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Mbuti Pygmies
SEPTEMBER 2005
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Mbuti Pygmies

By Paul Salopek
Photographs by Randy Olson

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The road Isabella Rossellini could fix
(if only she knew about it)
To reach the land of the Mbuti—a 23,000-square-mile (59,000-square-kilometer) greenhouse called the Ituri forest—you must follow men who push bicycles.
 
This isn't difficult. You will find them trudging, antlike, across the wilds of eastern Congo. Jackknifed at the waist, generally emaciated, their eyes glazed with exhaustion, they manhandle bikes that sag under mountains of goods: bundles of rice and gold dust, women's underwear and bullets, live goats and coffins, jugs of gasoline and cases of Coca-Cola. Some of these cargoes tilt and spill into the mud. Others bounce wildly down steep hills and explode across jungle trails. No matter. Slowly, with stupefying patience, the cyclists stoop and gather up their battered merchandise; they plod onward, advancing at the pace of a convict's shuffle, rolling their burdens over the belly of a continent.
 
These are Congo's toleka traders.
 
"We use drugs to keep going," says a scarecrow named Kambale Vivalya.
 
I meet Vivalya while he is heaving an enormous sack of shoes—cheap plastic shoes—to a gold mine 300 miles (480 kilometers) away, on the far side of the Ituri.
 
"I take ibuprofen for pain and Indocin to keep awake," he says. "Otherwise you won't make it. Many people have died on this job. You get exhausted. You go home after a trip. You sleep. You don't wake up."
 
When we finally part, he shakes my hand politely and wishes me luck. I wipe the blood of his blistered palm on my trousers.
 
Few countries in the world have collapsed as disastrously by the wayside—regressed so starkly into preindustrial ruin—as Congo. Once called Zaire, the nation was picked clean during three decades of misrule by the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, then gutted by more than six years of anarchy and civil war. Today Congo is the shell-shocked colossus of central Africa—a country almost the size of western Europe that seems to have sleepwalked into some feverish dream of the post-apocalypse.
 
Nowhere is the decay as surreal as on the roads that span the country's Wild East, a vast jungle where the fighting has never stopped.
 
What words can be uttered about those roads? Clogged with mud, strangled by bush, reduced in many cases to absurd footpaths, they slither for hundreds of miles through a tropical forest second in size only to the Amazon. They span a landscape where the 20th century has ebbed like a neap tide, leaving behind the detritus of modernity: towns with trees growing from roofs, factories crumbling like Maya ruins, coffee plantations run wild.
 
The roads are no longer roads. They are Ho Chi Minh trails of survival. And in their shadow-smeared margins the Mbuti can be glimpsed, shy, silent, watchful. In many cases it is their own world, dismantled and repackaged into sellable commodities, which they see passing by. The Pygmies covet, as we all would, the aluminum pots, cigarettes, and manufactured clothing carried by Congo's bicycle caravans. Yet in exchange, loads of timber, wild meat, and gold are streaming out of their forest home along the same tracks—a bonanza of raw materials swindled from the Pygmies by unscrupulous shopkeepers and middlemen. Moreover, the tiny hunters' ancient bonds of trade with local farmers—a quasi-feudal system that swaps Mbuti field labor and forest products for food crops and metal tools—are becoming frayed.
 
"They are easy to cheat," a roadside merchant says of the Pygmies along the way. "Like children."
 
In effect, the Mbuti are gaining their independence—which in Congo's feral east means they are free to lose everything to the tatterdemalion parade of pilgrims, many in far worse straits, who trod the dying remnants of the trans-African highways built by the colonial Belgians: the child soldiers in baggy new uniforms supplied by Russian gunrunners; the whores in blood-red ball gowns, bouncing atop toleka men's bicycles; the hollow-eyed refugees seeking sons, daughters, and parents long since vanished into the smoke of civil war; a rabble of small-time loggers, miners, and peddlers; and the howling, genocidal militias daubed with human blood and toothpaste (toothpaste sticks despite the rain and sweat).
 
I depart the frontier town of Beni at dawn on the back of a motorbike. The driver's name is Willy. He is a stoic in sunglasses. His reflexes—his balance—are things of rare beauty. For 11 brutal hours we penetrate the Ituri. We pass columns of traders who slog head down, sweating, through clouds of butterflies. Stinking bogs the size of swimming pools block the way. It is the worst road in the world.
 
"Ah, if only Isabella Rossellini knew our situation," an Italian priest says at a mission where I pause to rest. The padre, a veteran of Congo's chaos, explains that Rossellini, the glamorous international film star and daughter of Ingrid Bergman, donates to African conservation and philanthropic projects.
 
I am too exhausted to speak. Sore-assed, I can barely sit at the priest's dining table.
 
"Rossellini could help fix our road," he persists, "if only she knew about it." But his eyes betray him. He stares wistfully into his pasta. Because, of course, she doesn't know.
 
The "King of the Imbeciles"
Perusing a copy of Echoes of the Pygmies, a foreign-funded Congolese human rights quarterly, I notice the following headline: "THE MLC TRIES TO ERASE PROOF OF ITS CANNIBALISM OF PYGMIES IN THE ITURI."
 
MLC stands for the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, perhaps the strongest rebel group in the country. Its leader is a pudgy businessman named Jean-Pierre Bemba. In accordance with Congo's 2002 peace agreement, he has joined a weak transitional government as one of four vice presidents. He wants to be president. And he has an image problem: His soldiers are known primarily for eating Pygmies.
 
More than three million people died in Congo's six years of civil strife, an internal scramble for power that saw one president assassinated and laid Congo open to the invading armies of at least six of its neighbors. The dead consist mainly of civilians. They perished mostly from starvation and disease: the worst human calamity since World War II. Yet, inevitably, it is Congo's lurid tales of cannibalism, its sensational stories of human sacrifice, its ornamental killings, which end up bubbling into the news.
 
Magical violence makes it easy for journalists to reach for Joseph Conrad's bleak fable, Heart of Darkness, every time a Congo headline is required. This fixation on "unspeakable" rites in "darkest Africa" obscures the actual origins of the war: bitter ethnic grudges and endless squabbles over an immense storehouse of gold, diamonds, timber, and coltan—a mineral used in high-tech electronics.
 
Still, this much is true: The miasma of juju is inescapable in Congo. It is like swamp vapor. Invisible. Pervasive. Soccer teams hire sorcerers to hex their rivals. Prostitutes pay good money for charms that make them irresistible. And in the nation's Wild East, the magic becomes explosive, toxic, like the volcanic gases that are trapped at the bottom of one of its deepest lakes.

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