In the fall of 2009, I was traveling in the Central African Republic to report on a protected rainforest area, when by chance I heard about a white man who was said to have been living among the Bayaka pygmies for decades. He was a strange man, I was told. He had burned all his bridges and definitely wouldn’t want to talk with me. A couple of days later, I was standing in a clearing, when suddenly, Bayaka pygmies streamed toward me from all directions. They had tightly curled hair and wore ragged clothing, and the children were naked. Short men shouted at me, brandishing their spears, as women with tattooed faces and sharply filed incisors tugged at my shirt.
The forest smelled of smoke and sweat. It was hot, and flies were everywhere. A tall figure appeared from out of the underbrush: a white man, two heads taller than the others, holding a baby in each arm. The legend himself was standing before me: the first white man to be accepted by the Bayaka and adopted into their tribe of hunters and gatherers. A man who, in his first life, went to college with American filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and then disappeared, a lost soul who was reborn in the African jungle. The man spent weeks eating nothing but tadpoles, married a Bayaka woman, fathered a son, survived malaria, typhus, and leprosy, and recorded a thousand hours of unique Pygmy songs. The man standing before me was the musical Herodotus of the central African forests, the White Pygmy himself: Louis Sarno.
His gaze was sharp, cutting straight through me. I had come unannounced. But something happened when Louis and I clasped hands. We sat in his hut until late that night, talking aimlessly. The next morning, he invited me to go hunting with him and the Bayaka in the rainforest for a couple of days. I accepted, and on the trip, I got to know the “White Pygmy,” his son, Samedi, and the Bayaka in their element: an ancient-seeming world of hunters and gatherers. I was soon enthralled by that world, and by Louis Sarno, who had bridged the gap between two cultures that couldn’t be farther apart.
Back in the camp where the Bayaka live when they are not hunting, I was struck by one scene in particular: father and son in their wood shed, nestled in the jungle; the tamped earth floor, the bed made of bamboo stems; no running water, no electricity, no TV, no phone. Louis sits, torso bare, at a wobbly table and twists the knob on his transistor radio by the light of a hurricane lantern. No voice, no music. Just the hiss and hum of the ether.
Lost in thought, Louis keeps turning the knob, while his son nestles up against him on his side, an arm draped around him. Samedi’s intimate gesture isn’t entirely clear: is he holding on to his father or supporting him? Motionless and silent, the boy looks at the radio, as if he hopes its tarnished surface will reveal what kind of distant voices his father is listening for. This image stays with me, encapsulating all of the beauty of the story of Louis and Samedi, its poetry, but also its dissonance.
One night, when I ask Louis about his father, he says only, “He’s dead,” and then falls into a deep silence. I don’t trust myself to break it. Louis doesn’t say a word for the rest of the evening. He seems to have drifted away from his body, sitting completely motionless for a long time. Then he returns to the present. On another occasion, Louis says, out of the blue, “He wanted to make a doctor out of me. He thought my interests in music and nature were just a waste of time.” His father was a math teacher, he tells me, of Italian extraction.
To me—a person without a real home, driven from place to place, a collector of stories who has spent the past 20 years traveling to the most remote corners of the Earth —Louis Sarno is the most fascinating person I have ever encountered. He took a radical leap, accomplishing what I often imagine myself doing when I am on the road: leaving it all behind, starting over, becoming someone else.
But there’s something else that connects me to Louis Sarno: the hum of the ether. Like him, I sometimes twist the knob on the radio and imagine it will produce a voice—my late father’s. It wasn’t until decades after my father’s death that I came to see it as an opportunity to critically examine his life, and appreciate him from a new perspective.
In Peter Härtling’s novel Nachgetragene Liebe, the narrator says, “I was there, Father. I looked out the window of the barracks where you lay sick. I looked out over the black earth, churned up by grenades, hemmed in by forest. It was twenty-five years later.”
Nearly a year after my first encounter with Louis, I received word from the rainforest that he was planning to travel to New York with Samedi. The boy had been begging his father to show him America for years: he wanted to know where his father is from. In the summer of 2010, I set off to meet them in Manhattan. But when I arrived, Louis was waiting by himself. Samedi had been denied a visa to enter the United States.
I spent weeks with Louis. He talked about his son the entire time. He missed Samedi terribly. He observed everything in America through his son’s eyes. He imagined how Samedi would view the urban canyons of Manhattan, the neon signs, the popcorn seller, the petite black woman with the colorful balloons, and the ocean. As we were driving by a cemetery, I asked Louis if he would also take Samedi to visit his father. He said, “My father is dead,” and not a single word after that.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Louis’s story. I shared it with a friend, producer Alex Tondowski, and together we managed to get Samedi’s entry visa to the United States. In the meantime, Louis has been told he is severely ill. The diagnosis is Hepatitis B and C, terminal stage. His time is running out. Yet he will take his son by the hand and lead him to the world he left behind. He will take him to America.
In making this pilgrimage, Samedi will follow in his father’s footsteps. Like Louis so many years ago, Samedi is setting off into the unknown—just in the opposite direction.
Samedi will not only be exploring a foreign land, he will be traversing his father’s past. Will Samedi help Louis make peace with his late father? With his homeland? Via a circuitous path that took a quarter-century to trace, from America to the central African rainforest and back, past and future will meet this fall in New York. Louis will need his son to help guide him the rest of the way. Will Samedi rise to the challenge or will he need to carve his own path?
With these questions in hand, I am once again preparing to travel: with Louis and Samedi, with father and son, with my film crew, with Louis Sarno’s history, and, of course, with my own.