The Pygmies' Plight

A correspondent who chronicled their lives in central African rain forests returns a decade later and is shocked by what he finds

Equatorial Africa's rain forests have sustained Pygmies for millennia. Now other peoples are competing for the forests' resources, displacing the Pygmies. (Paul Raffaele)
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Just last year, the Congo Republic organized a festival of pan-African music in the capital, Brazzaville. Other participants were put up in the city's hotels, but the organizers housed the 22 Pygmy performers in tents at the local zoo.

The word "Pygmy" comes from the Greek for "dwarfish," but Pygmies differ from dwarfs in that their limbs are conventionally proportioned. Beginning in 1967, an Italian geneticist, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, spent five winters measuring Pygmies in equatorial Africa. He found those in the Ituri forest, in Congo, to be the smallest, with men averaging 4 feet 9 inches in height and women about three inches less. Researchers are trying to determine why Pygmies have evolved to be so diminutive.

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.

We arrived at a village called Mossapola—20 beehive huts—shortly before dawn. Pygmy women in tattered sarongs squatted around several fires as they warmed water and cooked cassava. Most of the men were uncoiling large nets near the huts. About 100 Pygmies lived there.

Through William Bienvenu, my Bantu translator at the time, one of the Dzanga-Sangha Pygmies introduced himself as Wasse. When the translator told me Wasse was the greatest hunter in the Bayaka clan, his broad face broke into a smile. A woman walked down the slope and stood by him, and Wasse introduced her as his wife, Jandu. Like most Bayaka women, her front upper teeth had been carefully chipped (with a machete, my translator said) into points. "It makes me look beautiful for Wasse," Jandu explained.

Wasse had a coiled hunting net slung over his shoulder. He tugged at it, as if to get my attention. "We've talked enough," he said. "It's time to hunt."

A dozen Pygmy men and women bearing hunting nets piled into and on top of my Land Rover. About ten miles along a jungle track, Wasse ordered the driver to turn into the dense undergrowth. The Pygmies began shouting and chanting.

In a little while, we left the vehicle in search of the Pygmies' favorite food, mboloko, a small forest antelope also known as blue duiker. High overhead, chimpanzees scrambled from tree to tree, almost hidden in the foliage. As we climbed a slope thick with trees, Wasse raised an arm to signal a halt. Without a word the hunters swiftly set six vine nets into a semicircle across the hillside. Wooden toggles hooked onto sap­lings held the nets firm.

The Bayaka disappeared up the slope, and a few minutes later the jungle erupted in whoops, cries and yodels as they charged back down. A fleeing porcupine hurtled into one of the nets, and in a flash Jandu whacked it on the head with the blunt edge of a machete. Next a net stopped a terrified duiker, which Wasse stabbed with a shortened spear.

After about an hour, the Bayaka emerged carrying three duiker and the porcupine. Wasse said he sometimes hunted monkeys with a bow and poison arrows, but, he went on, "I prefer to hunt with Jandu and my friends." They would share the meat. When we reached the Land Rover, Jandu held up a duiker carcass and burst into song. The other women joined in, accompanying their singing with frenetic hand-clapping. The sound was extraordinary, a high-pitched medley of warbling and yodeling, each woman drifting in and out of the melody for the half-hour it took to return to Mossapola.


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