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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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.

Cameroon is home to about 40,000 Baka Pygmies, or about one-fifth of Africa's Pygmy population, according to the London-based group Survival International. In Yaoundé, the nation's capital, Samuel Nnah, who directs Pygmy aid programs for a nongovernmental organization called the Centre for Environment and Development (CED), tells me he struggles against a federal government that allows timber companies to log Cameroon's rain forests, driving the Pygmies out. "The Pygmies have to beg land from the Bantu owners, who then claim they own the Baka," Nnah says.

On the road last February from Yaoundé to Djoum, a ramshackle town near Cameroon's southern border, I pass more than a hundred timber trucks, each bearing four or five huge tree trunks to the port of Douala. (Cameroon's 1,000-franc note, worth about $2, bears an engraving of a forklift carrying a huge tree trunk toward a truck.) At Djoum, the CED's provincial coordinator, Joseph Mougou, says he's battling for the human rights of 3,000 Baka who live in 64 villages. "Starting in 1994, the government has forced the Baka from their homes in the primary forest, designating it national parks, but the Baka are allowed to hunt in the secondary forest, mostly rat moles, bush pigs and duiker," Mougou says. "But that's where the government also allows the timber companies free rein to log, and that's destroying the forests."

Forty miles beyond Djoum along a dirt track, passing scores of fully loaded timber trucks, I reach Nkondu, a Pygmy village consisting of about 15 mud huts. Richard Awi, the chief, welcomes me and tells me that the villagers, each carrying empty cane backpacks, are about to leave to forage in the forest. He says that the older children attend a boarding school, but the infants go to the village preschool. "They'll join us later today," anthropologist Mesumbe says.

"Goni! Goni! Goni bule!" Awi shouts. "Let's go to the forest!"

In midafternoon, about 20 children between the ages of 3 and 5 stream unaccompanied into the clearing where their parents are fashioning beehive huts. "Pygmies know the forest from a young age," Mesumbe says, adding that these children followed jungle paths to the clearing.

It is nearing dusk when the three Bantu make their threatening entry into the clearing, demanding that we all return to the roadside village. When the villagers defy Joseph Bikono, the Bantu chief demands 100,000 francs ($200) from me as a bribe to remain with the Pygmies. First I ask him for a receipt, which he provides, and then, with one eye on his machete, I refuse to give him the money. I tell him that he's committed a crime and I threaten to return to Djoum and report him to the police chief, with the receipt as evidence. Bikono's face falls, and the three Bantu shuffle away.


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