Still a Pygmy is Isaac Bacirongo’s memoir, co-written with Michael Nest. It is a remarkable story, the first memoir by a Pygmy author ever published. Isaac is a BaTembo Pygmy who grew up with his family in the forests of the Congo, where Pygmies have been regarded as an inferior race for centuries, and have tried to keep their identities secret to avoid oppression. But how, you might ask, have they been able to do this, given their short stature? this was certainly the question uppermost in my mind when I began reading the book. I didn’t find a direct answer, perhaps because to Isaac, his stature is not the most distinctive thing about his identity. Before I review his story, I’d like to address the stature question. An article dated August 2014 in National Geographic tells me that the pygmy phenotype is controlled by genetics.
Both the Batwa people in the east and the Baka in the west are commonly referred to as pygmies….
When the researchers looked more closely, they found that these genetic differences weren’t just random chance … [that is] that the first Batwa and Baka people just happened to be short. Instead, these genetic differences were somehow benefiting the individuals living in these rain forest environments. It’s an example of convergent evolution, Barreiro says, in that the same trait (short stature) evolved independently in several different populations.
When they looked at when these mutations might have happened, Barreiro and colleagues found that they were relatively recent events, having occurred separately in both the Batwa and the Baka. This showed that whatever factors were selecting for short stature were fairly strong and could exert their effects relatively quickly.
The answer, then, remains indefinite. One can only surmise what it means to a Pygmy who adapts to living a settled rural or urban life, to be significantly shorter than the average. I think the fact that Isaac does not reflect on this in his memoir is interesting; it was, it seems, the least of his worries. The sub-title of his book is ‘The unique memoir of one man’s fight to save his identity from extinction’. Identity, for Isaac, is not expressed in terms of physical appearance. The things that were important to him, as he emerged from the simple forest life, were education, independence from familial and tribal expectations, and the opportunity to create a stable and prosperous family life for himself and his wife and 10 children. A thoroughly ‘modern’ man, in fact. His life moved from the familial focus on gathering food to one on jobs and education. Goals that are little different from those held in common in much of the world.
Isaac emerges from the story as a strong personality, one who has taken many risks in his life, who has made choices that went against the culture of his family and tribe. Such as choosing a wife who was a town girl, who, complained Isaac’s mother, wouldn’t be able to catch fish or collect firewood; she therefore hired successive witchdoctors to try and kill her (unsuccessfully). Before he made this daring choice, Isaac had put himself through school; he was the only one in his family to get an education. It didn’t come easily; he was supported by a kindly professor for a time, but when his benefactor became ill, Isaac was unable to repay him for his board, because when he went home hoping to sell his chickens, he found only a handful left. His family had eaten the eggs and some of the chickens. After year 10 he was forced to drop out of school and work as a primary teacher; then he started a small business, selling banana wine, but this was not enough to keep a wife and family. After he married his wife Josephine, he saved enough to buy some land and build a house, and diversified his business. There was money to be made selling pharmaceuticals, which were in short supply and expensive. He sold them illegally, and managed to keep trading by bribing the officials. And so he went on, practising as ethically as he could in Mobotu’s corrupt regime, where restrictions were circumvented by bribery.
One good thing that Mobutu did was to declare that Pygmies were citizens, although they weren’t officially recognised until the mid-1970s (cf. our own Aborigines). However, Mobutu did nothing to improve or change the way Pygmies were disadvantaged. When the economy collapsed under his rule in the 1980s, life became more and more difficult. Mobutu had passed a decree that he would reign as president for ever. When Isaac had an argument with his neighbour, declaring this was idolatry, he was reported to the secret police and arrested, beaten and confined to a cell 50 by 50 centimetres wide. He was freed as ‘an irrelevant Pygmy’ and returned to his entrepreneurial life. Despite all the challenges, he was successful in feeding and educating his large family. But the Mobutu regime, under international pressure to democratise government, became more violent and lawless, and neighbouring Rwanda’s racial conflicts were spilling over into the Congo, with Tutsi refugees’ attempt to go back to Rwanda by force erupting into the Rwandan genocide which started in April 1994.
Isaac and his co-writer narrate all these events in a straightforward, readable prose that keeps you turning the pages. The motivations for reading this book will be curiosity, the desire to understand how it feels to be of a minority race trying to fit in in the modern world, without losing your identity and self-esteem, and what it meant to live in countries like the Congo in the late 20th century.
In brief, this fascinating story takes us with Isaac and his family as he became an activist for Pygmy rights to education and pride of citizenship; he even joined in writing a history of his people. The new Rwandan Tutsi regime invaded the Congo, there were massacres, Isaac was arrested again, and the decision was made to flee. He and his family were refugees in Uganda, where Isaac worked for a while as an interpreter on a corruption investigation into the UN-HCR. Granted a humanitarian visa, Isaac and his family resettled in Sydney.
It would be lovely to say that his expectations of paradise were met. Sadly, though he and his wife have managed to buy a house and educate their children, life has been fraught by problems of teenage rebellion, the mental illness and death of one of the children, and Isaac’s difficulties in finding a job that recognises his immensely varied skills, compounded by his worries about the suffering of his people back home. One can only congratulate Isaac for his bravery, determination and resourcefulness, and the wisdom of his closing words:
We are all human and you are just like me. What we have in common is the capacity for thinking. There are always things I can do that you can’t do, but we all have the ability to learn. What we have in common is the aspiration to discover new things in life.
It is humbling and inspiring to read this story of courage and intelligence and fidelity to humanitarian values, and I want to congratulate Isaac and his co-writer Michael Nest, and Finch Publishing for their publication.