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
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.
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.
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?
It has been said that our most distant primate ancestors, the mammal that gave rise to early primates but itself wasn’t quite a primate, was most like the Asian tree shrew, which is neither a shrew nor does it live in trees. This is, of course, untrue. When the average American sees a shrew native to the new world scurrying past, he or she usually thinks of it as a form of mouse. Which it isn’t. (In fact, there are no “mice” native to the new world, but even if we give our hypothetical observer the concept of “rodent” as in “eeek, a rodent” the shrew is not that either.) If you spend any time hanging out with the Efe Pygmies of the Ituri Forest, eventually there will be a sudden movement on the forest floor, a quick snap of a machete or other similar implement, and … elephant shrew will be on the menu. And, most interesting, all three of the aforementioned shrews do not belong comfortably together in a single taxonomic group. The closest non-shrew relative to the most common North American shrew are moles, the closest non-shrew relative to the Asian tree shrew are flying lemurs, bunnies, primates, and rodents; and the closest non-shrew relative to the African elephant shrew could be, astonishingly, an actual elephant! (Or hyraxes, goldem moles, sea cows or the Aardvark.)
Continue reading Why shrews are interesting
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
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