Alexa Pygmy: The forest lovers

Dhaka, Friday   18 October 2019


Pygmy: The forest lovers

 Dhrubo Ekramul

 Published: 11:41 PM, 18 September 2019   Updated: 09:28 AM, 19 September 2019

Photo: Collected

Photo: Collected

‘Pygmy’ the word refers to the people who are short in size. Many of us usually use this word as the mean of fun. But, there is a race ‘Pygmy.’ Commonly, Pygmies are represented as brutal and uncivilized.  But, how they are actually? How many people know about the real lifestyle and background of ‘Pygmy’. Let’s know some in brief about Pygmies.


Basically Pygmy is not the name of an individual race. The word came from the Greek language which means small or short, Pygmy is a common name of a type of people. They are found in central Africa as well as parts of south-east Asia. Pygmy tribes maintain their own culture according to their own beliefs, traditions, and languages, despite interaction with neighboring tribes and various colonists.


Pygmy References in History

The Pygmies are considered as the oldest inhabitants of the African continent. The earliest reference to Pygmies was discovered in the tomb of Harkuf, an explorer for the young King Pepi II of Ancient Egypt. The text is from a letter sent from Pepi to Harkuf around 2250 B.C.

Later, more mythological references were found in the Greek literature of Homer, Herodotus, and Aristotle.

Why Pygmies are ao short

Why the Pygmies of West Africa have such short stature, while neighboring groups don't, has been somewhat of a mystery. Now new research suggests unique changes in the Pygmy's genome have both led to adaptations for living in the forest as well as kept them short.

Researchers analyzed the genomes, the ‘building code’ that directs how an organism is put together, of Western African Pygmies in Cameroon, whose men average 4 feet, 11 inches tall, and compared them with their neighboring relatives, the Bantus, who average 5 feet, 6 inches, to see whether these differences were genetic or a factor of their environment.

"There's been a long-standing debate about why Pygmies are so short and whether it is an adaptation to living in a tropical environment," study researcher Sarah Tishkoff of the University of Pennsylvania said in a statement. "Our findings are telling us that the genetic basis of complex traits like height may be very different in globally diverse populations."

Different races of Pygmies


The Baka

The Baka Pygmies inhabit in the rain forests of Cameroon, Congo, and Gabon. Because of the difficulty in determining an accurate number, population estimates range from 5,000 to 28,000 individuals. Like other Pygmy groups, they have developed a remarkable ability to use all that the forest has to offer.

They live in relative symbiosis with neighboring Bantu farmers, trading goods and services for that which cannot be obtained from the forest. The Baka speak their own language, also called Baka, as well as the language of neighboring Bantu. Most adult men also speak French and Lingala, the main lingua franca of central Africa.

The Bakas traditionally form nuclear family. They generally live in such a unique hut, called Mongulu, made of branches and leaves and built predominantly by women. Although more and more rectangular homes, like those of their Bantu neighbors, are being built. Hunting is one of the most important activities in Baka culture; not only for the food it provides (as many Baka live mainly by fishing and gathering), but also because of the prestige and symbolic meaning attached to the hunt.


The Mbuti

The Mbuti inhabit the Congo region of Africa, mainly in the Ituri forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo. They live in bands that are relatively small in size, ranging from 15 to 60 people. The Mbuti population is estimated to be about 30,000-40,000 people, though it is difficult to accurately assess a nomadic population. There are three distinct cultures among the Mbuti — the Efe, the Sua, and the Aka.

The Mbuti live much as their ancestors must have lived, leading a very traditional way of life in the forest. They live in territorially defined bands, and construct villages of small, circular, temporary huts, built from poles, rope made of vines, and covered with large leaves. Each hut houses a family unit. The Mbuti is such an egalitarian society where men and women basically have equal power.

The Twa

Twa(Batwa) are another well-known Pygmy group in equatorial Africa. They live in the high mountains and plains around Lake Kivu, in Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi, in symbiosis with the pastoral Tutsi, the agricultural Hutu, and other tribes. Many specialize in pottery, which they market; others hunt; some act as court musicians and attendants.

The Tswa

Tswa (Batswa), who, like the Twa, have adopted much of the culture and language of neighbouring tribes. They live largely by fishing and trapping.


The Babinga

North of the Congo, in the forest west of the Ubangi River, are the Babinga. This is also an acculturated group of pygmoid, but perhaps because of similarity of habitat they share more cultural characteristics with the Pygmies of the Ituri Forest than do the Twa and Tswa.


The Negrito

The term Negrito was first used by early Spanish explorers to the Philippines. It means "little black". It was is used to refer to pygmy populations outside Africa: in Malaysia, the Philippines, and Southeast Asia. Much like the term ‘Pygmy,’ the term ‘Negrito’ is a blanket term imposed by outsiders, unused and often unheard of by the people it denotes, who use tribal names to identify themselves. Among the Asian groups are the Aeta and the Batak in the Philippines, the Semang on the Malay Peninsula and the residents of the Andaman Islands.

The Aeta

Aeta are the indigenous people of the Philippines. They are also known as Ati, Agta, or Ita. They had migrated to the islands over land bridges approximately thirty thousand years ago. Adept at living in the rainforest, many groups of Aeta believe in a Supreme Being, as well as environmental spirits that inhabit the rivers, sky, mountains, and so forth.

They perform ritual dances. Most of them are connected with hunting. They are excellent weavers, producing beautiful baskets, rattan hammocks, and other containers. The Aeta practice scarification is the act of decorating one’s body with scars as well as rattan necklaces and neckbands.


The Onge

The Onge live further inland, and were mostly left alone until Indian independence in 1947. Since 1850, their numbers have also decreased, though less drastically then the Great Andamanese, from 150 to 100. Alcohol and drugs supplied by Indian "welfare" staff have become a problem amongst the Onge.

Forest lives

Central to the identity of these peoples is their intimate connection to the forest lands they have lived in, worshiped and protected for generations.

Jengi, the spirit of the forest, is one of the few words common to many of the diverse languages spoken by forest peoples.

The importance of the forest as their spiritual and physical home, and as the source of their religion, livelihood, medicine and cultural identity cannot be overstated.

Traditionally, small communities moved frequently through distinct forest territories, gathering a vast range of forest products, collecting wild honey and exchanging goods with neighboring settled societies.

Hunting techniques vary among the forest peoples and include bows and arrows, nets and spears.

But many communities have been displaced by conservation projects and their remaining forests have been degraded by extensive logging, expansion by farmers, and commercial activities such as intensive bush-meat trading.

Few have received any compensation for the loss of their self-sufficient livelihoods in the forest and face extreme levels of poverty and ill-health in ‘squatter’ settlements on the fringes of the land that was once theirs.

In Rwanda for example, many Twa people who have been displaced from their lands earn a living by making and selling pottery.

Now this livelihood is threatened by the loss of access to clay through the privatization of land and by the increasing availability of plastic products.

Begging and selling their labor cheaply have become the only options left to many displaced and marginalized forest peoples.


Health and violence

Forest peoples who live on the land they have nurtured for centuries have better health and nutrition than their neighbors who have been evicted from their forest land. The consequences of losing their land are all too predictable: a slide into poverty, ill-health and profound destruction of their identity, culture and their connection to their land that creates a new underclass requiring central government support.

The conflict in the DRC (Congo) has been especially brutal for the country’s ‘Pygmy’ peoples, who have suffered killings and rape, and allegedly been the victims of cannibalism from the heavily armed fighters.

In 2003, Mbuti representatives petitioned the UN to protect their people from horrific abuse by armed militia in Congo, including extremely high incidences of rape of women by the armed men. One of the outcomes has been a soaring rate of HIV/Aids.

‘In living memory, we have seen cruelty, massacres, genocide, but we have never seen human beings hunted and eaten literally as though they were game animals, as has recently happened,’ Sinafasi Makelo, Mbuti spokesman.

The Batwa also suffered disproportionately in the Rwandan genocide of 1994: studies estimate that 30% of Batwa were killed – more than double the national average.

Where ‘Pygmy’ communities continue to have access to the rich forest resources on which they have traditionally depended, their levels of nutrition are good.

When displaced from the forests – usually without compensation or alternative means of making a living – their health dramatically declines. One study reports that 80% of sedentary Baka in Cameroon have yaws (a painful skin condition).

Further studies have shown that forest-dwelling ‘Pygmy’ communities have lower levels of many illnesses compared with neighboring settled Bantu populations, including malaria, rheumatism, respiratory infections, and hepatitis C.

In addition, communities can no longer access the forest medicines on which they relied and are in danger of losing their rich traditional knowledge of herbal medicine.

Most communities cannot access healthcare due to lack of availability, lack of funds and humiliating ill-treatment. Vaccination programs can be slow to reach forest peoples and there are reports of ‘Pygmy’ people being discriminated against by medical staff.



In 1904, Samual Verner, an American explorer, was hired by the St. Louis World's Fair to bring back African pygmies for exhibition. Afterward, he took the Africans back to their country. One Pygmy, named Ota Benga, returned to find that his entire tribe had been wiped out during his absence, and asked Verner to take him back to the United States. In September of 1906, he became part of a new exhibit at the Bronx Zoo and was displayed in a cage in the Monkey House. The exhibit attracted up to forty thousand visitors a day and sparked a vehement protest from African American ministers. Attempts to help Ota Benga live a normal life failed in March of 1916, when the African borrowed a gun from his host family, went into the woods, and shot him.

A central factor behind many of the problems faced by forest peoples is racism.

Their egalitarian social structures are often not respected by neighboring communities or international companies and organizations which value strong (male) leaders.

The forest peoples’ intimate connection to the forests was once valued and respected by other societies, but is now derided.

To many farming and herding communities across the region, the forest peoples – who have neither land nor cattle – are seen as ‘backward’, impoverished or ‘inferior’ and are often treated as ‘untouchable’.


In August 2008 nearly 100 Pygmies were released from slavery in DRC, of whom almost half came from families who had been enslaved for generations.

Such treatment stems from the notion of ‘Pygmies’ as of lower status, who can be ‘owned’ by their ‘masters’.

Forced labor on farmland is an all too common reality for many displaced ‘Pygmy’ people, who are extremely vulnerable with no land or representation and little sympathy or support.

Rates of pay are commonly lower for ‘Pygmies’ across the region.

Political recognition and representation

In an attempt to decrease ethnic conflicts, several African governments, such as Rwanda and DRC, have advocated the notion of the nation as ‘one people’ – emphatically denying ‘indigenous’ status to ‘Pygmy’ peoples and refusing to recognise their distinct needs.

‘Pygmy’ peoples are very poorly represented in government – at any level – in the countries where they live.

Their low status and lack of representation makes it hard for them to defend their lands – and the desirable resources within – from outsiders.

Colonial and Modern Eras

Because of their small populations, isolation, nomadic lifestyle and the largely inaccessible and inhospitable areas they lived in, the Khoe-San and Baka and Mbuti people were less afflicted by the slave trade than other African populations. The Colonial Era, however, had numerous long-range effects. As the newcomers came into contact with the native peoples, they altered migration patterns, introduced Christianity, made certain lands off-limits and changed the hierarchies and relationships among tribes and clans. Ultimately, the nations that were formed in the aftermath of colonization continued to disenfranchise nomadic peoples, using their traditional lands for resources such as diamonds, gold, platinum and strategic minerals.


The Future of the Pygmies

Pygmies of Africa are in very real danger of losing their forest inhabitants.  Consequently, their cultural identity is also threatened, as the forest is gradually cleared by logging companies. In some situations, like that in the Democratic Republic of Congo, there exists a sad irony: civil war and uprisings that create a dangerous environment for the Pygmies and their neighbors are in fact responsible for keeping the logging companies at bay. Whenever a more peaceful situation is created, the logging companies judge the area safe to enter and destroy the forest, forcing resident Pygmies to leave their home and that which gives them their sense of cultural and spiritual identity.

In addition to the persistent loss of the rain forest, African Pygmy populations must deal with exploitation by neighboring Bantu, who often consider them equal to monkeys, and pay them for their labor in alcohol and tobacco. Many Bantu view the Pygmies as having supernatural abilities, and there is a common belief that sexual intercourse with a Pygmy can prevent or cure diseases such as AIDS; a belief that is causing AIDS to be on the rise among Pygmy populations. Perhaps most disturbing of all are the stories of cannibalism from the Congo; soldiers eating Pygmies in order to absorb their forest powers. Although this is an extreme example, it graphically illustrates the attitude that Pygmies are often considered subhuman, making it difficult for them to defend their culture against obliteration.