Often we hear that Pygmies are the possession of a ‘tall black’ person or family. There are certainly differences between groups, and many are not in a good position today, but also, much depends on the source.It is mostly the so-called owners who will call themselves owners. So when in 1933 the Belgian administrator of Watsu, Van Rijswijck, reported that ‘every Mamvu chief owns pygmies’, all I know for sure is that he got this information from the Mamvu.
It is often linked to territory; if one owns a piece of land, the pygmies living there are sometimes considered to come with it as a possession.
The pygmies themselves seem to have slightly different ideas about it. Colin Turnbull (1961) thinks that they let the ‘big blacks’ talk and answer with a smile. He reported that a pygmy can have strong connections with a particular family and help them out with working on their field e.g. for harvesting, that he will bring presents of meat from the hunt. The pygmy will receive maize, bananas, salt, soap, cloth..
In a movie by Attilio Gatti (Pygmees of Africa, 1938, 19′) we see pygmies bring merchandise (elephant tugs, meat) from the forest and bargain hard for it. This movie I have been able to see at the Belgian Afrikamuseum – KMMA – it is difficult to find. I’ll talk more about Attilio Gatti later.
In a book based on her talking, Pöli explains that you call the black family you are allied with ‘your’ tall blacks in the same way as they call you ‘their’ pygmy.
In a TV documentary I saw a man complain that he could not rely on ‘his’ pygmies and that, although he was their owner, they would not listen and disappear into the woods for weeks. It was quite painful. The pygmies, present, were not interviewed. The same guy was also questioning their humanity.