Jan 19, 2022 • 8M


As a world, we have utterly screwed the Pygmies.

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Few things that I learned about in my childhood were more endearing to the idea of the wonders of planet earth and the diversity of life than the Pygmies.  They have lived the same way for millennia, in harmony with nature in equatorial rainforests extending from Cameroon, through the Congo Basin to Uganda.  Beautiful music and singing is a major part of their daily lives. ( French-Israeli ethno-musicologist Simha Arom says that the level of polyphonic complexity of pygmy music was reached in Europe only in the 14th century — but Pygmy music is unwritten and ancient.) The average Pygmy man is 4’11, while the women are even tinier; the word “Pygmy” derives from the Greek definition of the size of a forearm. (The word “Pygmy,” according to Wikipedia, is also sometimes considered to be pejorative, but there is no particular single term to replace it — just a variety of specific tribe names.) Herodotus wrote about the Pygmies in the fifth century.  Once discovered by colonialists, Pygmy children were kidnapped and put in European zoos.  Pygmies were brought as exhibitions to the World’s Fair in 1904, and were later housed in a diorama in New York’s Museum of Natural History. One was most appallingly featured at the Bronx Zoo. 

In 2008, there were an estimated quarter-million pygmies on earth, making them the largest hunger/gatherer tribe that still existed. (One scientific study numbered the Pygmies as approximately 900,000, but this is not a statistic seen in many articles.) In 2021, there was an estimated 120,000 Pygmies left. (These numbers are probably close to meaningless because they vary so much, because nobody really gives a shit about the Pygmies.) 

The Bantu (the name for the taller tribes surrounding the Pygmies) have had it out for the pygmies for a long time.  The Bantu government denied their property rights and forced the pygmies out of the rainforest, which they converted into National Parks, as well as sites for logging and mining; logging companies have forced the Pygmies out of their habitats in Cameroon.  Pygmies were forced out of their homes to live in roadside Bantu settlements — this was the first shot in what would become a near-total cultural genocide. Deforestation has caused Pygmies to “squat” in huts on the land of their oppressors, where they are continually chased away and often beaten to death. Bantu poachers killed all the forest animals the Pygmies used to eat. Pygmy children are malnourished from lack of protein, and often killed by contaminated water. 

 Pygmies are widely thought of in Africa as subhuman.   Much like the Tibetans under the law of the Chinese, Pygmies have been forced to assimilate (which they have neither the means nor the education to do) into Bantu culture to survive.  In the Great Lakes region, fighting has been the norm since the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Between 2002 and 2003, the Batwa Pygmies were caught in the crossfire between the Hema and Lendu tribes, who “exploited and exterminated” the Pygmy tribes for being “obstacles to progress,” according to an article on CulturalSurvival.org. ( Progress, in this case, meant mineral and logging rights.) Over 60,000 Pygmies were slain. 

The Hema and Lendu, along with other neighboring groups, decided to ethnically cleanse the Ituri Forest areas of the Pygmies, using such methods as rape, live burial, slavery and cannibalism.   Adolphine Muley, a Batwa representative of the Unions for the Emancipation of Indigenous Women UEFA, told the United Nations, “These human beings (Pygmies) are being killed, cut up into pieces, put on a fire in a pot and eaten…This, no more and no less, a crime against humanity.” 

The UN officially recognized that Pygmies were literally being hunted and eaten by rebels as game — at least partially due to a prevailing belief among the taller tribes that raping Pygmy women or eating Pygmy flesh can give you magical powers and cure AIDS (pygmies being regarded as half-animal.) Since the Hema and Lendu, the Mayi-Mayi, a loose group of tribal militias, have been controlling the forests, “united by their magical beliefs and a taste for human flesh,”wrote attorney Warren L. Wright.

"We hear reports of commanders feeding on sexual organs of pygmies, apparently believing this would give them strength…We also have reports of pygmies being forced to feed on the cooked remains of their colleagues,” said Sudi Alimasi - an official of the Rally for Congolese Democracy - ML, according to the website WrightLawyer.com.au

None of the indigenous peoples are recognized, in the DNC, as actual citizens - so they have no social services or healthcare, or even identity cards. Lack of identity cards is often used as an excuse to kill Pygmies. 

The Bayaka Pygmies, forced out of their traditional homes, have pitifully come to resemble the American Indians; many of the men have lost hope and become drunks, abusing fermented palm sap. 

The Batwa tribe, the largest pygmy tribe, was displaced in 1993 due to a war between rebels and the Ugandan Army.  Many sell marijuana to the Bantu in order to survive; others resort to begging or prostitution.

Further exacerbating the plight of the Pygmies is the World Wildlife Foundation, who, in the name of conservation, believe that a primeval “virgin forest” should be free of humans, including the indigenous forest dwellers who have been stewards of the forest since the Stone Age. 

“They are a part of the ecosystem, as much as the gorilla or the forest hog,” wrote an uncredited author on resilience.org.   “Their taboos recognize the evil of hunting in an animal’s birthing grounds, or the importance of never placing traps near fresh water. Breaking these results in a metaphysical ostracism known as ‘muzombo’, a kind of spiritual death and sometimes accompanied by physical exile from the village.” 

Which just goes to show you that in a world governed by the rapacious interests of capitalism, if elves were discovered building toys in the North Pole, Halliburton would have already eaten them. 

There is no place left in the world for gentle folk, like animists, which is a shame, because animism is one of the more thoughtful and egalitarian belief systems. 

“While preserving their belief in animism in general, Pygmies believe that everything in nature has a spirit as well as a material existence, and each object is controlled by a spirit,” wrote Anadolu Agency for DailySabah.com.  

I hereby curse any pygmy-eater or oppressor to muzombo, although in this extreme case, spiritual death may prove redundant.  What kind of soulless ghoul could eat a fucking Pygmy? 

Some of us, apparently.  During my research for this article, I entered “Plight of the Pygmy” into Google, and one of the top related search questions was “Can Pygmies mate with humans?” 

So much for American exceptionalism. 

Here is a link to the website SurvivalInternational.org, where you may write a letter to the President of Cameroon urging him to recognize indigenous Pygmies and their right to exist:  


Not to resort to schadenfreude, but remember: Things may be fucked, but until you are hunted and eaten by your neighbors, there’s always a chance things may turn around.  

 Remember the Pygmies! 

NEED BOOK COACHING, MANUSCRIPT EDITING or SCRIPT DOCTORING? Look no further. I will take your mess of words and make it sing. CintraW@gmail.com

Artwork: “Drummer Monkey” by Cintra Wilson, oil on canvas, 2019