Abatwa (The Pygmy) - Why Did We Stop Growing Tall?
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In a land where men lead each other hand-in-hand, but homophobia runs rampant, we drove off the main road and miles up the ridge to one of the pockets hardest hit by the genocide— a place where the residents stopped waving back. An area so very isolated, it was as if the genocide had never ended. Topping that, we were traveling this dirt trail with two Tutsis in an area where they had recently been “hunting Rwandans,” and a sense of discomfort was tangible, as if an invisible line had been crossed and we’d entered ibiwa (“problems”).
The man on the tricked-out bike with “One World, One Love” mudflaps, did not know who Bob Marley was, but professed to me that those were the words of God. With him, the message had outlived the fame— just as it should.
Amidst a village where the singers said that they were too tired to sing due to being sick with Malaria, they don’t have to be “taught” recycling. Every last item is reused, some purpose found. Just as it has always been, eons ahead of western “progressives.” There, plastic bottles lend prestige, and children fight over the remnants if cast out by passing cars.
It was here that we found the hunchback, teenage break-dancer that with his Intore moves, could out-battle any south Queens sidewalk challenger.
We’d already survived a Katy Perry onslaught at the machine-gun guarded mall— her sound still remaining sterile even when blasted through cracked, tropically humidified speakers. Worse was the tag-team lounge duo playing an off-key Bob Marley medley, as a local village audience kept straightening out the beat, clearly entrained to European 4/4 mechanical rhythms.
The Abatwa (“pygmy”) tribe is identified as one of the most marginalized, voiceless and endangered populations in Africa. In fact, their name is frequently taken in vain as a generalized slur towards others unrelated to them. Still, many among their group prefer the term to the official, PC mouthful/post-genocidal replacement moniker that they have been straddled with out of clear overcompensation: “The people who were left behind because of the facts of Rwandan history.”
Historically, the tallest Abatwa women have attracted outside attention and then been taken as wives by other tribes. This has contributed to the growth of their tribe remaining limited physically. Though for the most part they were left alone during the genocide, some members of the tribe actually participated in committing acts of genocide.
This made the hotel staff misnaming a disabled-access room as the “kidnap” room, all the more unsettling.
With coffee beans and gorillas are on the currency, one had to step-up onto a rickety bench to clear a urinal that was inadvertently mounted too high to reach even for an NBA star— and then was simply left that way rather than corrected. We were lucky enough to experience a 19-year-old female freestyle rapper, Rosine Nyiranshimiyimana, who is grittier than most any gangsta’. And right by her side, stood, Emmanuel Hatungimana, the mohawk-cut traditional music master, along with the husband/wife team that traded in eerie harmonies that nearly make Black Sabbath sound a bit trite. And keeping it in the family, mother and son, Ruth Nyiramfumukoye and Patrick Manishimine struck dueling Umudulis.
A featured instrument is the 11-string Icyembe, one that has a resemblance not unlike a surfboard and when turned upright, stands taller than some of its Abatwa players. Many of them are relegated to government designated villages, after having been herded in from eons-old nomadic ways. Alcoholism and depression hang thick through the air, not unlike the fractured spirit of many pre-casino era American Indian reservations.