Anthropology Friday: Still a Pygmy (pt 2)

Continuing with Still a Pygmy, by Isaac Bacirongo and Michael Nest

Isaac begins the book with some background on his family and their life in the forest. (And in case you were wondering about homicide among pre-agricultural peoples, it looks like they Pygmy-on-Pygmy murder rate is pretty high, which fits pretty well with the reported overall homicide rates in the DRC.)

Isaac is one of 12 children, but half of his siblings died in childhood (one died at 15 of labor complications due to having twins without medical care; Isaac notes that sickle-cell-anemia runs in his family, which probably explains most of the others.) Isaac has 11 children, 9 of whom survived (and one of those died as an adult.) The radical difference may be better medical care, but more likely his wife is just not a sickle-cell carrier.

In case the moral of the story is not clear: Hunter-gatherers in the rainforest with no medical care and 50% infant mortality rates can still raise 6 children, while Americans with college degrees and white collar jobs sincerely believe that they “can’t afford” more than one or two kids.

Today’s Pygmies are not exclusive hunter-gatherers, and probably haven’t been for a while. For starters, there are a lot more people hunting in the DRC these days; farmers are clearing forests for agriculture; the gov’t tries to prevent poaching in national parks; and of course armies occasionally march through the area and shoot a bunch of people. Isaac’s family, when he was young, practiced a mobile lifestyle of working part of the year on local farms and exclusive hunting/gathering during other times. Isaac himself, as an adult, lived permanently in town and had a white-collar job running a pharmacy.

You’re not going to get good numbers on the % of Pygmies in agricultural or white-collar occupations because widespread discrimination against Pygmies guarantees that most of the ones who leave the forest hide their identities and attempt to pass as Bantus. (You might think that the most obvious difference between them would be height, but Isaac says it’s lips–Pygmies have thinner lips, Bantus thicker. Also, Pygmies apparently blink more.)

As I’ve mentioned, the Bantus are relative newcomers to the area, and on the grand scale of human genetics, more closely related to Europeans than to Pygmies, who may be one of the most ancient peoples on Earth. This occurred recently enough that the Pygmies, despite having no written history until perhaps this book, still remember the invasion:

According to our mythology, when the people who are not Pygmies–we call them Bantu–came to Central Africa, they came from the north and found Pymies already there. My own ancestors roamed in the forests from Kahuzi up to Walikale and into the forests of Shabunda. This is where you can find the Kalega Forest. The region is very mountainous and the smaller villages are in deep forest and reachable only on dirt paths.

Bantu from many tribes came into our land centuries ago, but before the seventeenth century nobody could talk about BaTembo people [Isaac’s tribe] for the simple reason that they did not exist. About 400 years ago one of those Bantu men called Katembo came into our land. He was the son of Kifamandu, and probably from the Hunde tribe. Katembo fell in love with a Pygmy woman. (I have never heard her name–BaTembo people only want to remember Katembo, not the name of their Pygmy ancestor, so everyone has forgotten her.)

Isaac describes life in the forest as idyllic, but often motivated by extremely practical concerns:

In 1967 a white mercenary from Belgium, Jean Schramme, and his ‘Leopard Battalion’ advanced along the road near where we were living…

Pygmies know how to live in the forest, so we could always find food and build huts, and we were protected. Normally Pygmies move in and out of the forest, but this time we stayed for a whole year because we were scared of leaving.

Later in the book, Isaac returns to the forest again after narrowly escaping a massacre conducted by an invading army from Rwanda. Wikipedia has information on Jean Schramme:

When the Belgian Congo gained its independence in 1960, the country quickly descended into civil war. Several hundred white people were held hostage, and Belgium sent troops to Congo to free them and to protect its interests. … The rich province of Katanga, soon followed by the eastern part of Kasai were trying to gain independence. … A violent clash between pro-secession and pro-unity movements soon broke out.

In 1965, Colonel Mobutu became president and from then on Belgium started protecting his regime against rebellion. …

On June 30, 1967, president Moise Tshombe of Katanga‘s Jet aircraft was hijacked to Algiers, before he could return to Congo after his exile in Spain. He was imprisoned in Algeria and two years later he died in suspicious circumstances. For Schramme, this was a sign that he was fighting the wrong enemy and on July 3, 1967 he began to lead an uprising in Katanga against Mobutu.

…Jean Schramme’s unit, launched surprise attacks on Stanleyville, Kindu, and Bukavu. … Schramme was able to hold Bukavu for seven weeks and managed to defeat all ANC troops who were sent to retake the town. … Extra forces helped the ANC to finally defeat Schramme on October 29, 1967. The surviving rebel troops fled towards Rwanda.

Schramme died in 1988 in Brazil. Jeremy Dunns has some more interesting information about Schramme and his rebellion in his post, The Real Dogs of War. More information in LBJ & the Congo. Christopher Othen, a non-fiction writer, gives a fantastically interesting summary:

Down in the south, the province of Katanga, a rich mining territory, declared its own independence. The Congo had no intention of allowing the renegade region to secede, and neither did the CIA, the KGB, or the United Nations.

… It was a fantastically uneven battle. The United Nations fielded soldiers from twenty nations, America paid the bills, and the Soviets intrigued behind the scenes. Yet to everyone’s surprise the new nation’s rag-tag army of local gendarmes, superstitious jungle tribesmen, and, controversially, European mercenaries refused to give in.

If he writes this well all of the time, I imagine his book (Katanga 1960-1963: Mercenaries, Spies, and the Nation that Waged War on the World) must be a very good read.

Isaac recounts that the Pygmies also lived in the forest for more mundane reasons:

The Belgians tried to get Pygmies out of the forest and make us live in Bantu villages, so we would become workers. We did not like that! Because of pressure from the Belgians, in the 1940s and 1950s some families moved out of the forest but left their eldest sons behind in the deep forest where the Belgians could not find them. After Congo became independent in 1960 we all went back. …

Life was very social in the forest. The small camps we lived in had about five or six different huts, with about twenty people in each camp, and everyone in the camp was related. …

It took Mum and Dad about four hours to make a hut. If you were careful and made a strong frame, you could make a hut that lasted a year. … Bigger huts might have a wall that created a sleeping space for parents. … There were no chairs or tables. Everyone sat on a log or on the ground. My parents liked living in this kind of hut. Many years later I bought them twenty sheets of iron to cover their roof instead of leaves, but they exchanged it for meat. They were happy with their traditional hut and having assets like iron sheeting was meaningless to them. …

This is an important point: most people like their own culture.

Isaac claims to believe in god, but rejects most religious beliefs on the grounds that they are illogical superstitions. Nevertheless, he relates some of the traditional ones for us:

Event though Pygmies are marginalized, we have a special role in Bantu culture because of our connection to the spirit world. Traditionally Pygmies believed in a creator god who created the forest and everything in it, and that the forest was full of the spirits of ancestors who had died. … Pygmies still have ceremonies when we do various things to make spirits happy, and we perform these ceremonies for Batu as well. For example, before gong hunting, Pygmies might perform a ceremony to help catch something. …

The most important ceremonial roles Pygmies held in Bantu culture were when a mwami was put on the throne and when he died. The Bantu were afraid that if they did not give Pygmies a role in these ceremonies it would anger the ancestral spirits of the land. Bantu believe that ancestral spirits respond better to Pygmies because Pygmies are the people of the forest … When something like a destructive storm happens, BaTembo would ay it was because the spirits were upset that Pygmies were not given a proper role in a ceremony that happened earlier, sometimes years earlier. …

When we want to remember someone who has died, we hold a chioba ceremony that might go for as long as a week… When somebody dies their spirits go to the spirit world, and during the chioba people will dance to call the spirits of that person. When the dead person’s spirits come they enter the dancers, who start to dance in an unusal way…

But back to the forest:

… everything in the forest is about food and everything you find belongs to you. This is how Mama thought. In providing for us she was a good mother because we were never hungry as kids.

Life in the forest is not stressful because there are no people around and stress is brought to you by other people. Happiness in the forest comes when you kill an antelope or if you catch some fish, because you know you will eat–and in Pygmy culture if you kill even one monkey everyone in the village will have a piece. …

When I was a child I was so happy when I found fruit and could eat a lot. If there was no fruit then we would go mushroom picking. … Pygmies collect these fruits and sell them to poeople who live outside the forest, as well as eat it ourselves.

Isaac goes into a bit of detail about all of the different kinds of food they had growing up and how they hunted, providing themselves with everything from grubs to elephants. He also  notes that wearing clothes is inefficient in the forest because they get snagged on branches. Gorillas and chimps, however, were not traditionally on the menu:

Normally Pygmies do not hunt gorillas but this one was bothering them [coming into their camp and destroying their banana trees,] so they decided to kill it. They knew that gorilla were powerful animals. Mama said that if you do not have a brother with you, you should not try to hunt a gorilla because if it grabs you, it will smash you. … If you hunt a gorilla with someone who is not a relative he will run away if it gets hold of you, but if you hunt with a brother he will try to stab the gorilla and carry you home if you are injured.

… the only real enemy of Pygmies in the forest was leopards. If Pygmies met a gorilla we would look at each other then each would go their own way. The same with chimpanzees–we would pass each other in the forest, minding our own business. Chimpanzees and gorillas were not harmful to you because they are not aggressive unless you approach their babies. …

Pygmies were only scared of leopards. Because the walls of our huts are not strong and are only made of leaves, sometimes a leopard would pull sleeping people out and kill them. Mama told me about two or three people who were killed that way.

Back in Nutrition and Physical Degeneration (first published in 1939,) Dr. Price, a peripatetic dentist who traveled the world in search of good teeth, noted that Pygmies hunt elephants and leopards hunt Pygmies:

The home life of the pygmies in the jungle is often filled with danger. Just before our arrival two babies had been carried off by a leopard. This stealthy night prowler is one of the most difficult to combat and one of the reasons the pygmies build cabins in the trees.

Perhaps this is why, according to Wikipedia:

Fathers of the Aka tribe [Pygmies from the other side of the DRC] spend more time in close contact to their babies than in any other known society. Aka fathers have their infant within arms reach 47% of the time [5] and make physical contact with them five times as often per day as fathers in some other societies.[3]

Throughout the day, couples share hunting, food preparation, and social and leisure activities. The more time Aka parents spend together, the more frequent the father’s affectionate interaction with his baby.[citation needed] or the more frequent the father’s affectionate interaction with his baby, the more time the Aka parents spend together.

Dad around => less chance of getting eaten by leopards.

(This is why I think it so weird that [some] Americans think it is a good idea to put an infant into a room by itself and then ignore it while it screams. Infants are not rational, thinking creatures who can understand that they’re safe even though it’s dark. They run entirely on instincts, and their instincts tell them that being alone in the dark means they will get eaten by leopards.)

Anyway, here’s another interesting bit, also showing the weird Pygmy-Bantu religious relationship:

In traditional Bantu culture in my area, when a king dies someone must cut off his head and take it for safekeeping to a sacred place in the forest. Bantus have assigned Pygmies responsibilities in this ceremony and it is a Pygmy man who does this. … The muhombe has a powerful magic. He wears a mask, a leopard skin across his chest, a raffia skirt and a necklace made of wild banana seeds and the teeth of a wild boar. He carries his tools in a raffia bag–a few teeth of dead chiefs, and other things to help him communicate with the dead and tell the future. The special place the muhombe protects is called the buhombe. It is very sacred to Pygmies and Bantu, but the Bantu are not allowed to go there. The entire head is placed on a tabernacle int he forest and the muhombe would watch it carefully to see if there are any movements of the skull. … The muhombe cares for the site for thirty or forty yeas, when the role of guardian or caretaker passes to his son. …

The muhombe in the Mafuo Chiefdom traditionally come from my family, and when I was young my father held this role. Bantus said I would have to do this when my father died as I was part of the lineage. I refused … The Bantu then said that as I refused to do it, my sister, Zania, the next in line in my family, would have to carry the muhombe assignment… ‘Carrying the assignment’ meant carrying the next muhombe in her womb. Zania was not supposed to get married because she had to dedicate herself to this assignment, a bit like a nun, but it was all right for her to give birth to the next muhombe.

Unfortunately, Zania died in childbirth and the muhombe-ship transferred to a cousin. Much later in the book, after Isaac and his family have moved to Australia, he reports that:

A few years ago my brother Buhavu sold the land where the Mafuo chiefs are buried, the buhombe hill… There were even some teeth of an old mwami still there. Mama was very upset about him selling this land. Buhavu did not have personal custody of that land and had no right to sell it. … Mama’s dream is to go back to Cong, return the money to the Bantu people who bought that sacred land, and get it back.

Old ways die quickly when there is money to be made.

To be continued…


6 thoughts on “Anthropology Friday: Still a Pygmy (pt 2)

  1. “(This is why I think it so weird that [some] Americans think it is a good idea to put an infant into a room by itself and then ignore it while it screams. Infants are not rational, thinking creatures who can understand that they’re safe even though it’s dark. They run entirely on instincts, and their instincts tell them that being alone in the dark means they will get eaten by leopards.)”

    I used almost this exact wording once, though with lions instead of leopards. (On a slightly different note, someone pointed out that it’s probably way more important to discipline kids for running into the street than for playing with sticks, since we’re probably descended from thousands and thousands of generations who survived playing with sticks as kids, but completely lack instincts about two ton objects moving at 30mph…)

    Anyhow, this is interesting to read. In 7th grade, we watched a documentary featuring life in a pygmy tribe. It was kind of a happy national geographic one, so I only learned about the unhappy happenings much later, and I think only because I kind of seek out information on things…


    • Oh goodness, kids and cars. *breaks into a sweat just thinking about it*
      Kids seem hell-bent on injuring themselves, especially now that it’s summer. I greatly envy the fact that my ancestors didn’t have to worry about small children darting into traffic. (Though to be fair, they lost a lot of kids to disease, so I guess I have it better.)


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