I am currently reading “Congo Journey” by Redmond O’Hanlon. Redmond and his travelling companion, Lary, journey through the Congo from Brazzaville in the south to Lake Tele in the north in search of the mythical mokele-mbembe, a kind of Congolese Loch Ness monster. They are accompanied on their travels by several local Congolese who “assist” them to navigate the maze of Congolese politics, villages and pygmies.
It is an interesting, thought provoking and, at times, hilarious read. One of the points the book touches on is the way people’s relationships towards animals differ. This is illustrated in an exchange between Redmond and Nze, one of the local Congolese who is about to kill a chicken for dinner. Redmond expresses concern and asks Nze to make sure he despatches the chicken quickly and humanely. Nze, puzzled, says, “It’s a chicken.”
There is no “fluffy bunny” syndrome in the Congolese jungle with animals divided roughly into two groups: useful and not useful. Those that are useful fall into that category because they provide meat, eggs or milk. The not useful group can be further subdivided into benignly not useful i.e. they have no discernible human use but they are not harmful either e.g. many of the birds, frogs, etc., and not useful but harmful, such as leopards, cobras and Driver ants.
The “human-animal” bond, as Redmond and Lary would understand it, appears not to exist. Presumably this is because, in a society where each day is a struggle for human survival and death an ever present possibility, the luxury of wasting food and emotions on non-human individuals that do not contribute physically to that survival cannot be afforded. This is not to say that they do not understand the animals that surround them. I would say they have a much better understanding of human-animal interdependencies than either Redmond or Lary. For the Congolese it is important to know how the natural world functions, not out of abstract scientific curiosity, but because everyone’s survival depends on it. There is no room for sentimentality over other species when human life is lived so precariously and human death occurs so frequently.
Much of what occurs in people’s lives on a daily basis is mired in superstition and magic with pygmies singing songs to ensure hunting success and sorcerers placing spells and curses on people for all sorts of bizarre purposes. The reasons behind these superstitions and religion in general are summed up in this elegant exchange between Lary and Redmond.
“God damn it all to hell and back twice,” announced Lary, outwardly peaceful, lying straight out on the groundsheet. “What’s the point, that’s what I want to know, what is the point of all this sorcery? What is the psychological and social function of all this fear? Why live in terror of all this magic and bullshit and spells for this and spells for that when you don’t have to? Why not say to Dokou (the sorcerer), “Dokou, old man, I’m sorry, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but with all due respect for your great age and wisdom and authority in this village, why don’t you just take your mumbo jumbo and stick it up your ass and turn it sideways?”
“I don’t know,” I said. …. “The usual answer is that it gives a structure, a meaning to life, and that you certainly need one when all your thinking is pre-logical, when your idea of nature makes no distinction between subjective and objective impressions and thoughts – when your inner and outer worlds are all mixed up, when there’s no obvious dividing line between your own mental reality and that of a passing leopard, or a bat over the hut, or a bamboo clump that’s holding a party for Driver ants. I imagine we all think like that for at least a fraction of each day, some more so than others, and more at some times of our life than at other times – when we’ve had a setback or a shock or when someone dies or when we’re ill or in love – and more often at night than in the daytime. But here the nightmares never get an enclosing line drawn round them, they never get bagged up and thrown away – they just hang around out there, you meet them when you go for walks in the forest, they come at you between the trees, they get you after dark.” ….
“But the real point of it must be simple – you know the big fear is out there, waiting to bust in through your hut wall: you can be sure that two or three of your children will die as children, that you’ll get ill, that you’ll die young. So you give yourself lots of little fears, fears you half-know are not serious, to diffuse the big horror into the landscape. It’s a bit like the psychological bargain Christians and Muslims strike with themselves: you agree to abandon for life your ability to think straight; you accept a job-lot of fairy tales, all kinds of absurdities; and in return for the effort it costs to push your intellect back in to bed every time you get up in the morning, you’re released from the big one, the fear of death. You can really start to tell yourself that you’ll see your dead mother and father again, that your dead children are not dead, that your dead friends are still sitting drinking round the fire, and, maybe, even your favourite dog is waiting for you, fast asleep.”
“Put like that,” said Lary quietly, “it’s not such a bad bargain.”
Dr. F. Bunny