Sandlines: Can Africa’s Pygmies be ‘made equal’?

Jared Diamond’s overarching thesis in Guns Germs and Steel—that the fate of human societies is largely determined by their capacity for food production—is beguiling for its simplicity, and for the tapestry of learning he brings to its defense. To some, it is the versatile pragmatism of the thesis that seduces. For others, any attempt at a unified field theory of human progress bears the mark of the devil and cannot, de facto, hold water.

The source of my affinity for the theory lies, I confess, rather with the man’s Norwegian homesteader beard: such a countenance cannot not be trusted. See the DVD version of GGS, with Diamond traversing the globe and expounding his theory alongside hunter-gatherers in Papua New Guinea and weeping in African HIV hostels, to appreciate his truly endearing qualities. Your next move might be, as mine was, to scour the consumer parking lot of Ebay for a lifesize, cardboard cut-out likeness of Professor Diamond to stand guard over your living room.


‘By accident of their geographic location’, Diamond likes to say, societies either inherit or develop food production capacities that in turn facilitate population density, germs, political organization, technology, and other ‘ingredients of power’. Diamond applies this reading to a number of human societies, including those on the losing end of history. And they lose, it turns out, by the sheer accident of their less endowed natural environment. For the world’s remaining indigenous peoples, particularly those whose mode of production is dominated by hunting game and gathering wild foods, their geographic locations may be diverse or dull, fertile or barren. Common to their respective natural environments is an absence of plant and animal species suitable for domestication and cultivation, an obvious pre-requisite for the creation of surplus.

Africa’s most renowned hunter-gatherer groups, the Pygmies[1] of Central Africa and the Khoisan or ‘San’ of the Kalahari Desert, are surrounded by a cornucopia of edible plants and wild game. Diamond examines the dominant flora and fauna in these two regions to show that that neither Pygmies nor San—or their farming neighbors—have succeeded in domesticating a single native plant or animal species for cultivation. Sub-Saharan Africa’s crops and livestock, like the practice of cultivating them, are all non-indigenous. Both the practices and the raw materials were gradually imported over centuries by invading Bantu farmers from West Africa[2] and, to a lesser degree, by colonizing whites. Both San and Pygmy hunter-gatherers were engulfed by a Bantu majority, to which they reacted by further compressing into their respective natural habitats.[3]

As minority hunter-gatherers surrounded by a farming majority, Central Africa’s Pygmies have fared far worse than the San of the Kalahari. Unlike the Pygmies, San hunter-gatherers retained their original language and lifestyle—against forced modernization efforts by the Botswana government—by remaining geographically concentrated in a harsh desert world whose sole monetary resource is subterranean (diamonds). Not so for Pygmy groups. Seeing their forest world first conquered by outsiders, then divided into protected reserves and game parks, and now increasingly deforested and mined by extractive industries, Pygmies have scattered into a thin diaspora across nine different countries. Displacement and ensuing marginalization has not meant banishment from their forest home, but Pygmies did lose their original language in the process, attesting to the extent of their self-estrangement.

_41690914_pygmy_203_bbcOver the last five years, I have had two occasions to work with different Pygmy groups in the Congo, and hope to again this year. In both instances I was struck by the automatic and fierce prejudice with which they were treated by the surrounding Bantu Congolese, subsistence farmers living at the same level of extreme indigence and dispossession as the Pygmies themselves. The other primary characteristic of their misery was the degree to which they had internalized the Bantu discourse of their inferiority and ignorance.

They were at such a nadir that they actually believed the racist slander to which they were constantly subjected; their inferiority complex was total and all-consuming. Every aspect of their lives was to them proof not of the injustice of the discriminatory discourse around them but of their own failure, their incompetence, their baseness. Their identity as they expressed it in focus group discussions consisted precisely of the very insults they heard throughout their lives from their Bantu neighbors. It was stunning and tragic—they were totally brainwashed.

Of course there is much to romanticize in the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, partcularly that of Pygmies, whose place in the Western fantasy of primordial proximity to enchanted nature is deeply entrenched. In this spirit, National Geographic has an excellent website devoted to the Bambuti Pygmies of northwestern Congo. It captures the beauty of certain unbroken traditions, the spiritualization of their forest world and the ceremony of certain maturation rituals.

Visual documentation of their exile and destitution among the Bantu are few, to my knowledge, but a series of gripping images by Dutch photographer Chris Keulen provide such testimony. To see them, go to Keulen’s site and look under ‘Stories’, then click on ‘Congo DRC 2001’. The Pygmy photos are not marked because they are part of a larger series on living conditions for civilians at the epicenter of Congo’s war in 2001. In the series, images of people standing or sitting outside or beside makeshift shelters are generally of Pygmies (I only know this because I was indirectly involved in the shoot). Those seated indoors, in health centers or schools, are generally Bantu. The trauma is evident and Pygmy living conditions defy description: the one of a girl lying face down on volcanic rock (# 007) is to me the most poignant in the series.

For 2007, UN agencies are considering intensive programming aimed at establishing the equal rights, access to health care and education for Congolese Pygmy groups. I am curious to see how the UN approaches the issue: clearly the dominant Congolese (Bantu) society is at fault, rife as it is with profound racism and prejudice towards its original inhabitants. Project proposals I have seen base themselves on UN legal precedents recognizing and protecting the rights of indigenous groups, based on the principle of ‘autochthony’.

But are victimhood and a history of oppression the most constructive rhetorical arguments to restore equality between peoples? Victimhood as a tool of empowerment does not seem to result in sustainable integration or equality between peoples, although it is very effective in generating and perpetuating a discourse of difference and resentment, particularly the entitlement mentality.

What would Prof. Diamond say about all this? Hunter-gatherers availing themselves of legal instruments to survive is positive, as the San are doing to reclaim their ancestral homelands in Botswana (having been forcibly evicted four years ago). The Pygmies lack sufficient representation and mobilization capacity, dispersed as they are across nine countries in small groups (their total population is estimated between 300,000 and 500,000). Diamond’s contingency thesis would appear to hold, as the legal and political leverage hunter-gatherers deploy will only be as effective as the national legal codes and judiciary system of the day. In the Congo, after all, justice is sold to the highest bidder. Their Bantu compatriots, like the flora and fauna of their forest home, may not prove receptive to legal settlements over land rights for Pygmies. Sadly, the fate of Pygmies will likely remain beholden to limitations imposed by their environment.

[1] The term ‘Pygmy’ is used here as adopted by indigenous activists and support organizations to encompass the different groups of central African forest hunter-gatherers and former hunter-gatherers. Sometimes used pejoratively, here the term is used to distinguish them from other ethnic groups who may also live in forests, but who are more reliant on farming, and who are economically and politically dominant.

[2] A term conventionally used for settled farming peoples, although these groups include Oubangian and Sudanic language speakers as well as Bantu language speakers.

[3] If geographic location determines a society’s mode of production, for better or worse, one wonders if Diamond would concede the inverse of his theory: that hunting/gathering as a mode of production is itself an accident, not a choice—a default livelihood whose inefficiencies are endured, not overcome through experimentation with other modes of production. Still, this would not explain why hunter-gatherers like the Pygmy and San never venture beyond the limitations of their environments and modes of production to experiment with different ones elsewhere.