The boy lay stretched out on a low wooden platform under an orange tree. His father sat on a stool beside him, bending forward, chanting at the top of his voice, over and over again, ‘I’ve lost my child. My poor son. My son is dead.’ Twenty or so women, sitting on mats behind him, rocked back and forth, wailing in chorus.

I squatted nearby on the roots of a mango tree. I was with the principal companion of my journey through the forests of the northern Congo, Doctor Marcellin Agnagna, the Cuban-educated head of the Ministry for the Conservation of Fauna and Flora, and two of his young nephews: Nzé, our cook, whose left eye, in moments of relaxation, pointed to the sky while his right one was focused on the ground, and Manou, too weakened by attacks of malaria to be much more than my quiet informant. Djéké was by far the largest, best ordered, most advanced village I had seen in three months of travel: you could walk for almost two kilometres through its plantations of manioc and bananas, cacao and plantains; it even had a little shop. And having bought coffee and sugar for the mourners, a goat for the father and a winding-sheet for the corpse, I felt I had a right to ask a question.

‘What happened?’

Los Angeles