Do or Die

An article from Do or Die Issue 10. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 223-235.

Size Isn't Everything

The Pygmies of the West African Rainforest

They live in the woods in ramshackle benders poorly constructed from a few sticks. They blow any money they have on cheap rancid alcohol. They seemingly do nothing all day long, eat vile slop cooked up over the campfire and mercilessly scrounge off anyone they can, living in a situation of totally chaotic anarchy. Sound familiar? No, not a description of your average protest site but of a group of people who have been living like that for considerably longer.

This is of course only a superficial first impression of the pygmies of the Congo basin rainforest. Taken collectively, they are the largest group of anarchist gatherer-hunters in the world, and certainly one of the oldest continuous human cultures on earth. For thousands upon thousands of years they have lived harmoniously with the forest, in tune with its ecology as few other people are.

For over 15 years, New Jersey native Louis Sarno has lived in the rainforest of the south western corner of the Central African Republic with the indigenous Ba-Benjellé pygmies, in what is now part of the Dzanga-Sangha Dense Forest Reserve. Inspired by the music of the pygmies, Sarno began his journey with little more than a plane ticket, a tape recorder, a few quid bunged to him by musician Brian Eno and a naive notion about pygmy life, largely influenced by Colin Turnbull's classic The Forest People.

Outwardly lazy, scrounging and near-alcoholic, the Bayaka pygmies Sarno met had seemingly lost all desire to hunt or make music. Only when he had lived with them for some time (on a diet of tadpoles) was he allowed to join them in one of their hunting camps in the rainforest, where they still lived in relative harmony with nature.

Do or Die talked to him on one of his rare trips out of the forest.

Arrival in the Forest

When did you first go to live with the Bayaka and what was it that originally inspired you to go?

I first got there in December 1985 and I've been living there continuously pretty much since 1989. I was interested in the traditional music of the Bayaka, so that's the thing that drew me there originally. And I've always liked forests - I'd never seen a rainforest before but I figured I'd like a rainforest too.

How did you find it when you got there? Was it what you expected?

In the beginning, it wasn't really what I expected at all. The Bayaka were living not in the forest but on the edge of the forest and there was a logging company there and a sawmill and a lot of them were working for the sawmill. They lived right across from the saw mill, so when I originally arrived you could see these piles of logs just down the road, dead trees that had been cut down - so it wasn't really what I expected in the beginning, not at all.

But the people themselves, the Bayaka, seemed nice enough and so I just started recording music there and the music was really good. I had some problems getting them to let me hear the real music but once I did it was really good so I decided to stay.

What was their attitude to you?

A white man coming from some other place - he's bound to have wealth with him and things they could take and distribute - they could get a lot of money and gifts from me. So I think that's how they viewed me at the beginning and I don't think that view of me has completely disappeared. I mean, now I'm part of the community, but there's still that aspect - if I am a member of the community, I'm a member of the community that has more possibilities of wealth than the rest of them, so they still look to me for things. If someone is in debt, they often come to me to see if I can help them out or if someone doesn't have any batteries for their flashlight, they'll come to me.

Traditional Bayaka Life

Could you say something about the traditional life of the Bayaka? What makes them different to the other people who live around them?

Well, the Bayaka are hunter-gatherers so that means that they usually get their food on a daily basis and they grow very few crops, so they get their food by foraging in the rainforest and hunting. And ordinarily they would go to the forest several times a year, for a few months each time or maybe for one long period, and they have these hunting camps. Hunting is a communal activity - the women and the older children and the men all take part in these net hunts. They enclose a big area of forest with nets and then they chase game into these nets. And they do honey gathering, they gather various nuts and seeds in the forest which they can make sauces out of, there are some mushrooms and there's an edible leaf from a vine that they eat a lot of. Then usually in the dry season they come back near the Bantu villages because they have to work in the plantations of the Bantus. They do this work for a little bit of manioc because not growing their own food they depend on wild yams but there's not really enough wild yams to support them all the time so they need to supplement that with manioc and manioc has become increasingly important as the staple in their diet. They get it from the Bantus either by buying it with meat or by working in the plantations in exchange for it.

"As I developed the stamina for hunting, I began to enjoy our expeditions more and more. Hunting was fun! I thought of the contrasts between hunting and agriculture. Who in his right mind would want to trade such an invigorating day's work for the drudgery of life in the fields? And for what? Manioc? Bananas? Hunting gave you meat. And each day's hunt was full of little adventures, excitement, moments of idyllic contemplation or laughter. No two days were the same."

The thing is traditionally Bayaka families are owned by Bantu families. Particular Bantu families own particular Bayaka families and this ownership is inherited by the oldest son of the Bantu family. Sometimes depending on whether the Bantus are good people or bad people the relationship can either be beneficial or can really be a drag to the Bayaka. At any rate they don't like being owned, they don't like being considered the property of somebody else. Where I am, that relationship has pretty much broken down with the arrival of the sawmill because that gave the Bayaka other economic alternatives. Before if a Bayaka wanted a pair of shorts or anything, they'd have to get it through their Bantu and when getting a piece of clothing from the Bantu owner - it would be something the Bantu would maybe have thrown away that he gives to the Bayaka - then they have to work for that. And so that's the traditional relationship. That's the relationship when I went to Congo for instance - it's still very strong there. Particular Bantus would say, "That's my Bayaka."

With the sawmill came elements of the national authority - police and gendarmes, so that kind of subverted the traditional authority of the Bantu chief and also a lot of the Bayaka had this chance to work for somebody else and a lot of them took it. It was for them like a liberation, even though they may be worse off working for the sawmill because they work really hard and they get very little money and then they often still get exploited by the Bantus as well. The Bantus loan them money at 100% interest rate and so they loan them like 5,000 francs and then on payday the Bayaka have to pay back 10,000 francs. The Bayaka take these loans because they don't really think about the future that much, they think more about fulfilling present needs and desires, so if a guy wants some cigarettes and a drink and he has no money he'll go and borrow some money from a Bantu at 100% interest rate. But the older, traditional relationship of slavery has broken down and it's just been replaced by very bad exploitation by the more sophisticated Bantus over the Bayaka.

Rapid Changes to Bayaka Life

Have things changed a lot in the time that you've been there?

Yes, I would say things have changed in that the Bayaka now have a school in the village where I am and although a lot of the children don't attend the school there are some attending and the new generation is slowly learning to read and write, getting some basic literacy. Another change is that there's been a loss of forest knowledge in the new generation. A lot of the new generation can still live in the forest but it's less than before - I think there's been an overall net loss. The younger generation is turning a lot more to take part in the outside world - they want to be part of a larger world and listen to pop music and things like that. And in the nearby town, the population of immigrants from the savannahs has increased drastically, putting more pressure on the rainforest. The forest has been cut down for plantations and the logging company - the latest resurrection of the logging company - is just wreaking havoc with the forest - chopping it up into these little parcels with roads criss-crossing everywhere. So in that sense there's definitely less wildlife now, the forest is less healthy than it was. And the government has given the Bayaka the right to vote - adult men, anyhow, have the right to vote - not that it does much good - they're all going to be voting for Bantus - they're not going to be voting for Bayaka.

How do the Bayaka regard the changes that have happened since you've been there?

Well, when you're there at the time, you don't really see the changes as any kind of abrupt thing, they just happen gradually. If they think about it, they'd think, "Yeah well, there's definitely less animals than there were before and the forest is more chopped up than it was before." But then a lot of them will say, "Yeah, but don't worry, the forest will grow back." They just see that the forest has always been big and so to them the idea that you can put an end to the forest is kind of ridiculous.

How has their way of life changed from what it might have been traditionally? The changes you have observed since you went there 15 years ago seem like quite rapid changes, but you were saying even when you first went there they weren't living exactly as they might have done traditionally.

They still have the traditional forest camps and things like that - they'll go out for months at a time, sometimes for half a year in hunting camps to gather honey and go hunting, but increasingly some of them have other jobs. Some of them work for the logging company and now conservation has moved in - since I've been there, some national parks have been set up and there are some areas of these parks that the Bayaka aren't allowed to go into anymore and other areas where they're still allowed to have traditional methods of hunting and gathering. With the national parks and reserves, the Bayaka get the possibility of conservation jobs. Some of them work as research assistants - there's a project to habituate gorillas to human presence so that tourists can pay to see the gorillas and so some of the Bayaka are working for these Americans who are habituating the gorillas. Some other Bayaka work taking the anti-poaching guards out in the forest. They work as trackers. They're the ones who find the traces of poachers. And the Bayaka who work for the logging company, they know the species of trees, so they know which species is the one that can be cut, so they're the ones that go and find the trees and mark them.

When I came, the Bayaka could work for the logging company and that was about it - there were no research jobs or anything like that. Some of them have these research jobs, which are actually the creme de la creme of work. The Bayaka who work for the researchers are treated very well, they get paid well, if someone in these Bayakas' family is sick, the researchers come and make sure they get medicine and everything so they have nice clothes and they do quite well. They work three weeks at a time and then they have three weeks off, and so in their three weeks off they can go into the forest if they want to and go hunting for a while. The Bayaka also have the old option of hunting for the Bantus - but that's not really in the Bayaka's long term interest, shooting animals for other people, because that's taking away from their own food.

Total Anarchy

Has the traditional social structure of the Bayaka groups changed?

No, within themselves they have the same traditional social structure, which is basically anarchy. They have no chief, there's no one who can give orders or anything like that. Everyone just does what they want really. Traditionally most Bayaka co-operate with each other, because you get the best results, you get the most food, if you co-operate. For instance, when there's a hunt going on, most people take part in it because they want to be able to have some meat, but any particular person that doesn't feel like going hunting, he doesn't have to go - there's no coercion involved, there's no kind of putting up a prison or anything like that. They use embarrassment and things like that to try to keep social control. If something's getting out of hand they might laugh at the person or make fun of them, sometimes criticise the person as well.

But there's no chief and because they can't really sort out a very serious problem amongst themselves, they have to appeal to the outside and they would normally go to the Bantu chief who would then make a judgement on the case. Nowadays it would be the mayor's office, because the Bantu chiefs of the Sangha Sangha people have lost their power really, so they don't have much influence on the Bayaka anymore. So now they go to the recognised authority which is the mayor's office to settle those kind of more serious disputes.

But amongst themselves it's still anarchy. And that's fine, that works fine in the rainforest - it does cause some problems when they try to have a larger village-like structure on the road, because there are certain activities that are really for the benefit of the whole community but no one wants to do them, and there's no one to order them to do them. Maybe the village is kind of filthy and you want to clean it up, but everyone thinks, "Why should I clean it up? - It's not my mess," and with everyone with that attitude it just gets worse and worse. Normally in a camp in the forest that sort of problem doesn't arise because they don't stay long enough in one spot for things to get out of hand.

It's quite a strange contradiction that the way the society was traditionally organised was anarchic within their own group but then being owned as slaves by the Bantus.

Well, when you have total anarchy usually that can work - if you have a small group it will work. But occasionally if you have a real serious problem - for instance if someone kills somebody else - because they don't have coercion in their society - what can they do? They don't have the means to punish the person. But they would like to see the person punished if it's some really serious thing, but they themselves just can't do it and so they have to appeal to someone on the outside. And it's just how it goes I think - that's a sacrifice they make, since none of them want that kind of authority to impose their will on the others, none of them have that authority, so when they sometimes need that kind of authority, for certain extreme cases, they have to appeal to the outside for that.

I know it is a contradiction, but I think that's the price they pay for having this kind of anarchy. And like I say it works really well with small groups, but when you get a large group it starts to have problems because then almost any activity will be disrupted by others. With a small group if they hold a dance, pretty much everyone participates, but with a much larger group, you'll have some people who just want to play the pop music on the radio, and it's going on at the same time as the other people holding a traditional dance. They can't tell each other what to do, "Turn off that radio!" - they just don't do that, so they sort of just let it go on - they hold their dance, the others are dancing to the pop music all sort of right next to each other - it does cause a little chaos sometimes.

Have there been more differences in wealth and poverty within the Bayaka with some people having jobs?

A little bit, not really that much - they have their mechanisms for really levelling out any uneven distributions. Any one of them that makes some money - say working for the gorilla habituation - they come back with money, but their family's going to make demands on them, the relatives of their wives are going to make demands on them, friends are going to make demands and so you know... As soon as they come back with the money, very quickly it's finished. And that happens to me too, that's why I always have problems there, because no matter how much I go with, they just get on my case until I have nothing and then it's like things are calm again. And so they have this way of equalising the distribution of wealth in their community and there might be some slight unevenness - people who work for the researchers for instance, they might have enough money to buy a nice cassette player that's a piece of junk, but it looks nice, some cheap thing made in Nigeria. They have this cassette player, but even that, it's not just theirs, it gets loaned out, everybody borrows it and uses it, so they might be the owner, but anyone else can borrow it if they ask, or even without asking, and so these things get passed around. So there's not that much unevenness in terms of income and wealth distribution. They have their mechanisms which so far still handle things pretty well.

Life in the Forest

So what sort of relationship to the forest and to their surroundings do the Bayaka have?

Well, the Bayaka exploit their surroundings in what has always been a sustainable way. When they go net hunting, the net hunting is not so efficient that it kills all the animals - the Bayaka are aware that there are animals that get away and that that's good. And when they go gathering honey, sometimes they chop the tree down, but a lot of times they climb the tree and take the honey out and the tree's left standing. They know the forest tree by tree. They know particular food trees in the forest and they make most of their things out of forest products. They have crossbows they make completely from forest products and women make baskets and sleeping mats. They make rope out of forest vines - they use the fibres and they make a rope, and they take them and make their hunting nets with this rope. So they really live pretty much in harmony with their environment - when they make a hunting camp in the forest, six months later, if you go to that spot after they've left the hunting camp, it's completely reverted back to forest.

So it doesn't have that much impact on the forest?

It hardly has any impact. I mean, if you have a trained eye, you can tell where Bayaka have lived - that they have been here a year six months ago or a year ago. Often, if someone didn't tell you, you would never know that this was a spot that people had lived in and held dances and all this kind of stuff - you would never know. The houses that they make, just out of sticks and leaves, they decay very quickly. On their own they don't do much destruction at all to the forest - the forest can close up the little wounds that the Bayaka make into it almost immediately.

WWF Nature Reserve

You've said something about the nature reserve and that some of the Bayaka have got jobs working with the gorilla habituation project. I was wondering what sort of impact the establishment of the nature reserve and the involvement of the World Wildlife Fund has had on life in the area and on the rainforest itself?

The most immediate effect is that now there are certain areas of the forest that the Bayaka are not allowed to go into anymore - they're not allowed to go into the parks. Some beautiful areas are now off-limits to the Bayaka. On the other hand, if it wasn't for the conservation project, all the forest there would be logged - so at least there are some areas where logging is not allowed. Unfortunately, most of the areas where logging is forbidden, the Bayaka are not allowed to go into either. There's only this one little piece which is always under threat, which the Bayaka can still go into - it's the last bit of primary forest that they have legal access to and the logging company's always trying to get it and World Wildlife is not defending it that strongly. The WWF is almost ready to sacrifice it just to protect the park itself.

The Bayaka have made a kind of unwilling sacrifice for conservation - they've sacrificed a big part of the forest for conservation and it would be alright if the conservation project was managing to protect the animals, but it's not even really managing to do that. It maybe protects the elephants a bit, but that's about it - the small animals are being poached by the Bantus that have come to work for the logging companies. There's this wide-scale poaching going on and the World Wildlife is supposed to stop it but they're very ineffective at putting an end to it, so any possible benefit of protecting the food source of the Bayaka is not really there. I suppose the WWF protect it a little bit - they've slowed down what would otherwise probably be completely out of control poaching. But the primary purpose of the reserve is to protect the wildlife from poaching - not to protect it for the Bayaka. I'm sure the project would be very happy if all the Bayaka suddenly got Ebola and died - it would make their job simpler, you know.

So do the parks help protect the Bayaka's food source at all?

Well, the parks act as a reserve, because if the parks are safe then there will always be animals and a lot of them will come out of the parks. I don't agree particularly that the Bayaka should be not allowed to go into the forest, but it's kind of complicated, because although you might like to make an area that the Bayaka are allowed to go into but nobody else is, it's very hard to exclude the Bantu if you don't exclude the Bayaka. The reason for this is that the Bantu believe they're better than the Bayaka and that you cannot give any kind of rights to the Bayaka that they cannot have themselves.

There were some educated Bantu guys who work for the conservation project and they were in some discussion about wildlife, and the leader was saying, "Here you have our closest relatives the chimpanzees and the gorillas, and over here you have humans." And one of the guards said, "Yes, but where do the Bayaka fit into that?" The Bantu men were thinking that the Bayaka were going to be inbetween the humans and the chimps, you know, sort of not quite with the humans and not quite with the chimps. That's what the Bantu really believe. So the idea that you could let the Bayaka go into a part of the forest that you won't let the Bantus in doesn't go over too well. So if you allow the Bayaka into say, the parks, and you allow hunting in the parks because that's totally traditional, eventually you're going to have to let the Bantus in as well. They'll intimidate the Bayaka and the Bayaka will bring them in, because in the end the Bayaka are afraid of the Bantus. White people come and try and help the Bayaka out and try and make things more equal for them, but you know, white people come and then they go - but the Bantu are always there, so the Bayaka pay primary attention to what the Bantu want and they'll conspire with them against the white man because they have to deal with the Bantu all the time.

So are the Bayaka a bit of a thorn in the side of the people managing the project?

The Bayaka are a thorn in the side because the Bayaka do not like the project, because they do not like being told that they're not allowed to hunt certain animals. For instance, the Bayaka love elephant meat and they're not allowed to hunt elephants. Elephant meat is a big thing for the Bayaka - for instance, it's often the only meat that widows ever get. Because widows don't have a man hunting for them, they often don't get a share of the meat, but when an elephant is killed, everybody gets a share of the meat. And they're quite good at killing an elephant and keeping it totally hidden, so that you never see the elephant but at night time the food comes out. I think they should be allowed to hunt a few elephants just the way the Inuit should be allowed to hunt some whales, because the Bayaka are not the reason why the elephants are endangered - it's certainly not because of the Bayaka. It's like the Inuit are not the ones that have endangered the whales, so why should they then have to alter their traditional life because of our own greed?

Endangered Wildlife

What's the main threat to the wildlife in the area?

It's the population pressure - people are just shooting the animals. They're all being killed for the bush meat trade, not just to eat - the Bantu don't just kill for subsistence, they kill for profit. Most of the Bantu people that have come here, they're outsiders, they're not the original rainforest Bantu. There is a tribe, the Sangha Sangha - they're the ones that used to own the Bayaka, and they're a fisher people, so if they wanted meat, they would send their women out to Bayaka hunting camps with manioc and the women would barter with the Bayaka for meat. That was an acceptable tradition.

But with the outsider Bantu who have come from the savannah, they have no respect for the forest, they have no investment in the area, they've come there to make money - and so they see cutting trees as a way to make money, they see killing animals as a way to make money. So these Bantu aren't going to be happy if there's one tree standing that they could make some money by cutting down, or if there's one animal they could make some money by killing. They feel they have the right to take it all for profit and they don't really look at the needs of the Bayaka and certainly these outsiders are very horrible to the Bayaka. Now the Bantu that are nicest to the Bayaka are the original Sangha Sangha, the ones that used to own them. They at least recognise the Bayaka's humanity because they've lived in conjunction with them for so many generations. It's these outsiders that have come that are much more shrewd in their exploitation of the Bayaka - it's a relationship of pure exploitation. They just think of the Bayaka as totally inferior.

These outsiders have big manioc plantations, which they're cutting down the forests to make, and a lot of times the Bayaka steal the manioc from their plantations. So now the plantation owners have even been saying, "We've got to get rid of the Bayaka - we've got to push them out of this area completely, because they're just thieves." I said, "Can you really say that? When you came here, this was the Bayaka's land and now you're saying that you have to push them away, that they shouldn't be able to live here anymore because they steal from your fields?" But that's what they've been saying.

Rainforest Ecology

Could you give people an idea of what the area is like, of the ecology of the area?

The area is rich in wildlife - there's the forest elephants, which are now recognised as a different species from the savannah elephant. There's the lowland gorilla - still plenty of those. There are chimpanzees, leopards, crocodiles, bongo - which is a really large forest antelope, pythons, and all kinds of monkeys and birds. So it's a very rich area in terms of wildlife and nature - it's really very beautiful. It's a rainforest, which means the soil is very poor quality soil. There's really no topsoil, everything is just drawing nutrients out of other things that are decaying, so the nutrients are immediately pulled up again and there's no topsoil that's formed. So when you cut the forest down it only has a limited number of years that it can be used agriculturally before it becomes pretty useless. And once it becomes useless it's really almost too late for real rainforest to grow on it anymore. You just start getting these other kind of weeds, and it becomes more of a savannah type of vegetation.

The whole area was originally covered in rainforest and there's still a lot of rainforest there. There are some dirt roads they've built now but when you get away from where the logging has been going on, it becomes this primary forest. On one side, across one river, you get into Cameroon, which is rainforest that is also being logged, but selectively, the same as where we are, although selective logging is also very destructive. Then across the border the other way, through the forest, you get to the Republic of Congo, and immediately across the border it's now a national park in Congo and there's no hunting allowed in this park, although it used to be an area that the Bayaka hunted in traditionally. Then if you cross through that park and you get to the other side, it's just forest, still old forest, but it's forest that's going to be logged at some point because it's outside the park and all the forest now in Congo has been parcelled out to logging companies. So if it's not in the park then it's going to be cut at some point.

Is it logging that's really the main problem?

Logging is the worst thing. And it's not just from the cutting of the trees - it's the whole process - it starts increasing the population, it brings in immigrants who then have guns and it just starts a whole cycle of destruction that just gets worse and worse. And as long as you have logging there, you're never going to have conservation working. One aspect of the logging was good - it liberated the Bayaka from Bantu ownership. But, other than that, it's been a negative thing - you'd like to have some sort of social progress, but maybe without the environmental destruction. And it's hard you know, it's hard to know what to do, it's especially complicated with the Bayaka situation because you have these two different groups - the Bayaka are the most indigenous, but you have these other indigenous people that dislike the Bayaka, so you have this kind of conflict going on which makes it especially complicated.

With the logging - is there involvement from large Western corporations?

Right where I am it's a French logging company and they're really a bunch of criminals. It's almost like a money-laundering operation. Their parent company - the big parent company - they're the same company that make the Mirage fighter jets for France - nice people. So it doesn't even matter if the logging company is losing money, because they're such a huge corporation worldwide, with their hands in so many things, that if they have a loss-making logging operation, they're still going to maintain it. The French want the company to maintain it. To the French, it's like they're countering the German and American influence, which is the conservation stuff. It was France's colony, so they don't like the German and American influence that's moving in - so they tacitly back the logging company.

Music to the Forest God

You were saying that what originally drew you to the Bayaka was the music - does music play a very important role in their lives?

Yes, music is very important to them, because they have these ceremonies where they call these forest spirits out, and that's to guarantee that they get food in the hunt and so making music is a way of guaranteeing that they're going to feed themselves. And also they have music after a death and they have music all the time really. It's very important - it's like the one big artistic expression that they have because they don't really much go in for visual arts and there's no sculpture, no painting - about the only thing they have are these little tattoos they make on their faces and these little haircuts that they give each other - it's a bit like the hip-hop stuff... they shave their heads and then they make little designs with a razor. Hip-hop I think has gotten it from them or it's just coincidental, but they've been doing that for a long time. Other than that they don't have any real artistic expressions so it's the music that is the real big thing for them.

I guess traditionally they were nomadic or semi-nomadic so having sculptures isn't obviously much use if you're going to be moving around.

In the rainforest the most important thing is your ears - you hear things. You know what birds are there mostly because you hear them, not because you see them and so they have this highly developed sense of hearing and also a very musical sense, because they start music when they are babies and babies hear music all the time - their mothers go to the ceremonies singing and they're holding the baby in their arms. So by the time they can talk, they can already sing, they can sing little Bayaka songs, just as they learn to talk.

Some of their songs - the fables - contain bits of their ancient history. The fables have an ancient dreamtime sort of history, you know - when God was on the earth and all the animals could talk and this is how things got set up. And some of their other songs are just little topical things, like, you know, "Oh, your marriage is no good, get another marriage." Maybe some guy is married to his cousin or something and they think that's incest so they sing, "That's not a good marriage, find another wife" - this kind of thing, their songs have words like that.

I guess partially through what you were doing and through other people their music has got some exposure to the wider world.

I think it had exposure already before I was doing recordings. There have actually been quite a few records over the years of Bayaka music from different countries - from what was Zaire and Cameroon, Central African Republic and Gabon. They've always been admired for their music. The first recorded mention of pygmies in historical times was from some ancient Egyptian records from 4,500 years ago when in the tomb of this Pharaoh they have this communication from this guy who was sent down to look for the source of the Nile and he describes entering this huge forest and finding this small people, this little people, people of the trees who sang this glorious music to their forest god. And the Pharaoh said bring two of them back and let me see this wonderful dance that they do and hear the songs that they sing to their forest god. So these are records that were found in this Pharaoh's tomb - there's no way of knowing if it was the same sort of music but I bet it was the same style of music. So even back then they were praised for their music.

The Missionary Position

Is the government of the Central African Republic actively trying to civilise the Bayaka?

Yeah, they'd like them to civilise. What you have is missionaries - that's a really insidious thing. You have these missionaries - they do some good for the Bayaka, but they do bad as well. Baptist missionaries that have come nearby, they don't like the Bayaka to do their traditional dances. They teach them these songs about God and say that they would prefer that they sing these songs about God to the traditional stuff. And then you have the Catholics that have been working there for 30 years now - they're a little easier, they used to be against the traditional stuff and they've kind of loosened up about that, but they also teach these songs to the Bayaka, and that kind of causes a cultural pollution. You start getting these young children, instead of singing their own songs, they start singing these church-type songs, so it means they're singing their own music less and it weakens the tradition. And you know, they help with some things, like medical stuff, so it's a mixed blessing.

And the Bayaka really have to take help from wherever they can get it, because there is so little on offer to them. The Catholics were especially good at trying to get the Bayaka to settle more and have plantations. And I think it's good for them to have plantations - because it does give them more manioc, and they eat a lot of manioc and it makes them a little more independent to have that manioc and they still can go into the forest for long periods of time. If they weren't working in their own fields, they'd be working in the Bantus' fields, working for the Bantu, so they might as well work in their own plantations.

And then they try to get them education, and I have mixed feelings about that - on the one hand, the Bayaka themselves were the ones that originally asked for school, they said they want their children to learn to read and write, and so, you know, I had to support that, because they wanted it. But on the other hand, at this point in time in that country - a literate Bayaka - what are his options? There aren't really that many. And if that schooling is at the sacrifice of forest knowledge then it becomes a problem. It's sort of complicated - they're kind of caught in between and I don't really know the answer. I've raised a boy there since he was two years old - he's now almost 13 and he's been going to school for a couple of years, but he plays hooky a lot, he doesn't like to go to school so he goes into the forest instead and then the teacher comes and yells at me because I'm irresponsible.

So attempts to get the Bayaka to join the mainstream culture haven't worked that well?

The Bayaka are pretty strong in their culture, especially because of the women - the women especially are very traditional. The women are very important economically and even politically in the traditional society - it's very egalitarian. But, I guess as it becomes the man who is working at a job, then I guess in a sense the woman becomes economically a little less important. But I don't know if that's completely true because she's still the one who does a lot of the food gathering. When the men get back from work, they still want to eat something and so it's still often the women that they then depend on to gather food. I don't think there's been that much of a change in the relationships. Bayaka women are very strong. I mean, the men don't have an easy time trying to push the women around - they're quite strong. Even if the men go working for the logging company or something, the women are pretty traditional and sort of keep the men from wandering too far from the centre, you know. There's always this return to the centre, so far.

Have a lot of the Bayaka converted? Are they Christian because of the missionaries?

Very few. I remember talking to the old French priest - he'd been there about 18 years when I talked to him and in 18 years he had one convert! The problem is they'll sing the songs and that's already pollution, when they start singing those songs. But so far, conversion attempts haven't been very successful.

With the Baptists it might be more, because the Baptists are more extreme and demanding. They got one Bayaka to convert and become a Baptist, so they had him go testify in the village where I live saying, "Your dead spirit stuff is all bullshit because I know, because I used to dance as this big spirit, and now I know that it's bad to do that and now I just sing songs to God and I'm telling you don't believe in Ejengi, because it's just a man dancing in the Ejengi suit..." It was horrible, reading stuff like that, that kind of testimony. The Bayaka in my village got very angry and they just chose not to believe him. They just said, "That's bullshit, you're lying to us, we don't believe you."

But the Baptists are going to keep trying to convert people. I'm sure they're doing it now that I'm not there, they're doing it again. So what I try to do - because we have the Baptists and the Catholics - I try and play the Baptists against the Catholics. I'm always telling the Catholic priest - because at first we only had a little Catholic church and now there's a Baptist church next to it - so I'm telling the Catholics, "Oh, those Baptists, they're getting more converts than you." And he's going, "No, no, no, this is our village, we were here first. They can have their own down the road - they can't have this one."

Maybe it's good if the Bayaka can see that you've got two different sorts of Christians disagreeing with each other.

Yes, I pointed that out to them. I said, "Look, there's already two different groups of white people telling you their God is the real god." And also I said, "This is like the fables that you guys tell about Kumba the god of the forest. Well, this is white people's version of that." So I said, "It's no more real or less real than your fables." and that's given them a good perspective. I think in my village they're pretty resistant. But they'll sing the songs, and that's the problem, because they just see them as songs and not as a style of music. And the more the children hear those songs, the more they grow up singing those songs rather than the traditional stuff and it causes a weakening of the tradition.

Forest Spirits

Could you say a bit more about the forest spirits that you mentioned?

Well, they have a belief in these spirits that they appeal to in order to have a successful hunt. According to the Bayaka, the forest has different spirits living in it and some of them they can call in for dances. I don't really know what to say about it - it's just a strong tradition - it's central to their whole cultural existence, their music and these spirits. That's why it's so bad that the Baptists are trying to get rid of the spirits, just replace them with something from the outside - like these God songs. You're taking something that's theirs, that they've probably had for many generations. But I think the missionaries have it wrong if they think that the Bayaka literally believe that the spirit who appears in the dance is a spirit and nothing else. Their belief in the spirits is almost a bit like the way we believe in Santa Claus or something like that. I don't think it's a totally die-hard belief. The spirit dancing has powers because it's a spirit - but I think the Bayaka know perfectly well that it's a person dancing. They just don't openly admit that. Their belief is sort of a belief by choice - they choose to believe in the spirits.

It's quite interesting, from what you were saying, that one of the main impacts that the missionaries have had is on the music because obviously the music is one of the most central things to Bayaka culture. Have they done that intentionally?

I don't think the Catholics did it intentionally, they just thought that because the Bayaka are very musical, they'd teach them the story of God in songs, and so they'd be more ready to accept it. But the missionaries did it without thinking that if they teach these songs and then the Bayaka sing these songs too much, it's going to start replacing the traditional stuff.

But then the missionaries became aware of it, because I started seeing this new generation of Catholic priests who were coming to my village and saying, "We're trying to get our Bayaka to renew their traditions - they've lost all their traditional dances. They only sing this church music that we've taught them. We want them to learn their traditions again." So they were coming down and trying to learn it from our village.

So they are actually trying to undo what they did?

Well, a little bit, I don't know how much, but a little bit. They became a bit alarmed at the extent to which the traditions were lost and the Catholic mission were trying to reverse that a little bit, trying to tell the Bayaka that their own traditions were good. I'd like to see some people come that just want to help the Bayaka, not try to change them, just help them carry on with their lives.

How Can We Help?

What kind of things could people do?

Protect the Bayaka's forest and do some sort of health programme, a consistent health programme. The conservation project has no health programme for the Bayaka, which I think is disgusting.

So, a health programme that wasn't linked to believing in Jesus would be a good thing.

Yeah, that wasn't linked to believing in Jesus. I mean, the missionaries help them. You don't have to say, "I believe in Jesus" before they give you medicine. But you know, one of the attractions for the Bayaka to make contact is the medicine and then the missionaries start trying to alter their beliefs.

If people did go out there to help in some way, what might we also be able to learn from the Bayaka?

Maybe we could learn not to be so judgmental - the Bayaka are not very judgmental. We're very judgmental people. We should learn to be more tolerant. Those are two things we can learn from them. The Bayaka are very tolerant. You always have the benefit of the doubt with the Bayaka. I can't say that we can learn to live in harmony with nature or something like that, but we can learn maybe to have more tolerance for differences in people and have a wider range of behaviour that we accept among people and not be caught up in the past, be willing to deal with things in the present.

A Life of Leisure

Why is it that the Bayaka seem to have lived in a more or less unchanged way for such a long time?

Well, I think because their way of life has been successful. As long as the rainforest is there, it's preferable to a life of, say, just farming or something like that, because farming is much harder work. With farming, you've got to labour in the sun, whereas hunting and gathering is much more enjoyable. It's more adventurous, every day is different and you're in the forest, which is a beautiful environment and the forest really is a land of plenty. Also I think partly they've been kept more traditional by the Bantu owners - it's the most traditional Bayaka who are still being owned by the Bantus. So I think it's partly the Bantus, because it's to their advantage to have the Bayaka stay the same, because then they can exploit the Bayaka very easily for labour, and they can get meat and honey and forest products and things like that from the Bayaka. And so I think it's partly the Bantu keeping them that way and also the fact that their traditional way of life is, generally speaking, a more fulfilling way of life - more leisure than we have, for instance, with our ordinary jobs and stuff.

I think it's only changing now because the Bantu/Bayaka relationship is breaking down and also because of changing economics - with these large logging companies coming - the changing economics are causing this breakdown in every way and as the forest becomes more fragmented then you start having parks, and then the Bayaka can't go into the parks and suddenly hunting and gathering is not so viable anymore and they have to supplement it with other activities which is what's happening now.

A friend of mine went to Burundi and there are some Twa pygmies there who used to be hunter-gatherers and now he says they're a sad lot. There's no forest left for them to go to, it's all been converted to agriculture, and they're like paupers scrounging to get a living. So having the forest is the real key to their survival.

Running Towards the Car

I also think it's interesting when you read anthropology books, there's this idea that most human societies started out in a more or less similar form - as very small groups of people with a hunting-gathering economy, but then there's this idea that there's some great ladder or progression and everyone's going to walk up the stages and they're all going to end up living in big cities like London. It's just quite interesting that not everyone has done that.

Not everyone has done that but probably most people want to do that. More and more Bayaka are wanting to - now they want to make journeys, they want to see more of the world, things like that. Instead of running away from a car passing on the road, they run towards it now. It's like they want to take part in the larger world and the new generation does not want to be like their parents. The young generation wants to be different, wants more than what their parents had. I think it's inevitable - people are lazy, so if they think there's an easier way to make a living, they tend to want that. And hunting-gathering, it's a great way of life - it's interesting and fulfilling, but it is hard and even though you do get more leisure from it, it's still difficult. You do get pockets of resistance, you know, you always find them amongst indigenous people, some small group that wants to keep the traditions, but that tends to be an older generation and when you start getting the younger generation, they want to change. And that's what's happening now with the Bayaka. Where I was in Congo, it's not happening yet, but it'll start as the logging invades and more outside influence comes - you'll start getting a younger generation of Bayaka who will start craving to take part in a larger world.

"I had come to regard [the Bayaka] as the most well-adjusted people in the world. Their undaunted preoccupation with enjoying each moment as it came, with no concern for the consequences, made them free from neuroses. They were an example to me of how the full potential of the individual could be realized in the absence of the complex constraints imposed by modern civilization."

They see it as an escape from being owned, they see it as an escape from ignorance. They start to look at their parents as ignorant, "Yeah, sure they know about the forest, but they don't know about how to read and write," so the parents get taken advantage of in a larger world, so the new generation don't want to be like that - they don't want to be taken advantage of. They want to wear clothes now, because one of the reasons the Bantus have given them to "prove" that they're inferior is the fact that they don't have clothes and so now the new generation have this thing about wanting to have nice clothes.

What opportunities do they have to try and fulfil that then? Presumably if they want nice clothes, they're going to need money, so they have to go and get a job.

Yeah, so they work for the logging company, because they think they might get money there for clothes, or they work for researchers and stuff like that. So there are a few opportunities now around. Not for most of them, but for a few people there are starting to be opportunities.

Is there an element of resistance to modernisation as well? You were saying some of the older people want to resist development?

The older generation - what they know is the forest and so they just want to stick with that. They stick to that way of life and they might think the younger generation are being useless or whatever, but that's just a generational thing. But it is true, the new generation - not as many people in the new generation can climb trees or run up to gather honey or stuff like that, but on the other hand the new generation doesn't find that as important as the older generation does.

Prospects for the Future

What do you think the prospects for the future are? Which way do you think things are headed?

Well, I think it's tied up with the rainforest - the Bayaka's fate is really tied with the rainforest. Because as long as they have the rainforest and living in the rainforest is a viable option, if they can get enough animals to live on and stuff, they'll be alright, because if things get too bad by the road and conditions are just too much abject poverty, they can go into the forest. But once that forest is not there anymore or it's just too impoverished to help them, then they're really going to be the poorest of the poor and then I think you'll really see the ending of their culture and maybe even as a people they'll just be totally broken. They're very adaptable, but they've always had the forest there as a thing they can retreat into but now the forest itself is under attack in a big way, in a large scale way that it never has been before. You have to have a successful conservation programme to have the Bayaka survive as a distinct culture.

Otherwise, really it's going to be transformed - their not having any material possessions in the forest is a good thing - you don't see it as poverty. When they are like that by the road next to these other tribes that have more wealth, suddenly they are just very poor people. And the forest is also where they can renew their spiritual traditions - it's where everyone gets back into the traditional activities. Even if they don't ever have much traditional music out by the road, when they're in the forest, they have all the traditional stuff again. So it's very important for schooling for the young generation, and for spiritual renewal for everybody.

The Beginning of the End

How much of the forest as a total is protected as reserves?

Well, in my area, I'd say about half of it is park and half of it is reserve now and the Bayaka are allowed to go into the reserves but not the parks.

Is it the case like in Congo, as you were saying, that anything not inside a park has been parcelled out for logging?

In Congo, they have a park and then all the rest of the forest is going to be logged. Where I am, they have two little parks and the rest of the forest is going to be logged except the tiny piece which so far they haven't allowed the logging company to get on. In Cameroon, they have a little park, which has been partially logged already but then they are logging the rest of the forest.

Finally, this more modern logging is going to reach Africa, because they've just been too poor to do logging in these places and now it's like the final attack, especially in northern Congo, also in Gabon - you have logging everywhere. Northern Congo and Gabon especially are just huge swathes of almost uninhabited rainforest, really some of the least known rainforests left on earth are in Africa - it's like the last great wilderness in a way and it's going to be logged now - it's really the beginning of the end of it now. It's a huge area - they'll be logging for many decades probably. But they start building the roads - they're building the roads through what used to be the impenetrable swamp forest, now they can build the roads right through it. You build the roads, you start having settlements and you know, it's the beginning of the end. It's happening very fast..

Further Reading

Song from the Forest: My Life Among the Ba-Benjellé Pygmies by Louis Sarno (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1993) ISBN 0395613310. Unattributed quotes in the article are taken from this book.

Every Text Message a Tombstone

The war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has been going on since August 1998 has resulted in at least 2.5 million deaths and 2.3 million refugees. This under-reported conflict is Africa's First World War. Oxfam has called it "the world's biggest humanitarian disaster."

Fuelling the conflict is coltan (colombo tantalite), a rare mineral used in almost all cell phones, laptops, pagers and many other electronic devices. The huge expansion in mobile phone use has made this mineral incredibly valuable. The world's fourth-largest coltan reserve lies under the tropical rainforest of the Eastern Congo and the rival factions in the war have been competing to control it, resulting in huge numbers of deaths and massive destruction to one of the most ecologically important areas in the world.

According to a UN Security Council report, American proxies Uganda and Rwanda have been looting the Eastern Congo with most of the proceeds going to the West. Companies like Sony, Nokia, Ericcson, and Intel increased their demand for the mining of coltan in the Congo in the late 1990s and Rwanda and Uganda took control of the mining areas. The Rwandan army made $20 million per month mining coltan in 2000. Both Rwanda and Uganda have been rewarded by Western governments and by the World Bank for their massive human rights abuses, massacres, torture and rapes with increased aid and debt relief.

Coltan is being illegally mined in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park and Okapi Wildlife Reserve, both UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Eastern Congo. Over 10,000 miners have moved into the parks and are chopping down the forest and killing the wild animals. The numbers of lowland gorillas, okapis, and elephants have significantly dropped. The gorillas are very rare and may be on the brink of extinction. Also the indigenous Twa and Mbuti pygmies are being killed, raped, kidnapped and cannibalised by the rebel factions, primarily backed by Uganda.


Your mobile phone is not only responsible for the slaughter of endangered wildlife and thousands of people but is also the most widespread tracking and surveillance device ever to be introduced. Mobile phone cell location surveillance was officially acknowledged several years ago. By logging the base station used by the handset to connect to the network, the authorities can locate its owner to the accuracy of a few hundred metres in cities whenever the phone is switched on, even if you're not making a call. Within two years, with new 3G technology, all mobile phones will have satellite-locating devices built into them which will be accurate to within a few metres. All the information on everyone's phone calls made and received and mobile phone location data is retained and can be accessed by the authorities at will.

The government is now also funding a secret surveillance programme called 'Celldar' which uses mobile phone masts to allow the surveillance of anyone, at any time and anywhere there is a phone signal, whether or not they themselves have a phone. The technology detects the shapes made when radio waves emitted by mobile phone masts meet an obstruction. Signals bounced back by immobile objects, such as walls or trees, are filtered out by the receiver. This allows anything moving, such as cars or people, to be tracked 'in real time'. The system, used alongside technology which allows individuals to be identified by their mobile phone handsets, will mean that individuals can be located and their movements watched on a screen from hundreds of miles away. Researchers are working to give the new equipment 'X-ray vision' - the capability to 'see' through walls and look into people's homes.


And to top it all, there is serious concern over the health effects of mobile phones - they are pulsed at the same frequency as the cells in your body use to communicate (the "bioband" - 0-400 Hz) and scientific studies have proven that radiation from mobile phones causes biochemical changes in the brain which could pose general risks to health and increase the risk of brain tumours. The 2000 government Stewart Inquiry concluded that radiation from handsets could cause "subtle biological changes". There is also an increased risk to children and teenagers, whose thinner skulls and still developing nervous system make them all the more receptive to the effects of mobile phone radiation.

Even those who don't have a mobile may be at risk from the radiation produced by mobile phone masts. There is a current government enquiry into whether mobile phone masts can cause brain cancer and leukaemia, prompted by the eruption of 'cancer streets' across the country where clusters of people are living near to mobile phone base stations. There is consistent evidence of headache, sleep disruption, impairment of short-term memory, nosebleeds and, more seriously, an increase in the frequency of seizures in some children already suffering from epilepsy in people living near to mobile phone masts..

What more reason do you need? Ditch that gorilla-killer state tracking device!

Do or Die DTP/web team: