The Pygmies Return to their Ancient Forest Home
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior EditorCenturies ago much of central Africa was inhabited by Pygmies, a distinct racial and cultural group of human beings. The Egyptians knew of them and left records of their contacts in drawings. Then migrations of the larger folk came down and occupied the central African lands, but the Pygmies lived on in the rain forests. Later the Europeans colonized and developed these lands, and as independent countries, deforestation continued, threatening the survival of the pygmies. Many Pygmy bands died or became serfs in plantations and farms, losing their culture and independence.
One Pygmy group, the Efé in the eastern Congo (or Zaire), continued to preserve their culture and independence, but as much of the forest was cut down, they faced the problem of how to survive. A Belgian anthropologist, Jean Pierre Hallet, introduced them to agriculture, particularly the winged bean plant that grows well in the tropics. Hallet founded the Pygmy Fund to raise funds to help the Efé to not just survive, but preserve their culture. Hallet negotiated with the government and neighboring peoples to have them respect the Pygmies' possession of their territory.
But chaos came to the eastern Congo as refugees came in from war and oppression in nearby Sudan, Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda. The Mobutu regime of the Congo was overthrown by Kabila, and war spread throughout the Congo. Refugees from the eastern countries also brought diseases to the region. Hallet and the Pygmy Fund again saved them by bringing medicine and also moving them to a sanctuary in Virunga National Park. The park rangers then became a threat, killing Pygmies because they are hunters.
Now there is a new civil war in the Congo as a new rebellion is fighting the Kabila government. Two cities on the eastern border of the Congo, Goma and Bukavu, have been captured by the rebels. One of Hallet's helpers, François Dubisson, was kidnapped by some thugs who claim to be rebels. Hallet and his friends in the Congo raised funds for the ransom, and Dubisson was released. Dubisson bought an inflatable boat and established a camp near the Efés, who were living by the Semliki river in Virunga National Park, near the border with Uganda.
To get away from the dangerous rebels and foreign troops, some of the Pygmies volunteered to cross the river, which is 600 feet wide, to the forest on the eastern shore. The foot pump broke, and the Pygmies spent two days blowing to inflate the boat. It took about a hundred trips back and forth to carry many of the Pygmies across the river, to the Semliki sanctuary that Jean Pierre Hallet had planned for them, which is nothing less than the long-lost ancient forest home of the Efés!
Like the Jews returning to their ancestral home in Israel, the Efé pygmies have returned to their ancestral homeland, which has retained what Hallet calls the "living cathedral" of the rain forest. In a letter to the contributors to the Pygmy Fund, Hallet expressed his joy at the return of the pygmies to their homeland, and his sorrow that he could not personally witness their return to the eastern shore of the Semliki. Hallet wrote, "All my life I have waited for that precious and glorious moment." Here is an exodus, a saga, that has gone unreported by the word's press.
The park rangers, who were not being paid, have left the park. But they could return, so Hallet is not encouraging the rest of the Pygmies to cross the river. The Pygmies remaining in the west bank of the Semliki river continue to cultivate crops. Hallet's plan is to have the Congolese government recognize Pygmies' Semliki sanctuary, but this is not feasible during the current civil war.
Meanwhile, the Pygmy Fund is attempting to help the Efé by providing tools and seeds for cultivation, as well as pay off debts. But the Pygmy Fund bank account is empty. It would be tragic if at the moment that the Pygmies have returned to their ancestral forest land, the help they have been getting came to a halt. Fortunately, the end of the year is when some people remember to donate to worthy causes and get a tax deduction for the current year. Let us hope that enough contribute to help the "little giants" survive.
If you would like more information, write to The Pygmy Fund, Box 277, Malibu, CA 90265, USA, or view www.pygmyfund.org. See also my November 1998 editorial on the Pygmies in the Progress Report Archive at http://www.progress.org/archive/fold20.htm. Happy New Year 1999 to all my readers at The Progress Report!
What is your opinion? Share it with us:
Page One Page Two Archive Discussion Room Letters What's Geoism?
Copyright 1998 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.