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

    Video Democrats Clinton, Kaine Offer 'Very Different Vision' Than Trump

    In a jab at Trump, Clinton says her team wants to 'build bridges, not walls'; Obama Hails Kaine's record; Trump calls Kaine a 'job-killer'

    Turkey Wants Pakistan to Close Down institutions, Businesses Linked to Gulen

    Thousands of Pakistani students are enrolled in Gulen's commercial network of around two dozen institutions operating in Pakistan for over two decades

    AU Passport A Work in Progress

    Who will get the passport and what the benefits are still need to be worked out

    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.
    In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movementi
    X
    July 22, 2016 11:49 AM
    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Wall Already Runs Along Parts of US-Mexico Border

    The Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, gained the support of many voters by saying he would build a wall to keep undocumented immigrants and drugs from coming across the border from Mexico. Critics have called his idea impractical and offensive to Mexico, while supporters say such a bold approach is needed to control the border. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from the border town of Nogales, Arizona.
    Video

    Video New HIV Tests Emphasize Rapid Results

    As the global fight against AIDS intensifies, activists have placed increasing importance on getting people to know their HIV status. Some companies are developing new HIV testing methods designed to be quick, easy and accurate. Thuso Khumalo looks at the latest methods, presented at the International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa.
    Video

    Video African Youth with HIV Urge More Support

    HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is the top killer of teens in sub-Saharan Africa. But many youths say their experience with the virus is unique and needs to be addressed differently than the adult epidemic. VOA South African Correspondent Anita Powell reports.
    Video

    Video Poor Residents in Cleveland Not Feeling High Hopes of Republican Convention

    With the Republican Party's National Convention underway in Cleveland, Ohio, delegates and visitors are gathered in the host city's downtown - waiting to hear from the party's presidential candidate, Donald Trump. But a few kilometers from the convention's venue, Cleveland's poorest residents are not convinced Trump or his policies will make a difference in their lives. VOA's Ramon Taylor spoke with some of these residents as well as some of the Republican delegates and filed this report.
    Video

    Video Pop-Up Art Comes to Your Living Room, Backyard and Elsewhere

    Around the world, independent artists and musicians wrestle with a common problem: where to exhibit or perform? Traditional spaces such as museums and galleries are reserved for bigger names, and renting a space is not feasible for many. Enter ArtsUp, which connects artists with venue owners. Whether it’s a living room, restaurant, office or even a boat, pop-up events are bringing music and art to unexpected places. Tina Trinh has more.
    Video

    Video With Yosemite as Backdrop, Obama Praises National Parks

    Last month, President Barack Obama and his family visited some of the most beautiful national parks in the U.S. Using the majestic backdrop of a towering waterfall in California's Yosemite National Park, Obama praised the national park system which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. He talked about the importance of America’s “national treasures” and the need to protect them from climate change and other threats. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
    Video

    Video Counter-Islamic State Coalition Plots Next Steps

    As momentum shifts against Islamic State in Iraq, discussions are taking place about the next steps for driving the terrorist group from its final strongholds. Secretary of State John Kerry is hosting a counter-IS meeting at the State Department, a day after defense ministers from more than 30 countries reviewed and agreed upon a course of action. VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb reports.
    Video

    Video Russia's Participation at Brazil Olympic Games Still In Question

    The International Olympic Committee has delayed a decision on whether to ban all Russian teams from competing in next month's Olympic Games in Brazil over allegations of an elaborate doping scheme. The World Anti-Doping Agency recently released an independent report alleging widespread doping by Russian athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. So far, only Russian track and field athletes have been barred from the Summer Games in Brazil. VOA's Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Scotland’s Booming Whisky Industry Fears Brexit Hangover

    After Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Scotland’s government wants to break away from the United Kingdom – fearing the nation’s exports are at risk. Among the biggest of these is whisky. Henry Ridgwell reports on a time of turmoil for those involved in the ancient art of distilling Scotland’s most famous product.
    Video

    Video Millennials Could Determine Who Wins Race to White House

    With only four months to go until Americans elect a new president, one group of voters is getting a lot more attention these days: those ages 18 to 35, a generation known as millennials. It’s a demographic that some analysts say could have the power to decide the 2016 election. But a lot depends on whether they actually turn out to vote. VOA’s Alexa Lamanna reports.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora