Africa Guide

Pygmy People


There are many different 'Pygmy' peoples – for example, the Twa, the Bambuti, the Batwa, the Bayaka and the Bagyeli ('Ba -' means 'people') – who live scattered over a huge area in central and western Africa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Congo (Brazzaville), Cameroon, Gabon, Central African Republic, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. In many places they are recognised as being the first inhabitants of the region. The different Pygmy groups speak different languages, mostly related to those of neighbouring non-Pygmy peoples. However there are a few words which are shared between even widely separated Pygmy tribes, suggesting they may have shared a language in the past. One of these shared words is the name of the forest spirit, Jengi.

The 'Pygmy' peoples are forest dwellers, and know the forest, its plants and its animals intimately. They live by hunting animals such as antelopes, pigs and monkeys, fishing, and gathering honey, wild yams, berries and other plants. For them, the forest is a kindly personal god, who provides for their needs. All Pygmy groups have close ties to neighbouring farming villagers, and work for them or exchange forest produce for crops and other goods. At its best this is a fair exchange, but it can involve exploitation of the Pygmies, especially where they have lost control of the forest and its resources.

'Pygmy' peoples see their rainforest homes threatened by logging, and are driven out by settlers. In some places they have been evicted and their land has been designated as national parks. They are routinely deprived of their rights by governments, which do not see these forest-dwellers as equal citizens. In Cameroon, the life of the Bagyeli is being disrupted by a World Bank-sponsored oil pipeline which is to be built through their land. The Batwa of eastern DRC, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda have seen nearly all their forest destroyed, and barely survive as labourers and beggars.

Information kindly provided by Survival International

The original inhabitants of the Ituri Forest of Zaire are the Bambuti Pygmies.Traditional music among the Pygmies is vocal and rich in polyphonic harmony. Pygmies are hunters and gatherers, and Pygmy songs describe life, hunting, and survival. Pygmies also compose songs for male and female secret social societies. Their elephant-hunting song features split sticks, used to mark time, and a group of men and boys singing in a chorus. The choral music is built up from continuously varied repetitions of a short basic pattern that takes shape as different voices enter and fill out the texture (from Pygmies of the Congo Research by Lewis Yaeger)

Survival International
Survival is calling on the governments of the DRC, Rwanda, Uganda and Cameroon to recognise the rights of the 'Pygmy' peoples. We vigorously opposed the building of the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline, lobbying governments, oil companies and the World Bank. The World Bank did respond to Bagyeli concerns by promising that an independent social and environmental watchdog would be involved. Survival is continuing to monitor this promise as well as the building of the pipeline itself.

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