News / Africa

    Pygmies of Central Africa Driven from Ancestral Jungles

    ‘First people’ of region face threats on various fronts, including commercial agriculture, logging and discrimination

    Darren Taylor

    This is Part 5 of a 5-part series: Africa's Endangered Peoples
    Parts 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5

    If the Pygmies of Central Africa don’t survive the assortment of threats currently assailing them, says a leading anthropologist, the continent will lose an important part of its “genetic and cultural history.”

    Jerome Lewis has been working with and living among the Pygmies since 1993. He’s based at London’s University College and is a member of Britain’s Royal Anthropological Institute.
    Lewis considers the Pygmies to be the “first peoples” of central Africa. “They represent one of the original groups of human beings that lived in Africa some 100,000 years ago, so they really are a very ancient African people, from whom all the Bantu peoples are actually descendants.”

    Bantu are now found across eastern and southern Africa, from Rwanda and Kenya to Angola and South Africa. What happens to the Pygmies should therefore be of concern to “millions” of Africans “who are linked to Pygmies by blood,” says Manfred Egbe, a Cameroonian academic who’s completed extensive research on Pygmy groups.

    ‘The spirit of the forest’

    The Pygmy people have traditionally survived in the rainforests of countries such as the Central African Republic, the Congo and Equatorial Guinea by gathering wild foods like honey, yams, fruits and fish. Hunting is also a very important part of their culture.

    Central to Pygmy identity, according to Survival International - an organization working to secure rights for indigenous peoples around the globe - is their “intimate connection to the forest lands they have lived in, worshipped and protected for generations.” This is demonstrated in their reverence for Jengi, the Pygmy “spirit of the forest.”

    The Pygmies of Central Africa worship the rainforests in which they’ve survived for thousands of years
    The Pygmies of Central Africa worship the rainforests in which they’ve survived for thousands of years

    Lewis says, “The Mbendjele [Pygmies in Congo-Brazzaville] with whom I work a lot, they have a proverb where they say they love the forest as they love their own body.... If you live in the forest as they do, and you’re only eating forest food, your body is literally transformed forest. Everything that composes your body has been taken from the forest. So you are the forest, in a very deep sense and a very real sense.”

    He adds that the Pygmies love for their ancestral lands is reflected in their singing, which they use to “commune” with the jungle, mimicking the sounds of birds, monkeys and insects.

    Pygmy and the environment


    Yet various governments often accuse Pygmy groups of environmental destruction. According to Lewis, nothing could be further from the truth.

    Pygmies are famous for spear-hunting elephants, but this doesn’t involve “slaughter,” Lewis insists. “It’s a very ritualized process where every bit of the meat is eaten. It’s a very important cultural and religious event; it’s not simply an elementary event.”

    In order to conserve the environment, the anthropologist tells VOA, Pygmies have developed “sophisticated” systems “honed over many thousands of years.”

    A Pygmy hunting expedition … But the authorities in Central Africa say their way of life is ‘primitive’ and they must become ‘civilized’
    A Pygmy hunting expedition … But the authorities in Central Africa say their way of life is ‘primitive’ and they must become ‘civilized’
    “There are all sorts of taboos around hunting - what you can hunt, when you can hunt it, who can hunt it, and these are very strictly adhered to. In certain circumstances a whole area of forest can be closed off from hunting or gathering activities in order to let it rest [and replenish],” Lewis explains.

    He says when Pygmies dig up wild yams they’ll put the stems back in the ground so that the yams grow again “so that when they’re passing that area some months later, they’ll be fairly sure to find yams. So there’s an active cultivation of wild resources.”

    Eviction

    But African governments and other authorities want the Pygmies out of the jungles, arguing that their way of life is “outdated.”

    Lewis says, “Farmers, pastoralists, logging, industrial activities, mining and conservation [organizations] - all don’t consider hunter-gatherers to be legitimate occupiers of the land and will evict them without compensation, without reparation, and without any concern for what happens to them.”

    He adds that governments lease Pygmy territory to farmers, businesspeople and even international NGOs, who in turn expect their property to be private, but “this is not something that Pygmy hunter-gatherers have a firm sense of. They believe in sharing, and the right of everybody who needs something from the forest to get a share.” This “culture clash,” says Egbe, results in “immense friction” between Pygmies and the relevant authorities.

    Anthropologists say the Pygmies have a deep respect for the animals and plants found in their ancestral home
    Anthropologists say the Pygmies have a deep respect for the animals and plants found in their ancestral home

    Central African governments insist “responsible” business in the forests, such as logging, is essential for the region’s economic development. They deny trying to “destroy” the Pygmies but maintain that the indigenous people should move to “other areas,” where it’s possible to protect their culture.

    But Egbe wants to know, “Where are these areas?” He says wherever the Pygmies go, “they face intense, horrific discrimination.”

    Pygmies treated like ‘animals’


    Egbe emphasizes that “nowhere” in Africa are Pygmies integrated into society. “There is discrimination against them on all levels. For instance, a Bantu who comes from mainstream society will refuse to eat from the same plate as a Pygmy because Pygmies are regarded as abominations,” he explains.

    Lewis says Pygmies are in a similar situation to that of black people in the United States prior to the civil rights movement in the 1950s – “the segregation, the negative stereotyping, the economic exploitation and so on.”

    Across Central Africa, he says, Pygmies - known internationally for being very short - are seen as “animal-like. In northern Congo they’re called ‘animals that speak.’ They’re not recognized as being fully human.… They’re considered to be stupid [when] they’re actually of course very clever.”

    A Pygmy surveys the destruction wrought on a forest by a logging company
    A Pygmy surveys the destruction wrought on a forest by a logging company

    In most areas, sexual relations between Pygmies and other groups are taboo, and Pygmies are forbidden to live in non-Pygmy villages. “You can’t even share the same bench with a Pygmy; you can’t sit on the same chair. If Pygmies drink from a glass, they have polluted that glass and it’s thrown away,” says Lewis.

    He recalls Rwandan Pygmies once telling him “that when they were offered beer [by non-Pygmies], they just had to hold their hands out and collect the beer as it was poured out of the bottle into their hands.”

    When Pygmies fall ill or are seriously injured, says Egbe, they have to “trek hundreds of miles to get the least medical attention. And when they get to hospital, they are not attended to until every other Bantu patient of the hospital has been attended to.”

    Lewis says Pygmies are also considered “impure, so they sometimes have roles as circumcisers and the buriers of dead for other groups. They often have ritual roles in purifying people after polluting events like the death of somebody.”

    All these “discriminatory stereotypes,” Egbe maintains, are often used to justify “theft” of Pygmy territory and their “enslavement” by commercial farmers.

    ‘A junk of a people’


    Lewis says African political leaders in whose countries Pygmies live have paid little attention to their plight. “At best, they may ask Pygmies to sing for them,” he comments.

    He says every government he’s had contact with in Central Africa does not recognize hunting and gathering as being a “legitimate” way of life. “They all actively demand that Pygmies [settle], to start farming and send their children to school.”

    A Pygmy woman with her children outside their hut in a rainforest
    A Pygmy woman with her children outside their hut in a rainforest

    Lewis adds that many Pygmies would like to educate their children, “but the fact that they have to become sedentary and adopt farming in order to get access to schools is seen as quite serious discrimination against them by Pygmies themselves.”

    He wants the authorities to recognize that the indigenous people have the right to decide their own futures. “Governments should really stop giving away their land and resources to outsiders without their consent. This really is at the heart of the problems they’re facing,” Lewis says.

    Yet he has seen recent “glimmers of hope” for the Pygmies.

    “Congo Brazzaville has just voted in the first law which seeks to really recognize Pygmy rights in a very formal way,” Lewis says.

    But Manfred Egbe says governments and NGOs continue to adopt a “top to bottom” approach to the Pygmies, “meaning that these people are not consulted about anything that’s been done in their interests. The decisions are taken in the capital cities and then implemented in the [Pygmy] communities and usually it’s all limited to music and art projects.”

    While Egbe recognizes the need for such initiatives, he maintains they’re not priorities. “Why don’t they build hospitals near Pygmy regions?” he asks.

    Egbe’s advocating a “participatory approach in the development and the well-being” of Pygmies. He says they must be involved in efforts to improve their lives “from conception to evolution and institution of development projects, and then even evaluation of these projects.”

    According to Egbe, the Pygmies want to feel “involved in their own destiny,” but at the moment they’re treated as if they’re a “junk of a people.”

    Egbe says, “Africans enjoy talking about the evils of colonialism but what is happening to the Pygmies right now should make all Africans everywhere feel just as ashamed as any racist colonialist.”

    You May Like

    Leaving Scalia Replacement to 2017 Would Mean Unusually Long Vacancy

    History of high court shows Obama not in unique situation during final year of presidency

    US Fact Checkers Debunk Some Republican Presidential Candidate Claims 

    Slim evidence for several claims made by Republican presidential candidates at their last debate ahead of next Saturday's key nominating election in South Carolina

    Uganda Presidential Debate a Small Victory for Democracy

    In homes and bars across country, Ugandans were fixated on their screens as eight political candidates running for president took part in national debate

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    By the Numbers

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    New Technology Aims to Bring Election Transparency to Ugandai
    X
    Serginho Roosblad
    February 12, 2016 9:29 PM
    A team of recent graduates from Uganda’s Makerere University has created a mobile application designed to help monitor elections and expose possible rigging. The developers say the app, called E-Poll, will make Uganda's democratic process fairer. From Kampala, VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
    Video

    Video New Technology Aims to Bring Election Transparency to Uganda

    A team of recent graduates from Uganda’s Makerere University has created a mobile application designed to help monitor elections and expose possible rigging. The developers say the app, called E-Poll, will make Uganda's democratic process fairer. From Kampala, VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
    Video

    Video Refugees in Kenya Vie to Compete in Rio Olympics

    In Kenya, refugees from other African nations are training at a special camp and competing for a limited number of slots in this year's Rio Olympics under the flag of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). As Lenny Ruvaga reports from Ngong, this is a first in Olympic history.
    Video

    Video Gateway to Mecca: Historical Old Jeddah

    Local leader Sami Nawar's family has been in the Old City of Jeddah for hundreds of years and takes us on a tour of this ancient route to Mecca, also believed to be the final resting place of Adam's wife, Eve.
    Video

    Video Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortage

    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video Russia Bristles at NATO Expansion in E. Europe

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is meeting Friday with the head of NATO after the Western military alliance and the United States announced plans for the biggest military build-up in Europe since the Cold War. Russia has called NATO's moves a threat to stability in Europe. But NATO says the troop rotations and equipment are aimed at reassuring allies concerned about Russia as VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.