KANUNGU, Uganda — The Pygmies are a population of people who reside in the rainforests of Central Africa. They are hunter-gatherers who make use of the natural resources found within the forest, often selling their own crafts and pottery as their livelihoods.
The word “Pygmy” has, over the years, gained a reputation for being a negative word, but many indigenous Pygmies use it to express their identities. Some prefer to call themselves simply “forest people,” as the rainforest is very cherished and important to their survival, culture and historic background.
There are many different groups throughout the Pygmy population of an estimated half a million, and each group has its own language, culture and traditions. One word the majority has in common is “Jengi,” which means “Spirit of the Forest”; it is a sacred word based off the very land these people of the rainforest hold most dear to them.
Many Pygmy colonies have struggled over the years with threats, racism, relocation, health problems and abuse, mainly because the government does not recognize that they have rights to the land or in which homes they live. Over the years, the Pygmy have been facing displacement by conservation projects, and the expansion of farmland, logging and commercial businesses.
Due to their displacement, many Pygmy peoples are falling ill or facing extreme poverty. The government very rarely compensates for the loss of their incomes or helps find alternate housing. The government relocated some, such as the Batwa Pygmies, during the formation of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in the early 1990s.
The Rwandan Twa Pygmies are another example of Pygmies that are currently struggling to survive. They had made use of the readily available clay on their old homeland in swamp areas, but once they were displaced, they could no longer make and sell pottery as a means of supporting themselves. Much of their old land became privatized farmland, and their access to clay was cut off. Many Twa Pygmies now resort to begging and some have even begun selling their labor to make ends meet.
Luis Devin, author of “The Forest Has You,” researched the Baka Pygmies in Cameroon and stated, “Today, life for the Baka is more difficult than ever, and perhaps there is really no future for them on our planet. Yet to see them you would never say this…They accept life as it comes, exorcising suffering with good humour and simplicity…”
For some Pygmy groups, the hardest hit they have taken is to their culture and the uncertain future of their children.
Living in harmony with the earth and the rainforest is easy for the Pygmy peoples, but currently, the displacement of their community has forced them to educate their children on their history and customs to ensure that their traditions are still thriving years later.
Levi Busingye, manager of the Batwa Experience, explains that education has become such an important tool for the Batwa Pygmies because the Batwa lifestyle is so drastically different since their relocation. Current generations do not know of the unrestricted lifestyle that they had while living in the rainforests.
Busingye stated, “It was the Batwa that said we should start this Batwa Experience so we can teach their children about their culture, because they don’t have hopes of going back to the forest where they used to live before. But now their children can learn…what they used to do, [and now the children]can learn from the elders and they can keep their culture.”
Many human rights groups are teaming up to help Pygmy people establish their rights and hopefully save many from being moved out of their native land. You can learn more about the Pygmy and write to the Cameroon government asking for land rights for the Pygmy here: http://www.survivalinternational.org/actnow/writealetter/pygmies.