Years ago, my college professor Paul Breer (Cornell University) had us read The Forest People by Colin Turnbull, which describes his experience living with a tribe of Pygmies for 3 years in the Congo forest.
Less than six years later (1972), I met a Dutch anthropologist In Bangui, Central African Republic (CAR), who asked me to be his French interpreter into a CAR forest to study a band of pygmies.
After a 70 km drive south-southwest from Bangui, we reached a small village on a river where we picked up our guide. We drove down a dirt ramp to the river and slowly drove onto a primitive plank raft-ferry. After crossing to the other side, we drove 15 minutes on a heavily rutted path to a clearing at the end of the road. We stopped, got out, and gathered supplies. In a flash our guide half-disappeared into the forest. All we could see of our guide was a swoosh of high grasses in front of us – he would regularly pause and raise a hand to make sure we could follow.
I asked our guide, “Comment pouvez-vous voir où vous allez?” How can you see where you are going? He smiled and motioned to me to bend down. I will never forget what looked like a covered highway, a tunnel through the dense forest where we had stopped.
There was branch in the highway just ahead. One tunnel branched and veered off to the right, and the one we would take, veered to the left. The pygmies had carved out covered highways/tunnels of cleared forest paths for themselves, which were invisible to anyone over 5 ft tall! This was their forest; we were traveling on their highways, which the Pygmies regularly maintained. We kept on at a good pace for 30-40 minutes.
We then reached a circular clearing in the forest, where there were several round huts made of branches, vines and leaves, with several small smoldering fires in little fire circle. We took it all in.
There were huts apparently for sleeping, with grass mats. Others were for storage, with primitive shelves attached.
We were all alone: three white folks, our driver, and our guide. It was eerily quiet. We took some pictures. Then Peter and his colleague started writing field notes. We kept looking around, seeing nothing but forest. We were there alone in the near silence of the encampment for what seemed like an eternity, but was only 15-20 minutes.
Then, in the blink of an eye, we were surrounded by spears in the forest just beyond the clearing. There wasn’t a sound. Our guide and the driver were smiling. Peter and his colleague and I were smiling.
Then, as if on cue, the pygmy band walked in single file via the path we had taken into the clearing. One after another, they greeted our guide, whom they knew as a cousin. The men with their spears then warmly greeted us with a kind of timid smile. One of the women, holding a baby in a sling, went to a food hut, got something and offered it to our guide.
Most of the women seemed very shy. But one girl stared at a couple of large safety pins that I had on one of my belt loops. I gave them to her. She wore them as ear-rings and smiled.
We stayed among the Pygmies for a couple of hours. Peter asked them about their hunting, relations with neighboring bands, and how well they were managing to survive. I felt that time was suspended.
Later we returned to the plank-raft-ferry and crossed the river before dark. It was very surreal driving back through the jungle and finally into the city of Bangui.
I learned that Risk analysis of the pygmies is really pretty straight forward. They live their lives prepared, secure and happy. Everything they need is in the forest, which also surrounds and protects them.
Each group has several widely dispersed forest clearings stocked with shelter, work and food storage huts. All of the clearings are connected via a network of covered tunnel-like paths cut through the forest. Some paths may also lead to favored hunting and/or gathering grounds. Others lead to dead-ends to confound strangers who don’t belong.
Part of the pygmies’ culture includes acute awareness of their environment. Before we arrived, they made an orderly retreat into the forest, after hearing us coming, long before we came close to the village. As we approached and entered their clearing, we could not hear or see them, but they could hear and see us.
The pygmies had INDEED MASTERED Risk Analysis in Their Forest!