Saving the little giants

Listening to Jean-Pierre Hallet's story of his mission to save Africa's last tribe of full-blooded Pygmies from extinction, it is easy to be sidetracked by the sheer drama of the path he took getting there.

Hallet, son of the famous Belgian painter Andre Hallet, was raised in the Belgian Congo and grew up with the Efe Pygmies on the edge of the Ituri Forest. Later trained as an agronomist and sociologist at the Sorbonne in Paris, Jean- Pierre returned to the Congo in 1948 to work with some 650,000 African blacks from 17 tribes, doing everything from delivering babies to diagnosing plant diseases. He fought a lion to the death with a crude spear as part of his initiation into the ranks of the Masai warriors. He was made a blood brother of the Tutsi and Nande tribes, and is the only white man ever admitted to the Bwame Secret Society of the Lega tribe, in the eastern section of what is now Zaire. Unarmed, he once overpowered a male leopard (said to be Africa's fiercest animal) that had attacked one of his porters in the Watalinga bush.

In 1956, alone and without any equipment, he walked into the tangled shadows of the Congo's Ituri Forest and lived with the Efe Pygmies for a year and a half. He learned their customs and language (Hallet speaks 17 African languages), and was the first person to compile a grammatical study and a dictionary, with 8,000 words, of the Efe language. On June 26, 1957, he obtained for his adopted people a "Declaration of Emancipation" from the Nande chieftains of Beni, who had held the diminutive Pygmies in feudal serfdom for centuries.

The bearded 6 foot, 5 inch Hallet, who at 240 pounds weighs as much as three full-grown Efe men, was dubbed "the Abe Lincoln of the Congo" by a United States magazine. His autobiography "Congo Kitabu" (the first of a trilogy which included "Animal Kitabu" and "Pygmy Kitabu" -- "kitabu" means book) was a national best seller and has since been translated into 21 languages, including Chinese and Russian.

Today Hallet plays down these achievements in an attempt to focus attention on his desperate mission to save the last 4,000 of the Efe Pygmies in Zaire from extinction. For centuries, each member of this nomadic tribe required two square miles of virgin forest in which to hunt and gather food for survival. But the encroachment of government roads which began in the late 1930s, as well as coffee, lumber, and cotton plantations in the Ituri Forest, have resulted in the near-disappearance of a people who numbered 75,000 at the turn of the century.

The Pygmies' only hope, Hallet believes, lies in surrendering their nomadic ways and turning to agriculture. Six years ago he established the Pygmy Fund, to raise money for farming tools, soybean seeds, and other supplies, which he takes back every summer to the remaining Efe tribesmen. As a result of Hallet's efforts, the Pygmy population, which had steadily fallen for years, stabilized at 3,800 in 1975. Last year, for the first time in this century, the number actually grew; the latest census shows their population is now around 4,000.

"We save the sea otter because we cared, why can't we save a race of people, the oldest in Central Africa? This is a most crucial time in the battle to rescue the Pygmy," Hallet says as we talk in the tiny, cluttered office of the Pygmy Fund. "I've been working 16- to 18-hour days and haven't even been out to walk on the beach for over a year," he says, gesturing to the spectacular stretch of Malibu just across the street.

Hallet is a bear of a man, with a riotous salt-and-pepper beard and a handsome, Robinson Crusoe look about him. When he stands at his desk he dominates the room like King Kong over Manhattan. Every square inch of his office is crammed with books, samples from his extensive primitive African art collection, and correspondence. One gets the impression he could reach anything on his makeshift brick and fiberboard shelves without moving from his desk chair.

Hallet digs an old manila envelope out of his wastebasket, begins sketching the Ituri River in eastern Zaire, and gives a brief history of the Efe Pygmy: "Three hundred years ago the Pygmy population of the Ituri was estimated at 2 million. It was at that time the area was invaded by Bantu and Sudanese tribes." According to Hallet, the conquerors became overlords of the smaller, nonviolent Pygmies who were kept in feudal servitude.

In 1960, when chaos broke out in the Congo shortly after the former colony's independence from Belgium, the peaceful Pygmies were among the first to be affected. Some were drafted into Zaire's army. Others were driven into the swampy areas of the forest, where living conditions became increasingly difficult. Next, tourists began arriving with trinkets, sugar, cigarettes, and Western diseases. Epidemics reduced the Pygmy population drastically in the early 1970s.

When Hallet began working with the Pygmies in 1957, famine was widespread. He had lost a hand two years earlier dynamiting a lake for fish to feed the part-Pygmy Mosso tribe of Burundi. ("It was a very small price to pay for the lives of several hundred Mosso families," he says.) In 1957, he introduced simple farming methods to the Efe tribe.

Gradually, the Efe became more familiar with planting banana trees and cultivating peanuts, rice, beans, and cassava. He taught them crop rotation and instituted improved sanitation, needed in the increasingly permanent Pygmy encampments. Money from the Pygmy Fund enabled Hallet to hire a local Bantu blacksmith to fashion simple hoes and knives from old gasoline cans and car parts.

Last year Hallet distributed about 500 of these tools, and more than a ton of selected soybean seed and medical supplies through his foreman and 15-member local staff in the Ituri Forest.

To support his foundation, he solicits contributions, sells his art collection, and guides on summer expeditions to East Africa and the Seychelles.

"I don't sell bumper stickers, or T-shirts, or merchandise," says Hallet, who keeps next to his desk five trays of index cards listing the names and addresses of those who have written to the Pygmy Fund. "This is a one-man, no- overhead operation. But I must compete with organizations that appeal to people's guilt in their magazine ads. That I won't do. I appeal only to people's sense of beauty and dignity. I would never show a picture of a Pygmy starving."

Another basic difficulty, he says, is overcoming the commonly held stereotype of "the Pygmy." He says: "The popular definition of a Pygmy is a little dwarf hiding behind trees shooting poison darts at passing natives. They are thought to be immoral, cannibalistic, fierce, and wild. Nothing could be further from the truth.

"They live in harmony with their environment and each other. They don't lie, cheat, steal, or kill. Unlike other tribes, there is no crime in a Pygmy village, because there is no material greed. I call them 'little giants,' and if the rest of the world lived like the Pygmy we'd be in much better shape."

Hallet sums up their code of behavior: "They have three basic laws: first, love children extravagantly, with all your heart; second, never waste food; third, respect the elders."

Pygmies are highly intelligent and keenly perceptive. According to him, they are accomplished astronomers, conscious of the vastness of the universe. They are equally familiar with the minutiae of nature: They can identify a wasp from 30 feet away and tell if it is male or female and of what species, he claims.

The average adult Pygmy weighs about 85 pounds and stands only 4 feet, 5 inches tall, but apparently is unimpressed by those of greater stature.

"They always joked about my size," Hallet says, "and eventually told me, 'We like you so much that we no longer hold your size against you.' They saw my size as a handicap. I had to bend my head going through the jungle. I needed more food and had more difficulty climbing trees. I remember following 20 Pygmies across an old bridge and when I got to the middle it collapsed. Their size is more appropriate for life in the jungle. They live in harmony with nature, not against it. . . . Thirty of them could survive in an environment that would support only 10 Jean-Pierre Hallets."

Hallet reports in "Pygmy Kitabu" that contrary to the traditional image of savage Pygmies, they "are very amiable, warmhearted, fun-loving, sometimes mischievous, but wholly nonaggressive characters who behave more like the elves of European legend than the awful killer apes of modern myth.

"They love to dance, sing, play the harp and flute, tell jokes, compose tongue twisters, and engage in thrilling sports like the grand old game of archery-ball. (The pitcher bowls a mukolem fruit; the batter tries to shoot it with his bow and arrow.) They loathe hard work of any kind and do their elfin best to avoid it."

In spite of their carefree attitude toward work, the Pygmies are highly moralistic and monogamous, and they preach a monotheistic religion. "They pray to a heavenly deity, which they refer to as 'our Father,' and see Him as the vital force of all good things on earth. They really believe they are the children of God," Hallet says.

The Pygmies have a lofty moral code comparable to the Ten Commandments, and they claim that their code was received directly from God. It forbids theft, murder, adultery, sorcery, or lying. They also shun the initiation ordeals, human sacrifices, intertribal wars, and other such customs practiced in other parts of equatorial Africa.

Ironically, Hallet says, the Efe Pygmies were "never very popular with the missionaries, because they [the Pygmies] don't welcome the concepts of fear and punishment. They don't see men as sinners, because they are not."

On one wall of Hallet's office hangs a painting of a Watusi marketplace done by his father, who also happens to have works hanging in the Louvre in Paris.On another wall he has a photograph of himself with then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan, discussing US foreign policy in Africa.

Hallet is highly critical of traditional foreign aid to third- world countries. He believes they need to be taught self-reliance, not dependence on the haphazard charity of the industrialized world.

"True charity is to love and to care. It means getting involved," he says. "In my book, giving is a dirty word. The quick-care package is an easy way for liberals to relieve their guilt. But teaching is a much harder way of giving.

"If I had started out giving the Pygmies food, they would still be hungry today. I went the hard way. I taught them to grow their own banana groves, which will supply them with food for the rest of their lives. And it preserves their dignity. My main concern is the moral and ethical quality of life. If people lose their dignity by stretching out their tin cups and waiting for the next handout of rice, they are no longer human beings. They are no better than a feedlot of cattle. If they can't be taught to survive in their own environment, then a few bowls of rice, beans, and condensed milk will do nothing but prolong their agony."

"That may sound pretty harsh coming from the guy to whom Hubert Humphrey once gave the 'Humanitarian of the Decade' award," Hallet says, gesturing to an inscribed plaque above his desk. "But what's the point of preserving human life without dignity and self-respect? Most foreign aid to the third world these days goes for military aid and for roads and hydroelectric projects. The money goes into the pockets of government officials, not the people." He asserts that ending foreign aid to most third-world governments might be the United States' most significant contribution to fighting hunger and poverty abroad.

If Hallet's efforts to save the Efe Pygmies from extinction do succeed -- and the next few years will tell -- he hopes that others will follow his example.

"I never imposed anything on the Pygmy. We always sat down and discussed the problems together. They decided where they wanted to go. They were not victims of my imposed program. They always believed it was more important to survive with dignity than to compromise and prostitute themselves with lesser values.

"I also hope the success with the Pygmies will prove that one individual without the help of the government, or a large agency, or any religious denomination, can make a difference when he puts his mind to it."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Saving the little giants
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today