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Batéké village

By Adriaan Bronkhorst

I was a young, Dutch development aid worker with the UN, son of a professor of Presbyterian theology, lawyer by training and smoking a cannabis-filled peace pipe with a tribe in the Congo – a people who consider cannabis sacred, and who communicate with its’ help with the spirits of their departed relatives and with their gods. The chief of the tribe asked me to convey to UN chief Kurt Waldheim an invitation to visit the tribe and smoke with his people for peace.
It all began in Free Brazza.

The People’s Republic of Congo-Brazzaville
"Brazza Libre" ("Free Brazza"). Located on the northern bank of the Congo River, Brazzaville was the capital city of the People's Republic of Congo, a country founded on Marxist ideology. 
Brazza was formerly a French colony. Until its independence in 1960, it had been the capital of French Equatorial Africa (AEF). And, back during WWII, of Free France ("La France Libre”), where General de Gaulle made his 1941 appeal to his French compatriots to combat the illegal Vichy authorities who were collaborating with the German occupying forces. Brazza was also where de Gaulle's right-hand man, Félix Eboué – who became the highest ranking black official in the colonial administration – had been appointed Governor General of the AEF, after Eboué had sided with de Gaulle during the conflict. 
From the heart of Africa, Eboué organized troops consisting of colonized Africans for the Free French army. At the same time, he orchestrated a shift in colonial policy from assimilation to "négritude": the involvement of traditional tribal chiefs into the local government, and respect for the manners and customs of the indigenous, black population.

French president Charles De Gaulle in Brazzaville, Congo - 1958

Cannabis use appeared to be one of those customs. In the 1970s, a War on Drugs was taking place throughout the world – something they were aware of in Brazza. But there wasn't a strong desire in Brazza to participate in the conflict. On the contrary, cannabis use in particular was still widespread among the general population, even though officials and politicians walked around like Marxist intellectuals, drinking whiskey in order to display their worldliness and the growing status of their young country. 

Because of the country's diplomatic break with Uncle Sam, there was no DEA – or any other types of fundamentalist decency entrepreneurs – in Brazzaville, and at the surface, the social climate breathed freely with tolerance and diversity.
For the multitude of ethnic groups within its national borders, this newly independent country was trying to find its very own, African model of a nationalized economy.
In this climate of revolutionary fervor, I was involved in a project at the National School for Administration – the training institute for senior civil servants – which was assisting with the reorganization of the government. In my capacity there, I traveled throughout the country, conducting a national survey on what types of education and training civil servants and government employees would need in order to transform the colonial civil service into a ‘development administration’.

The Nsa Batéké village
On my first trip, I traveled to Djambala, capital of the Plateaux Region, located 350 kilometers northwest of Brazza. It was mid-rainy season and the dirt road was a series of long, muddy pools. Our government land rover maneuvered quite smoothly, but we had to stop regularly because of stranded trucks and pickups that barred the way. Working together, we would pull those cars out of the mud – and then everyone drove on towards the next, muddy pool. At the end of the second day, already after dusk and 70 kilometers before reaching Djambala, the driver, Auguste, stopped in Nsa, a village along the road, where we spent the night.
We went to the central “paillotte”, a large, oval open hut with a thatched roof, where the village population gathered for communal activities in the evening. About a hundred men were eating in a ring of interlocked tables. Women were circling around behind them, serving food and drinks, and waiting in small groups beside the support poles of the hut, in between their duties at the tables. Outside, children played. They ran around between the huts behind them, disappearing from sight in the darkness, before running back, loudly shouting and laughing. It was an infectiously-cheerful atmosphere.
Auguste immediately made a beeline towards the chief, the village head, seated in a wide, old chair with armrests and a high back. It was a throne compared to the other seats and benches. In Tio, the Batéké language, Auguste told the chief that we were on a government mission, and that for the representative of the UN present – he pointed at me – a proper reception was called for.

The chief – a thoughtful, skinny man with short gray beard and frizzy hair – nodded in agreement, commanding the man to his left to move over, and invited me to the table. Before I sat down, I introduced myself. The chief replied that fate was proving favorable to the village, since such an important person was visiting. Then he made a sign with the staff in his right hand, whereupon all conversations stopped, and the chief informed his people of the joyful news. The chief thanked the spirits of all the living and all the dead for my presence and said that my visit should be celebrated in a spirit of friendship between our peoples.
Auguste, who was translating, told me that we would soon be smoking the peace pipe. He gave me a wink and said that it would be best for me to eat heartily, so that I wouldn't give them the impression that I didn't appreciate their hospitality.
So, I allowed myself to be pampered by the women, who came along with manioc, peanut sauce, and pieces of roasted goat, monkey, and boa, as well as fresh palm beer pressed that same morning. I received encouragements to keep eating. Meanwhile, through Auguste's translation, the chief and I exchanged stories about our lives. We expressed empathy as we told each other about hardships we'd suffered, and we saluted each other's victories. It was proving to be an excellent experience. 

Batéké men smoking cannabis pipe
Then, our host raised his staff for the ceremony to begin. His wife brought the peace pipe and solemnly handed it to her husband. The pipe was about a meter-long. It was a thin, rusted, metal tube with a large ovoid head of mahogany. From a raffia bag, my host took out some dried, cannabis-flower tops and kneaded them with his thumb into the hollow of his right hand, forming a ball. He put the cannabis into the pipe head. Then, he got up and, while holding the pipe up with both hands, he spoke to his people.

The world versus. the village
Meanwhile, I feverishly asked myself what I ought to do when that cannabis-filled peace pipe made its way to me. I had smoked cannabis before, but it hadn't been a pleasant experience. It had made me very drowsy and had impaired my equilibrium, forcing me to sit on the floor, giving me moreover a tremendous headache. It wasn't a welcome prospect having to repeat something like that again – this time moreover in a public setting, while acting as a representative for the UN.
I tried to recall the advice they had given us during the special briefing session called “Respect for Local Practices” within our preparation course. For instance, don't wear shorts if the host doesn't wear them. Don't greet people who weren't introduced to you by the host. Refuse food only if it was obvious that it was spoiled and that you might get sick from it. We received lists of advice – but what to do about a cannabis-filled peace pipe hadn't been mentioned. When in doubt, it was advised to stick to the general rule at all costs: avoid insulting the host.
But was that a license to break our own UN drug treaties? Should I mention in my upcoming mission report that I had smoked cannabis with village elders in order to promote good relations between the UN and the Batéké people of Nsa? Our briefings hadn't provided any clue whatsoever about what to do when faced with a conflict between international law and the customary law of Nsa. I was in a quandary.

Batéké masks

The chief delivered his message of peace, as Auguste translated the gist of it to me. "Our people of the Batéké are a good people,” the chief had said. “We strive for order and progress under the leadership of our president, Comrade Marien Ngouabi – and with the help of Nkoué-Mbali, the great spirit which acts as a channel between our Batéké Empire and the gods, and which mediates peace between the spirits of the living and the dead, between the visible and the invisible worlds. Today, a representative of the United Nations came to Nsa to celebrate friendship and peace with the Batéké. He brings wishes for peace and prosperity from the chief of the spirits of all living and all dead, the invisible Kurt Waldheim in America. We will now smoke the peace pipe, in order to join together the spirits of all Batéké and all white men, and to experience peace between us.” Then, my new friend lit the pipe, took a few long draws. And handed it solemnly to me.

Everyone present had listened to the chief's speech in complete silence, and they now turned their full attention to me. It seemed that by a simple pull of that pipe, I could bring about peace on earth.
Of course, I would smoke the peace pipe. It was no longer a problem in my mind. I found inspiration in the pitch-black night around us, in my locale's unspoiled nature. I saw that, according to Félix Eboué, natural law allowed me to push international law aside, in order to give peace a chance.
I wanted to reply to the chief, but Auguste told me that I shouldn't give a speech, that I should smoke instead, so that the pipe wouldn't die out.
So, I put the pipe up to my mouth, to take a pull – a small one, so that I wouldn't be overwhelmed. Unfortunately, due to the fact that a big ball of cannabis was burning in the metal pipe, the handle had become too hot for me to hold, and, with a cry of pain, I dropped the pipe onto the table.

A memory of drugs peace almost erased
My clumsy maneuver caused a stir. There were cries that I didn't understand and there was laughter – a group of women giggled the loudest. I was unable to hide my shame, and the chief exhausted himself issuing apologies for his rashness, for having handed me the hot pipe. In the meantime, he picked up the burning cannabis that had fallen on the table and put it back in the pipe.
I had to straighten out the situation. I stood up and spoke. I said, "My dear Batéké friends, please allow me to apologize for my awkwardness. Many beginnings are difficult, and today it is the first time that I represent the United Nations of the world. For peace, however, no effort is too great, and because you want me to do so, I ask your chief to help me smoke the peace pipe.”
That was well said, I told myself with relief – and the people apparently agreed. There was applause and the chief immediately got up, took the pipe, placed it between my lips and held it there. Firmly.
I took a small drag off the pipe, and then realized that I couldn't just exhale a tiny puff. I had to continue smoking, since the encouragements from my new friends left no room for a fake gesture. So, I sucked and sucked until my lungs were full. An electric-like shock shot through my spine and held me tight; my breathing had stopped. The smoke was trapped inside me. I began coughing miserably. The village head passed the pipe to someone else and began slapping my back to help me get the smoke out. Snot and vomit came out too, and I cried with both impotence and relief.

With a downcast face, I grabbed the roll of toilet paper that had been handed to me, and I began to clean myself up. What a filthy, little fellow I was! Clearly, I had made a mess of the ceremony, I thought, and they weren't going to offer the peace pipe to me, ever again. My hosts would certainly torment me, I told myself. Shyly, I looked up at the men around the tables, feeling utterly helpless. Humiliated. Ashamed.
My hosts had been waiting for this moment, because everyone present burst simultaneously into loud cheering. The peace mission had been successful, because the stranger had really smoked, they had clearly witnessed it! There would now be peace between all nations of the world and the Batéké of Nsa, between the living and the dead. And in order to immediately inform the latter of the good news – to share the tribe's happiness with their ancestors – pipes now appeared at all the tables. The men smoked in order to celebrate our peace – and in order to prepare themselves for the upcoming hours of barefoot dancing that was about to take place in the paillote hut, their joyful communication with their forebears under the ground. With a weight removed from my mind, peace overcame me too, and I danced with the people of Nsa, with the living and dead, until well into the night.

Just before our departure for Djambala the next morning, people came out to wish us goodbye. They displayed respect for the young UN representative who had accepted their peace pipe offering.
Before leaving, I shared words which I hadn’t been able to convey to them the previous evening.
“Dear friends,” I began, “yesterday you invited me to smoke the peace pipe with you. That was a magnificent gesture. I am glad that we celebrated peace together. I am also grateful that you are honoring the tradition of smoking the peace pipe. Recently, it wasn't certain whether this tradition would be allowed to continue here, because others in the world have declared war on your peace pipe. Thanks to Félix Eboué, who stood up for your tradition, we were able to smoke the peace pipe. Merci, monsieur Félix. Back in Brazzaville, I will convey your chief's message of peace to our lead representative for the UN. Thanks to you, especially, chief, my dear friend."
Once back in Brazzaville, I met with the UN Development Program Resident Representative. I briefed him in detail about the Nsa meeting. This competent and amiable civil servant listened carefully to my account – for which he earnestly thanked me.
But, equally, he told me that he wouldn’t accept my written mission report if it related these details of my meeting, since he was sure that UN rules overruled the Nsa's unwritten customs, and that no good would come from including that part in my narrative for the organization

And, so, censored by the UN, I left the Nsa Drugs Peace offer out of official memory.
But when I think about Drugs Peace, I happily think about my friend the chief of Nsa, and respectfully convey after all these years, his cannabic peace message.