Tag Archives: Zaire

Why I ate a Pangolin

The Lese people practice swidden horticulture in the Ituri Forest, Congo (formerly Zaire). Living in the same area are the Efe people, sometimes known as Pygmies (but that may be an inappropriate term). The Efe and Lese share a culture, in a sense, but are distinct entities within that culture, as distinct as any people living integrated by side by side ever are. The Efe are hunter-gatherers, but the gathering of wild food part of that is largely supplanted by a traditional system of tacit exchange between Efe women and Lese farmers, whereby the Efe provide labor and the farmers provide food. The Efe men also work on the farms sometimes, but their contribution to the family’s diet is more typically from foraged goods, including plants but mostly animals, and during a particular season of the year, the products of honey bee nests.

For several years, in the 1980s and early 90s, I lived in Zaire (now Congo) for several months out of each year (generally between May and January, roughly), and for much of that time I was in the Ituri with the Lese and Efe. During that time, I spent much of the time in the forest with the Efe (very few of the researches on that long term multidisciplinary project did that — most spent their time with the Lese for various reasons).

To go from our study site to the grocery store (which was not really a grocery store because they did not exist in that part of Zaire, but a city with markets) was about a week’s trip or more. Only a few days of that was driving, the rest fixing the broken truck, doing the shopping, etc. So, one did this infrequently. There was no local market during my time there, though one opened up 10 clicks away for a while, at which one might or might not be able to buy a chicken or a yam, if you showed up early.

I (and this pertains to most of my colleagues as well, only a few of us would be at the site at a time) would buy sacks of rice and beans and other long term food items in the city, and carefully curate them at the base camp, a small village constructed of wattle and daub leaf-roofed huts and outhouses. When I went to the forest just to live with or observe the Efe, I would bring the exact amount of food I would need to survive if all I did was feed myself. This way my presence would not affect the Efe’s food budget. But, this is a sharing culture and it would have been very bad for me to just eat that food. I feely shared my food with my fellow camp members, and they shared their food, and my food was almost exactly the same as their local food (rice was grown there) except I would have beans and they are not local. Otherwise, the same.

This meant that I ate what they ate.

Other times, I would hire Efe and maybe one Lese to go with me to the forest to carry out research. I’d be careful to hire them for limited amounts of time to not disrupt their lives too much, but there was very little difference between them working for me and, say, getting honey during honey season. I would only ask them to work with me for a few hours a day and they would otherwise forage. On these trips, I brought more food, for them, because our geographic location and the work we were doing interfered with their normal food getting activities, so I made up for that. But still, during these times we ate plenty of forest foods.

So, what do the Efe (and their Lese compatriot) eat?

Locally, the plant diet is insufficient nutritionally, and often, children are undernourished. There is a hunger season during which the plants from the forest and gardens are rare or absent at the same time, and this is often the death season. No one dies form starving, really (though that apparently can happen) but they have another dangerous disease, and the lack of food may put an ill individual over the top. During one bad hungers season, a small family attempted mass suicide, and mostly succeeded.

Locally, there is no beef, or as is the case a couple of hundred clicks away in most directions, commercially harvested fish. They have goats but the are ceremonial and seem to be never eaten. The Lese have chickens, a few, and they are eaten now and then. The wild animal foods they eat are incredibly important. Without that, they would be in very bad shape.

The most common animals they eat, as in day to day and mundane, are a form of antelope called the Blue Duiker, and monkeys, usually Mangabeys. During a certain season they eat a fair umber of another animal, like but not exactly a duiker, called a water Cheverotain. But since food supply is so unpredictable, they are always on the lookout, and they eat everything. A song bird or bat that flies too close may be batted down with a machete, a Honey Badger that stumbles up on a group of resting Efe may be chased own, an Elephant Shrew that happens on a camp will be dispatched by an archer and cooked up. The only time I ever saw the Efe not go after an animal that happened to show up is when a small herd of elephants came along, and the Efe made a lot of noise to chase them off, while at the same time making plans to hide in the nearby hide-from-the-elephant trees (yes, they have them.) And snakes. Something odd going on there with snakes (see below).

One of the focal points of my research was to look at how animals reacted to the Efe’s presence, and it is striking. Since the Efe will kill and eat almost anything they encounter, most of the animals are very careful to avoid the Efe, and even the Efe’s habitually used trails.

There is a certain amount of elephant hunting. Pygmies, generally, are the African elephant hunters, and apparently, have been so for a very long time. The importance of elephant is very under-appreciated by most experts. The data show that most of the food the Efe eat is plant food, and animal food makes up a percentage of their diet typical for tropical or subtropical African hunter gatherers. But those data never include elephant. I’ve estimated that the total amount of elephant meat they eat over medium periods of time, left to their own, is about the same as all the other meat combined. This happens because when someone does kill an elephant (a rare event compared to the daily killing of a duiker or other more common mammal), everyone from everywhere shows up and gorges on that meat for a few weeks.

So, even though most researchers would classify elephant as uncommon in their diet and therefor not a major contributor to the diet, they’ve simply got that wrong. It is a big deal.

Beyond that, the range of animals is huge, because the number of species native to the area is huge. Oddly, the Efe I was with (and these were more than one distinct group) didn’t seem to eat snakes, tough I know that others do. These Efe also often have a particular species of snake as their totem animal, and you don’t eat your totem animal. So, maybe that is the reason.

Because Efe live the life they live, one without the privilege of access to unlimited supplies of cattle flesh, swine meat, domestic birds, and commercially caught or raised fish, they have a wide dietary niche. Because they live in a remote part of the African rain forest, this list includes a lot of animals many may have never even heard of, or that most regard as exotic, though they are very common there. They live a life where the plant foods often fail them, and collectively do not provide a sufficiently nutritious diet, so they do not have the privilege of eschewing meat, and in fact, perhaps with the knowledge that meat is the real hunger-killer in their environment, they prefer to spend as much time as they can chewing meat.

And I spent a lot of time sharing their culture and ecology with them, and in so doing, had the privilege of getting much closer to truly experiencing another culture than most ever get. Close enough, in fact, to know that I wasn’t even close, and knowing that is a privilege the dilettante missionary or subscriber to National Geo can not have.

What a Difference a Century Can Make

At the beginning of the 20th century, a traveler in Central Africa made mention of some strange people that he had come across. He was traveling among regular, run-of-the-mill natives…probably Bantu-speaking people living in scattered villages and farming for their food. But along the way, strange people came out of the forest. These strange people had sloping foreheads; they were short of stature, bow-legged and otherwise misshapen. They also clearly were, in the eyes of the traveler, of subhuman intelligence. The traveler described these people as a separate, subhuman race that lived in the forest. As I read this, I began to think that perhaps he was speaking of so-called “Pygmies” who live in this region, and as I began to think that, I started to get mad at this writer because so-called “Pygmies” do not look or act as he described. Continue reading What a Difference a Century Can Make

King Leopold’s Soliloquy

I first became aware of, and read, King Leopold’s Soliloquy, which is not his soliloquy but a parody of what he might say according to Samuel Clemens, while doing fieldwork in the ex-Belgian Congo. That is where the real story that inspired the essay took place. I lived in an area that at one time had a few a plantations, but the plantations only existed briefly and are now long gone. The “road” through this area was passable only with a very tenacious four wheel drive vehicle (we had a Land Rover) and grew worse every year. But the road at one time was excellent.

I knew a guy, an older Efe Pygmy man, with one leg. When I first arrived in the Ituri Forest I was shown by my colleague an abandoned camp that a group of Efe Pygmies has only recently been living in, and told “everyone in this group lived here but the old man and his wife … he’s a bit contentious and there was an argument.” Having read all the literature written in English about Pygmies, I was aware of the fact that these foraging people, who moved frequently — perhaps ten times a year or more — would often change the composition of their residence groups to reflect forming and breaking alliances among people who often, but not always, lived together. After hanging out in the camp long enough for my colleague to collect some data, we went back to the road via a different path and passed the old man, Kobou (pronounced “Ko-bo-oo”), and his wife in a small clearing in a freshly cut garden. “Strange,” I thought, “They live in a square hut. Everyone else lives in a dome-shaped hut. I guess some Efe live in square huts.”

But no. Kobou is the only Efe I ever came across to always build square huts. Maybe somewhere else in the Central African Rain Forest, but not around these parts.

Thin, old, bearded, fierce eyes contagious laugh and one leg. Kobou1 was the father of one of my main informants. Kobou would come by the research base camp whenever I was there, more or less daily. He’d sit in a chair and chill for a while, then we might chat about one thing or another. Then he’d say “I’ve come to get my plantains” or “I’ve come to get my mohogo” or “I’ve come to get my [fill in the blank with something to eat that we had growing in our fields]”. The base camp did have a rather large garden, and the main purpose of the garden was so that Kobou and a handful of other Efe could come by now and then and claim some of the food.

“You’d better cut your plantains, then,” I’d say.

Kobou and I hanging around in the Harvard Ituri Project base camp.
Kobou and I hanging around in the Harvard Ituri Project base camp.
More often than not he’d reply, “I did already,” pointing with his bearded chin to some big bunch of plantains at the edge of the clearing. Then he’d speak to a child or other handy person in KiLese (the local language) and that person would drag the food over to Kobou. Kobou would then pull out some vines he always seemed to have handy and create a tumpline strap or other carrying device incorporating the plantains or other food item, stand up on his one leg, grab one of his hand-fashioned canes, attach the food to himself, and grabbing the other cane head off to his camp. Unless his wife was with him, then Mrs. Kobou would carry the food.

Kobou had lost his leg to a snake. He had been bitten by a full grown Gabon Viper. The Gabon Viper is one of the scariest of snakes. It’s head is huge, it’s body very stout, and it’s venom is the richest venom known in a snake, both neurotoxic and haemotoxic.

When my friend was bitten by the snake, he was driven by someone from a nearby plantation to a hospital, to have is leg cut off, which was the only way to save his life. In the days I lived there, this drive required many many hours (or a day or two), and would beat the hell out of the truck. But in those days, they were able to drive him there in a few hours. At 120 kpm, it would have been a two or three hour drive.

But the reason that the road was so good is because of the sort of policy satirized in King Leopold’s Soliloquy. In those days, a Belgian Colonial Administrator would drive a vehicle at 100 kilometers per hour down this road with a glass of water on his dashboard. Wherever water spilled form his full glass, he would stop, and his agents would beat and/or maim the nearest villagers. This encouraged the villagers to keep the dirt road in perfect condition by constant attention to any rivulets or potholes, using hand labor and simple tools.

Eventually, the revolution came, in it’s own way, and the Belgians, guilty of a decades-long holocaust, got their due. They were burned to death in the buildings they hid in, they were shot, strangled, and drowned, and a few got away.

At a later time, I stayed in one of King Leopold’s mansions. Well, not really. We kept some of our stuff in the mansion. The mansion had no roof, and was filled with birds and bats, and their guano. It was better to stay in a tent, outside, even though one would risk being trampled by a hippo or hassled by a hyena. This was Ishango, known locally as “The Most Beautiful Place on the Earth.” It is. But they should really tear down those old mansions (Two stood there side by side) and neaten the place up just a little. Leopold had mansions here and there across his Congo, though he never actually visited the place.

I have ruled the Congo State not as a trustee of the Powers, an agent, a subordinate, a foreman, but as a sovereign — sovereign over a fruitful domain four times as large as the German Empire — sovereign absolute, irresponsible, above all law; trampling the Berlin-made Congo charter under foot; barring out all foreign traders but myself; restricting commerce to myself, through concessionaires who are my creatures and confederates; seizing and holding the State as my personal property, the whole of its vast revenues as my private “swag” — mine, solely mine — claiming and holding its millions of people as my private property, my serfs, my slaves; their labor mine, with or without wage; the food they raise not their property but mine; the rubber, the ivory and all the other riches of the land mine — mine solely — and gathered for me by the men, the women and the little children under compulsion of lash and bullet, fire, starvation, mutilation and the halter.

Leopold did not say that. Clemens puts those words in his mouth as a political and social parody. But it is absolutely accurate; had Leopold said those word he would have been speaking the truth.

1Here and elsewhere, when I write about people in the Congo, I use fake names. There are reasons.

Is it appropriate to use the term "Pygmy" when speaking of…Pygmies?

Left: Efe (Pygmy) man. Right: White guy.
Some of the people who live in the rain forest of Central Africa are known widely as “Pgymies.” That word…Pygmy…is considered problematic for a few different reasons. It refers to a person’s physical appearance, because it means “small.” The word is sometimes used in biology to refer to the smaller species among a group of closely related species, as in “Pygmy Hippopotamus” or “Pygmy Chimp.” In English and probably some other languages, the term is used in a derogatory way to refer to someone who is perceived as not very smart, as in “Pygmy mind.” Sometimes the word is simply used, as it is, as a non-specific derogatory word. Someone might be called a “Pygmy” because by someone who does not like them. Also, more of a distracting complexity than negative meaning, the term “Pygmy” is often misused to refer to a much larger number of different people around the world who happen to be dark skinned and short. We see the term used for the Andaman Islands, in Papaua New Guinea and Australia, for example. These a are some of the reasons the term is considered problematic. Continue reading Is it appropriate to use the term "Pygmy" when speaking of…Pygmies?

Ethnographic Notes: Efe Forest Camps

An Efe forest camp is usually dark and depending on the time of day, dripping from current or recent rain. The Efe live in dome shaped huts which may be more or less complete. A half dome might be a hut that was built quickly, or it might be a hut that was built more openly because it has been hot or it might be only a half dome to allow easier access in and out of the hut by children or individuals with injury or infirmity. A fully domed hut, with a small opening, keeps in more smoke (a fire is often kept in the hut) but it also keeps in the heat and keeps out the rain. So a rainy season hut may be a full-on dome with a small entrance way. Or, this kind of hut can be made when it has been cold, or when more privacy is needed, or, simply, when more time has been invested in making the hut.
Continue reading Ethnographic Notes: Efe Forest Camps

The good book

Whenever I sat at Joseph and Mary’s dinner table, Mary showed a great deal of interest in my work. In between her frequent forays away from the dining room table to get this or that food item, or to issue instructions to a servant, or whatever, she would sit at the table across from me and ask questions.

“So, have you found anything interesting?” which is a standard question to which the answer was always “no” … we do not want to give people the idea that they should head out into the bush with a shovel. “So, what to the Pygmies think of your research.” And so on.

I remember that during our second dinner, the fourth or fifth question was this:

“So, since Radiocarbon dating has been proved to not work, how do we really know that the earth is billions of years old?”
Continue reading The good book

Don’t be a Jew

Joseph and Mary, and Little Joe and Mary, and Grinker and I, sat around the table where most of the dinner had been laid out. Additional bits and pieces of the dinner would be brought out as needed shortly, but now it was time to pray.

So we held hands and bowed our heads, and Mary led a prayer to Jesus for the bounty we were about to receive and stuff, and we all said Amen and were about to dig in, when Mary interrupted with a tone of voice and a hand signal that made everyone stop with their forks in mid air.
Continue reading Don’t be a Jew

Dirty poor people living in slime: Missionaries and American Idol


Actual missionaries
As you may have noticed, I have written a series of posts about missionaries in eastern Zaire in the 1980s and early 1990s, focusing on my own personal experiences. These seven posts represent only a small number of these experiences, but they are more or less representative. They are meant to underscore the down side of missionary activities in Central Africa. To some extent, the negatives you may see in these essays are part of the reason for missionary activity being illegal in many countries (although the reasons for those laws varies considerably). It is my opinion that missionary activity should never be allowed, but at the same time, missionaries can have a positive effect that would not likely happen in their absence.

Frankly, I think that the world of sceptics and non believers looks a bit asinine for not making much more of an effort to replace these positive effects in a secular way and to give the missionaries a run for their money.

One of the reasons that I’ve written these essays is because I was asked to address this issue by Mike Haubrich. Mike is the producer of Minnesota Atheist Talk Radio. The idea was that I would write a few blog posts on my experiences with missionaries, and then we would do an Atheist Talk Radio spot on the topic. As it turns out, this coming Sunday’s show will be the last Minnesota Atheist Talk Radio instalment. After this, the show will be off the air forever. So don’t miss the show! Mike is producing the upcoming show, and Stephanie Zvan will be conducting the interview.


Do not assume that mud hut = unhappiness
One of the things that I have not sufficiently conveyed in these posts about missionaries is the broad misconception people … not just missionaries, but most people in The West … have about Africans and Africa and the nature of life there. The average American will see a photograph of a mud hut with a grass roof and a family positioned outside the hut staring into the camera and this average American will think, “Oh, those poor people” without any understanding of the fact that they could be looking at the happiest people they’ve ever seen living in relative comfort, with fulfilling lives. They are just not the lives that the average Westerner has determined, in their privileged, middle class, suburban mindset, to be ideal. But who cares what you think?


Most likely, they are dead by now.
Or, you can look at the broadly smiling face of an African Child bursting with happiness, and think, “well, they fixed that one … he’s happy” and not have any idea that this is a kid who will die of malaria next month because the region of Africa he lives in has zero medical care because there is a war going on over access to the raw materials needed to make your cell phone. Or because he lives near a Christian mission with a medical facility but is not a Christian.

In other words, you have no clue, most likely. And not only do you have no clue, but most of the bad stuff happening to these people is your fault. And you’re probably never going to get a clue. In fact, you are going to spend your energy denying that this is all your fault instead of just doing something to undo what your civilization has done.

The reason you not likely to figure this out, and that you are most likely to keep doing the wrong this, is because the reality that you are willfully misunderstanding is actually quite complicated, but you’ve been trained by your culture and society to view Africa and Africans as rather monolithic and simple.

These posts on missionaries don’t help much in that regard. In these posts, the Africans themselves are not really featured, and though they are far from one dimensional (do look and compare the different individuals mentioned) since these posts are not directly about them, there is just not much there. But I do hope that in reading these seven essays that you will come to understand one thing: When the missionary is showing the slide show about the great work the missionaries are doing, whether you are seeing this in church or on the web or at the local community center or public school, and the missionary is asking you for your money to help do more, please do write a check.

And send it to the UN. Or to the Ituri Forest People’s fund. Or some place, but not the missions.

Here are links to the missionary posts:

On a Mission from God

Forget the Maginot Line, What About the Beer Line?

Our Research Camp as a Mission Station

The Great White Missionary

Attack of the Hound of Malembi. Or, “Whose are these people, anyway?”

Don’t be a Jew

The good book

The Great White Missionary

It was a rare day that I was at the Ngodingodi research station at all … usually I was off in the forest with the Efe Pygmies, up the road excavating an archaeological site. It was also rare that Grinker, my cultural anthropologist colleague, was at the research station. He was spending most of his time in the villages learning language and waiting around for the other shoe to drop (he studied conflict, so on the average day … not much conflict).

But then an even rarer thing happened.
Continue reading The Great White Missionary