You could call him “the last of the Saramaka”, though in fact he is better known by the name of Papa Taki, and the final survivor of a period when the Approuague was peopled by the Saramaka. During the great Rosewood period there were nearly 400 of them living on the banks of the Approuague and only 4 women, as the old man remembers.

He is now over ninety years old and the only person living for dozens of kilometres in any direction. He lives on the middle Approuague near the Petit Machikou sault, and recently built himself a hut out of wood and leaves with a beaten earth floor.

It was thanks to the help of his friend Narcisse, who also brings in his supplies, that we were able to join him in his camp 6 hours from Régina by pirogue. We spent the day talking around the fire with the song of the capuchinbirds and toucans in the background, accompanied by the cries of red-faced spider monkeys and howler monkeys. We’d be tempted to say it was quite an adventure – but for Papa Taki its his daily life. A life made up of many rituals carried out with all the nonchalance that comes from years of repetition – cutting the wood, feeding the fire, collecting water from the creek, fishing, and preparing the dried fish.

Originally he is from the Saramaca river in Suriname, but left the region in the 1930s together with his father to come and work in French Guiana. They arrived by boat in Cayenne but did not stay there. At that time the trade in rosewood essence was flourishing in the region of the Approuague and that is where they decided to go and settle. He has lived there ever since.

He knows the river like the back of his hand, having travelled along it in pirogue in every season and whatever the weather. Papa Taki used to have to use a paddle to go up and down the river, and it took on average 15 days to get from Régina to the Grand Machikou sault. As a takarist he used to be at the head of 3 pirogues transporting the barrels of rosewood essence from the processing factories near where the trees were on the upper Approuague in the vicinity of Régina. He used to transport rosewood for the family-owned Laigné company in Régina. The highly prized essence was then transported to mainland France. At that time rosewood was the jewel in the economic crown of French Guiana. It was thanks to the work of the Saramaka and their excellent knowledge of the forest and trees that forestry developed in this region of French Guiana.

The 1939-45 war is a period Papa Taki still remembers as one of isolation and difficulty in getting supplies. It is still an important chronological marker for him, as it is for some of the older inhabitants of Normandy in France. The people in the region used to get their supplies from Brazil. This led to trade between Régina and the region of Amapá. The old man remembers the trade with Brazil in beef, coffee, and a sort of roasted flour called kuaka, in exchange for whisky imported from the old continent. It is not for nothing that back in Régina they call him the walking history book of the Approuague.

After the decline of the rosewood industry in the 1960s, Papa Taki worked as a pirogue helmsman for the gold miners. On several occasions he too was tempted to look for gold, always using traditional panning methods.

As a solitary individual he has always preferred living on his own. Even when his brother Assekendé and his cousin the “Dutch doctor” lived nearby on the river he preferred to withdraw to his camp and be alone in his world. A world peopled by spirits and beliefs. Some people are afraid of him because of his ability to communicate with the spirits, fearing the evil powers he is said to possess. Others feel that he owes his strength and health to the privileged relationship he has built up with nature and the spirit of the forest. Whatever the reason, his strength and determination are certainly impressive. His explanation of it is revelatory of his way of apprehending life, both so obvious and so far removed from the society in which we live: “in any case, I have all the time in the world, Régina won’t move, I will get there, today or tomorrow”.

Until recently living on his own off his fishing, hunting, and gathering was not a problem for this hermit of the Approuague. He was also renowned for his pirogues that he made entirely by hand from tree trunks. As someone who is able to create a pirogue single-handed, from cutting down the tree to the final finishing, he has always regarded it as sacrilegious to get into an aluminium pirogue. Despite his advanced years he recently started building a dugout pirogue nearly 15 metres in length. Today he takes advantage of the fact that Narcisse is there to start working on a kopi trunk, a piece of wood five metres long. He will start by digging it out before opening it and shaping it using fire until he gets a pirogue in pure Saramaka tradition. He intends to go up the Approuague in it. It will take him ten or so days paddling to reach the sault* where he intends to find gold. In Régina they say he knows where all the gold deposits on the Approuague are, but he is keeping it a well guarded secret for the day when, having completed his pirogue, he will finally make his dream come true.

Thanks to Narcisse, Mérine & K. Vulpilla