What a Difference a Century Can Make

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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.

Then, the writer totally surprised me by noting (I paraphrase) that “unlike the Pygmies, who live in these forests and are of perfectly proportioned shape and appearance, these subhuman creatures were rather grotesque.”

[A repost from QM]

The traveler was a college-educated westerner with a late-Victorian attitude about Africans. The idea that all Africans are at least a little subhuman would have been a starting point for him. Throwing in a tribe here and there with especially cannibalistic or otherwise uncouth tendencies would be typical. Running into a group of individuals that looked to him almost like a separate species would be notable, and he did in fact make note of it, but this would be something he would take in stride.

Reading this made me wonder about two totally different and to some extent opposed lines of thought. On one hand, I thought, “How can people think such things are real…this guy was obviously seeing something he expected to see. Why? How does that work?” On the other hand, I thought, “What if his observations were essentially accurate, aside from the racial judgments he made. What if he really did encounter a bunch of people with bow legs and funny-looking bodies?”

Then, in the next paragraph of this monologue, a possible answer came. Shortly after the above mentioned description, the traveler mentions that one of these strange heathens, with the bow legs and the disproportioned body, traveled with him as a servant for a while. Then, at the end of that leg of the trip, after serving quite well for being such a subhuman and all, the traveler wanted to leave this misshapen wretch with some sort of extra payment for services. A tip. But the wretch had withdrawn to the forest never to be seen again (by the traveller), apparently uninterested in recompense.


Or at least, maybe bingo. I have an experience that may in fact match that of this ca. 1900-vintage traveler. Actually, a few such experiences. But as a post- (way post!) Victorian anthropologist, I have a slightly different take on the situation.

When I lived in the Ituri Forest, I often lived with the Pygmies for stretches of time. There were two modalities of living with them. In one mode, I would throw myself on their mercy and more or less live exactly as they lived, staying in the same kind of hut they lived in and doing whatever they did, or at least watching them do whatever they were doing, and trying to stay out of the way at the same time as observing and learning things about their lifeway. In the other modality, I stayed in a small dome tent (a cloth version of their hut) and was a bit more involved with the logistics of camp life, because during at least some of that time (several weeks over the course of many many months), it was more like they were living with me. I would hire a small number of Pygmy men, and maybe have one villager with us as well, and another anthropologist, and we’d be doing something like digging an archaeological site, measuring trees, counting monkeys, or whatever.

During some of these forays, especially in the first modality when it was only me (no other anthropologist) travelling with them, and I was living in their lifeway, more or less, I was assigned a wife. Sort of. This happened a couple of times, with different groups, and different individuals. In each case the person whom I eventually came to understand was serving the role of Mrs. Gregoiri (one of my Efe names was Gregoiri, which I admit is not too original) was a man with pretty severe polio.

These were men who could not carry out many of the activities in which the men normally engaged with respect to hunting and other forest activities. Even moving from camp to camp might be a challenge to someone whose legs were very shortened and deformed and who had, essentially, a kind of polio-induced dwarfism. For the most part, these men had outstanding manual skills. They could shoot an arrow as well as any (or better) and were outstanding at making things that the other men also made, but that the polio-afflicted men would make with utmost skill. What they lacked was stamina in the field.

Their condition meant that they would be unlikely to marry. It meant that they would be in camp with the women anywhere from now and then to almost always as the men went off to hunt. It meant that their social and economic gender was unique. And it meant that when someone had to be assigned to keep the big pasty white guy who was always tripping on tree roots and poking himself with sticks from harming himself, well, this person was the obvious choice.

I remembered, rather poignantly in fact, on reading the aforementioned traveler’s notice that the strange deformed subhuman left without any special recompense, that this is what happened to me as well. It was a bit of a privilege to hang out with the visitor, as would be the case in most cultures, and the visitor seemed to overlook the person’s affliction, which is something that many visitors may not have done.

The polio that came through the Ituri Forest of Zaire must have come through at roughly the same time because all the men who had it were about the same age…my age, actually. This population of forest dwelling people must have been very susceptible to it. And the Pygmies were notable for either refusing or just being bad at accepting long-term treatment or hospital stays, so even if there was some help available for them in those days, it may have ended up rather ineffective. Many must have died.

I need not mention that I never saw a subhuman deformed race. I did see some men who were being very good to me, keeping me from getting killed by the snakes, the elements, by getting poked to death or falling off a cliff into quicksand, or whatever one may think of as the dangers of the African Jungle. And they didn’t want any special pay for it.

Those marriages were short lived. But they were good marriages.

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13 thoughts on “What a Difference a Century Can Make

  1. That’s an excellent and moving story. I really didn’t know where you were going with it at the start, and I’ve learned several things I didn’t know.

  2. Russell, that is a good question with what might be a very interesting answer: Polio was not that common in those days. While it has been around, probably, for thousands of years, and was not unknown in Victorian England, the epidemics in modern times did not start until the beginning of the 20th century, for the most part.

  3. Greg, the Congo is usually not mentioned as one of the few remaining areas where polio is still active (typically Nigeria and Bangladesh). Has there been some form of vaccination campaign that actually reached that far into the jungle?

  4. During my time in the ituri, in the 1980s, there were no vaccination programs of any kind. The people who were afflicted with polio all got it about the same time, I think during the maximum extent of plantation development which peaked in the late 50s or early 60s and the receded, with population density and development going down and reversing. That region was not on anyone’s radar anywhere. Whatever might be said among the WHO-ish experts and agencies, nothing of the Ituri would be included.

    I remember having dinner with the WHO guy in charge of certain diseases in Africa (we were somewhere in Africa but not the Ituri) and challenging his claim that leprosy had been wiped out in the region. It was actually hard to get leprosy medicine because WHO didn’t think it was there. It was, but “there” was simply not on their radar screen.

  5. I think the difference between you and your late victorian counterpart is the fact that you were actually acting as a scientist. I find it interesting, as a historian, looking back at the soft-sciences in the 19th c. and early 20th c. They seemed to think that they could be “scientists” without following the same method that the hard scientists did. This led to some weird places as you note here.

  6. Oh! Oh! Please! Please! Tell more about Africa! (Imagine squeaky, fan-girl noises if it helps.) Only yesterday, my son pointed out to me, courtesy of the history atlas, that there are megaliths in Africa and an hour later I learned, courtesy of a sci-fi novel & the web, about Nabta Playa, and despite being a fan of megaliths, interested in world history and particularly wanting to fill in the gaps left by my education in my knowledge of long-ago & non-Western history, I knew none of this. I’ve noticed, in fact, that in the general sorts of books & websites accessible to a non-expert reader like me, it’s difficult to find out what went on in Africa before the Middle Ages (not counting the bits connected to Egypt & Rome, of course). One of my best friends is a Women’s Studies professor married to a West-African Chemistry professor, and among her favorite people-ignore-Africa rants is the one about there not being enough African archeology.

    What kind of archeology did you do among the pygmies? What was there?

  7. I did ethnoarchaeology with the Efe (Pygmies) mainly, meaning that THEY were there, and I was studying them from an archaeological perspective. Though I also excavated a bunch of sites that mostly had bits of stone and broken pottery.

    In another part of Africa, also in the Congo (then Zaire) I worked on a bunch of other sites some of which were among the oldest in the world. Or maybe not. That turned out to be a fairly interesting time, and I’ve blogged about much of it. If you want to read that, start here:


    and at the end of every post (usually in the last sentence or paragraph) there is a link to the next post.

  8. @Phledge #9

    Until the part where one of them traveled with the writer as a servant, I was thinking the strange people might be bonobos.

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