Anthropology Friday: Still A Pygmy (pt 4/4): War, violence, and more war

Today we’re wrapping up our review of Still a Pygmy, by Isaac Bacirongo and Micheal Nest

Mobutu Sese Seko

It’s no secret that Mobutu Sese Seko (ne Joseph-Desiré Mobutu) was a shitty dictator who forced school children to sing anthems praising him every morning and had his own citizens tortured if they disputed his claim to be immortal.

Of course Mobuto was not immortal; he is now very much dead.

But let’s back up a minute:

Patrice Lumumba was an anti-colonialist protestor who was jailed for opposing Belgian rule in the Congo and became the first democratically elected prime minister of the DRC.

He then gave raises to everyone in the government except the military, so of course the military revolted. He asked the UN for help putting down the rebellion, but the UN sucked so he went to the Soviets.

Patrice Lumumba

American hates the Soviets, so America + Belgium helped Mobutu overthrow the government, kill Lumumba, and squash the rebellion.

The execution is thought to have taken place on 17 January 1961, between 21:40 and 21:43 (according to the Belgian report.) The Belgians and their counterparts wished to get rid of the bodies, and did so by digging up and dismembering the bodies, then having them dissolved in sulphuric acid while the bones were ground and scattered.[27] (Source)

Mobutu became dictator and changed the country’s name to Zaire to show that he was totally anti-colonialist, despite using Belgian money and soldiers to overthrow the democratically elected government anti-colonialist government of the DRC.

During his reign, Mobutu built a highly centralized state and amassed a large personal fortune through economic exploitation and corruption, leading some to call his rule a “kleptocracy.”[3][4] The nation suffered from uncontrolled inflation, a large debt, and massive currency devaluations. (source)

I seriously question the idea of a “highly centralized state” in the DRC, given the lack of basic things like roads, but I think I know what Wikipedia is trying to say.

But, say what you will, Mobutu did crush several rebellions and bring a relative order of peace to his country:

By 1970, nearly all potential threats to his authority had been smashed, and for the most part, law and order was brought to nearly all parts of the country. That year marked the pinnacle of Mobutu’s legitimacy and power. King Baudouin of Belgium, made a highly successful state visit to Kinshasa. …

Early in his rule[when?], Mobutu consolidated power by publicly executing political rivals, secessionists, coup plotters, and other threats to his rule. To set an example, many were hanged before large audiences, including former Prime Minister Evariste Kimba, who, with three cabinet members – Jérôme Anany (Defense Minister), Emmanuel Bamba (Finance Minister), and Alexandre Mahamba (Minister of Mines and Energy) – was tried in May 1966, and sent to the gallows on 30 May, before an audience of 50,000 spectators. …

Mobutu later moved away from torture and murder, and switched to a new tactic, buying off political rivals. He used the slogan “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer still”[26] to describe his tactic of co-opting political opponents through bribery.

The idea that Mobutu was somehow more pro-capitalist than Lumumba is silly, of course, but somehow the capitalist colonialists didn’t get the joke:

[Mobutu] initially nationalized foreign-owned firms and forced European investors out of the country. In many cases he handed the management of these firms to relatives and close associates who stole the companies’ assets. This precipitated such an economic slump that Mobutu was forced by 1977 to try to woo foreign investors back.[29] Katangan rebels based in Angola invaded Zaire in 1977 in retaliation for Mobutu’s support for anti-MPLA rebels. France airlifted 1,500 Moroccan paratroopers into the country and repulsed the rebels, ending Shaba I. The rebels attacked Zaire again, in greater numbers, in the Shaba II invasion of 1978. The governments of Belgium and France deployed troops with logistical support from the United States and defeated the rebels again.

Why the US, France, or Belgium should spend their money to help Mobutu is beyond me, but I suppose he was our anti-European communist oligarch and not the USSR’s anti-European communist oligarch.

Mobutu might have started out as a smart guy. The Wikipedia certainly gives that impression. But he ran his country like an idiot.

He spent most of his time increasing his personal fortune, which in 1984 was estimated to amount to US$5 billion,[30][31] most of it in Swiss banks … This was almost equivalent to the country’s foreign debt at the time, and, by 1989, the government was forced to default on international loans from Belgium. He owned a fleet of Mercedes-Benz vehicles that he used to travel between his numerous palaces, while the nation’s roads rotted and many of his people starved. Infrastructure virtually collapsed, and many public service workers went months without being paid. … A popular saying that the civil servants pretended to work while the state pretended to pay them expressed this grim reality.

Another feature of Mobutu’s economic mismanagement, directly linked to the way he and his friends siphoned off so much of the country’s wealth, was rampant inflation. The rapid decline in the real value of salaries strongly encouraged a culture of corruption and dishonesty among public servants of all kinds.

At some point, according to Isaac Bacirongo, Mobutu actually stopped paying the army, telling them “You have guns; go get money yourself.” (I am only remembering the quote so it may not be exact.) Unsurprisingly, the army began exploiting the ordinary citizens even more than usual, and when the DRC got invaded yet again, didn’t bother defending it.

He was also the subject of one of the most pervasive personality cults of the 20th century. The evening news on television was preceded by an image of him descending through clouds like a god descending from the heavens. Portraits of him adorned many public places, and government officials wore lapels bearing his portrait. He held such titles as “Father of the Nation,” “Messiah,” “Guide of the Revolution,” “Helmsman,” “Founder,” “Savior of the People,” and “Supreme Combatant.” In the 1996 documentary of the 1974 Foreman-Ali fight in Zaire, dancers receiving the fighters can be heard chanting “Sese Seko, Sese Seko.” At one point, in early 1975, the media was even forbidden from mentioning by name anyone but Mobutu; others were referred to only by the positions they held.[41][42]

Isaac Bacirongo once told a neighbor that he didn’t think Mobutu was actually immortal. The neighbor reported Isaac to the secret police, who arrested and tortured him every day for, IIRC, two weeks. They considered transferring him to a formal prison for political prisoners, where he probably would have been tortured more, but in an ironic twist of fortune, decided that Pygmies were worthless and so couldn’t be real political opponents and so not worth the bother of imprisoning. So Isaac was released.

Here the story gets a little complicated, because it involves other countries, but I’ll try to keep it short:

Over in Rwanda, the Tutusis were a small minority of relatively well-off people and the Hutus were a large majority of very poor people. So the Hutus kicked out the Tutsis, leading to a lot of Tutsis living in places like the DRC. The Tutsis got themselves an army, and in 1994, shot down the Rwandan president’s plane. This enraged the already not happy Hutus, who responded by killing all of the Tutsis they could get their hands on (resulting in more refugees.) The Tutsi army responded by invading Rwanda and taking over, resulting in a bunch of Hutu refugees.

Isaac notes that the sudden influx of refugees into his area made the price of unskilled labor plummet. He took advantage of this by hiring workers to build him a second, extremely cheap house.

But of course immigration and the cost of labor have nothing to do with each other.

Private meeting between Kabila, Micheal Jackson, and the guy on the left.
Private meeting between Kabila, Micheal Jackson, and the guy on the left.

Anyway, then Kabila, a dedicated Marxist who’d worked with Che Guevara back in the day*, with the help of the Tutsi army, invaded and conquered the DRC. This worked out for the Tutsi army, which got to shoot all of the Hutu refugees in the DRC, and worked out for Kabila, who promptly abandoned Marxism in favor of being Mobutu 2.0.

*Even Che Guevara didn’t think much of Kabila:

[Kabila] was sent[by whom?] to eastern Congo to help organize a revolution, in particular in the Kivu and North Katanga provinces. In 1965, Kabila set up a cross-border rebel operation from Kigoma, Tanzania, across Lake Tanganyika.[3] …

 Che Guevara assisted Kabila for a short time in 1965. Guevara had appeared in the Congo with approximately 100 men who planned to bring about a Cuban-style revolution. Guevara judged Kabila (then 26) as “not the man of the hour” he had alluded to, being too distracted. This, in Guevara’s opinion, accounted for Kabila showing up days late at times to provide supplies, aid, or backup to Guevara’s men. The lack of cooperation between Kabila and Guevara contributed to the suppression of the revolt that same year.[4]

… After the failure of the rebellion, Kabila turned to smuggling gold and timber on Lake Tanganyika. He also ran a bar and brothel in Tanzania.[5]

Kabila was later shot by one of his own bodyguards.

Isaac himself was only about 500 meters away when the invading army began massacring Hutu refugees who had gathered in his area. He and a friend’s children escaped into the forest, where they reverted to hunting and gathering while hiding from the army. (In this case, it was a very good thing Isaac was a Pygmy; if I had to survive in the Congolese rainforest for a couple of weeks, I wouldn’t know the first thing about gathering food.) Isaac’s entire family thought he was dead until he managed to return home.

The security situation deteriorated from there, with the country split between two armies and a bunch of militias in the forests. Now instead of merely jailing and torturing people, the armies took to shooting them. Trade and commerce broke down because you couldn’t travel anywhere because the different armies would shoot you if you went into a different part of the country, and besides, the armies were just stealing everything. They looted one of Isaac’s pharmacies and then burned it down.

Sad to say, it sounds like everyone was actually better off under Mobutu.

Around this time, Isaac decided to become a Pygmy rights advocate and went to a couple of international conferences to speak about how Pygmies are discriminated against by Bantus, not allowed to hunt in the national parks, etc., and was promptly arrested for making the government look bad. He managed to bribe his way out of prison and fled the country in the middle of the night, convinced that if he stayed, he’d be killed.

Isaac was lucky to escape.

I wager the security situation in the DRC is still a mess.


Anthropology Friday: Still a Pygmy (pt 3) Bantus, Mobutu, and Witchcraft

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

 “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” — Tolstoy

One of the things I find interesting (and reassuring) when reading about other peoples and places is discovering that they have problems, too–it’s not just us. This is a bit of a personal life philosophy–when the going gets tough, I tell myself “Other people have been through this. You are not the only one. They got through it and so will you.” It is always useful to have some perspective on life.

These days, the biggest source of trouble in Pygmies’ lives isn’t leopards, but the Bantus. Of course this must be taken with a grain of salt, since the book was written by a Pygmy; perhaps Bantus have a whole list of their own grievances–maybe Pygmies “hunt” their livestock and “gather” their crops. I should try to be at least a little cautious of accepting uncritically a single account of relations between two groups of people I have no personal experience with.

Thankfully there is a lot of other evidence on the subject, and it looks like the Pygmies are generally on the losing end of Bantu violence, and the Bantus are not generally on the losing end of Pygmy violence. The Wikipedia: article on Pygmies quotes a BBC report:

In 2003, Sinafasi Makelo, a representative of Mbuti pygmies, told the UN’s Indigenous People’s Forum that during the Congo Civil War, his people were hunted down and eaten as though they were game animals. In neighbouring North Kivu province there has been cannibalism by a group known as Les Effaceurs (“the erasers”) who wanted to clear the land of people to open it up for mineral exploitation.[23] Both sides of the war regarded them as “subhuman” and some say their flesh can confer magical powers.[24] Makelo asked the UN Security Council to recognise cannibalism as a crime against humanity and an act of genocide.[25]

It’s sad that we have to add “cannibalism” to the list of “things people have to be explicitly told not to do.”

Since the world of Pygmy activists is pretty small, it’s not surprising that Isaac also mentions Sinafasi Makelo. “My position in APDMAC [A pygmy rights group] was Founder and Coordinator. Sinafasi, a Pygmy from the Mangurejipa Forest in North Kivu, was the Secretary.”

Continuing with Wikipedia:

According to Minority Rights Group International there is extensive evidence of mass killings, cannibalism and rape of Pygmies and they have urged the International Criminal Court to investigate a campaign of extermination against pygmies. Although they have been targeted by virtually all the armed groups, much of the violence against Pygmies is attributed to the rebel group, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, which is part of the transitional government and still controls much of the north, and their allies.[26]

The Pygmy population was also a target of the Interahamwe during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. Of the 30,000 Pygmies in Rwanda, an estimated 10,000 were killed and another 10,000 were displaced. They have been described as “forgotten victims” of the genocide.[27] The current Rwandan Pygmy population is about 33,000, and is reportedly declining.[28]

By one estimate, the total number of Pygmies killed in the civil wars in Congo and Rwanda is 70,000.[27]

I am not sure that the Pygmies are actually being targeted anymore than everyone else in the area–the Tutsis have a pretty good claim to have been victims of genocide as well, and the Tutsis got back at the Hutus by massacring them. And plenty of ordinary Bantus living in the area have been raped, shot, massacred, and probably eaten, too. The only difference is that you never hear of the Pygmies being the victors (or aggressors) in these conflicts. Not that Pygmies are peace-loving forest hippies or something like that, but they are a tiny group of hunter-gatherers and therefore don’t have the numbers nor the weapons to attack their neighbors.

Regardless, the situation in the Congo is not good. As Reuters reports (2014):

A militia leader accused of kidnap, rape and cannibalism in Democratic Republic of Congo was killed on Monday alongside four other people during a firefight as he sought to escape his army captors, the government said. … U.N. experts said in December he switched his focus from poaching elephants to attacking gold mines. They accuse him and his men of kidnapping people to carry looted goods and of forcing women into being sexual slaves for militia members.

They said in another report last July that former captives had told them the group, known as “Mai Mai Morgan”, had engaged in cannibalism on several occasions.

From the Toronto Star, in a report about “child soldiers” (children kidnapped by the Congolese militias and forced into service):

“When you kill a Tutsi, you remove his heart and mix it with special potions, like a medicine,’’ explains Popy Matenda, rather blandly. “Other parts of the body can be eaten too but the heart is special. It gives you the strength of the person you killed, like you are sucking in his spirit. It’s a kind of magic.’’ … “It didn’t make me sick or anything, eating humans,’’ continues 15-year-old Matenda as he slurps up a cola, when what he’d really wanted was a whiskey. “You couldn’t even taste the flesh because it was all ground up with the medicine.”

From Worldcrunch, In Congo, A Tribal Chief Forced to Flee Cannibalistic Militia:

“Since 2003, 40 chiefs have been killed by the Mai-Mai, who ate their flesh, which they believe can strengthen their power and make them invulnerable to bullets. This has happened to the leaders Musumari, Mwele, Lwalaba, Dilenge, Kawama Mubidi, Kiyombo, Ntambo, Kileba …”

As I have noted before, the belief that eating people (or animals) can give you magic powers leads quickly down a very bad path. If you want an historical view, I recommend Cannibalism in the African Congo.

Isaac Bacirongo does not actually dwell much at all on the specific targeting of Pygmies for cannibalism and genocide. However, he does say:

The owners of the forest became those who had guns. If APDMAC went there and said, ‘Pygmies are the owners of the forest,’ they would put us in prison. In the past, pygmies id not worry about the future. Life was easy because it was easy to find something to eat and thee was only one need: meat. … Many had fled deep into the forest because of the fighting but life was hard because militias operated there as well. They might be killed or raped. there was no medicine in the forest and many people died because of this, including my papa. …

A lot of people are suffering back home and there is nothing I can do about it. In the north-east of Congo, a rebel militia went into the Ituri Forest to hunt Pygmies because they thought they could get magic powers from them. One of my aunts was also killed by rebel forces. They found out she was a Pygmy and wanted to learn about Pygmy magic because they thought it would help them in the forest. he told them she knew nothing, so they buried her alive. Sinafasi, one of the founders of APDMAC,went to the Unted Nations in New york to petition to include cannibalism as a crime against humanity, because other militas were eating Pygmies. The militas thout this would help them in the forest.

… In 2005, Kabungulu from Herieters de la Justice, the man who convinced me to become an activist, was murdered, probably because of his activist work. After that I got the news that 56 people in Bunyakiri were killed by a Hutu milita fighting the Congolese government. Among the dead were my sister’s husband, Josephine’s [his wife’s] nephew, the father of Akili (the nephew I brought to Australia,) and many other neighbors. …

The Pygmies’ reputation for magical powers, which earned them a special position in Bantu religious rituals (see last week’s Anthropology Friday,) definitely backfires when people decide they can get those same magic powers for themselves by eating you.

But enough sensationalism–let’s get back to the mundane, because the day-to-day lives of Congolese Pygmies obviously isn’t invading armies or cannibals.

As a small child, Isaac lived on the banana plantation where his parents worked and attended the local school. He was the only Pygmy at the school, for the simple reason that school cost money, which Pygmies generally could not afford, and because Pygmies tend to prefer living their lives and not worrying about school. But Isaac wanted to be like all of the other kids on the plantation, so he bugged his parents until they somehow scraped up the cash and sent him to school.

I first became aware of politics when I was at this school, because every morning we had to stand in assembly and sing praises to our president, Joseph Mobutu. The government forced shops to put up President Mobutu’s picture and some people even had a picture of Mobutu in their homes, although we didn’t in our hut made of sticks and leaves. … Mama and Papa knew about Mobutu but were not interested in politics and paid no attention to any of it.

Having to pay homage to Mobutu as part of a fake religion was pretty dumb, but a lot better than getting shot by invaders. Unfortunately, the kinds of people who set up fake religions about themselves are often idiots who do things like not pay their armies, which leads to your people getting shot by invaders.

My teacher at the school was Mr. Enoch. ‘Which tribe are you from?’ he asked me, as all the other students in the whole school were Shi. I told him ‘BaTembo.’ ‘That,’ he replied, ‘means you are a Pygmy.’ … Mr. Enoch despised me. He made a point of calling me a ‘Pygmy’ in a way that told the other students I was inferior. …

After three months at the Kabuga school I had a very bad experience. One day I wet my pants, and Mr Enoch hit me very hard with his fists and kicked me. Mr Enoch shouted, ‘that’s what I think of Pygmies!’ as he punched me… I remember bleeding from my ears and nose…

(Remember that Isaac was, at this time, only in the equivalent of kindergarten or first grade.)

My parents were not surprised to see me beaten half-dead by my teacher. They had told us that Bantu always treat Pygmies badly. But I did not understand Mr. Enoch when he told me that Pygmies are not human! …

After I arrived home my body started to swell up. My parents massaged me with hot water and herb from the forest. … The police asked my parents to pay 5 makutas–what they called the ‘arrest fee’–to arrest Mr. Enoch, but where could they get 5 makutas? … ‘Will you insist on going to school again?’ Papa asked. … ‘School is not for us. Now you see for yourself why we don’t go to school.’

Eventually Isaac does go back to school, after his parents move to a different area.

Isaac also recounts the story of a time when his mother was selling firewood, and a Bantu man did not like the price she asked for her wood, so he just hit her and stole her wood.

When Bantu cheat Pygmies or refuse to honor a promise of payment, they do not want the Pygmies to react badly. For example, most Pygmies work at times on the farms of Bantu villagers. The villager might promise to give them two or three measure of beans as payment, but then only give one. …

There are Pygmies who have had their lands sold to Bantu. If we complain, the territorial administrator or the lawyers will be given a cow by the person who bought the land, and because they have bee bought off, they do nothing for the Pygmies.

Anyway, Isaac finishes 10 years of schooling (plus part of year 11,) and sets out to get a job. He has more than enough education to become a teacher, but it is very tough to find people willing to hire a Pygmy teacher. He ends up going into business, leading to his successful pharmacy chain. Eventually he gets married to a town girl, Josephine. Unfortunately, Josephine and Isaac’s mom don’t get along:

Mama was not happy. ‘Look,’ she said, ‘you are marrying someone from a rich family. Town girls don’t know how to look for crabs or firewood…’ Mama wanted me to marry a girl from the forest. …

Mama also blamed Papa for me wanting to stay in town. ‘I told you not to send your son to school,’ she said, ‘because he will want to live in town. It will change his thinking and he won’t want to live in the forest.’ But Papa hadn’t sent me to school.

… Mama tried everything she could with witchcraft to kill Josephine.

Mama thought Josephine was controlling me, and told me the reason I did not return to the forest was because Josephine had used witchcraft to make me change my mind and beliefs… So Mama went to a witchdoctor to ask for magic herbs more powerful than those she thought Josephine had given me, to kill the power of Josephine’s magic. Mum tried to get me t eat these herbs and she placed others where I was sitting or stepping. The herbs did not work…

Mama then went to a woman who was known to be a sorceress, Nagabushu… Mama said that if Josephine were to die while pregnant with Deborah, people would think it was because of the pregnancy and would not suspect witchcraft. Nagabushu got upset and started fighting with Mum. ‘I’m not a sorceress!’ she shouted. ‘I’ve never killed anyone!’ …

In 1991, ten years after we married, Mama went to a different witchdoctor… He was an older man in his forties. … The witchdoctor told mama how powerful he was. ‘It will be very simple to kill your daughter-in-law,’ he said. ‘I have the power to bring storms, such as lighting storms… Someone died a few months ago from a lightning strike, and it was me who did that. … If you give me your youngest daughter, Sibaruzi, to be my wife that would be enough payment…’

Mama told Sibaruzi that if she refused to be the witchdoctor’s wife, everyone in our family would be killed. … mama escorted her to the witchdoctor and when they arrived he showed them teeth of wild animals, herbs and bottles of liquids. Sibaruzi was afraid. … She was twelve at the time and had not even had her first period. I still do not know how Mama could do this. What a bad heart!

Obviously the witchdoctor failed and Josephine is still alive and well. Eventually Sibaruzi figured out what was up and left, saying she never wanted to see him again. (What a creep.)

Amusingly, sometime I get witchdoctor spam, but being an idiot, I didn’t save the part I wanted to quote for you and my spam folder auto-deleted it. Oh, well. It was funny.

Well, Josephine, if it’s any consolation, I’ve heard lots horrible mother-in-law stories here in the US, too. I guess this means that “horrible mothers-in-law” may be a true human universal.