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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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.

The Ruwenzori Mountains, also known as the Mountains of the Moon, straddle the Equator to form part of the border between Uganda and Congo. The forests here have long been home to the Batwa, at 80,000 the largest Pygmy tribe; they are also found in Rwanda and Burundi. I visited them this past February.

On the Uganda side of the border, our Land Cruiser trundled over a dirt road high along the flanks of the steep foothills. The hills have long been stripped of trees, but their slopes plunge to verdant valleys—a vast rain forest set aside as a national park.

Several hours from Fort Portal, the nearest large population center, we stopped at a Bantu town swarming with people. It was market day, and scores of vendors had spread out their wares—goat carcasses, sarongs, soap, mirrors, scissors. My guide, John Nantume, pointed to a huddle of mud huts about 50 yards away and identified it as the local Pygmy village.

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."


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