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)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 2)

"Bayaka music is one of the hidden glories of mankind," Louis Sarno, an American musicologist who has lived with the Bayaka for more than a decade, would tell me later. "It's a very sophisticated form of full, rich-voiced singing based on pentatonic five-part harmonies. But you'd expect that, because music is at the heart of Bayaka life."

Drumming propelled their worship of the much-loved Ejengi, the most powerful of the forest spirits—good and evil—known as mokoondi. One day Wasse told me that the great spirit wanted to meet me, and so I joined more than a hundred Mossapola Pygmies as they gathered soon after dusk, beating drums and chanting. Suddenly there was a hush, and all eyes turned to the jungle. Emerging from the shadows were half a dozen Pygmy men accompanying a creature swathed from top to bottom in strips of russet-hued raffia. It had no features, no limbs, no face. "It's Ejengi," said Wasse, his voice trembling.

At first I was sure it was a Pygmy camouflaged in foliage, but as Ejengi glided across the darkened clearing, the drums beat louder and faster, and as the Pygmies' chanting grew more frenzied, I began to doubt my own eyes. As the spirit began to dance, its dense cloak rippled like water over rocks. The spirit was speechless, but its wishes were communicated by attendants. "Ejengi wants to know why you've come here," shouted a squat man well short of five feet. With Bienvenu translating, I answered that I had come to meet the great spirit.

Apparently persuaded that I was no threat, Ejengi began dancing again, flopping to the ground in a pile of raffia, then leaping up. The music thudded as the chanting gripped my mind, and I spun to the pounding rhythm, unaware of time's passing. As I left for my lodgings, at about 2 a.m., the chanting drifted into the trees until it melted into the sounds of the rain forest night.

I left Dzanga-Sangha reluctantly, happy that I'd glimpsed the Pygmies' way of life but wondering what the future held for them.

Upon my return to the Central African Republic six years later, I found that Bayaka culture had collapsed. Wasse 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.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus