Ituri Forest Pygmies | Who Rules the Forest? National Geographic Magazine: Blind Pygmy in Manhood Ritual

A blind Pygmy boy is not excluded from the nKumbi manhood training.  He learns survival skills in the forest and takes part in all the rituals over a five month period until the group is initiated  and boys become men. When the boys run along the trails he does also, with his hands on the back of the boy in front of him. Like the other boys, he is whipped every morning which is believed to make them tough to survive in the Ituri Forest. 

Pygmies are semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers who rely on a healthy forest for their livelihood. They have no claim to their own home territory, however, because the colonial Belgians assigned land rights only to sedentary groups

From the National Geographic story by Paul Salopek:  Few countries in the world have collapsed as disastrously by the wayside – regressed so starkly into pre-industrial ruin – as Congo. Picked clean during three decades of misrule by the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, then gutted by six years of civil war that ended, unconvincingly, in 2002, it is the shell-shocked colossus of Central Africa – a nation the size of Western Europe that seems to have sleepwalked into some feverish dream of the post-apocalypse.

Nowhere is the decline as evident, on such bitter display, as on the roads that span the country’s Wild East, a jungle bigger than Texas where the fighting has never really stopped.

What words can be uttered about those roads? That, before setting off, you must embrace your loved ones as though you are embarking across some uncharted ocean?

Clogged by mud, cratered by neglect, haunted by militias, and strangled by bush, they slither hundreds of miles through the largest rain forest after the Amazon, passing the mildewed wreckage of the modern age. (Factories like Mayan ruins, coffee plantations gone wild, towns with trees growing from their roofs.) These raw, punishing tracks are the skeletons of the Trans-African Highway system built by the colonial Belgians. They are the worst roads on the world.

I depart the frontier town of Beni at dawn on the back of a motorbike. The driver’s name is Willy. He is a stoic in gumboots. His reflexes – his sense of balance – are things of beauty. They have the uncanny, inhuman perfection of feats conducted by idiot savants. Still, this journey into the Ituri Forest, a distance of merely 180 miles, takes eleven hours. 

The road is not a road. It is a funnel. A Ho-Chi-Min Trail of survival. It absorbs all the marketable goods for thousands of square miles around. Yet there are no motor vehicles! Since the rainy season began, it has become impassable to machines. Instead, as far as the eye can see, its gluey mud ruts are churned by columns of traders who push their laden bicycles, head down, sweating, through clouds of swirling butterflies.

Siriake Kasereka wears a faded t-shirt that says Dare to Dream. His task: heaving thirty gallons of gasoline from the Ugandan border to the decaying hinterland city of Kisangani. This outing will take him twenty days. He will cover about 800 miles – roughly the distance between Chicago and Atlanta. For this he will earn $50.

“You learn to read the roads,” Kasereka says in a squeezed voice. He explains it while pausing under a tree:

Steady bicycle traffic – life is good, peace prevails.

Knots of angry cyclists stopped at villages, doing nothing – a yellow warning light. Military checkpoints and shakedowns ahead.

Deserted roads – hide. War is coming: possibly even approaching around the next bend, in the form of half-naked rebels smeared with blood and toothpaste. (Toothpaste sticks despite the rain and sweat.)

“Ah, if only Isabella Rosellini knew our situation,” an Italian priest tells me at a mission station on the edge of the Ituri. The padre, a veteran of Congo’s chaos, explains that Rosellini, the glamorous international film star and daughter of Ingrid Bergman, donates to African reconstruction projects.

I have stopped at the mission to rest and eat. I am almost too exhausted to speak. Sore-assed, I can barely sit at the priest’s table. “Rosellini could help fix our road,” he goes on, “if only she knew about it.” But his eyes betray him. He stares wistfully into his pasta. Because, of course, she doesn’t know.

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