Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Spirits for the spirits

January 11, 2005
Aboard the Seabulk St. Tammany, at sea off Bioko island, Equatorial Guinea
N 3.27275° E 8.41943 ° Elevation 0 feet. Temp: 81° F

For the first time in two weeks since this expedition from Arcadia University landed on Moraka Beach like invading marines, my computer is working on something other than self-generated power – I’m plugged into an outlet in the cabin of the St. Tammany. It’s air-conditioned here – climate control, what an alien concept. The members of our expedition to Equatorial Guinea, spent and exhausted, are stretched out flat on the deck as though some huge wind came through and knocked everyone down. The last two weeks of hiking in the rainforest, conducting a census of endangered beasts at the southern end of Bioko island, has taken its toll.

Considering the amount of grog consumed in our camp last night, it was a miracle the expedition members were able to gather their wits at 5 a.m. to break camp. Loading and unloading ourselves and our gear onto this 152-foot oil-industry work vessel while it floats offshore was probably the most dangerous operation that we did during our three-week trek to Bioko. With half our African helpers bleary-eyed or goofy with emotion this morning – and also looking for last-minute swag from the American visitors – it added one more element of adventure to the moment.

The farewell party last night at the beach camp was something to behold. The wine and the brandy began flowing even before Arcadia Professor Wayne A. Morra started to pay 26 local people who worked as porters, cooks and guides. The expedition put a significant jolt into the local economy – perhaps $10,000 in wages. Some of the wives of the workers showed up to make sure the money was not exhausted in one night of debauchery. The group gathered last night in a circle, and the Africans gave out awards to each member of the expedition. Then the Equatoguinean workers and academics – eight of the 24 expedition members come from the National University of Equatorial Guinea – entertained us with the local songs and dances. The pale visitors responded as best we could by singing “America,” which doesn’t have a real strong dance beat, so the Africans stood quietly and listened, politely applauding at the end. I suppose it was better than singing a few selections from the Methodist hymnal. I would have preferred we sing “YMCA” instead, but nobody could remember all the words, though I think we could have faked it because the most important part of the song is the refrain, when the participants raise their arms and spell out YMCA. The Africans would have thought that was a hoot. Fortunately, sanity took over before we could sing the “Star Spangled Banner” or the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” One of the expedition members sang a rap that incorporated the names of the endangered primates we were here to observe. The Africans, perhaps sensing the potential doom to a party’s mood when white people begin to rap, took control of the musical agenda and we stayed with mostly local music.

Meanwhile, Morra and I were called aside to participate in a ceremony to acknowledge the spirits. Equatoguineans spend quite a bit of time communicating with the spirits, which usually involves the ingestion of alcohol to enhance one’s ability to converse with the other dimension. When we first arrived by boat on Bioko two weeks ago, everyone aboard took a sip of rum and tossed a bit overboard to appease the spirits of our forebears, or at least the forebears of the Africans who could do us some harm on their home turf. Last night Morra and I walked off into the night with some of the community leaders of Ureca village to gather around the sacred stone, which is about the size and shape of a rugby ball, placed on the ground, pointing up. The stone was surrounded by a bunch of empty bottles to which we were about to add one more. We sat on the ground and the community leaders poured rounds from a fresh bottle of brandy, and we acknowledged the spirits and thanked one another for cooperation and friendship and extended good wishes for future expeditions and the work of Arcadia University, as well as The Philadelphia Inquirer, whose circulation could use some mystical support.

After saying a few words and drinking the shot of brandy, the men spilled a little bit of liquid on the stone to share with the spirits. The locals gasped because I think I gave a little too much spirits to the spirits. I’m not sure if they were disturbed by the wastefulness or the fact that the ancestors might be a little tipsy because I really wet down that rock. I was worried for a few moments when one of the locals became possessed by the spirits and let out a sharp shout that startled the fellow next to me. The medium, who earlier that day had been merely a porter hauling bags, began speaking rapidly in the Bubi language with both of his arms extended straight forward, his eyes wide open. The others paid close attention to the things he said, which were translated into Spanish for me. The spirits wanted to suggest a pay raise for the villagers and hoped Arcadia would expand its work on Bioko, but mostly they extended thanks for the warm relations. It was good to know all of us were working on the same page as the spirits. I thought it was interesting that there were only men at this event and Gail W. Hearn, the Arcadia professor who created this expedition nine years ago, was not invited to participate.

Through all this partying and secret ceremonies, at least one of us remained diligent to her work: Barbara Johnston, the Inquirer photographer who is working with me, spent much of the evening editing photos and uploading them to Philadelphia through our satellite telephone. Afterwards, we packed our gear into bags because we received word that our boat would arrive at 6 a.m. today – a little earlier than originally anticipated.

Some folks apparently were uninformed about the early scheduled departure or did not care because the partying and dancing went on until 3 a.m. I know because the noise penetrated the industrial foam earplugs I carry for just such occasions. One of the benefits of growing older is learning that no amount of late-night partying is worth the misery that comes the next day, but many in our group have not yet acquired that wisdom. They were still pretty silly this morning as the sun rose and our boat appeared offshore.

Though a little sloppy and muddy, our goods were packed into large waterproof bags and carried to the beach. We were much lighter than when we arrived two weeks earlier with a half-ton of rice and loads of other food and supplies, all consumed or left behind with the locals. It took quite a few men to heave the 30-foot-long wooden cayuco boat into the water, which the local guys stacked with bags that they carried out in the shallow water atop their hungover heads. I watched with trepidation as the fully loaded boat pierced the surf and headed about a half mile offshore to the workboat. With the help of benign spirits, it all arrived safely and was hoisted by rope aboard the St. Tammany.

The expedition members were loaded four at a time in an inflatable Zodiac to go to the work boat. In calm seas, we climbed out of the tiny craft onto a metal platform that had been extended over the side and hoisted ourselves up about ten feet to the deck. The Africans, upon reaching the big boat, immediately began another joyous circle dance, stomping the wooden deck with glee. Some of the expedition members were tearful. One slept slumped on the deck while the others waved goodbye to the Gran Caldera de Luba, the dark mountain formed by an ancient volcano barely visible through the low clouds.

It’s a two-hour boat ride around the west side of Bioko island to the capital, Malabo, where we will camp once again on the soccer field of the ExxonMobil compound. I anticipate an enthusiastic assault on the oil company’s cafeteria, where many of us will indulge in food fantasies that plagued us during the long hikes – French fries, ice cream, cool beverages, solid meat and green vegetables. I’ll eat anything right now except rice, beans and Powerbars.

Untitled Document