I once spent a scorching afternoon with a family of pygmies in equatorial Africa. Having read a few books about them I was eager to meet them, the Forest People so engagingly described by Colin Turnbull. Conveniently, some families of pygmies lived within a few miles of Bangui where I was working for a month, and I went with friends who had already befriended them. But the raw reality was harder to handle than the beautiful books. Their poverty was terrible to see, and I found I was keeping my eyes averted from their crumbling house and the miserable rags they were wearing. In the forest they would not have made a permanent house nor bothered about clothes to any great extent, but here beside the town they were trying to be urbanised; to their cousins they probably looked like real townies. When I arrived I sat down immediately, not wanting to tower over them. I was displaying all the patronising benevolence of the tourist.
A tiny toothless grandfather spoke a little French and became for me the voice of the pygmies. He introduced three generations of his family, the youngest a vivid Lilliputian baby with enormous eyes. This was the race of people who until little more than a century ago were supposed to exist only in fable. Yet here they were, with evidence of their thousand generations visible in every feature. “Two Cubytes longe,” someone wrote of them around the year 1400, “they gendre in the fourth yere and aege in the seventh.” By 1520 they will have shrunk to half this size: “but one cubite longe, they be full growen at their third yere, & at their seventh yere they be olde.” By coincidence the words ‘cubit’ and ‘pygmy’ (Latin and Greek) meant the same thing: the length of the forearm; so a cubit must have seemed the most appropriate length for a pygmy! In the 1700s they are holding their own: “a sort of People, if there be any such, said to be not above a Cubit high.” It is not till 1887 that we get facts and figures: “A march of 9½ miles on the 9th of November,” wrote Stanley, “took us to the Pigmies’ camp.”
The children watched us solemnly but without curiosity. A little girl had a badly injured foot, so unhygienically bandaged that horror and pity took turns with me. A mother continued to be fully occupied with her child, while the child stared steadily at us. I wonder what those enormous pygmy eyes saw on November the 9th, 1887. I wonder what they see now. I don't know how to read what is written there.
The little grandfather showed me the house: “Voici notre maison!” It was the rainy season, and I asked what they did when it rained (the roof was no match even for a light shower, let alone tropical downpours). He roared laughing, demonstrating his plentiful lack of teeth, and then translated for the others, who joined in the laughter. “Rien!” he managed to say at last, “Nothing! We cool down, that’s all! Or we get a wash, like the mango tree. We like the rain! The chickens are the only people who don't!” Then he translated his own answer for the family, causing new waves of laughter. I came here to see strange people, but clearly my friends and I were the only strange people around. The pygmies probably have a whole folklore collection of stupid questions that visitors ask, and I feature in it now. I remember reading that a group of Inuit were equally convulsed when a visitor remarked, “It’s very cold here!” When they could speak again, they said, “It isn't cold, you’re cold!” We go to see strange people and we see ourselves, stranger than all of them.
How we separate and insulate ourselves from everything! How everything becomes mediated and second-hand! And then when we try to bridge the gap that we created we manage to be very ridiculous, like the courtiers in the Forest of Arden. “These,” said the Duke, referring to the elements, “are counsellors that feelingly persuade me what I am.” But it was all only a piece of rustic revelry, he said. The modern return to nature is often equally dilettante, as when people who have lost their religious bearings lay hands instead on “the naked breast of Nature.” What would the little grandfather think of, say, creation-centred spirituality? I have often dreamed of going back there to describe it to him and record his answers. He would not understand one word, probably, yet he and his family are the real authorities on the subject! According to Turnbull, the Forest was their God.
Perhaps we can never understand one another across such chasms. But, at least, from what happens between us we can see ourselves a little better.Donagh O'Shea