Mokélé-Mbembe, being the Faithful Account of a Hazardous Expedition to find the Living African Dinosaur

Anthony Appiah

  • Congo Journey by Redmond O’Hanlon
    Hamish Hamilton, 480 pp, £18.00, October 1996, ISBN 0 241 12768 8

Redmond O’Hanlon’s account of a journey to Borneo, undertaken with the poet James Fenton, was a grand deception, in which the ostensible search for an indigenous rhinoceros on the slopes of a mountain fastness turned out to be so much camouflage. Clues as to what was really happening could be glimpsed in the structure of O’Hanlon’s narrative. Into the Heart of Borneo is a book burdened by its sense of belatedness; every moment is glossed as the repetition of some earlier natural historian’s triumph. Near the beginning, when he first sees Troides brookiana, a bird-wing butterfly, O’Hanlon cites Alfred Russel Wallace’s description of it as ‘one of the most elegant species known’. What he does not see is also carefully itemised, in the words of those earlier heroes whose eyes have gazed on the mysteries: ‘an owl, Glaucidium borneense, “about the size of one’s thumb”, as [Charles] Hose described it, which calls poop-te-poop-poop’; or a tiny hawk, Microhierax, which lays ‘a large white egg about as big as itself’. The book’s very form – the palimpsest of prose from so many predecessors-makes plain one fundamental impulse of the journey: O’Hanlon is on a pilgrimage in the footsteps of those natural historians and explorers who inhabited his doctoral thesis on ‘Changing Scientific Concepts of Nature in the English Novel’ in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Everywhere he turns he sees the shade of Wallace (The Malay Archipelago: The Land of the Orang-Utan and the Bird of Paradise. A Narrative of Travel, with Studies of Man and Nature, 2 vols, 1869) and hears the footpad of Charles Hose (The Field-Book of a Jungle-Wallah, being a Description of Shore, River and Forest Life in Sarawak, 1929). These men are O’Hanlon’s real companions; he reads them by torchlight in his tent; he sees the world through their eyes, and confides in them, as he cannot always do in Fenton.

A second source of this mania for travel in difficult places is more clearly visible in O’Hanlon’s account of his journey up the Amazon, In Trouble Again. It all began, we learn, with an egg collection in his ‘vicarage childhood’. O’Hanlon was one of those boys who set out in life with a long list of fauna they have not seen, checking off each species as they sight it, avidly enlarging their stock of birds-already-seen. The egg collection was begun before he was five; at seven, he received ‘the two volumes of T.A. Coward’s The Birds of the British Isles and Their Eggs, my first proper books’, and persuaded his father to take him to the Natural History Museum in London. There he was struck by ‘all the variety and surprise and difference’ of the guillemot’s eggs.

Perhaps it was that feeling, I now thought, which I had really been searching for – and which I had found – in the primary rain forest in the heart of Borneo, that sudden, passing, incandescent moment when you are not even sure if the something that is flying across the river in front of you is a bat or a bird or a butterfly. And it was that feeling which I vowed to experience again, if I could, in the vaster forests of the northern Amazons.

This sense of the miraculous in nature – and especially in birds – was visible enough in the brilliant descriptions of Borneo: in the Amazon book, O’Hanlon announces the childhood that any moderately intelligent middle-class English reader of Into the Heart of Borneo would have imagined for him. In the forests of Borneo Fenton had suggested that O’Hanlon was out to prove his manhood, but Fenton was wrong: O’Hanlon isn’t proving his manhood, he’s rediscovering that vicarage boyhood.

The real secret of O’Hanlon’s success is that he subverts the conventions of this genre of imperial travel-writing by refusing utterly to take himself seriously. The imperial travellers – the explorers and naturalists – announced the difficulties of their journeys in order to record their triumphs over them. What they saw with their omnivorous eyes, they named ‘properly’ for the first time, in the grand Linnaean manner. And the human indigenes of the forests – the native fauna of the genus Homo sapiens – could be interesting, helpful, loyal, brave, even noble (as well, of course, as savage and stupid). But they were not likely to find the bwana-sahib ridiculous; and if they did, it was clear that this was further evidence of the error of their ways. In O’Hanlon’s world, however, the natives are always amused. When Fenton tries his hand at angling, his wildest cast catches O’Hanlon in the buttocks:

      ‘You are hooked up,’ said James, matter-of-factly. ‘You have a spinner in your bum.’

      There was a weird gurgling jungle sound behind us. Dana, Leon and Inghai were leaning against the boulders. The Iban, when they decide that something is really funny, and know that they are going to laugh for a long time, lie down flat first.

      Dana, Leon and Inghai lay down.

      ‘You should try it with a harpoon!’ shrieked Leon, helpless.

O’ Hanlon’s earlier excursions, it now turns out, were all a splendid prologue to Congo Journey. At last, he has mounted the expedition that always awaited him, up the Congo River – also known as the Zaire – into the real jungle, on the journey that Conrad has taught almost a century of Englishmen to see as the way into Africa’s dark heart. Congo Journey begins with a European cliché of Africa. The opening scene occurs in a ‘hut in Poto-Poto, the poor quarter of Brazzaville’. In this hut, a féticheuse – a woman ‘witch-doctor’ – casts cowrie shells on a raffia mat in an act of divination. What disrupts the cliché is that the divination works. ‘ “One of you,” she said slowly in French, “is very ill, right now.” ’ And she is perfectly correct. For, unknown to O’Hanlon, his companion, Lary Shaffer, professor of psychology at the State University of Plattsburgh, author of a doctoral thesis on ‘The Predation of Crabs by Lesser Black-Backed Gulls’, has multiple sclerosis. Not only that, he has recovered from life as a blind man in a wheelchair by forcing himself to walk again, so that now he swims for 45 minutes a day, and has somehow recovered his sight. O’Hanlon’s Congo Journey is undertaken with a companion who ‘thought I’d rather die in Africa than strip-paint my house in Cornelia Street this summer’.

When it is O’Hanlon’s turn to have his cowries read by the wise woman, he tells her his purpose:

‘I hope to go on a great journey through the far northern forests,’ I said, liking the sound of the words, ‘by dugout to the headwaters of the Motaba where we’ll abandon the boats, walk east through the swamp jungle and across the watershed to the Ibenga, take a chance on finding another canoe, and then, if we’re lucky, paddle down to Likouala-aux-Herbes and walk to the hidden lake, Lake Télé, where Mokélé-mbembe, the Congo dinosaur, is said to live.’

This is as clear an account as you could wish for of the official purpose of Congo Journey: and it is only slightly disconcerting that the féticheuse’s response to it is to sing ‘No! No! No!’ and tell him that he is hiding his real desires.

Then, as the two men wait silently, staring at the floor, there is a moment of vintage O’Hanlon. He looks at a cowrie shell by his foot, lying

on its tortoise-shaped back, the long slender opening of the underside exposed. It was easy to see, I thought blankly, why a cowrie worn round a woman’s neck was supposed to ensure conception and easy childbirth. I wondered how it had got there: it was a genuine money cowrie, Cyprea moneta from the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean, perhaps brought to Egypt by an Arab dhow in the 13th century, traded along the coast by Arab merchants, south across the Sahara in a saddle bag slung on a camel, and then on from one small kingdom to another until it reached Central Africa. Or maybe it arrived in a European slave ship: a stray statistic whined in my skull like a mosquito: in 1520 the Portuguese were paying 6370 cowries for one man or woman: ‘6370,’ sang the mosquito, ‘6370 ...’

This is the vicarage boy faced with an object he has read about in one of his ‘proper books’, savouring it at first-hand (pleased, too, with the memories of book-learning it triggers) and struck with wonder at the place of Homo sapiens in the web of nature.

‘Mokélé-mbembe’ is the Borneo rhinoceros of this trip. O’Hanlon found him in A Living Dinosaur? In Search of Mokélé-Mbembe, ‘a bizarre book by a biochemist at the University of Chicago’. O’Hanlon reads Lary an account, appended to the book and written by Marcellin Agnagna, ‘one of the Congo’s leading biologists’, of a sighting of this beast at Lake Télé ‘right in the heart of the equatorial forest of Central Africa’. Agnagna recounts how, unfortunately, the film in the camera he had with him when he saw the dinosaur was overexposed (‘Surprise, surprise,’ says Lary), although O’Hanlon has already conceded that, of course, there are no dinosaurs but argues nonetheless that there ‘must be something odd at Lake Télé’. That is why it’s worth the trip. Perhaps. But, having followed him through Borneo and Venezuela, one suspects that it is enough that Lake Télé is difficult to get to, has rarely been seen by anyone from outside the Congo, and is 400 miles of forest – and fauna – away from Brazzaville, the capital of Congo. Redmond O’Hanlon has none of the cultural arrogance of those old forest-travellers who are his heroes, but he is driven by the same mysterious desires.

In Borneo and in Venezuela, the acquisition of permits was a tiresome, but ultimately rather straightforward business: a few contacts, the waving of some impressive letters of reference, and – presto – off you go. In Congo, the obstacles are rather more substantial. Indeed, as O’Hanlon tells his terrified companion, when they contemplate all the human trouble ahead, this is ‘part of the point. This is the most difficult equatorial African country to get into, the least visited, the least explored,’ and therefore ‘the most interesting’. The difficulties are obvious in advance. Congo, at the time of this journey, is officially a Communist state: Lary is an American. Africa on a Shoestring warns that there are ‘police checkpoints every 25 to 30 kilometres in the countryside where you will be stopped and asked for your passport and vaccination certificates’. Lary assumes that sooner or later a policeman will decide he is an American spy. The country is hopping with plain-clothes police, so that you cannot discuss politics. Lary announces that ‘you can bet your ass the room is bugged.’ ‘Visa extensions are not available,’ the guidebook says, and they have 15-day visas. Lary assumes they will soon be on their way out.

O’ Hanlon, on the other hand, is confidently betting everything on Jean Ngatsiebe, the Cabinet Secretary to the Ministry for Scientific Research, with whom they have an appointment; and on Marcellin Agnagna – the author of the dinosaur-appendix – who is to come with them on their journey, once he has written up his latest elephant survey. Between them, these two Congolese officials will come up with the necessary laissezpasser. After a £1000 bribe and a lot of rushing about between offices, this turns out to be correct. Lary’s anxieties about the soldiers and the bureaucrats put the two men in the mood for mutual confidences; so when he asks O’Hanlon: ‘Sorcerers and dinosaurs, for Chrissake. What is it you really want to see?’ O’Hanlon tells him: ‘Before the war my father was an Anglican missionary in Abyssinia ... he had a wonderful collection of books on Africa in his big dark study in the Wiltshire vicarage where I grew up.’ And among the books in that study was Bannerman’s Birds of Tropical West Africa; and in Volume III there is a drawing of a pennant-winged nightjar. ‘I thought it was the oddest, the most desirable bird in the air. I still do.’ Somehow, you almost believe him. Through all the bands of soldiers with ‘swagger sticks and kalashnikovs and hand-grenades’, through all the standard medical emergencies of forest travel, familiar from the earlier books, through the fevers and the filthy meals, through every crisis, O’Hanlon is in search of ‘those direct descendants of the great reptiles which were undeniably still about the place, those flying dinosaurs, the birds’. The féticheuse was right. Mokélé-mbembe is a diversion. The real prize is the pennant-winged nightjar, another bird to savour with the eyes and burn into the memory, and to add to that list which began when O’Hanlon opened Coward’s The Birds of the British Isles and Their Eggs at the age of seven.

Marcellin Agnagna, when he appears, is tall, voluble and athletic. He bounds about Brazzaville, untroubled by the heat. He wears a brilliant white shirt, freshly-laundered jeans, white trainers, and he is accompanied, at their first meeting, by a young woman, ‘her pupils dilated with admiration and desire’. Assuming this is Marcellin’s wife, Lary seeks to introduce himself and the Congolese scientist rebukes him. ‘ “Look,” he shouted, his chin jutting forward. “Let’s get one thing straight, shall we? Right at the start. This is not England! This is not i small-town America. This is Africa. My wife is pregnant. So we can’t have sex. So here is Louise, who finds it hard to stop having sex. Okay? ” ’ The book is full of moments like this, where a Congolese reveals himself to be morally different from the people back home in Oxford or Plattsburgh. A more troubling incident occurs soon after this, when Marcellin insists there is nothing to be done about the drowning of a boy who falls off a barge. O’Hanlon’s tone in these scenes is strangely neutral. He does not judge; he has none of Naipaul’s mandarin disdain. Indeed, part of Lary’s function in the narrative is to be the carrier of ‘Western’ morality. It is Lary who thinks Marcellin is ‘a creep’ because he has betrayed his marriage vows. When O’Hanlon remarks blandly, ‘Maybe it’s different here,’ Lary’s reply is straightforward. ‘I don’t agree it’s okay to cut a young girl’s clitoris out simply because you’re a Muslim or a Seventh Day freak-show or a Born Again butthole or whatever.’ O’Hanlon – the character – makes no reply.

‘Congo Journey’ is different from the earlier books just because so much of it unfolds before the forest journey begins. It takes nine chapters to get onto the steamship that is to take the team up the Congo; and only at the beginning of Book ‘Two, a hundred-odd pages and 14 chapters in, do they dock at Impfondo, 600 kilometres up river from Brazzaville. Because one of his themes is O’Hanlon ‘in trouble again’, the account begins in the capital with problems that are, as I say, posed as much by people as by the natural world. Despite which, O’Hanlon, who has hitherto travelled the forests without ever getting malaria, also manages to come down with a severe bout of the disease which leaves him so feverish that sweat drains off the tarpaulin under which he is lying. Only an experimental dose of Lariam (a drug now widely prescribed for malaria in Africa, but then available to O’Hanlon only because he had managed to get on the list of ‘named patients’ to try it out) brings him back from a fever-dream of a walk through English woods with a gamekeeper hero of his childhood, and his cocker spaniel, Hubert; a dream interwoven with baby forest elephants, dangerous pygmies, kalashnikovs and poachers from the Sudan.

This new book is also longer than the earlier ones: long enough that its official division into three parts is warranted. Book One gets us in and out of Brazzaville; Book Two is the journey with Lary on the northeastern tributaries of the Oubangui River; and Book Three is the excursion, without Lary, to Lake Télé and back. But there are three books here in another sense, struggling with each other in ways that make Congo Journey a substantially more complex and subtle achievement than the previous narratives.

There is still, at one level, the natural-history reportage in the shadow of the vicarage bird-collector and those earlier travellers in his father’s library, intertwined with stories of the bumbling Redso lurching awkwardly about the forest, while Marcellin and his kinsman, Nzé, rush around in every village trying to make sure that they have a girl for the night. (Marcellin’s brother, poor Manou, meanwhile, pines for his wife and daughter and only gets the sex that Nzé occasionally remembers to arrange for him.) But Marcellin’s stern warning at the start that we are not ‘in England ... or small-town America’ makes these stories less straightforwardly comic. This is a world in which 500 CFA (about a pound, according to O’Hanlon) buys you a woman for the night, and only the wives of powerful sorcerers and chiefs are really out of bounds. This is also a world in which 500 CFA is a lot of money. Laughter here is not the side-splitting laughter that has the Iban lying on their backs. It is uncomfortable, at best.

There are also fewer citations of earlier travellers: even Conrad, the most obvious of the literary ancestors, figures mainly as the source of an anecdote (from Typhoon) about ‘do-nothing heroics’ and the management of fear. Not only are these travellers less present, so too are the naturalists: O’Hanlon refers fairly often to Serle and Morel’s Birds of West Africa, for example, but neither of these authors becomes a character or companion. O’Hanlon still has a wonderful touch with the natural-history anecdote – angry chimps pepper him with faeces – but even when we reach the fabled Lake Télé, with its astonishing birds, its ancient crocodiles, its duikers and swamp antelopes, the sense of wonder at the natural world is muted by the human and intellectual drama among the little band of travellers. (Because Marcellin and Lary, as well as O’Hanlon, are knowledgeable about biology, there is also a fair amount of conversation on such topics as the heritability of intelligence, the nesting habits of the hammerkop and the extraordinary sexual habits of bonobos.) In this section, O’Hanlon achieves his heart’s desire: back in Impfondo, bedraggled and filthy, as he walks towards the hotel through the elephant grass, almost delirious for lack of sleep, he sees, he thinks, the pennant-winged nightjar. ‘I’ve seen it! The bird of birds!’ he says. And it doesn’t matter, in the end, whether it is the real thing or a vision.

Book Two, set off by the dream-visions of his malarial fever in Brazzaville, is an exploration of the way the world of sorcery can take over even the most sceptical mind. O’Hanlon’s curiosity in Book Two is directed as much as anything else at the culture of the Bantu and pygmy peoples of the Congolese forests. Wherever he goes he asks about the history of the place (inspired, he almost implies, by his reading of Paths in the Rainforests, the magisterial history of the region by the great Africanist Jan Vansina); and in many of the villages he visits he gives us the oral history supplied to him by a chief or elder. In this vein, when his own visit to a village coincides with that of a creature called Samalé, he is told by Dokou, the village sorcerer (who turns out to be Marcellin’s grandfather), that it is a ‘spiritual animal’ tamed sometime before the First World War ‘to ensure the security and happiness of the people’. There is a sect whose initiates are scarred with two of the three claws on each of its hands. In the same conversation, O’Hanlon asks for a fetish and receives one containing the finger of a child whose spirit will protect him. From then on, in moments of delirium, he seems drawn into this world of spirits; there is even one extraordinary scene in which, after a good deal of drinking and a fair amount of marijuana (almost certainly on top of a fever of some sort), he dreams a long conversation with Samalé, who talks of his flights to France, in a wooden plane that flies only at night, to read in the great libraries of Paris.

Part of the power of the story of the fetish – the Congolese rabbit’s foot – derives from the fact that the travellers are often in mortal danger: and the threat comes not from the forest, or even from disease, but from human hostility. This story unfolds with the energy of a thriller. Their first stop on the Motaba River is Manfouété, a village that Marcellin has not previously visited. Here, he senses almost immediately that something is wrong. The huge commandant of the local People’s Militia – ‘perhaps seven feet tall and he looked taller because he wore a Russian tank-driver’s hat, complete with ear-flaps’ – turns out to be ‘violent, mad’ and he is after the contents of their rucksacks. Since this will very likely involve killing them, Marcellin says they must leave ‘at first light’. O’Hanlon falls asleep with his companions, barricaded into a room behind three logs and two desks, Nzé keeping watch with a shotgun.

      Some hours later Lary shook me awake.

      Loud drumming, the waves of sound coming at us faster than a panic heartbeat, swept through the mud walls of the hut.

      ‘What the hell’s that?’ said Lary.

      ‘It’s drumming.’

      ‘Don’t smartarse with me,’ said Lary, switching on his torch. There was a big drop of sweat on the end of his nose.

      ‘Sounds ominous,’ I said, trying to be helpful, easing myself into a sitting position off the hard mud floor and attempting to rub some feeling back into his arms and legs.

      ‘I’m sick,’ said Lary. ‘I’m sick of being terrorised night and day. I’ve been more frightened in 34 days on this trip than in my whole fucking life.’

Luckily, Marcellin’s escape plan works and they set off up river once more.

Another problem awaits them in a town where one of their travelling companions is thought to have come to avenge the murder of his uncle, who was suspected of sorcery. And, as they finally approach Boha, Marcellin reveals that the villagers, who ‘own’ the forests around Lake Télé, believe he is responsible for the Government’s decision to arrest their chief, and have probably sworn to kill him. They are a notoriously violent lot: ‘They kill each other with two-sided knives. Almost all the men of Boha have been put in prison for murder at one time or another ... Five days is the penalty for a murder that is domestic or a matter of sorcery.’ In the end, Marcellin has to slip out of the village, leaving O’Hanlon, Manou and Nzé behind, and promising to return for them later. In the next few days, O’Hanlon becomes increasingly crazed, lavishing his emotional energy on a baby gorilla that has been given to him; a creature to whom he talks constantly and with whom he sleeps despite the unsanitary consequences.

Constantly in danger, hallucinating from fear or lack of sleep or both, O’Hanlon insists on the rational explanation but this wears increasingly thin. When Manou tells him that he knows his secret – that he, too, is a sorcerer – O’Hanlon’s protestations to the contrary are trumped by Manou’s more plausible explanations. Why did Redso ask for the fetish from Dokou? Why does he have a fetish-house back in Oxford? The one Lary has told Manou about, where ‘there’s used-up pens and old boots ... and goddam moth-eaten skins of foxes and bits of rabbit (they’re furry things) and a stuffed stoat, a live civet, or a mongoose, and really horrible stuffed birds – you can’t tell what they are – and bird’s eggs, and bags of fur, and, worst of ail, Manou, there’s a burned-up foot, the burnt foot of a friend of his and that, Manou, is in a coffee jar!’ O’Hanlon can only protest that this strange assembly of objects are ‘aides-mémoire’. And meanwhile, of course, we conjecture, with Manou, that O’Hanlon has had too many close shaves to put down to mere luck.

Book Three has a moral focus. Despite the ethical neutrality of O’Hanlon’s narrative voice – which is occasionally disrupted by his prises de position as a character in conversation with Lary, Marcellin, Nzé or Manou – the human dilemmas that he faces in the Congo allow him to set out some of the starker complexities that confront anyone from the richer world who enters a place of such intense material deprivation. Some of this we have seen before: in a discussion in Into the Heart of Borneo, for example, of what to do with a woman in need of surgery (she is left behind to die). The small stock of medicines that they take with them raises the same questions in the Congo, where so many of the pygmies suffer from the terrible disfigurement of yaws, which is perfectly treatable, or have abscesses that would heal with a little antibiotic cream.

But new tensions arise here because Marcellin, like Redso, is educated in the modern manner; a rationalist, angry at O’Hanlon for drawing him back into the ambit of his grandfather and his sorcery – and a humane man, who wants to see the pygmies treated properly. Then there is Manou, who loves books and learning, and wants above all to complete his education in Lary’s university. Lary’s anti-relativism also seems to sharpen the issue. How should we think about the monumental infidelities of Marcellin? Is it, as O’Hanlon, the character, proposes, ‘different here’? What can be done about the effective enslavement of the pygmies? Or the menacing corruption of the Congolese Army? Is this ‘different’ too? And what about the moral muddles of those of us who can only have access to this world through the accounts of travellers like O’Hanlon? ‘ “White men,é said Marcellin, standing up, his voice hard. “Really the white men are terrible. They brought the guns here and now they say don’t kill the wildlife. They’re cruel one minute, sentimental the next” ’ How shall we answer Manou – hardworking, intelligent, kindly; born in a poor, corrupt, badly-managed society – when he says: ‘I want to go to university. I want to go to America. I want to win a scholarship. What hope is there for people like me? There’s no money. No money for books ... So you see, don’t you? It’s a dream, a stupid dream – a lie, a stupid lie.’

We should be grateful to O’Hanlon that he does not respond to these difficulties with easy-and inadequate-answers. On his earlier journeys, in Borneo and the Amazon basin, O’Hanlon found people who were his superiors in the forest; now, in Marcellin, he has found someone who is (and in Manou, someone who strives to be) his equal in the city, and in an internationalised community which will eventually make O’Hanlon’s kind of travel – this honourable global slumming – impossible. Congo Journey is, as a result, a less casually diverting book than its predecessors, and the rewards are greater.