Sandlines: Pygmies in the Hegelian Vortex

Edward B. Rackley

On my first day back in Kinshasa I met Mr. Kapupu Mutimanwa, self-appointed leader of Pygmy peoples in DR Congo. Unicef arranged our meeting in their high-rise offices in the bustling and congested center of town.

Kapupu was returning from an international forum of Pygmy peoples (1) organized in the forest outside of Impfondo, a remote town in the northern region of the Republic of Congo. Brazzaville, its capital city, lay across the mammoth Congo River, visible from where I sat waiting for Kapupu.

The forum convened pygmy representatives from eight countries in the region to address land access rights in the face of expanding agro-forestry and mining industries. I hoped Kapupu would brief me on what this meant for the Pygmy groups I would be visiting in Equateur, DR Congo’s northwestern province hundreds of miles upriver from Kinshasa.

Les freres de Kapupu

A call to a Unicef assistant informed us that Kapupu was “empeché au port” – stuck in the web of bureaucratic process after taking the barge from Brazzaville earlier in the day. I looked around the office. Posters instructing mothers to vaccinate their children decorated the walls. The surface of the faux-wooden desk where I sat, otherwise new and unblemished, was marked by deep circular scratches. A hole the size of a car tire was visible in a lower corner of the floor-to-ceiling plate glass window gave onto the streets below, and to Brazzaville across the river.

The Unicef assistant smiled and explained that during city battles the month before, a mortar crashed through the window, bounced off the floor and onto the desk. There it spun in circles, but failed to detonate. Staff were hunkered down in office corridors for two days, waiting for the fighting to subside. Several employees in a bank three floors below were killed by stray bullets and mortars; Unicef personnel escaped uninjured. Hostilities are still virulent following the presidential elections in late 2006.

Kapupu arrives towards the end of our scheduled meeting. He enters embarrassed but smiling, and extends his hand. “Papa,” he calls me, and excuses his late arrival. He proudly wears a suit and tie, his small frame swallowed by an oversized neck collar and chunky cufflinks.

As we sit down, Kapupu recounts his personal journey as the first Congolese Pygmy to graduate from university, the first Pygmy to meet former president Mobutu, the first to travel abroad to visit indigenous groups in Latin America, the first to win grants from the European Union to organize fora like that of Impfondo. He hails from South Kivu, a province in eastern Congo. He has never visited Equateur, it turns out.

Kapupu reiterates his intention to bring all Congolese Pygmy groups under his leadership. I infer that the power to represent Pygmies to the wider world is not easily won. I learn nothing of the situation in Equateur, except that Pygmies there are all “les freres de Kapupu” (Kapupu’s brothers).

After an hour of Kapupu monologue, Unicef calls the meeting to a close. As he leaves, the real reason for his visit becomes clear. “Whenever the white man appears to help Pygmies,” he says to no one in particular, “there is more suffering.”

“So self-imposed exile is the solution?” I ask him. He then backtracks, apparently not having thought through the implications of such a position.

With his charisma and masked desperation, Kapupu was unlike any Pygmy I had ever met. His style and demeanor reminded me more of Congo’s civil servants, an army of low-level administrators scattered throughout the country’s forgotten interior. With no link to the febrile Kinshasa government, Congo’s provincial bureaucrats—all charlatans like Kapupu—fashion their leadership from pure chutzpah and enchantment with their own spectacle. Easily intimated and gullible, impoverished illiterate rural populations submit to these neo-feudal overlords without question. Lord of the Flies in flesh and blood.

Fear and Loathing

I was accompanied on this trip by Benani Nkumu, an educated Pygmy from southern Equateur, who contrasted with Kapupu in every imaginable way. Unlike Kapupu, Benani is not interested in the politics of redress for indigenous peoples. His work as an effective community mobilizer introduced him to Unicef, for whom he serves as a kind of interface between rural Pygmy groups in the region and Unicef development programs. Benani harbors no victim complex, and though he fears the Bantu (2), in their presence he is neither vindictive nor overcome by insecurity as are other Pygmies. His recurring anxiety, he told me over palm wine one afternoon, stems from the envy of his ‘confreres’ or brethren.

Jealousy, ressentiment and Schadenfreude permeate intra-Pygmy relations; they are equally pervasive in rural Bantu society. An ambition to improve one’s lot, be it for personal or collective gain, is suspect and is discouraged through a variety of means. Theft, explicit threat and black magic are common ways that pioneering spirits like Benani are intimidated. Because the Pygmy status quo is also its least common denominator (“stay poor, indentured and disenfranchised like the rest of us, or else”), Benani fears reprisal. Poisoning is his biggest worry, and he never leaves his glass unattended during drinking sessions with other Pygmies. Pygmies and Bantu refuse to eat or drink together, and do not intermarry.

At one point in our journey after a long day of interviews and slow progress over muddy overgrown tracks, we got lost. It was late at night, and pitch black with no moon. Villagers ran out into our path yelling that the road ahead was not passable. We stopped the jeep, deciding it best to continue the next morning with the benefit of daylight. None of our party knew anyone in the village, or exactly where we were. Myself and the driver got out of the car and introduced ourselves to the villagers, explaining why we were lost and where we were headed. There was no food, they said, but we were welcome to sleep with them. Some palm wine appeared, and we sat down in the dark to chat and rest.

All this while, Benani and another Pygmy we picked up along the way, Pastor Linganga, remained in the car. I opened the door to ask if they planned to sleep in the car or to join us outside, and noticed immediately from their body language that they were afraid and uncomfortable with the turn of events. I said that I thought our new hosts were good people, and that they would be welcome here. Soon we were all drinking and talking comfortably, with no elephant in the room.


We slept a few hours and at first light, we packed and drove into the forest. Our host family had organized a large party to follow us on foot, to help in case we got stuck, which happened almost immediately. After a brief negotiation, a digging team of Pygmy and Bantu went into action, and by 6pm that evening the jeep was free and back in the village. We would try a different route the next morning. The experience proved to me that with a financial incentive, Pygmy and Bantu could work together as equals, and share the dividends.

“My Pygmies”

While preparing for this trip I picked up The Forest People by Colin Turnbull, which I first read twenty years ago. It chronicles the lives and personalities of a small band of hunter-gatherers in the Ituri Forest of the country’s northeastern quadrant. Published in 1961, it is still a pleasant read, pre-dating the turn of anthropology’s gaze upon itself—where “watching the watcher” displaces exploration of an alien world as the primary analytic activity.

In the last two weeks of visiting Pygmy settlements along the rivers and long-abandoned roads within the isolated interior of Equateur province, one of Turnbull’s phrases surfaced in my mind. Turnbull describes the mixture of mistrust and awe with which the sedentary Bantu tribes regard their Pygmy neighbors as “a loathing, born of a secret fear.” For the Bantu, the Pygmy represents an “exotic other.” Coming from the forest—the abode of spirits good and evil—Pygmies are exceptionally skilled hunters, their women coveted, their knowledge of medicinal herbs and roots vast, and they have believed to possess spiritual powers and connections to nature that the Bantu lack. Because of these differences, they are judged as unhygienic, hard drinkers, unpredictable and ill-disciplined. Xenophobia is a classic identity enhancer; all peoples do it to some degree.

Unlike other countries where indigenous groups are marginalized and excluded, land and forests are plentiful here. Access to land is arbitrarily controlled by Bantu groups, and while Pygmies here are largely sedentary, their subsistence farming is limited to small plots. To survive, they clear, sow, maintain and harvest fields for their Bantu overlords, for which they receive less than 50 cents a day. Bantu families “own” one Pygmy family or more, who besides working in their fields, fetch water and firewood, clean their homes and sweep their courtyards. In all our interviews with Bantu chiefs, priests, community leaders and ordinary folk, each referred to these day laborers as “my Pygmies.”

Bottom of the hierarchy

Apart from the cultural component of discrimination and quasi-enslavement, there is a structural element to the violence and inequality inflicted on Pygmies. Elsewhere in Central Africa, Pygmy civil society and activist groups tend to argue for redress and entitlement on the basis of “historical precedence” (they were here first), and in some cases “cultural genocide” (as their livelihood and traditional lands are threatened). Unicef works with Pygmies across this region, but does not support these arguments or fund activist groups pursuing these angles of argument.

Instead, Unicef situates the Pygmy predicament within the context of their systematic discrimination and marginalization by the Bantu majority, who determine the contemporary social, political and economic conditions. Its aim is to promote the development of all by focusing on the most vulnerable—Pygmies in this case.


As I traveled with Benani, I often wondered about the historical, factual origins of the current situation. Extant literature is not particularly helpful, although theories about the origins of human inequality abound. In these, Pygmies continue to be the subject of ‘noble savage’ fantasies à la Rousseau. Turnbull’s experience with the Mbuti was clearly infused with this sentiment. Levi-Strauss’ equally popular study of hunter gatherers in the Amazon, Tristes Tropiques, did not romanticize their existence. In an earlier piece for 3QD, I considered the Jared Diamond hypothesis and its relevance to Pygmy marginalization.

“By accident of their geographic location,” Diamond writes, societies either inherit or develop food production capacities that in turn facilitate population density, germs, political organization, technology, and other “ingredients of power.”

The Diamond thesis illustrates one way in which Bantu peoples have been able to populate a much wider area than the original Pygmy inhabitants, outnumbering them and ultimately dominating them. Of the animals or edible plants indigenous to the so-called Congo River Basin (DRC, ROC and CAR), none are among those domesticated and cultivated by Bantu. In the forest, nomadic Pygmies survive off of wild plants and animals that are resistant to regular cultivation as crops and domestication as livestock. Hunting/gathering not only precludes an economy of surplus, because it is motivated by immediate consumption, but it also limits the geographic range in which Pygmies can live without undertaking a radical shift in their primary mode of subsistence.

Bantu can take their crops and livestock wherever there is plentiful water and arable land, which includes forest areas used by Pygmies. As the Bantu demographic saturates a newly settled area, Pygmy domains are ‘colonized’—a common sentiment among Pygmy leaders we met during the visit. All felt that while the Bantu were now independent with the retreat of the European colonial regime, Pygmies remained colonized by their Bantu ‘masters’. The majority of Pygmies we met were sedentarized, but did not farm for themselves. Instead they worked as day laborers for the Bantu.

Given the master/slave dynamic of Bantu-Pygmy in this part of DR Congo, Diamond’s thesis lacks a key causal element behind the dynamic. This is the comparative advantage that colonialism afforded the Bantu, being already settled and accessible to outsiders, while Pygmies were still mobile in the forest. As such, Pygmies were largely inaccessible to the colonial administration’s ‘civilizing mission’.

Colonialism brought new economic and political structures that reinforced the power of sedentary agricultural peoples over herders, hunters and gatherers. During colonial rule, agricultural peoples had easier, if quite limited, access to education, health care and other social services that were almost completely denied to indigenous communities.

Colonialism thus made it easier for Bantu to access the state apparatus. When colonialism ended, it was Bantu educated elites that took over the institutions of political and social power. At the bottom of the post-colonial hierarchy were nomadic hunters and gatherers. Congolese Pygmies have had to play ‘catch up’ ever since. Indeed, they have nowhere to go but up.


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. The Pygmy groups covered in this study include the Tua and the Lumbe.

2 A term conventionally used for settled farming peoples, although these groups include Oubangian and Sudanic language speakers as well as Bantu language speakers. In the southern Equateur province of DRC where this trip took place, the primary Bantu groups using Pygmy labor and whose discriminatory practices form the object of this study are the Nkundo and the Mongo.