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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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Looking up in Miti
Before leaving eastern Congo I drive to Miti. It is a typical Wild East village. Its road is ridiculous. The dozy market sells bush meat. Customers carry away their dead monkeys like valises; the animals' tails, lashed to their necks, form convenient handles.
 
There is a military checkpoint—the usual string tied across a street—where a 12-year-old with a Kalashnikov struts up to the car, shoves the muzzle of his rifle through the window, and demands a thousand-dollar "security tax" to let me pass. He settles for a Ugandan cigarette.
 
I have come to see David Bisimwa. Or rather, his famous helicopter.
 
Bisimwa is a slight, intense, energetic man of about 30 with the syrupy eyes of a dreamer. He is a self-taught artist and inventor. He is also a member of the Bashi tribe, farmers who have long coexisted in the rain forest with Congo's Pygmies. Only in Miti, the forest is mostly gone, gobbled up by settlers. The Pygmies, here called the Twa, no longer hunt to survive. They are farm laborers. And the children of the old Bashi, squeezed by land hunger, now look beyond the depleted soils for inspiration.
 
Bisimwa has built, by hand in the Congolese jungle, using scraps of metal, pipes, and wire, a life-size replica of an old Sikorsky helicopter. He copied it out of magazines. When I first see the chopper beside the potholed road, two barefoot farmers are sprawled in the shade of its fuselage, absorbed in eating stalks of sugarcane.
 
"It's for research," Bisimwa explains. I stare at the machine dumbstruck. Faced with an artifact of such frustrated longing, I can't think of anything to say.
 
"Aeronautical research," he adds helpfully. Finally, I ask him who the pilot is.
 
"I made it," Bisimwa says proudly. "I'll fly it."
 
Bisimwa says he has tested his helicopter only once, the year before. Powered by a borrowed Volkswagen engine, the rotors had raked up an impressive cloud of dust and spooked the local livestock—but, alas, to no practical effect. The racket is still commented on with awe in the village. Bisimwa had run out of money for further trials. A friend had reclaimed the engine and bolted it back into his car.
 
Bisimwa is one of Congo's stranded intelligentsia. His life's highlight was an all-expenses-paid trip to Japan to illustrate a book about gorillas. That was many years ago. Now, like thousands of other educated Congolese trapped in backwaters—many of them students who had ventured abroad during the long pax corrupta of dictator Mobutu—he finds himself reduced by war and poverty to rustic irrelevance. These doomed cosmopolitans are everywhere in Congo. During the war, in the rebel-held town of Gbadolite, I met a Belgian-trained chef who had prepared elaborate state banquets for President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and other dignitaries. Clad in grimy shorts and scuffed wing tips—nothing else—he was hawking boiled eggs from a roadside stall. Earlier, on the Congo River, I shared a leaky dugout canoe with a linguist who, for hour after delightful hour, recited the works of the poet Robert Frost. (Whenever gunmen boarded to rob us—a frequent occurrence—he jabbed at them with a multicolored umbrella, bleating indignantly, "But I am a professor!")
 
What lies ahead for Congo's outlaw east?
 
Africa is the most unpredictable continent in the world. Yet no African nation confronts a future so unscripted, so fraught with disaster and sheer possibility, as the misnamed Democratic Republic of the Congo. Will war resume and Congo shatter into smaller, squabbling states? Possibly. Can the frail but hopeful peace last, allowing Congo finally to put its fabulous riches to work? Conceivably. Everything is so unclear, so unfathomable. An election scheduled for June 2005—the first truly democratic ballot since independence from Belgium in 1960 —has been postponed for at least six months. But UN experts warn that more than 100,000 rebels, bandits, militiamen, soldiers, and assorted other killers have yet to disarm. And the ethnic and political rumbling along the rift won't likely stop with a mere presidential poll. So with astonishing patience and good humor, millions of people in the center of Africa hold their breath.
 
Waking up in their kingdom of trees, the Pygmies peek out warily into the morning's half-light. The toleka men's eyes flutter open to yet another day on the road. A rebel soldier sits up abruptly, as from a nightmare, and reaches for his gun. Will they all see the world they are expecting? Or will a gigantic chasm open up at their feet—an abyss that plummets to the very core of the Earth, into which they all will shortly tumble?
 
David Bisimwa, a visionary in flip-flop sandals, the lone Wright brother of the Congolese wilderness, has conquered such paralyzing uncertainty. He never looks down; he locks his eyes on the clouds.
 
The hunt
The sky is cleaving apart. It calves like a glacier—big, noisy chunks of atmosphere shearing off, crashing into the forest with reverberating booms. Gusts of cold air, like that of a refrigerator, rustle through the canopy, dislodging a confetti of leaves. Musa the Mbuti squints up, mutters ah-ah-ah at the storm.
 
Pygmies dislike rain. It is not only the clammy discomfort of moving through a damp forest. Water weakens the hunting nets. Antelope wriggle through the wet weave of liana bark like fish. Musa coils his net. He hulloos his farewell to the other hunters—a sound that is itself watery in the suddenly darkening jungle.
 
Darkness. It is not necessarily feared by the Mbuti. They have a feeling about it. Whatever the forest brings cannot be bad. Sometimes they sing this song over their dead:
There is darkness upon us;
Darkness is all around,
There is no light.
But it is the darkness of the forest,
So if it really must be,
Even the darkness is good.
 
Musa fires up a leaf-rolled marijuana joint. For fatigue. He passes it to Mayuma, his wife. She grips a slain duiker by its rear hooves—a small, jewel-like animal. Its dead eyes shine, and its hooves are not much bigger than a man's thumbs.
 
Smoking, they wait for their children to gather, and Musa holds Mayuma's gnarled left middle finger in his calloused right hand. A pleasant silence. They will sleep tonight in a small domed hut of mongongo leaves. Such huts are everywhere in the Ituri forest. They begin to decay into piles of powdery frass almost as soon as they are built. The Pygmies have erected them since the time when the forest was born. They will continue to do so for as long as the forest lasts.


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