Extreme Tribe The Last Pygmies

Extreme Tribe: The Last Pygmies: Interview with Livia Simoka

Category: Interview

Explain a bit about your new series. What’s the idea?

I’ve worked on anthropology-type programmes for years. I’ve spent time with indigenous people all over the world. Then, a couple of years ago, I was in Siberia for The Return of the Woolly Mammoth, shooting the technical taster tape out there. I appeared in front of the camera, and Jay Hunt (former Channel 4, Chief Creative Officer) saw it and said “Oh, Liv’s good in front of the camera, shall we see if she’s interested in presenting something?” The thing that I’ve always been really passionate about is indigenous cultures and tribes, and up until now, I think that whole adventure and anthropology genre is quite male dominated. It’s predominantly white, middle-aged, middle class ex-army men, who are fantastic at what they do, but there aren’t enough women in that field. And I’ve often felt that tribeswomen aren’t really given that much screen time as a result, and they do have some amazing stories to tell. They’re some of the toughest people out there. Bruce Parry, from Tribe, has always been my hero, so I’ve always wanted to remake that series, but from a female point of view. But in order to make it different, I thought we should focus on one tribe for the entire series, and really spend a long time there, to peel back the layers and become part of the community and immerse myself in one family, and explore their community.

How did you come to choose the Mbendjele to feature in the series?

I’d heard about them about five years ago when I was researching [Channel 4's Bafta-nominated series] The Tribe, and trying to work out which tribe we were going to make the series about. And I was having loads of meetings with different anthropologists, and there was one guy, Jerome Lewis, from UCL, who knew loads about the Hamar [the community featured in The Tribe] and also about the Mbendjele. I became really, really fascinated with them, the fact that they’re this last pocket of hunter-gatherers still living a sustainable way of life. And their whole concept of an egalitarian society, and they’re so cut-off from the rest of the world, which is so rare now. So for me it was a bit of a no-brainer. I knew straightaway where I wanted to go. We explored different tribes as part of the process, but we kept coming back to the Mbendjele.

Why do you think they agreed to it?

When we first went there, I went with another anthropologist who made the introduction, and over the course of six years she’s spent huge chunks of time in that community and made a lot of friends. She said she would introduce me to them, that they were incredibly friendly and would love to share their stories, as well as finding out about our way of life. So she made the introduction to that village. I went there for the very first time last June, and I got the whole village together and explained what I wanted to do, and that I’d love to come and live with them and learn from them. And they were all really excited about the idea, because they really enjoy telling people about their way of life – especially the older generation, who have seen changes happening. They’re an incredibly social people – they love to party and to chat. Actually, in terms of work hours, they don’t work that much. The hunting and gathering is about five-hours-a-day, which compared to our working day is a lot less. So it gives them so much more time to gossip and to chat and to socialise.  Everyone in the village knows each other, so whenever there’s a newcomer, you’re the attraction and they want to find out all about you and your way of life.

Did they ask you a lot about your way of life, then?

They asked loads, and what was really interesting was explaining to someone who has never heard of a car or seen the underground or a skyscraper just what our way of life is like. It’s quite hard for them to understand that. But just as there are a few things about their way of life that we find quite shocking, like the teeth-sharpening, or their attitude to domestic violence, the thing that they found the most horrifying about our society was that we burn some of our dead bodies. They thought that was the most horrendous, shocking thing they’d ever heard. They said they could never visit a country where they burned dead bodies. They believe it’s like burning the soul. They believe in putting the bodies back into the earth so the souls can join the forest spirits. Another thing they find shocking is the idea that some people die alone in our society. They couldn’t understand why people would be left on their own at a time like that.

You were there for five months, spread over a year – how long did you go for at a time?

I did three two-month chunks, but because it takes so long to get there and back, the time on the ground in the village equated to five months. I did the recce in July, then the first block was August-September, then I came home in October because that was the worst of the rainy season when no-one does anything. Then I went back for November-December, came back for a couple of weeks at Christmas, and then went back out January-February.

You’ve touched on the importance of having a woman presenting a show like this. Do you think you get a very different perspective, as a woman?

Yeah, I think you do. As a woman, it allows you to have certain conversations with the women that a man might not be able to have. When you’re there for such a long time, these people really turn into your friends. You start to gossip and to have a little bitch, you start to chat about boys and about sex. All the things you’d talk to your mates about at home. So the conversation in episode two about oral sex, that was part of a lengthy conversation about sex in general. And another bit that didn’t make it in was when we talked about periods. I asked them what they did, because obviously there’s no sanitaryware out there. And we talked about kissing on the lips. A male adventurer asking these questions might be a bit uncomfortable, whereas a woman-to-woman conversation between friends is just a lot more natural.

You got stuck in with all the food. What was your diet like? And what did you do about water?

So water was the thing we had to be most careful about. The Mbendjele drink the water straight out of the well, they don’t do anything to it. But they’ve been doing that since they were babies. If I went and did that, I’d have been very ill very quickly. So we [the crew] got that water from the well and filtered it twice through one of those lifesaver water filtration systems. It was warm – there was no such thing as ice – and water was all we drank. But it was filtered so that it was clean enough for us to drink. In terms of the food, on the first block I was really, really pure about it, and just ate what the tribe ate, and I struggled with that quite a lot. Their eating pattern is so different to mine. They might wake up at 5am and your first meal might not happen until 2pm. And then they’d just have a little snack, and a proper meal at night. I really struggled with it, the first block was definitely the toughest. By the second block, now and again, if I was hungry, I’d substitute some of the food, especially with some porridge first thing in the morning, so that I’d have enough energy to get on with the day. But their diet is incredibly clean, there’s no sugar apart from natural sugar in honey and fruit, no additives, no plastic, and it’s as fresh as can be. And it’s almost a vegan diet, they have meat once or possibly twice-a-week, the rest is tubers, leaves. There’s a bit of fish as well. But it’s a clean, healthy diet. That’s why they’ve got such incredible physiques. Even Papa, who I was staying with, who is in his 60s, is nothing but muscle.

How much of the language did you learn?

I’m not too bad with languages anyway, and from the development stage of the project, I was talking to a lot of anthropologists, and one of them in particular was fluent in it, and she worked with me, and created a little dictionary. So I started to learn some words while I was still back at home, so I could greet people on arrival. The rest of the time, because I spent so much time on my own, without translators around, it was just a matter of picking it up as I went along, with me making notes and correcting myself, and them taking the piss out of me quite a lot of the time.

There were some tense moments, particularly with the Bantu villagers. Can you talk about that?

Yeah, the Bantu relationship is obviously something that I’d known about before I went into this, and I’d researched it. It was definitely an area that I wanted to cover, but I knew that it would be quite a delicate subject – people are naturally cautious talking about it. It’s such a complex relationship. So when an argument broke out [between one of the Mbendjele and one of the Bantu people] this whole storyline just exploded in front of us, and we were able to capture it. It’s a very delicate relationship, and they’ve never really known any different, but the Mbendjele know it’s not the way they should be treated.

Were you ever scared?

No, I wasn’t. I felt really protected by the community, I knew there was no way they’d ever have let anything happen to me. There were a couple of hairy moments. I was disturbed when a couple of the Mbendjele were having the fight with burning logs outside the hut in the middle of the night. I was woken in the middle of the night, I didn’t quite l know what was going on, I couldn’t keep up with the language, but I was out of the front door and there were embers flying everywhere. I was worried about what would happen if one of the embers hit the dry roof, with all the kids in the house. That was the only night that I went and slept in one of the production team tents.

What were the hardest aspects of being there?

I’d say the sleep deprivation, that was very tough. In the first block I struggled with not enough food, and if you’re not sleeping and not eating properly, you just get quite emotional. I go emotional at a few points on the film. But I didn’t struggle at all with not having my phone or not being able to talk to people, being grubby and not being able to shower, going to the toilet in a hole. None of that bothered me.

The sleep deprivation was partly caused by the odd hours the Mbendjele lead, wasn’t it?

Yeah. They don’t really have set work hours, so they can really do whatever they want, whenever they want. Because their quite egalitarian, there’s no hierarchy as such. You do answer to your parents a bit, but you don’t really have to. So if the kids or young adults want to stay up during the night and chat, nobody will ever tell them to go to bed. They don’t have school to go to, they don’t have work to go to, other than foraging for food. That was definitely quite a challenge. I really need my sleep.

What were your best and worst moments out there?

There was a moment that’s not in the programme, sadly, where I climbed a tiny, rather pathetic papaya tree, with the family pushing me up. I had mama underneath me, pushing my bum up this tiny papaya tree, and everyone cheering as I finally managed to get a papaya. It felt like I’d summited a mountain. It was a really beautiful moment. The low light was the baby monkey, when we went out hunting, and they killed a monkey only to discover that it had a baby clinging to it. And the baby died a few days later. It got eaten by ants. I found that really hard to deal with and really, really shocking. I tried to take the emotion out of it, but it was really hard.

Do you miss them?

Absolutely. And of course there’s no phone, you can’t write to them, you can’t really send a message easily. If it didn’t take five days to get there, I’d love to pop round for a weekend. I think about them every day.

Do you think you’ll ever see them again?

The idea of never seeing them again is really sad. I’ve often thought of what a reunion would be like. Their semi-nomadic, people disappear off all the time, and never really say when they’re going to return. And when they do return, some of the reunions I saw were really, really sweet. So I’d love to see them again. Whether I do, who knows? What happens next year when the road arrives, whether everyone’s dispersed, whether I’d even be able to find them again, I don’t know.