Although it was raining in the same consistent manner of a heartbeat, Henry Stanley was sweaty. This vast, huge, massive, gigantic forest had become like a wet, damp prison. His legs felt like left-over porridge that was ready to be scrapped from the bottom of the bowl and thrown away.
Stanley spoke about his utter fatigue in a letter to a newspaper back in his native Scotland, ‘I thought I was very liberal in allowing myself two weeks march to cross the forest region lying between the Congo and the grassland but you may imagine our feelings when month after month, saw us marching, tearing, ploughing, cutting through that same continuous forest.’
Claudine, a twenty year old Gabonese lady was walking through the edge of this same, continuous forest that Stanley witnessed back in 1888.
What a day. A rainy April day. But inside the Gabon Section of Congo forest, such rainy visits are the norm. It’s no wonder Claudine continued walking leisurely through the forest as the rain plummeted her. The halo of Afro hair on her head was dripping with water.
Almost six feet, her strides were long yet graceful.
She was from the Fang, the largest ethnic group in the country. It can also be found in northern Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, southern Cameroon, and the western part of the Republic of Congo.
She stopped at the tree that she was looking for. For a decade, ever since she was ten, she had gone through this same ritual almost daily.
At eighty feet, the tree was thirteen times taller than Claudine. She felt both overwhelmed and protected by it, consumed by its presence, yet at the same time finding refuge in it. This tree was the Gabon ebony, named after her country because it could be found there in plenty. But it was also found in several other African countries from Senegal to Namibia, hence it is also referred to as African ebony.
Like forest elephants, giraffes and buffaloes, Claudine is interested in the trees leaves. But unlike the forest wildlife, her interest is not cuisine related but herbal. Her father is a herbalist, like her grandfather and great grandfather. He uses the leaves of the tree to prepare concoctions that stop bleeding and heal wounds.
Claudine’s father is a sixty-seven year old man whose herbal knowledge has been passed down for millennia. The Congo basin has been inhabited for more than fifty thousand years and in true African fashion, knowledge and traditions have been passed down from generation to generation. Claudine herself already knows the herbal qualities of many of the ten thousand plant species that are in the basin. The decade that she has been venturing into the forest to pluck leaves, stems, barks, fruits, seeds, pebbles and roots for her father has left her with sound knowledge of the forest’s herbal riches.
With an agility that would put Stefka Kostadinova, the Bulgarian world recorder holder high jump to shame, Claudine leaped into the air several times and harvested choice young leaves.
It is harvest of such forest non timber products that ensure the longevity and flourish of Congo forest. Unfortunately, contemporary harvest from the forest mostly focuses on timber. The African Ebony wood is in such high demand globally that the International Union for Conservation of Nature has classified it as an endangered species.
While Claudine and her father are mostly interested in its leaves only, logging companies are interested in its hard, black wood that will be used to make an assortment of expensive wood products like the black piano keys, violin fingerboards, gun drips, exotic sculptures and knife handles. These products fetch millions of dollars. But at what cost to the forest and local people who live near it like Claudine?
Bwak the Bantu poet has described ebony perfectly as, ‘growing in African soil and containing the African soul, with black wood that resembles a bright starless sky.’
This African soul of ebony should find heaven in increased utilization of ebony’s leaves as opposed to ebony wood. That will keep drawing Claudine to the forest and keep her father in the age-old business of healing wounds.