Evgeny Lebedev

Saving children in the nick of time

The Evening Standard Friday 21 December 2012

Christmas is supposed to be a time of peace, friends and family. But for the children I visited earlier this month in Africa, rescued from their lives as child soldiers by Unicef, uncertainty continues.

I described last week how the youngsters I visited in the Unicef camp in the north of the Central African Republic had just been evacuated to the capital city of Bangui. A rebel group had overrun the whole area and looted the base. My Unicef friends evacuated the children just before the fighters arrived.

They were airlifted to Bangui, where Unicef has another base equipped to care for them and help in their rehabilitation to civilian life. But this past week has seen the rebel group surge ever closer to the capital. Yesterday afternoon, it was reported that the rebels had at least halted their advance to offer peace talks.

The full campaign is here

But what a mess. There is no doubt in my mind that many of those poor children I danced and sang with in the north would have been kidnapped again or much worse by now were it not for the brave souls of Unicef.


A night after leaving the war-torn northern provinces — where greed and the politics of conflict diamonds have ripped societies apart — I was lucky enough to experience the polar opposite a few hundred miles away. We were stayingdeep in the jungle with the pygmy hunter-gatherers known as the Bayaka, to research a story on the pressures they are under from the encroachments of the modern world.

But we saw so much more. Picture, if you will, a coal-black night under a thick jungle canopy, pierced only by the lights from a handful of torches. The Bayaka, few of whom are above five feet tall, have taken us deep into the trees by hacking a path through the undergrowth. In a clearing, they slowly begin a gentle drumming, using cooking pans, plastic tubs, machetes — anything they can get a sound from. Women start to sing and chant, getting louder and louder in harmonies none of us Westerners had ever heard before. The effect is energising and hypnotic — and not just because of the haze of marijuana smoke that hangs over them. These folks are spliffing up from dawn till dusk.



Suddenly, we’re told the spirits are coming. The Bayaka switch off their torches, stamp out their fires, and the darkness becomes complete. But not quite. For as the lights are extinguished, we see the forest floor is studded with vivid, luminous flecks. It is as if we are floating upside down, with the stars under our feet and the black ground above our heads. Then, as the drumming and singing swirls faster and faster, louder and louder, we see more fluorescent shapes moving towards us from the deep jungle beyond, twisting and leaping in time to the drumming.

Are we hallucinating? Is it a dream? Is it the dope cloud fuddling our brains? No, we are told, these are the forest spirits, conjured up by the music. It’s impossible to count them as the shapes merge, then split, vibrating to the rhythm, which soon casts its spell over our minds and bodies, too, and we can’t help but dance.

The spirits are, of course, Bayaka dancers, the ghostly lights an iridescent fungus that grows on the bark in this part of the jungle. The Bayaka spirits have strapped the bark to their elbows, knees and torsos to create a spectacle more powerful than any performance art by Sadler’s Wells or the Royal Ballet.


I’ve no idea what time we retired to our tents, but I do know we didn’t get a scrap of sleep. And not just because of the hunger in our bellies (the ever-hospitable pygmies kindly insisted on carrying our kit but forgot to bring our food bag). The main reason for our enforced insomnia was that, partly to keep unwary elephants, leopards and wild pigs from stumbling across them at night, and partly just out of habit, the pygmies seem physically incapable of keeping shtum. They’re always either singing, talking or strumming their harps. The concept of “silence is golden” hasn’t penetrated this deep into the rainforest. Meanwhile, by the sound of it, in the bushes, a fair amount of hanky panky was taking place, too.

Then at 5am, the dance starts evolving again and the show resumes, with the women singing of how their menfolk’s libido has waned. Cue some sheepish looks from the chaps. These pygmy women are not backwards in coming forwards — a couple got rather frisky with one of my colleagues at one stage (he made his excuses, as the News of the World used to say).


The Bayaka don’t have leaders. They have no property, using or spending whatever they have as soon as they acquire it. They are perhaps the most peaceful people on the planet. Indeed, if they could conjure up the spirit of Lenin, they could show him what real communism looks like. Perhaps the most competitive it ever got was when we played their traditional game of tug of war. I’m pleased to say, my team won — but then I was a foot taller than most of my opponents.


We left the forest a day early in the end because the pygmies realised they had run out of weed. But two characters there will forever stay in my mind. One was the unlikeliest of tribal elders: a white, 6ft New Jersey beanpole called Louis Sarno. On hearing the Bayaka’s music on the radio in Amsterdam in 1985, he was so transfixed that he packed his few possessions in a kit bag and headed to the Central African Republic with a one-way ticket. He’s lived with them ever since. I asked him how his health had been during his decades in the jungle: “Well, I’ve had malaria, hepatitis, TB, typhoid and leprosy,” he answered. I have to say, though, Louis, that leprosy’s cleared up nicely.

The other was one of the first pygmies I encountered, a five-year-old I called Frank, whom I first saw skilfully hacking down a tree with his machete — imagine it, at only five! We were to become firm friends, Frank and I, as I marvelled at his incredible ability at darting up and down trees and into the canopy. I do hope we’ll meet again.


It seems, perhaps, a strange thing for a media man to say, but the most profound element of the Bayaka experience was the fact that nobody has ever captured that dance on film. The BBC, National Geographic, and a few others have sent crews with the most hi-tech equipment, but such is the nature of the darkness and the luminescence that they simply cannot be caught. It’s as if those forest spirits refuse to let the modern world invade. Long may that last.