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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The Pygmies greet their departure with singing and dancing, and they continue almost until midnight. "The Pygmies are the world's most enthusiastic partygoers," David Greer would tell me later. "I've seen them sing and dance for days on end, stopping only for food and sleep."

Over the next three days, I accompany Awi and his clan deeper into the forest to hunt, fish and gather edible plants. In terms of their welfare, the Baka here seem to fit somewhere between the Bayaka of a decade ago in the Central African Republic and the Batwa I had just visited in Uganda. They've abandoned net hunting and put out snares like the Bantu to trap small prey.

Sometimes, Awi says, a Bantu will give them a gun and order them to shoot an elephant. Mesumbe tells me that hunting elephants is illegal in Cameroon and that guns are very rare. "But highly placed policemen and politicians work through village chiefs, giving guns to the Pygmies to kill forest elephants," he says. "They get high prices for the tusks, which are smuggled out to Japan and China." The Pygmies, Awi says, get a portion of the meat and a little cash.

The Baka here have clearly begun accepting Bantu ways. But they cling to the tradition of revering Ejengi. On my final night with them, as light leaches from the sky, women in the clearing chant a welcome to the great rain forest spirit. The men dance wildly to the thud of drums.

As among the Bayaka, no sooner has the sky darkened than Ejengi emerges from the gloom, accompanied by four clansmen. The spirit's raffia strips are ghostly white. It dances with the men for about an hour, and then four little boys are brought before it. Ejengi dances solemnly among them, letting its raffia strips brush their bodies. "Ejengi's touch fills them with power to brave the forest's dangers," Awi says.

Unlike in Mossapola, where Ejengi lent the occasion the exuberance of a nonstop dance party, this ritual seems more somber. Nearing dawn, five teenagers step forward and stand shoulder to shoulder; Ejengi pushes against each of them in turn, trying to knock them off their feet. "Ejengi is testing their power in the forest," Awi tells me. "We Baka face hard times, and our youngsters need all that power to survive as Pygmies." The five young men stand firm.

Later in the day at Djoum, I meet the province administrator, a Bantu named Frédéric Makene Tchalle. "The Pygmies are impossible to understand," he says. "How can they leave their village and tramp into the forest, leaving all their possessions for anyone to steal? They're not like you and I. They're not like any other people."

Paul Raffaele is the author of Among the Cannibals.


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