind of well, because it drills directly into the water table and provides water that is actually quite pure and safe to drink.  How unfortunate that it was broken.  No drinking water that night!  I had saved two or three swallows in my water bottle, and that would have to be enough.  The amayi, who was home, heated up some water in a small basin for us to bathe in – me first as honored guest, then Lily, then Joe.  We didn’t actually step into the basin, but we used our hands to pour the water over ourselves (there was no cup to scoop the water).  Thus refreshed, we set up our tents and Joe prepared a spaghetti dinner.  There were no onions at the lodge, so it was simple spaghetti and tomato sauce.  I had hoped to drink the tomato sauce, I was so thirsty, but the pasta was only lightly coated.  Due to dehydration and sensory overload, I was not very hungry, which surprised my travel companions.  I crawled into my tent.  There were no pads to put under our sleeping bags, because others had them on another trip to different villages.  The ground was rock-hard, but I knew it wasn’t going to make a bit of difference that night.    
PictureThe chief's house; he is a carpenter.
And so it was that, five days after landing in Africa for the first time, I found myself in one of the remotest parts of the continent, sleeping as a guest of an absent chief in a village I did not know.  Choir training tomorrow.    

My house; I am an itinerant choral director.

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    A choral conductor walking cheerfully over the world...


    May 2013