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Mbuti Pygmies
SEPTEMBER 2005
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Mbuti Pygmies @ National Geographic Magazine
By Paul Salopek

Photographs by Randy Olson
The Mbuti Pygmies of Congo's Ituri forest have survived a brutal civil war and chaotic aftermath. But peace—with its inevitable land rush—poses an even greater threat.

The hunt
Rain forests are light-struck places. This comes as a surprise. Countless books and movies would have us believe otherwise. The world beneath a jungle canopy is neither dim, nor gloomy, nor monochrome. It glows with the light of some alien order—a light so improbable it has a dreamed quality, the way colors in dreams can possess actual weight, or create sound, or stop time.
 
I have looked up, startled, from my notebook to see the forest suddenly electric white: suffused with the calm, almost glacial cleanliness of a fluorescent-lit office. A few moments later, or merely a few steps away, the jungle turns metallic. Falling rain, leaf shadows, the bloodied pelt of an arrowed monkey—all appear dipped in shivery tones of silver. Once, on the steamy banks of the Ituri River, I saw the twilit undergrowth erupt in unearthly constellations of fire: Sunset burned through the pin-holed canopy, and its deep, red laminar shafts spattered the sodden leaves like flecks of lava. Rain forests, everyone knows, are valued for biodiversity. But few credit the kaleidoscopic richness of their light—ethereal and hallucinatory, filtered as though through antique glass, unlike any other in the world.
 
Right now, at this precise instant, the jungle is blue—rinsed the color of indigo ink diluted in water, its shadows deep as the bluing on a gun.
 
Musa Yambuka's glistening eyes are stained pale blue. The sweat on his face sparkles star blue. He's an Mbuti Pygmy, a small, perfectly muscled man, crouched with a spear behind the roots of a fig tree, waiting to ambush a forest antelope. (These animals, too, are smoky blue, a fact noted in their Western name, blue duiker.) The moment is a thousand or more years old. The beaters come yodeling through the forest, driving the game before them. Musa tenses, digs in his toes, ready to spring, to slice something's throat. In the canopy, the monkeys grow still, fall silent. I hear an invisible bird flap away.
 
I have seen this scene 20, maybe 30 times now. We have been traveling together for days, the Mbuti and I, through the jungle of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Pygmies do things that most humans forgot a long time ago. Like drive cat-size antelope into nets. Or live in adult accord with pain and sudden death. Or mold soccer balls out of the sap from a certain liana. All of this, of course, is interesting. But what distracts me more than ever, what's got me disoriented, even a little spooked—my eyes, these days, seem like borrowed things—isn't what these people do as much as the light they do it in: this miraculous and enigmatic empire of color that only the Mbuti know.
 
It shifts again.
 
Musa's ferocious grin shines aquamarine. The drivers approach through a white-hot slab of brilliance that could burn diamonds. Dazzled, I look down at what, apparently, are my hands. In the bottom-of-the-sea sheen of the forest, the skin looks insubstantial. Almost translucent. The hands of a ghost.
 
I hold my breath.
 
Maybe birth is like this. 

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