Anthropology Friday: Still a Pygmy, by Isaac Bacirongo and Micheal Nest

51TxcmouEEL._SX350_BO1,204,203,200_My copy of Still a Pygmy has arrived!

I am excited because this book is probably the only autobiography/first-hand account of growing up with a Pygmy lifestyle in the whole world. (In English, anyway.) Sure, plenty of anthropologists have studied Pygmies and written about their lives, but not many Pygmies have written (or co-written) their own books and gotten them published.

(Since this book was only recently published, and I’m sure Isaac and Michael would like to get their royalties, I am going to quote less than usual and instead try to provide interesting commentary/discussion.)

Basic plot: Isaac Bacironogo, a Pygmy, was born in the Congolese rainforest where he learned to hunt and gather in the traditional Pygmy style. When he was a kid, his family went to work on a local plantation (Pygmies regularly work as hired agricultural laborers,) and noticed that all of the other kids on the plantation were going to school. So after much pestering of his parents, Isaac started going to school. He attended, IIRC, 10 or 11 years of school, learned French fluently, and eventually became a successful businessman who owned three pharmacies and traveled internationally.

Then everything went to shit, between the Rwandan genocide and the Congolese civil war, and Isaac had to get out before the gov’t put a bullet in his brain. Eventually the UN resettled him and his family in Australia.

I have mentioned before that I doubt refugees–wherever they are from–represent a random cross-section of their home societies. They are, at least, the people who managed to get to refugee camps–in Isaac’s case, just escaping required $7,500 in bribes. Additionally, as Isaac has documented in abundant detail, many refugees bribe UN workers in order to get the extremely coveted foreign resettlement slots.

I guarantee that the average Congolese–much less the average Congolese Pygmy–does not have this kind of cash.

According to the Wikipedia:

A pygmy is a member of an ethnic group whose average height is unusually short; anthropologists define pygmy as a member of any group where adult men are on average less than 150 cm (4 feet 11 inches) tall.[1] A member of a slightly taller group is termed “pygmoid“.[2]

The term is most associated with peoples of Central Africa, such as the Aka, Efé and Mbuti.[3] If the term pygmy is defined as a group’s men having an average height below 1.55 meters (5 feet 1 inch), then there are also pygmies in Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, the Andaman Islands,[4]Indonesia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Bolivia, and Brazil,[5] including some Negritos of Southeast Asia.

Pygmy_languages_(Bahuchet)For the purposes of this post, “Pygmy” only refers to African Pygmies.

Isaac’s people, the BaTembo, come from the region marked on this map as “Great Lakes Twa,” which overlaps the Democratic Republic of the Congo, (hereafter either DRC or just “Congo,” after Isaac’s usage,) Rwanda, and Burundi.

Isaac describes the different Pygmy groups:

… we say there are three kinds of Pygmy. The first we cal BaTwa be Bungukuma in KiTembo. This means something like ‘stocky Pygmies with muscular bodies.’ They are shorter than normal Pygmies, they are strong–their chests are like hard stones–and their whole body works together perfectly. This kind of Pygmy is quite hairy and they don’t like to mix with other people. The second kind is a normal Pygmy, like my family. … The third kind of Pygmy is the Pygmoid people. … Full-blooded Pygmies are sometimes scared of Pygmoid people, because Pygmoid people see themselves as masters of the full-bloods and act like this towards us.

There is a fair amount of debate over whether the various Pygmy peoples are all closely related, or if they are a bunch of different people who all happen to evolve shorter stature just because of some environmental factor, like the rainforest being low on salt. It looks like the answer is a bit of both: the existence of other pygmy or pygmoid people outside of Africa, as far away as the rainforests of Australia and Brazil, suggests that it’s highly likely that rainforests do select for small stature, but the African Pygmies appear to be descended from a single ancestral group that split up thousands of years ago, may have admixed with an archaic population or two, and some of which have mixed significantly with the recently-arrived Bantus.

For our purposes, it is sufficient to say that Pygmies and Bantus are probably about as genetically distant European and Africans–if not more so. (Keeping in mind that there now exist substantial numbers of mixed-race Pygmy-Bantu people and tribes.)

800px-Explorer_Chapin_with_Club_Flag_-4 1280px-RuwenpflanzenAccording to Secret Corners of the World, which I coincidentally picked up at a used book shop this week, there are actually glacier-capped mountains on the border between Congo and Uganda, known as the Rwenzori, or Mountains of the Moon. These mountains have some enormous vegetation.

The town where Isaac lived, Bukavu, lies near the Rwenzori, just outside the Kahuzi-Biéga National Park. Wikipedia notes:

Kahuzi Gorilla
Kahuzi Gorilla

…the park’s 1975 expansion, which included inhabited lowland areas, resulted in forced evacuations with about 13,000 people of the tribal community of Shi, Tembo and Rega affected and refusing to leave.[2] Cooperation by the communities living around the park and employment of the Twa people to enforce park protection was pursued by the park authorities. In 1999 a plan was developed to protect the people and the resources of the park.[8]

The Tembo, aka BaTembo, are Isaac’s people (“Ba” is a local prefix that I think means “the people”, so BaTembo means “the Tembo people.” They’re the same group whether you attach the Ba or not.) Isaac speaks of this same incident:

White people with the power to help also ignored us. This was the case with the Pygmies who were thrown out of the Kahuzi-Biega National Park that was create din part of our traditional country, and which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The headquarters of the park is called Madaga. This is the name of a Pygmy family that is still living. … The Madaga family’s land, their area of hunting, became part of the national park. So much money is given to support the park but the Madaga family is living in poverty.

Basically, a lot more people have been trying to save the gorillas and chimpanzees than have been trying to save the Pygmies, who have not fared too well at the hands of the Bantus.

(If it is any consolation, it looks like there has been poaching in the park. Isaac reports:

The camp where the Pygmies lived was right on the edge of Mr. Francis’ farm, next to the Kahuzi-Biega National Park. The government authorities wanted the camp moved off the boundary because they suspected us of hunting in the forest. They were right. … Meat was expensive and my father was not rich enough to have chickens or goats, so if we wanted meat we had to hunt for it. All Papa thought about was going back into the forest to check his snares when he was finished work for the day. … In the rainy season, when there were a lot of animals around and they were easy to trap, Papa and the other Pygmies living in the camp would desert the farm for up to three months to hunt. …

The authorities knew that Pygmies and other hunters poached game int he Kahuzi-Biega reserve and used to stop and search them when they were walking into town… if the authorities caught a man with bush meat he would be fined, but they never stopped children, so a few times I used to take meat to sell in town..

Mama developed a strategy to get Papa about of trouble when he was caught poaching. She discovered that the local territorial administrator, Salumu, liked monkey, so several times Mama smoked monkey or antelope meat and gave it to him for free. … When Papa was caught, Salumu would let him off with a warning.

Bribes and corruption are going to be a frequent theme of this series.)

Secret Corners of the World describes traveling from Bukavu to the Rwenzori around 1982:

1024px-Dawn_on_Lake_KivuOur road to the Ruwenzori [older spelling] was filled with scenes of promise, frustration, and vistas of primeval Beauty.

Our journey began in Bukavu, capital of Zaire’s Kivu Province, a place that visiting Americans have called “an African San Francisco.” Appealing, solidly built villas overlook the water from four peninsulas that extend into Lake Kivu–but on the slopes behind them sit flimsy, fly-ridden shacks. Such contrasts inflamed the turbulent 1960s … Now, as non-African visitors, Jim and I drew friendly attention. To the dozens of French-speaking Zairians that we met along the way, we were simply Americains, objects of sociable curiosity and frequently the recipients of help in case of a mired car or parched throat.

Near Bukavu, apparently far from politics, we walked into a Garden of Eden. … In verdant Kahuzi-Biega Park, nearly 250,000 acres, we sought those muscular dwellers of the rain forest, the lowland gorillas.

Our small safari consisted of several Pygmy trackers and the assistant curator of the park… Since 1970, nearly 30,000 visitors have hiked into the volcanic mountains an hour outside Bukavu to see the gorillas.

Quite a contrast to Frederick and Josephine’s more recent trek through the Congo! Years of genocide and civil war have not been good to the region. Secret Corners continues:

For the next stage of our journey to the Ruqenzori, we joled local travelers in a five-hour boat ride to Goma, at the north end of Lake Kivu. …

Just outside of Goma, a lakeside town with a hint of frontier atmosphere, rises Nyiragongo, one of a string of still-active volcanoes. A nearly perfect cone, its outer shell slants steeply upward to forma  achalice roughly 4,125 feet across. That cup holds molten rock.

At 10 o’clock on January 10, 1977, the cone sprang a leak–at least five fissures. A fiery rver rushed toward Goma, obliterating crops and engulfing hapless villagers. As many as a hundred people may lie entombed in hardened lava several meters thick. …

(One of Isaac’s pharmacies was located near Goma, at least until an invading army made travel between villages much too difficult.)

“Anybody working hard with initiative and imagination can make a fortune here,” insists 38-year-old entrepreneur Victor Ngezayo… in their Beni coffee warehouse. Victor started as a truck driver at age 19; now he and Brigitte own a fleet of trucks, a coffee export business, an air charter service, and an interest in a chain of hotels. they provide advice and credit to employees undertaking business ventures of their own.

Isaac was about 20 or 21 when this article was written; his story and Victor’s stories sound pretty similar (though they obviously differ in the particulars.)

016022011114125000000victorngezayoI got to wondering how things turned out for Victor, and so Googled around. Looks like he survived all of the upheavals of the 90s and continues being a successful businessman; here’s his picture from an article about him and his hotels in Jeune Africa, 2011. He still has the same mustache he had in the 1983 photo in Secret Corners. In 2002, the local volcano filled his garden with lava; in 2005, he helped found a new Congolese political party, the Convention of Christian Democrats.

Wikileaks has some interesting records of conversations between US ambassadors or other US gov’t officials and Victor in 2007:

Floribert Bwana Chuy bin Kositi, North Kivu provincial secretary of the RCD-G party, was found murdered July 9 in Goma outside the grounds of a hotel owned by a prominent Tutsi businessman. … A MONUC-Goma political officer told us Chuy, a section chief in the Congolese Office of Control (OCC), disappeared on Saturday. His body, which showed signs of strangulation, was found 300-400 meters from the entrance of Goma’s Hotel Karibu. The owner, Victor Ngezayo, told us the body was discovered by a passing motorbike driver around noon. …

Chuy’s position at OCC involved monitoring the quality of imported food. Ngezayo told us Congolese and resident foreign importers often buy expired foodstuffs on the international market for pennies on the dollar and resell them in Goma. Ngezayo hypothesized that Chuy’s killing was related to his job. Just prior to his death, Chuy had ordered the destruction of 80 tons of imported rice which he had determined was unfit for human consumption.

and in 2009:

Ambassador met April 17 with influential North Kivu businessman Victor Ngezayo. Unsurprisingly, Ngezayo was highly critical of the GDRC, particularly its efforts to bring peace to the East, which he characterized as superficial. Ngezayo maintained that the new CNDP was a Rwandan concoction, with no grassroots support. Efforts to impose a “Rwandophone solution” on North Kivu would be a repeat of the disastrous RCD-Goma experiment. … Ngezayo warned that the different regions of the DRC, which he divided into “Congo Occidentale,” “Congo Orientale,” Katanga, and the Kasais were culturally and economically independent from each other.

I don’t know what he’s up to today, but I don’t see any obituaries.

The Secret Corners article also mentions problems like roads marred by giant, car-swallowing potholes and schools with no teachers due to the Congolese government not paying them, but the tone is relentlessly upbeat and cheerful (these children are so enthusiastic, they’re learning even without a teacher! Some helpful passers-by pitched in and pushed our truck out of the giant hole!) I suspect this is partially because they wanted to write an upbeat article, and partially because the region was actually a lot better prior to the Rwandan Genocide than after. People like Isaac and Victor really were coming up from extremely poor backgrounds to become successful businessmen; opportunities were increasing across the region.

Next week we’ll take a closer look at the Pygmies themselves.


6 thoughts on “Anthropology Friday: Still a Pygmy, by Isaac Bacirongo and Micheal Nest

    • He’s clearly bright, though I don’t know how bright. I’m not sure how the mathematics of IQ distributions work out, (especially when we’re dealing with cultures that may not get the point of trying to answer questions correctly on a test,) but this wouldn’t be the first time we’ve found a fatter tail than expected.


  1. […] But we also group species based on moral or political beliefs–scientists generally believe it would be immoral to say that different modern human groups belong to different species, and so the date when Homo ergaster transforms into Homo sapiens is dependent on the date when the most divergent human groups alive today split apart–no one wants to come up with a finding that will get trumpeted in media as “Scientists Prove Pygmies aren’t Human!” (Pygmies already have enough problems, what with their immediate neighbors actually thinking they aren’t human and using their organs for magic ritua….) […]


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