Just after the season's first rain I laced up my brown, dusty tennis shoes and left the town of M'Baiki behind me as I ran up the laterite road into the rain forest of the Central African Republic. It was late afternoon and the road was crowded with men and women returning to town from their fields. Some of them carried bananas, some oranges, others manioc or firewood or full pans of water balanced precariously on their heads. I was in M'Baiki as a Peace Corps volunteer to teach English to African students in the local high school, and I knew the country and its people fairly well.
I ran uphill, forcing a tired smile for those who were watching. It was humid and I was out of shape, but I'd always loved to run in the rain; now that the rainy season had come again, I was excited. Six months of toiling through dry, dusty weather was behind me.
I passed the last mud-brick dwellings of the village and entered the forest, following a narrow path. The myriad forest sounds somehow made the going easier—the cackling of strange birds, the squealing of monkeys and the rhythmic hacking of machetes into wood. And then I heard laughter.
In drawing closer to the sound, I rounded a sharp bend, looked up, blinked, then rubbed my eyes and looked again. I had come upon a pygmy village. Though no one was in sight, I could tell who lived in the settlement by the rounded leaf huts that looked like miniature igloos. The entrances to the huts were so small that I would have had to crawl on all fours to get through one of them. I also knew that pygmies were nomadic hunters who ordinarily live deep in the rain forest, so this had to be a temporary settlement. They would hunt enough to sustain themselves here while acquiring pots, pans and tobacco in the village, but they wouldn't stay this close to civilization any longer than was necessary.
I heard more laughter and singing, and finally I saw the pygmies: women pounding manioc in huge mortars; men sharpening spears and repairing hunting nets; children chasing one another in games. They saw me, too, and were silent for just a moment before they began cheering.
Whether you are running in the New York Marathon or in the African bush, cheering helps, and I picked up my pace. Then two men started after me and, though I was going at as fast a pace as I could handle, they caught up with me easily.
With a pygmy on each side I started up a long hill out of the settlement. Neither of them said a word, but the crowd started to cheer louder and also erupted with some of the loudest laughter I've ever heard. When I looked back, I saw that some of the villagers were actually holding their sides while others were rolling on the ground. I looked at my two companions and saw that they were smiling shyly. I supposed they weren't yet sure whether I shared the general mood of hilarity. I did, so I smiled back, and the three of us ran off into the forest.
These were rugged little men. Though a good head and a half shorter than I (I'm 5'10"), they were powerfully built, and they were runners. It made sense that they should be, because they spend their lives pursuing game and going mile after mile in search of new hunting areas. Their hunting technique calls for a great deal of running in extraordinarily difficult conditions. The pygmies set up huge nets in the forest, and while several of their number hide behind the nets, the rest run for miles through the bush scaring up small game and chasing it to the nets. Those who lie in wait kill the animals with spears or poison arrows shot from crossbows. The run I was straining through with these two was, for them, nothing more than an easy warmup.
They were barefoot, but that didn't matter to them in the least, even though the trail was strewn with jagged rocks. It was an inspiration to see them floating along; soon I forgot my own fatigue. We were running at a much faster pace than I could ever have held alone. Whenever I turned to look at one of my partners, all I saw, besides an effortless stride, was a wide, happy smile, revealing sharply pointed teeth that were darkly stained by tobacco and berries.
They could have run circles around me if they'd cared to, a fact they knew as well as I, but they wanted companionship, not competition. They were so anxious to make this clear that when I spit, they spit. When I cleared my throat, they did, too, and when my breathing became labored—and it became very labored—they pretended that theirs was, too.