The Congo's Small, Little, Mini War: The NYT's Fear of Admitting an Interest in Human Biodiversity
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One of the curious aspects of New York Times articles is that they are often organized in the reverse order of how the same material would be reported in, say, the Daily Mail. NYT articles tend to start off boring and depressing, with only vague hints of why the reporter is interested in the subject, and don’t get to the good stuff until late in the article, by which point, no doubt, most readers have given up. For example:

In Congo, Wars Are Small and Chaos Is Endless


That’s not a very appealing headline, unless you somehow pick up the scent that the word “small” is key to what this article is eventually going to be about. But first we get hundreds of words of intentionally tedious NPR-style scene setting.
NYUNZU, Democratic Republic of Congo — Deep in the forest, miles from any major city, lies an abandoned cotton factory full of the dispossessed.

There is no police force guarding it. No electricity or running water inside. No sense of urgency or deep concern by the national authorities to do much about it.

Instead, as the days pass, hundreds of displaced people make cooking fires or sit quietly on the concrete factory floor. Dressed in rags, they stare into space, next to huge rusted iron machinery that has not turned for decades. They are members of the Bambote, a marginalized group of forest dwellers who are victims of one of the obscure little wars that this country seems to have a talent for producing.

Little wars …
“It’s like we don’t exist,” said Kalunga Etienne, a Bambote elder.
Bambote? I never heard of them. But “marginalized group of forest dwellers” sounds like NYT code for something.

I looked up Bambote and it turns out it’s an uncommon spelling of Bambuti.

This is what the Democratic Republic of Congo, the biggest country in sub-Saharan Africa and one that has stymied just about all efforts to right it, has become: a tangle of miniwars.
Small, little, mini … seems to be a pattern. But of what?
More than 60 armed groups are operating in North Kivu and South Kivu Provinces, including a growing Islamist insurgency, whose fighters have hacked hundreds of people to death. Beyond that, there are remnants in the Uele area of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group that specializes in abducting children and turning them into killers; predatory rebels in Ituri; Bakata separatists in Katanga; armed factions in Maniema; fighters in the Nyunzu area; and youth militias in the capital, Kinshasa.
I’m sorry, my eyes glazed over. People in the Congo hacking each other up has been going on since the 1990s at least.

By the way, Bambuti is an uncommon spelling of Mbuti.

Few nations in Africa, if not the world, are home to as many armed groups. Even after billions of dollars in aid, one of the largest peacekeeping missions in United Nations history and substantial international attention over two decades, Congo’s government is incapable of providing the most elemental service: security.

Fragmentation. Factionalization. Decay. Ungoverned space. Ungovernable space. These are the terms used by aid workers and academics to describe Congo today. And it is likely to get worse.

And then come 7 paragraphs I’ll leave out about all the fighting caused by the upcoming election. There’s always an election coming up in the Congo and that’s always cause for violence. But then we get to:
Nyunzu, a territory in the southeast, a bone-crushing day’s drive from Lake Tanganyika, used to be safe. Many of the people who live here are members of the Bambote, one of several forest-dwelling hunter-gatherer groups in Congo widely known as pygmies for their short stature.

Why didn’t Gettleman tell us this is about pygmies?

Well, one reason is no doubt because a lot of NYT readers aren’t sure whether or not they’re supposed to get offended when they read the word “pygmy.” I mean Donald Trump referring to “the blacks” is supposed to be an outrageous linguistic anachronism proving his despicable racism, so it would seem like “pygmy” ought to be a hanging offense. Except it is the only word that exists for pygmies as a whole, as poor Gettleman explains:

The term pygmy is often used in Congo and in other parts of Africa, although the forest dwellers tend to refer to themselves by the names of their groups.

“This is our first war,” Lumbu Baruani, a Bambote elder, said with a sad shake of his head. If it were up to him, he said, he would be in the forest, hunting antelope or catching grasshoppers for a snack.

Pygmies hunt the tiny dik-dik antelope with nets.
According to several analysts, it says a lot about Congo’s state of affairs when a local war draws in members of a traditional hunter-gatherer group.

“Their existence is so dependent on cooperation,” said Barry S. Hewlett, an anthropologist who has spent decades researching hunter-gatherer communities in Central Africa. “Sharing and giving is essential to their way of life. If there is a conflict even in the camp, one of the individuals just moves.”

The war started, the Bambote say, in 2014. What set it off was an extramarital affair.

The elders in Nyunzu said a man from another ethnic group, the Luba, had impregnated a Bambote woman.

Lubas are Bantus — i.e., normal full-sized blacks. Everybody is supposed to go around talking about how sub-Saharan Africans have the most genetic diversity on earth, but nobody is sure if it’s respectable to talk about physical diversity among Africans. I first noticed this decades ago in articles about the Dinkas and Nuers of what is now South Sudan. Reporters were weirdly leery of mentioning that the Dinkas and Nuers are really tall.
This caused a scandal, not least because the woman was married, and inflamed tensions between the groups.

For generations, some men from the Luba group have chosen brides from communities such as the Bambote.

“Chosen brides” might not be the frankest term.
Many elders complained that Luba men had not shown enough respect to the women’s parents.

Scientists believe that the few remaining hunter-gatherers living in Central Africa’s vast rain forest were its original inhabitants. Their adherence to tradition has kept them far behind other groups in education and wealth. At the same time, they have maintained an unusual degree of harmony among themselves and with their environment.

When the Bambote elders confronted the Luba adulterer, he did not apologize. Instead, the elders said, he killed the woman’s husband, setting off a wave of killings between the two communities.

Deeper problems were clearly driving the feud. Analysts point to long-simmering conflicts between the Bambote and the Luba over issues like land rights and labor practices.

“Labor practices” probably isn’t the frankest term.
The local authorities in Nyunzu said it had been customary for the forest dwellers to work for the Luba as field hands for as little as 50 cents a day. Sometimes, they were even paid in salt or cassava scraps.

“Historically, they have been exploited,” said Pierre Mukamba Kaseya, the head of Nyunzu’s local administration. “All of a sudden, it was as if they woke up and saw the light.”

For the first time anyone could remember, the Bambote banded together in militias and began attacking Luba villages with torches and poisoned arrows.


I was hoping that “poisoned arrows” meant blowguns and poisoned darts, but blowguns appear to be restricted to Southeast Asia and the New World. (By the way, it’s illegal to own a blowgun in Washington DC.)

The Mbuti shoot their poisoned arrows with bows, not blowpipes. But they also have fairly elaborate crossbows, which is cool. (On the other hand, some sources claim African pygmies hunt with blowguns, so I don’t know. I haven’t found any convincing photos yet.)

What would the Daily Mail’s headline look like? Something like:

Pygmies Firing Poisoned Arrows Rebel against Exploiting Slavers
Then there’d be about four sub-headlines about adultery and murder.
The Luba fought back.

A wave of anger and violence rippled across the green hills. This area is spectacularly beautiful, the Congo often imagined by outsiders — sharp hills, surging rivers, towering forests and lush paths that snake off the road into other worlds.

But soon it was a gruesome killing field.

Some victims’ genitals were cut off. Other victims were skinned. According to a Human Rights Watch report, one survivor heard members of a Luba militia cry out, “We will exterminate you all this year.”

Hundreds, if not thousands, of homes were burned. So were many schools. People fled in all directions.

Few, if any, guns were used — axes and arrows were the weapons on hand …

Poisoned arrows, let’s not forget.

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