Photo: Pygmy girls jumping in water

Pygmy pool party: Women and children frolic in the Sangha River.

Photograph by Boyd Matson

By Boyd Matson

From the September 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler

Ten Pygmies carrying hunting nets climb into the back of a Land Cruiser.... This sounds like the opening line of a joke. It’s not. It’s how my afternoon starts on this day in the Congo Basin in the Central African Republic. We—a guide, driver, translator, the Pygmies (men and women), and I—are putting some distance between us and the nearest village. Soon we’ll stop to bushwhack our way deeper into the forest to hunt for duiker, a type of small antelope. If the Pygmies want meat in their diet, they have to catch it. They don’t raise livestock or have supermarkets. These Pygmies, or Ba’Aka, as they call themselves, are about as close to true hunter-gatherers as a tribe can be with the 21st century pressing in on all sides.

The Ba’Aka do have their own municipal swimming pool cum Laundromat. No signs, lifeguards, or washing machines identify the spot as a place of business, so the uninitiated might see only a wide bend in a small tributary that drains into the nearby Sangha River. But earlier this morning, passing by the river on my way to take pictures of forest elephants and western lowland gorillas, I spot some women in the water washing their clothes, their kids, and themselves. It is a scenic and noisy tableau filled with the kind of laughter, clapping, yelling, and splashing you’d expect to hear at any water park on a hot summer day.

It’s not often you get to go to a Pygmy pool party, so I stop to ask if I may take pictures. The ladies say yes and immediately jack up the entertainment level a couple of notches. First they form a line and start slapping the water, playing the river like a conga (or should I say Congo?) drum. The sound is rhythmic, boisterous, and infectious, and I immediately decide gorillas and elephants can wait. I’ll spend today hanging out with the Ba’Aka.

For better pictures, I wade into the river where the water is maybe three-and-a-half feet deep—about a foot shallower than the ladies are tall. The Ba’Aka women now move on to the real show, one I dub the Pygmy Olympic Diving Championship. They gather about ten yards away and, one at a time, run straight for my camera. Using a half-submerged tree trunk as a diving platform, they launch themselves into a series of jumps, dives, and half flips. As they show off their fanciest aerial moves, a small crowd of friends and relatives rate the performances with hoots, cheers, and catcalls.

That afternoon, back in the Land Cruiser, the hunters are getting themselves fired up for the duiker hunt. They’re clapping and doing a call-and-response type of chant. Louis Sarno, an American riding with us who has been living with the Pygmies for more than 25 years, explains: “It’s a hunting song that calls out to the forest spirits asking for success, although the song is more about the musical rhythm than the actual words.” 

When we finally stop and scramble out of the vehicle, we pause to pose for some pictures. I take one standing with a couple of the ladies, a shot I call “Me and my half sisters.” Then we snap a few frames of the entire hunting party. I joke that the photos will be a digital reference we can check at the end of the day to make sure all who go into the jungle got out alive. The Ba’Aka don’t laugh, because the premise doesn’t make sense to them. They can’t imagine how anyone could possibly get lost here, even though this dense forest seems unmarked by trails or signposts, and we’re carrying no maps and no GPS (which would show nothing besides a big green uncharted blob, anyway).

What to me is a confusing maze of trees and vines is the Ba’Aka’s own backyard and, in effect, their shopping mall. Here they find roots, seeds, and insects to eat; branches to frame their small, dome-shaped huts; leaves to make and repair the walls and roofs of their homes; and vines with which to fashion their hunting nets.

Perhaps most surprising of the available forest products is the “bottle” of jungle drinking water I’m invited to sample. In keeping with the environmentally sustainable traditions of the Ba’Aka, the container is completely biodegradable. Actually, it’s a two-foot-long section of vine about two inches in diameter. I tip it over my open mouth, and out pours what I’m told is clean natural drinking water. I can only confirm that it has no unusual taste, that I am still alive. Given their lifestyle, the Ba’Aka must leave one of the smallest carbon footprints of any people on the planet—not to mention one of the smallest actual footprints.

In fact, the Ba’Aka’s diminutive stature proves an advantage for living in the twisting jungles of the Congo River Basin. The Ba’Aka around me are staying upright and practically sprinting while I’m crouched as low as possible and falling farther and farther behind. It isn’t easy maneuvering my six-foot-five-inch frame under the low-hanging branches and between the narrow openings in this tightly woven tapestry of tropical vegetation.

Not wanting to get lost, I’m staying as close as I can to the hunting party. Finally they assign a guy with a machete to lead me; he hacks openings for me in the undergrowth. As we move through the forest, the women continually reset their four nets. They stretch them through the trees to form an almost complete circle. The men then run around beating the bushes and yelling, trying to drive the duiker into the nets. We do this again and again with no success­—and no sign of the small antelope having even been in the area recently.

I find a shotgun shell on the forest floor. Sarno says: “Poachers. They’re wiping out the antelope. The Ba’Aka are having to go deeper into the forest for food.” He adds: “Net hunting is not very efficient, which makes it highly sustainable. But it only works when there are lots of antelope.”

I wonder how much longer the Ba’Aka can hold on to their hunter-gatherer way of life. Already they have begun farming yams and manioc. They trade with a Bantu village to get machine-made products.

It’s unfair for us in the developed world to ask those in the developing world to forgo changes that would make their lives easier. The good news for us is that there is time to see this place where lives are lived closer to the past than to the present. There is time to learn that perhaps we too need to change to survive in the 21st century. The Ba’Aka can show us how to live with a bit less, leaving behind a smaller footprint.

Contributing editor Boyd Matson hosts National Geographic Weekend on radio.

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