The dirt road from Ekok wound its way round and up and down through the thick, overgrown forest. Everything was big. Trees competing to grow the tallest, to reach out above the canopy and feel the sunlight on their leaves. Hillsides vanished into a mass of green where fast-flowing waters rushed loudly, out-of-sight, cutting steep ravines in the soft fertile orange-red earth. On my left side, I would look at the trunk of a palm tree disappearing down into the tall grass. On my right at the same eye-level would be the green fronds of another palm sprouting upward toward the sky.
It’s never silent in the rainforest. But a quiet stillness pervades the heavy, humid air which only amplifies every noise, making each sound distinct. In this atmosphere you can pinpoint every disturbance. Each bird with it’s own unique call. Each lizard that rustles through the undergrowth and every cicada that rhythmically calls. To see things in the rainforest, you don’t look with your eyes, you listen with your ears.
The rainforest makes you feel very small. Insignificant. Alone. My bike makes tracks in the wet earth and if it’s steep uphill, my worn shoes make footprints too. But when the next rain comes… And it will come. As certainly as the sun will rise tomorrow morning (even if I do not see it). When the rain comes, those tracks will disappear. And no-one will know that you ever passed there. Perhaps no-one would know anyway. There is no-one else to see….
Because the forest is growing so fast and so thick, you cannot see past the wall of trees and vines and grass towering up on either side of the track you travel. But behind that wall, you don’t really know what is there. You can only imagine. You imagine that the wall is so thick it goes on forever.
But then you hear an unusual noise. It’s faint. But it’s distant too. And then silence again. But that noise returns, this time a little louder, a little closer. Eventually it is loud enough to recognise – it’s neither animal nor bird. It’s a chain-saw. And then you pass a large pile of wood, stacked by the road. And the illusion is shattered – you are not alone. And the curtain is pulled back – it is not the wilderness that you thought. You now see that behind the green wall by the roadside are spaces devoid of trees. The orange-red earth revealed. Man making his mark….
Then out of this stage-set a small village appears by the road. Just a few mud houses with corrugated iron roofs. Women sat outside talking with other women. Men sat quietly by other men. The children scattered around the houses, absorbed in their own games and inventions.
The first young child to see me, playing in the dirt by the road with a stick, points and shouts ‘White!’. The child next to him looks across and calls too, ‘White!’. This is loud enough for several other little children to appear, from behind a house, to stand up from the shade they were playing in. They too now see me. ‘White!’ each of them also calls. ‘White!’ ‘White!’ White!’ Soon all the children are looking, maybe pointing and shouting out, ‘White!’. Shouting ‘White!’ all together, but never at the same time. And then one of them starts to run after me, arms flailing and flapping wildly in the air, ‘White!’. And so another gives chase. And soon enough there are a flock of little boys (always boys) frantically running after me. ‘White!’ ‘White!’ ‘White! White!’ ‘White!’….
Have you ever watched Finding Nemo? If not, I recommend it, it’s a fun film. But why bring this up. Well, for those who have seen it – remember the seagull scene? Where the seagulls are all sitting around in the port, when they see food… and they look at each other and one calls out, ‘Mine!’ and then soon they are all calling ‘Mine!’ ‘Mine!’ ‘Mine!’. I was the food. The calls were uncanny in their similarity that I can only presume the scriptwriter got his inspiration having cycled this very road in Cameroon and perhaps even used Cameroon’s village children for the sound recording.
Every village I passed through that morning was the same. ‘White!’ ‘White!’ ‘White!. And the chase. And the escape. Normally this behaviour irritates and infuriates me. I can’t stand it. But that morning, as I heard the first ‘White!’ I just had to picture the seagulls and I would laugh. It got me through the day.
So next time you watch Finding Nemo, think of me!