Aussie spirit of inclusiveness reflected in friendship across cultural divide

from Michael Nest

“A Pygmy from Congo and an Aussie bloke???”. I saw this doubt flicker across people’s faces when I told them about my collaboration with Isaac on writing his memoir. To some extent their instinct was right: a rapport, often coming from shared experience, is an essential part of the working relationship between a story teller and the story recorder when documenting an oral history. As Isaac and I have such different backgrounds – hunter-gatherer v. small family farm; Indigenous minority from a poor country v. non-Indigenous majority from a rich country – what could we possibly have in common? But friendship can be founded on many things and what initially connected us was, of all things, the corruption and quirks of Congolese authorities.

You see, before meeting Isaac I’d had been to Congo several times and my experiences were not all good. I had travelled through the Congo many years earlier when I hitchhiked my way from Paris to South Africa. Then, when I started a PhD in political science at New York University, I returned to do field research. The second time was at the height of a war that saw half of Congo occupied by the armies of neighbouring countries, and the other half also full of foreign troops, this time supporting the government side. It was a bad time to be asking questions about politics.

I had bad experiences on all these trips. When backpacking I was detained by the local police under a pretext that I hadn’t paid the full amount for a shirt and then that I had insulted the vendor; all nonsense and simply a ruse to get money. I can recall my acute sense of vulnerability as I negotiated over the size of the bribe I was told I had to pay for my ‘infractions’. A refusal to pay would have meant prison, and in Congo that’s no joke. The police knew they had the upper hand. On my second visit to Congo, for field research in the city of Lubumbashi, I got a permit to travel to a fabled diamond-mining area normally closed to outsiders. After a monumental three-day train trip through Congo’s savannah on a rickety old train with a bar-carriage that never closed, then another 100 km on a dirt road with man-sized potholes, I arrived in the city of Mbuji-Mayi. Twenty-four hours later I was detained by the secret police. No, I would not be allowed to ask about the local politics in this diamond enclave. I was escorted back to the rail head where I became a reluctant ‘guest’ of the secret police chief for the next three days. I was free to go around town, but one morning got called into his office for a rebuke. Apparently the secret police had been following me and reported back that I’d been seen having rather too much of a good time in a nightclub the evening before: I got a lecture on the Bible’s teachings about licentious behaviour, then was plonked on the train back to Lubumbashi.

During my third field research, after having spent 10 weeks interviewing people for my thesis, one morning I returned home to find two grim-faced secret police agents waiting. This time I was escorted to headquarters, formally interviewed, asked to sign a statement (I refused; it wasn’t in English), and then told I was persona non grata in the Congo. None of my permits, visas or letters of introduction counted for anything. While I was waiting to be questioned a man in the next room was being tortured. I could hear repeated thwacks as he was beaten. He was dragged through the waiting room, armed trussed behind him, taken to the corner stairs and kicked down them. Bang. Clank. Thump. Laughter from the secret police. The next morning I was plonked in the back of a ute, driven to the border and pushed across into Zambia.

It was over stories like these that Isaac and I first started to bond. I was never treated as badly as he or other human rights activists were, and undoubtedly this was because my foreign, western, passport gave me some protection. But I can definitely relate to the fear that comes from being at the whim of cruel and capricious government authorities. So notwithstanding what seems to be our obvious differences, in fact, I could relate to aspects of Isaac’s life and knew what questions might elicit the raw emotion and formative moments that can make a memoir compelling.

from Isaac Bacirongo

While much has been written on the topic of Pygmy people, I hope my memoir Still a Pygmy will help people understand that Pygmies have changed. Pygmies and Indigenous people everywhere have the same abilities as all other people despite being internationally oppressed and disadvantaged. All Pygmies are not in the forest, not naked and not beggars. We have the right to access social inclusiveness and opportunities while at the same time being openly proud of our identity. People from Australia and all around the world, from politicians to humanitarians and scholars researching Pygmy people in DR Congo should expresses both the positive and negative aspects of Pygmies, without taking an emotional stance on either side of Pygmy issues.

The first time I met Michael, he came to my home to interview me about coltan/tantalite mining in Congo and its role as a source of conflict in the war in Eastern Congo. At the time, I was very depressed due to the humiliation and social exclusion I was experiencing and from being treated as useless and worthless. I had to be persuaded to talk to him by a friend who knew of my expertise in Michael’s area of interest. When he arrived my wife and my son Abner were frying pork chops, prawns and vegetable for our lunch. Many people who know that we are Pygmies discriminate against us without words but through their behaviour, so we were surprised when Michael agreed to partake of our meal. Such an act was a sure sign of friendliness. After lunch, he interviewed me and then I told him I had started writing my own book, my memoir. He agreed to help me polish my story as I had never written a book before. From that day, we met regularly in Lidcombe for three years to write and harmonise all the information about my history.