The Pygmies’ Plight

Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian Magazine, December 2008

Some 50 Pygmies of the Baka clan lead me single file through a steaming rain forest in Cameroon. Scrambling across tree trunks over streams, we hack through heavy undergrowth with machetes and cut away vinelike lianas hanging like curtains in our path. After two hours, we reach a small clearing beneath a hardwood tree canopy that almost blots out the sky.

For thousands of years Pygmies have lived in harmony with equatorial Africa’s magnificent jungles. They inhabit a narrow band of tropical rain forest about four degrees above and four degrees below the Equator, stretching from Cameroon’s Atlantic coast eastward to Lake Victoria in Uganda. With about 250,000 of them remaining, Pygmies are the largest group of hunter-gatherers left on earth. But they are under serious threat.

Over the past decade, I’ve visited Pygmy clans in several Congo Basin countries, witnessing the destruction of their traditional lifestyle by the Bantu, as taller Africans are widely known. On this trip, this past February, my companion is Manfred Mesumbe, a Cameroonian anthropologist and expert on Pygmy culture. “The Bantu governments have forced them to stop living in the rain forests, their culture’s bedrock,” he tells me. “Within a generation many of their unique traditional ways will be gone forever.”

The Baka clan members begin putting up beehive-shaped huts in the clearing, where we will spend the next few days. They chop saplings from among the trees and thrust the ends into the ground, bending them to form the frame of each hut. Then they weave bundles of green leaves into latticework to create a rainproof skin. None of the men stands higher than my shoulder (I’m 5-foot-7), and the women are smaller. As the Baka bring firewood to the camp, Mesumbe and I put up our small tent. Suddenly the Pygmies stir.

Three scowling Bantus brandishing machetes stride into the clearing. I fear that they’re bandits, common in this lawless place. I’m carrying my money in a bag strung around my neck, and news of strangers travels fast among the Bantu here. Mesumbe points to one of them, a stocky man with an angry look, and in a low voice tells me he is Joseph Bikono, chief of the Bantu village near where the government has forced the Pygmies to live by the roadside.

Bikono glares at me and then at the Pygmies. “Who gave you permission to leave your village?” he demands in French, which Mesumbe translates. “You Pygmies belong to me, you know that, and you must always do what I say, not what you want. I own you. Don’t ever forget it.”

Most of the Pygmies bow their heads, but one young man steps forward. It’s Jeantie Mutulu, one of the few Baka Pygmies who have gone to high school. Mutulu tells Bikono that the Baka have always obeyed him and have always left the forest for the village when he told them to do so. “But not now,” Mutulu announces. “Not ever again. From now on, we’ll do what we want.”

About half the Pygmies begin shouting at Bikono, but the other half remain silent. Bikono glowers at me. “You, le blanc,” he yells, meaning‚ “the white.” “Get out of the forest now.”

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I first encountered Pygmies a decade ago, when I visited the Dzanga-Sangha Reserve in the Central African Republic, an impoverished nation in the Congo Basin, on assignment for Reader’s Digest’s international editions. The park lies about 200 miles southwest of the national capital, Bangui, along a dirt road hacked through the jungle. In good weather, the journey from Bangui takes 15 hours. When the rains come, it can take days.

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Upon my return to the Central African Republic six years later, I found that Bayaka culture had collapsed. Wasse [a Pygmy hunter] and many of his friends had clearly become alcoholics, drinking a rotgut wine made from fermented palm sap. Outside their hut, Jandu sat with her three children, their stomachs bloated from malnutrition. A local doctor would tell me that Pygmy children typically suffer from many ailments, most commonly ear and chest infections caused by lack of protein. At Mossapola I saw many kids trying to walk on the edges of their soles or heels—trying not to put pressure on spots where chiggers, tiny bug larvae that thrive in the loose soil, had attached themselves.

Wasse gave me a wistful welcoming smile and then suggested we go to the nearby village of Bayanga for palm wine. It was midmorning. At the local bar, a tumbledown shack, several half-sozzled Bantu and Pygmy men greeted him warmly. When I asked when we could go hunting, Wasse sheepishly confided that he had sold his net and bow and arrows long ago. Many Pygmy men there had done the same to get money for palm wine, Bienvenu, my translator again on this trip, would tell me later.

So how do the children get meat to eat? Bienvenu shrugged. “They rarely get to eat meat anymore,” he said. “Wasse and Jandu earn a little money from odd jobs, but he mostly spends it on palm wine.” The family’s daily meals consist mostly of cassava root, which fills the stomach but doesn’t provide protein.

When I asked Wasse why he stopped hunting, he shrugged. “When you were here before, the jungle was full of animals,” he said. “But the Bantu poachers have plundered the jungle.”

Pygmy populations across the Congo Basin suffer “appalling socio-economic conditions and the lack of civil and land rights,” according to a recent study conducted for the London-based Rainforest Foundation. They have been pushed from their forests and forced into settlements on Bantu lands, the study says, by eviction from newly established national parks and other protected areas, extensive logging in Cameroon and Congo and continued warfare between government and rebel troops in Congo.

Time and again on this visit, I encountered tales of Bantu prejudice against Pygmies, even among the educated. On my first trip to Mossapola, I had asked Bienvenu if he’d marry a Pygmy woman. “Never,” he growled. “I’m not so stupid. They are bambinga, not truly humans, they have no civilization.”

This belief that Pygmies are less than human is common across equatorial Africa. They “are marginalized by the Bantu,” says David Greer, an American primatologist who lived with Pygmies in the Central Africa Republic for nearly a decade. “All the serious village or city leaders are Bantu, and they usually side with other Bantu” in any dispute involving Pygmies.

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I was surprised that the Pygmies were living so close to their traditional enemies. Mubiru Vincent, of Rural Welfare Improvement for Development, a nongovernmental organization that promotes Batwa welfare, later explained that this group’s displacement from the rain forest began in 1993, because of warfare between the Ugandan Army and a rebel group. His organization is now trying to resettle some of the Batwa on land they can farm.

About 30 Batwa sat dull-eyed outside their huts. The smallest adult Pygmy I’d ever seen strode toward me, introduced himself as Nzito and told me that he was “king of the Pygmies here.” This, too, surprised me; traditionally, Pygmy households are autonomous, though they cooperate on endeavors such as hunts. (Greer later said that villages usually must coerce individuals into leadership roles.)

Nzito said his people had lived in the rain forest until 1993, when Ugandan “President Museveni forced us from our forests and never gave us compensation or new land. He made us live next to the Bantu on borrowed land.”

His clan looked well fed, and Nzito said they regularly eat pork, fish and beef purchased from the nearby market. When I asked how they earn money, he led me to a field behind the huts. It was packed with scores of what looked like marijuana plants. “We use it ourselves and sell it to the Bantu,” Nzito said.

The sale and use of marijuana in Uganda is punishable with stiff prison terms, and yet “the police never bother us,” Nzito said. “We do what we want without their interference. I think they’re afraid we’ll cast magic spells on them.”

Government officials rarely bring charges against the Batwa generally “because they say they’re not like other people and so they’re not subject to the law,” Penninah Zaninka of the United Organisation for Batwa Development in Uganda, another nongovernmental group, told me later in a meeting in Kampala, the national capital. However, Mubiru Vincent said his group is working to prevent marijuana cultivation.

Because national parks were established in the forests where Nzito and his people used to reside, they cannot live there. “We’re training the Batwa how to involve themselves in the nation’s political and socioeconomic affairs,” Zaninka said, “and basic matters such as hygiene, nutrition, how to get ID cards, grow crops, vote, cook Bantu food, save money and for their children to go to school.”

In other words, to become little Bantu, I suggested. Zaninka nodded. “Yes, it’s terrible,” she said, “but it’s the only way they can survive.”

The Pygmies also face diseases ranging from malaria and cholera to Ebola, the often fatal virus that causes uncontrollable bleeding from every orifice. While I was with the Batwa, an outbreak of the disease in nearby villages killed more than three dozen people. When I asked Nzito if he knew that people nearby were dying of Ebola, he shook his head. “What’s Ebola?” he asked.

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