I admit I felt a bit uneasy at the idea of reading a book called ‘Still a Pygmy’. Isn’t that a bit, well, politically incorrect?
Apparently not. The pygmy in question, Isaac Bacirongo, beams from the cover of his memoir. Hard to argue with that endorsement.
His collaborating author, white Australian Michael Nest, knows that potential readers may feel the same political squeamishness as I did, so he explains in the introduction that using this word is completely fine. Even if he hadn’t done this, it becomes clear as you read the book that Bacirongo is claiming the name with pride, using it to strip away the cloud of invisibility that surrounds his people, the Indigenous people of the rainforests of Central Africa.
It is, in any case, strategic. ‘Still a BaTembo’ (the actual name of his people) or ‘Still an indigene of the Kalego forest’, while perhaps more PC, just wouldn’t have books moving off the shelves – because no-one would have any idea what they meant.
And that’s really one of the reasons for the book. Bacirongo and Nest want people to pick it up and read it so that so that they can gain some insights into the world Bacirongo comes from, and the challenges pygmies face today.
His story is in some ways sadly familiar. Like Indigenous peoples in other countries, Pygmies are marginalised and deprived of land and livelihoods. They are heavily stigmatised in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), to the extent that Bacirongo had to flee the country because of his political activism trying to ensure that pygmies’ human rights were protected. He’d made the DRC look bad on the international stage.
Not long before I read the book, I caught a glimpse of Bacirongo and Nest at a gig in Sydney. An Afro-Celtic band stopped over at the Camelot Lounge in Sydney during their Australian tour. Baka Beyond’s music draws on the traditions of the Baka Pygmies of the forests of Cameroon. They raise awareness of the challenges facing pygmies, and send royalties back to the communities they collaborate with and support.
I wonder how long it is since Bacirongo heard the music of the rainforest being played? I didn’t notice if he danced, although I think a woman who got up and sang along with the band was one of his party.
Did he feel sadness? Did the music remind him that as a refugee, a band in a nightclub may be the closest he can hope to get to the music of his ancestors? Or was he delighted by the fusion of musical cultures? Could he hear the forest speak to him, through the white vocalist’s ululations? Did he feel joy, and memories of connection?
Or were his feelings more ambivalent, as he watched the grainy projection of pygmy dancers and musicians that played behind the band during the show? For in spite of his role as an activist, and his pride in being a pygmy, Bacirongo had already moved a long way from those forest dancers many years before he arrived in Australia.
Although Bacirongo is clearly proud of his heritage I felt there was some ambivalence in his book. From an early age, he wanted opportunities that were beyond the reach of an uneducated hunter gatherer and as he grew up, he started to question aspects of pygmy traditions — such as the practice of witchcraft, or onerous spiritual obligations. After he married, although he had loved growing up in the forest, he spent less and less time in it because his non-pygmy wife found the subsistence existence too uncomfortable, and his thriving business and expanding family took up too much time.
I was reminded of another book I’ve read recently. Anita Heiss, in Am I Black Enough For You? explores the meaning of identity, making the case that it is who we are, not something we choose, although how we express our identity is our choice. This is particularly significant for Indigenous people, whose right to self expression has so often been forcibly denied.
I think Bacirongo has spent his life trying to figure out what it means to be a pygmy in the modern world, and his book is an expression of that, but his attempt has been continually thwarted by circumstances beyond his control — by stigma, oppression, and war.
Now he and his family are in Australia, how much more difficult will it be for his children and grandchildren to maintain and express that identity? We think of Indigenous peoples’ identity as being tied to ancestral land, but in their case, the land is on the other side of the planet.
This reality makes Bacirongo’s assertion that he is ‘still a pygmy’ seem poignant, like a last ditch defiance of fate. But perhaps that’s just me buying into a romantic stereotype, for Bacirongo is certainly not a victim. Yes, he’s struggled, but as his book conveys, he’s also a man full of optimism and determination. He’s made his choices, and made them with integrity.
Even as a small child Bacirongo was determined to get an education. He was lucky to have sponsors who had faith in his abilities but he also paid his own way through school for many years. His family resisted this because they predicted – rightly as it turned out – that an education would take him away from them, and away from the forest.
They can’t have imagined it would take him halfway around the world.
Bacirongo has overcome incredible challenges along the long road from Kalego forest to suburban Sydney. He recounts some of these challenges as amusing tales, like the comedy of errors of his parents always eating the chickens he was keeping so he could sell eggs to pay his school fees. Other stories are of unimaginable dangers, like being caught up in the Hutu/Tutsi Rwandan conflict, in the civil war in the DRC, and then having to leave the country for fear of being ‘disappeared’ on account of his advocacy for pygmy rights.
It’s a harsh irony that the education Bacirongo so desired ultimately resulted in his exile. It’s because he was educated and a successful businessman, that he was approached to be an advocate. What a horrific price to pay. But would he have been any better off, if he’d never gone to school? Given the prejudice and violence against pygmies, maybe not. At least he was able to do some good for his people, before he had to leave the DRC, and in publishing his story and highlighting their problems, he continues to help their cause.
Bacirongo’s book is also important for Australians because it adds to our knowledge of the refugee experience. We need to read stories like his, so that we can better understand not only the cultures and beliefs of refugees and asylum seekers, but also the sacrifices they’ve had to make and the losses they’ve endured. Can you imagine having to leave your home, your job, even your country just because you’d had a good education and wanted to use it to help people? I can’t.
This post is multitasking to the max. It’s my 3rd response to Kinna’s African Reading Challenge 2015, and my 2nd response to my own Indigenous Reading Challenge. It’s also published just after World Refugee Day (20 June) and fairly close to DRC Independence Day (30 June). And last but not least, it’s a Monday, when I often post about music — which is why you get a soundtrack as well as a book review.