Ituri Forest Pygmies | Who Rules the Forest? National Geographic Magazine: Scarification is Part of the Pygmy Manhood Ritual | Ituri Forest

Scarification is Part of the Pygmy Manhood Ritual | Ituri Forest

I had been prepped for the whipping, but then they pulled out two dirty razor blades and ritually scarred a line of cuts around the Pygmy boys chests.

From my journal:

I had been prepped somewhat for the whipping part of this, but when they pulled out two dirty old razor blades and ritually scarred a line of cuts around the boys chests, it was a bit much.  Each boy was cut around his chest with a half-inch incision about twenty times.  And then red earflap chief rubbed black mud into the wounds.  That really sent them into convulsions of tears—I keep thinking the pain will end for these boys, but they are all now jammed into a dinky and hot mud hut with a bunch of sweaty men.  One of the chief’s brothers is wearing a mask and bells on his legs and a tutu of leaves.  He leads the boys one by one thru the town with a basket guy to pick up the money people throw at the boys’ feet.  Five to seven men beating sticks in unique syncopation surround these three.  But these boys have to dance like crazy—one of them stops for a minute because the bells on his leg fell off.  As the men retie the bells, I look into his glazed eyes—he is completely at the end of his energy… his little psyche is maxed out. I know that is the plan—pygmy boot camp—but I feel sorry for these baby boys.

I’m finally getting my act together in this environment.  I can go for days if I have to out of my small backpack.  I’m glad I’ve done a few trips that require these skills.  I have to travel by motorcycle in the wet season trying to dodge rains that could knock you senseless and then try to do digital photography in a 60,000 square KM area where there is only one outlet.  The shocking part of all this is not just that it is working, but that it is all working in such a pleasant way.

Pygmies believe in the mystical rite of passage process and very few Bantus believe in it anymore.  The church has banned the practice and it’s heathen overtones.  There is also a health risk—these boys are circumcised with machetes, knives or under the “magic system” some of the old men use their teeth, according to Paluku.  They using teeth is a magical way to avoid infection.  Infection is rampant, however, and the blind boy was really badly infected and had to be hiked out to the nurse at the dispensary in town.  In general, the nKumbi only uses “leaf medicine” to deal with the boys wounds from circumcision, or whipping.

Paluku says he will ask the relationship between the circumciser and the cisee… they do wear masks during the process and Paluku acts out the process of the child inserting his penis into the mouth of the mask to have his foreskin torn off.  There is discussion about this with the men sitting around us in the barazza and some think the teeth of the old men are only used to hold a knife to cut the foreskin…  but they do agree that the family chooses someone from the village to do the job that has a good track record.

Paluku is a Bantu/Wanande and wouldn’t put his children through this process… so his knowledge may not be the best.

Since Bantu’s have a structured sedentary community that organizes the nKumbi and Pygmies don’t and now that most of the Bantus want a clinical-one-day-process at a hospital versus weeks of pain in the forest that is a many day walk to a clinic with a leaf wrapped infected penis—this tradition will not continue much longer.

It’s been over a week since I went net hunting and as we go from Pygmy camp-to-camp encircling the Bantu village, I am greeted with great enthusiasm from everyone who was on that hunt.  They come running out of their huts yelling, emotional, and I remember a segment Raymond translated from one of the more fervent evening speeches from one of the pygmy chiefs.  He basically said how different the times were… “It used to be, if we saw a white man, we would run away, now we are sharing the same campfire with one.”

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