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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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In late 2002 rebel forces—led in part by a commander nicknamed the "King of the Imbeciles"—launched a terrible offensive in the Ituri forest. Towns were sacked. Women and girls were raped. Villagers were executed. Yet it was the rumors of cannibalized Pygmies that scandalized the world.
 
An Mbuti named Amuzati Nzoli, widely quoted in the international press, claims that rebels attacked his jungle camp, cut up his family, grilled them over a campfire, and "even sprinkled salt on the flesh as they ate."
 
I search for Nzoli in eastern Congo. I never find him. He and other "cannibalism witnesses" have been rounded up in the forest by rebel operatives and flown to the capital. There, under tight guard, and in front of television crews hastily summoned to the lobby of a luxury hotel, a stuttering, wide-eyed Nzoli recants his story. Yet no one in Congo believes him. As several Congolese tell me—Pygmies are subhuman. So anyone can eat them.
 
"Cannibalism here is both an ancient tribal practice and a modern instrument of terror," says one human rights worker with the 16,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping force in Congo. "But the attacks singling out Pygmies are new. The prevailing theory holds that soldiers ate them to absorb their unique forest powers— good vision, tracking skills, whatever."
 
One night in Beni I stop by a lightless and crumbling hotel. I have come to visit Maj. Edison Mungilima. He is a senior officer with the Mayi-Mayi—a Congolese militia that has battled almost every other faction in eastern Congo, including the MLC. I am curious about his thinking on the issue of cannibalism.
 
Mungilima greets me affably. He sits out under the stars in a lawn chair, dressed in military fatigues, a leopard-skin cape, and—despite the Congolese heat—a heavy fur-trimmed parka. He answers philosophically.
 
Fetishism has been part of warfare in Congo since the very beginning, Mungilima says. There is good magic and bad magic. It all depends on the purity of the individual soldier. Mungilima himself is a "liquid fighter," a warrior who can turn himself into water, so that the bullets pass harmlessly through him. Eating Pygmies, however, as the MLC is alleged to have done, is "offensive," he says; at most, a Mayi-Mayi might cut off an enemy's head "to parade around a village as a flag of victory." (This is modesty. One Mayi-Mayi chief "went around with a dried infant around his neck," according to a recent human rights document.) Mungilima produces a photo album. Stenciled on its cover, in elegant gold script, is the word "Memories." It is filled with war porn, gory battlefield snapshots. As proof of his dawa, or magical power, Mungilima presents me with one of the pictures.
 
Later, under the yellow glare of a lightbulb, I look at it. Mungilima stands in full regalia. A white dog walks by in the foreground. The perspective is odd. It makes the warrior seem shrunken to half-size, as if he were a malevolent elf perched on the hound's back.
 
When I show this to a Congolese acquaintance, a worldly, educated man who manages an English-language institute, he stares hard. "That," he says finally, slowly, with great care, "is a very dangerous man."
 
The hunt
Musa the Pygmy has found a honey tree. This is an event. All hunting stops if asali, as it is called in Swahili, can be located and consumed.
 
Among the Mbuti the quest for wild honey is tireless, constant, almost obsessive. They have honeycomb on the brain. It is their favorite food. The honey season in the southern Ituri is measured out according to the cycle of flowering trees—the bees' main source of nectar. In June real honey production begins. This is white honey: Young, virtually transparent and cool to the taste, like a pale wine, or the first breaths of dawn. Later, by August, the honey is oil-dark. Black honey is strong, warm, musky with distilled sunlight and the nectar of tropical flowers.
 
"We like it all," Musa says unnecessarily. Then he knots together a 150-foot (45-meter) rope of lianas and does what must be done.
 
He and a hunter named Jolie, who at four feet tall is tiny even by Pygmy standards, shinny some 60 feet (18 meters) up the smooth, fat shaft of the tree to ax a hole in the trunk. The women send up a smoker fashioned from a basket of embers and leaves. Within minutes, to small yelps of anticipation, the combs are lowered like hunks of gold. Soon the entire band, stuffing their stomachs with pounds of sweet liquid, feels the sugar's glow. The men argue and holler at each other loudly. The women guffaw even louder at sex jokes. Somewhere up among the attic of leaves—30 or 40 feet (9 to 12 meters) off the ground—children as young as five or six, smeared with honey, bombed by angry African bees, are chattering with delight.
 
Tasting rain forest honey for the first time is an unforgettable experience. It goes quickly to the head. Its delicious perfume carries with it the suggestion of a better world. As it seeps directly from the membranes of the mouth into the bloodstream, yielding up its concentrated energy, generously radiating its stored warmth, a single word comes to mind: Yes.
 
The rift
John Hart, a sunburned American biologist, sits on a veranda in the town of Bukavu, sketching a map of Africa on a napkin. He draws a worrisome fault line that cracks through the very heart of the continent—a tectonic fissure that runs right under his table.
 
This is the Albertine Rift. It is the westernmost of the famous African rift valleys that began yawning wide some 30 million years ago as the Arabian Peninsula drifted away from the continent. The Albertine Rift is especially beautiful. It shadows Congo's eastern border, cupping a series of enormous, limpid lakes in its belly, separating Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi from Congo proper.
 
This rift, Hart points out, also is a human quake zone. It's where francophone central Africa meets anglophone eastern Africa. It marks an economic divide between countries with few natural resources (Rwanda, Burundi) and one that overflows with them (Congo). Moreover, it is a violent ethnic front. The Hutu perpetrators of Rwanda's 1994 mass murder of the Tutsi escaped into Congo's jungles, sparking years of cross-border reprisals by Rwandan forces.
 
But to Hart, the most troubling divide of all is demographic: Along the Albertine Rift, population densities exceed 1,000 people per square mile; to the west, in Congo's vast, lawless rain forests, it drops to fewer than 10.
 
"All these people have to go somewhere, right?" he says, gesturing out beyond the farm-scalped hills around Bukavu. "It's inexorable. Unstoppable. This is Africa's last big frontier. All we can do is try to create islands of habitat that the crowds will hopefully flow around."
 
Hart works for the Bronx-based Wildlife Conservation Society. He is an odd mix of bluster and innocence—much like the Mbuti hunters he has lived among for two decades. He is known to chant Pygmy airs while driving. His goal is to protect enough Congolese forest from the advance of small, anarchic logging mills, settlers, and poachers to allow the Pygmies to conduct their nomadic lifestyle indefinitely.
 
He and other environmentalists are doing this in a postmodern way. They have internationalized the wilds of central Africa.
 
Imagine, for a moment, that the United States is prostrated by a civil war. Desperate bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., cut off by years of fighting, issue an SOS to foreign green groups: Please help rescue America's fabled national parks! British activists respond by funding the entire budget of Yellowstone National Park, where gangs of neo-Nazis are holed up, machine-gunning the last buffalo. Japanese wildlife experts, meanwhile, face gunfire while resupplying beleaguered National Park Service rangers at the Everglades, where armed profiteers are peddling real estate. Scores of American rangers have been killed.
 
This is conservation work in Congo.
 
"The war has been hard," Hart says, tipping back a warm beer. "But just wait until things stabilize. Wait until the big loggers think it's safe to move in. That's when the real plunder begins."


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