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springbok inflight (saa magazine) - feb 87


My first encounter with a pygmy was disappointing. The middle-aged man said in French: “I am a pygmy. Give me a bic.” He was, admittedly, short and barefoot but wore red shorts and a T-shirt which proclaimed: ‘SCHOOL’S GREAT – when it’s closed’.

The illusion of pygmies being untouched by Western civilisation, still armed with primitive weapons and little clothing, was immediately shattered. That was in Northern Zaire. Later, I found the Mbuti pygmies — probably the closest of all to the original pygmies — deep in the Ituri Forest in the north-east. Today, they live in the style of their ancestors.

Sitting in a clearing encircled by small palm-leafed huts and watching them was a lesson on how self-sufficiency and survival, entirely reliant on nature, works — and works well. It was an education too, to see people living happily in total oblivion of the world outside their forest. The same forest where they are born, live and die.

Six of us (five women and a man) left civilisation behind at the base camp on the Epulu River. Armed with dehydrated food, water and a mosquito net, we followed a rough track which led through the jungle to one of the Mbuti villages. Twisted trees, covered in cascading creepers, blocked out sunlight and blanketed sound. Thick undergrowth frequently obscured the track. Along it, natural trip-wires caught the inexperienced — our barefoot pygmy guide avoided them with knowing alacrity.

The further into the interior, the denser and more humid became the jungle and the more convinced I became that the Mbuti were antisocial. They certainly didn’t choose a site which encouraged guests; surely few, except the odd tourist and determined anthropologist, would make that effort through the almost impenetrable forest for a quick visit.

Five-and-a-half hours later, we sat in the well-camouflaged settlement and watched while forty small people, crouching around their wood fires, stared back. They had seen tourists like us before, so they quietly accepted us.

The group’s spokesman, also in shorts, welcomed us. I began to wonder if the loin-cloth wearers we had heard about were just rumours. Had Africa’s entire male pygmy population been replaced by an American T-shirt brigade? Only the bare-breasted women with their primitive jewellery looked original. Yet, at dusk, the loin-cloth clad hunters arrived, carrying bows and arrows and a freshly killed dik-dik (small antelope). Small portions were given to each family, the meagre meal being supplemented by honey, manioc root (cassava), nuts and mushrooms gathered from the forest.

We communicated with the spokesman via Monsieur Richard, a black ‘guide’ from the Government National Parks Department, who escorted us but who kept losing the path when the pygmy guide went too fast. He spoke a smattering of French and the black language adopted by this group. Each group speaks the language of the black village nearest to them.

Roving tribe
Part of the Ituri Forest is a national park. At a base station at Epulu village, about 500 kilometres from Kisangani, tourists can arrange visits to the different pygmy tribes. There are between 100 000 and 200 000 pygmies in Africa, and about 35 000 Mbuti.

The forest trek is anything but another tourist gimmick. One pays very little for the one-and-a-half-day expedition, which could be a leisurely stroll or a strenuous slog, depending where the settlements are. The whereabouts of forest pygmies are seldom definite as they remain in one place for a month then move elsewhere. Our village had been there for six days, having moved from the previous site, two hours from Epulu, in search of food and water.

Loud thunderclaps of a tropical storm announced the evening. It rained well into the night. The seemingly fragile palm roofs held out well against the onslaught; even the fires kept burning throughout — a feat we, as campers, found impossible.

We cooked our evening meal on a separate fire, as did each family. We gave a family our dehydrated sweet-and- sour chicken concoction and, in return, received some of the chewy, tasteless dik-dik. I wasn’t at all surprised to find both gifts discarded the next morning.

The spokesman was not the chief, as may be presumed. The Mbuti have no leaders, no political or legal system, in fact, nothing resembling Western culture. Authority is divided between children, youths, adults and elders, each having different essential responsibilities.

Labour exchange
Their Western clothing was a superficial black influence which was bound to seep in as they were the pygmies’ nearest neighbours. Although the Mbuti are one of two pygmy groups who have had less assimilation with the outside world than others, they still have economic ties with the blacks.

A friendly ‘you help us and we will help you’ attitude works well. The Mbuti provide forest products and sometimes labour in exchange for the blacks’ agricultural goods, clothes and metal. In return for the Mbuti’s labour, they and their forests are left alone.

Highlights of an expedition are to spend a night in a village and to go hunting with them. Unfortunately, we arrived too late for the hunt. Two huts, one including two pygmies, were set aside for us. The miniscule openings made me bend almost three times over to climb inside. The bare floor was hard but dry and devoid of bugs. Not one mosquito raised a squeak that night — the constant pall of wood smoke must have helped an insect exodus along. Whatever it was, it made me sleep comfortably.

Healing ointment
I awoke early to the sound of murmuring pygmies. Outside the entrance of my hut, a row of solemn faces peered down at me. Each one then displayed a remarkable collection of oozing cuts, blisters and bites and, clucking and shaking their heads, waited for help.

Someone must have witnessed how I had smeared gooey-brown antiseptic cream and stuck plasters on my mutilated toes the previous afternoon. While probably ineffective against the forest’s humidity, which makes healing difficult, the brown ointment certainly looked impressive.

Before leaving, we traded a few simple goods for theirs. Cakes of soap were wanted in exchange for a goat skin and bamboo necklace or a bow-and-arrow set. T-shirts were in demand but we had none, save what we were wearing, and for farewell and thank you presents, they were happy with ground coffee, plastic bags and cigarettes.

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