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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”