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.
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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."
The earliest known reference to a Pygmy—a "dancing dwarf of the god from the land of spirits"—is found in a letter written around 2276 B.C. by Pharaoh Pepi II to the leader of an Egyptian trade expedition up the Nile. In the Iliad, Homer invoked mythical warfare between Pygmies and a flock of cranes to describe the intensity of a charge by the Trojan army. In the fifth century B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus wrote of a Persian explorer who saw "dwarfish people, who used clothing made from the palm tree" at a spot along the West African coast.
More than two millennia passed before the French-American explorer Paul du Chaillu published the first modern account of Pygmies. "[T]heir eyes had an untameable wildness about them that struck me as very remarkable," he wrote in 1867. In In Darkest Africa, published in 1890, the explorer Henry Stanley wrote of meeting a Pygmy couple ("In him was a mimicked dignity, as of Adam; in her the womanliness of a miniature Eve"). In 1904, several Pygmies were brought to live in the anthropology exhibit at the St. Louis World's Fair. Two years later, a Congo Pygmy named Ota Benga was housed temporarily at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City—and then exhibited, briefly and controversially, at the Bronx Zoo.