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Field Notes
Olson
Photograph by Lynn Johnson
Randy Olson

What was your best experience in the field covering this story?

I was impressed with how happy and comfortable the Pygmies are in the forest. Sometimes I would hear one of them tell a story, and the others would start laughing so hard that they would have to hold each other up. By my estimate they are a lot more content than Western culture because they don't care about acquiring and maintaining material possessions. They live off the forest and take only what they need. Hopefully, we can let that survive.

What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?

I had been prepped somewhat for the whipping part of the nkumbi, the ritual passage into manhood for Mbuti and Bantu boys of about nine to twelve years old. But I was not prepared for the ritual scarification. I watched the men pull out two dirty old razor blades and cut about 20 half-inch incisions into each boy's chest. Then the chief rubbed black mud into their wounds. That really sent them into convulsions of tears. I knew that this was all part of the Pygmy boot camp, but I couldn't help feeling sorry for these young boys.

What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?

When you follow Pygmies through the forest, you realize why people think they're the original inhabitants of the rain forest. They don't seem like they're that much smaller until you're walking through the jungle with them, tripping over vines and hitting your head on everything. The Pygmies move so fast and comfortably that it's as if they have a GPS wired in their brains.

I tried to keep up with some of the boys, and by the time I finally caught up with them my glasses were so fogged up that I couldn't see through the camera viewfinder. Sometimes the only way I could take photographs was by just looking for their shapes and hoping the auto-focus was working.