To know the Pygmies III, Joseph Maes

How was the first information about Pygmies gathered? A creative gatherer of information was Joseph Maes, scientist at the Musée du Congo Belge, our colonial museum. Joseph Maes set up a research about the fire-lighter , ‘L’ allume-feu des populations du Congo belge’, of which an excerpt was published in: Congo, Revue générale de la Colonie belge, June 1933.

He asked the collaboration of ‘all our colonials’, to send him lighters, descriptions and legends about how the people received or invented fire. They did, extensively, and  Joseph Maes said that there were ‘not many groups left of which we have no information’.

The administrator of Watsu, Van Rijswijck, found this story: In the woods, a pygmy finds the god Babi sitting near a fire. The pygmy turns his backside to the fire and his loin cloth catches fire. The pygmy runs back to his village and thus brings fire to his people.

Mr. Bebing, territorial agent of Bankutshu, reports that certain Bolendo pretend that they received the art of making fire from the Batwa (pygmies). The Batwa are persuaded of this and say that they received the fire from God. The story also goes that one pygmy was assigned the task of finding a way to warm his people. He knew that rubbing bodies gave warmth, and he experimented with wood until he found the ‘bopimbo’ that was warmer than others.

A similar Batwa story says that Mutwa (often referred to as the primeval of the Batwa), a very stubborn man, had let his fire extinguish. After this he experiments until he finds the solution.

I like this very down-to-earth aspect of the stories. It encourages people to look for solutions, rather than wait for some deity to provide them.

Another story from the Lokele: On day during hunting, the fire had extinguished. The people held a big gathering, even the dog attended. They decided to send the dog to look for fire. The dog encounters a spirit and explains everything. ‘Allright,’ says the spirit, ‘I will give you a way to make fire but you will not be able to speak anymore’. The dog agreed because he loved his bosses. He received two sticks (olulu and isuli). Since that day, the dogs don’t talk anymore.

This story tells us more about the relationship between dog and man than about fire.

At the end of the article,  Joseph Maes is wondering what other systems exist among the ‘Belgian pygmies’. He concludes: When will Belgium finally decide to send a Belgian scholar to study the life and the civilization of the oldest inhabitants of our colony?