Layers. The Congo is like a complex piece of fruit, you have to peel back the layers to get to the meaty sweet part.

The outside peel is bitter, dirty, rutty. Something like 10 million people live in and around the capital, Kinshasa. There is constant gridlock and pollution grays the sky almost everyday. The mighty Congo river is the life force of Kinshasa; supplying all of the imported goods to the DRC from around the world. And while there is a very visible level of western influence and globalization, there is still a very palatable taste of a developing country.

The Congo has some 400 different ethnic groups and 450 different dialects of Bantu. This place is a melting pot of tribalism and colonial contradiction; add the Belgian element, corrupt politics, swirl it around, and there you have the greater population of a very crowded Congolese city.

Finding an identifying individual ethnic group has been a real challenge. Identification comes down to the province that you are from. With the exception of one: the Batwa.

The pith: The Batwa ethnic group, also known as Pygmies, are a seriously marginalized ethnic group scattered across central and extreme eastern Congo. The relationship between the majority group of Bantu and the Batwa is most definitely contentious. Without recanting an entire history of a country and its people, just know this; the Batwa are the lowest man on a very tall totem pole. They are justifiably skittish, having been hunted throughout the last conflict and have even been eaten on occasion by the Bantu in some of the worst acts of cannibalism in recent history. Batwa have been enslaved by whites and blacks, hands cut off, raped, and obviously, dehumanized to the point of “sub-human” status by their neighborly Bantu cousins. I keep asking why and the overwhelming response is, “because they are”. Well, that just doesn’t work for me.

So, I headed to the small town of Mbandaka in the Equeteur province to see about getting to a Batwa village. In usual Congolese style, my trip took 3 times longer than it should, and the logistical nightmare of finding a guide who could accompany me into the rainforest resulted in a secondary level school teacher (biology is his thing) named Ndongala, who knew of a group of pygmies living as a community in a remote location 150 kilometers from where I was.

Yep. We packed tents, equipment, food, gifts, water, rented a 4 x 4 and drivers and headed down the pothole laden road to the village of Lokuku. Now, here’s where it gets interesting.

It wasn’t exactly a direct shot down the road; as we left Mbandaka, we passed the spot where my gps read 0*00’00”. I thought to myself, now that’s just cool! We are off to an exciting start! The road quickly changed from paved to dirt. After 125 kilometers of bumpy, uneven (best described as jeep trail) road (and I use that word loosely), changed to a path. Wait, what? The path was, well, a path that the driver negotiated at a painfully slow pace for 25 kilometers, over log bridges (again, I use this word, bridges, loosely), bogs, foliage taller than the Land Cruiser, to the small town of Bikoro.

Quickly and efficiently, my trusty biologist guide negotiated with some of the local women to carry our gear to the Batwa village. Women, you ask? Why yes, women. Because the men in this particular culture don’t do heavy lifting. Even the drivers of our trusted 4 x 4 opted to stay with the vehicle while my guide and I ventured into the forest.

For the next hour, we walked. We walked through dense foliage for a couple of kilometers until we reached what appeared to a wide puddle. I’m thinking, this is no big deal, I have my jungle pants, trail shoes, long sleeves, what’s a little ankle deep water? Yeah. . . 5 kilometers later and up to my belly the majority of the slog, the only time I really panicked was when I started thinking about the critters that find their way into your lady parts because you’re waist deep in murky jungle ooze. Don’t think about the leaches, snakes, water spiders, and maybe even an undiscovered water-born bacteria that was setting up camp on my lower extremities. Because that will make you have to bust out the Xanax and pop a handful to quiet the psychotic episode taking place in the middle of the fucking jungle.

But I digress.

The silver lining was that the water was cool, and it really did feel good to get a pretty serious workout in after sitting in a car for 5 hours. I had no idea what we would find once we reached the Batwa village, but I knew this: you only live once, it’s about the experience, and I lived to tell the tale (Which began with an analogy about a piece of fruit. So, here’s the sweet inside).

The Batwa are little. Hence the label Pygmy. I’m 5’3″ tall, the average Batwa came to my chin. Several were much smaller; perfectly proportioned, not at all dwarfish, just little people. Like the size of a 10 year-old kid. Many of the children had never seen a white person, and they would burst into tears running away, screaming, “Mondele! Mondele!” or white skin, white skin! We were greeted by a group of Bantu who live among the Batwa. We had to ask for permission from the Bantu, who comprise about 20% of the total village, to stay in the Batwa village. After much arguing and posturing, we were permitted to stay, and the flood gates opened. These lovely, lovely Batwa invited us into their lives and shared a glimpse into a complex existence in the rainforest of the Congo.

A couple of unique characteristics of the Batwa; The women are moving non-stop from sunup to sundown with very little help from the men. The men sit around and smoke home grown tobacco, drink way too much gin (the jungle version of moonshine), and argue about everything. Nothing is ever resolved, they just argue, shout, finger poke, and then, they are laughing it up in the next breath.

The Batwa diet is very basic, consisting of cassava in 3 forms: the leaves –  mashed up and cooked resembling collard greens, the root – which is soaked, peeled, dried, then mashed into a flour, and fufu – which is mixed with water and fermented into a bread-like blob wrapped in a banana leaf and warmed on the fire. The Batwa rarely eat the plethora of fresh fruit that is dripping from the trees surrounding them. (I, on the other hand, gorged on papaya, bananas, and some seriously weird looking fruit that I have never seen before). They grow and eat sweet potatoes, some plantain, and something called peelee-peelee, which is mashed up scotch bonnet peppers in palm oil that they press themselves. They eat very little protein, fish occasionally, but mostly they harvest the goats and chickens that they raise. Keep in mind that there is no way to refrigerate anything, so if they are going to go to the trouble of butchering an animal, the whole thing has to be consumed at once. And the Batwa are not big on sharing with each other, so a family of 5 or 6 is eating a whole goat in one sitting.

This is one culture where a sense of community is lacking. While these 1,500 Batwa live and exist in proximity to each other, they don’t help each other out with anything. Really. Crops are individually maintained, no assistance or group effort is made to share resources. If you are out of food, you are going hungry; your neighbor will not share his. If your hoe breaks, forget it. You better make a new one, because no one will loan you theirs. If your child is sick or needs attention, only immediate family members will assist, and that is even dodgy. I helped an 8 year- old kid who had a cut on his leg that was so infected, pus was literally, running down his leg. His parents couldn’t afford the money to send him to the infirmary, and just let it get worse and worse. I paid the eight bucks (yes, eight U.S. Dollars) and took him 50 feet down the path to see the nurse, who cleaned the wound, dressed it, and gave him a course of antibiotics. Untreated, the kid would probably have lost his leg from the knee down.

Now, I’m no hero. But I’m struggling with understanding a community that won’t help each other. It’s cultural, and all my academic experience says, don’t interfere. The mother in me, said, “this is bullshit” and I helped.  Holy hell, how did a group of people get so far from a basic human trait to stop feeling the need to care for each other? Here’s how: a majority group treats them like they are “sub-human” for so long (100+ years in the Congo, anyway), and there goes the humanity.

The Batwa could not recall any folklore or tales of ancestors. This is unusual for an ethnic group; most of us have some story from our past — great grandmother from Czechoslovakia lived in a small village and told us tales about witches that lived in the forest . . . You get where I’m going. I inquired with the village elders, the young, the head master of the school, we have always lived here, they tell me. The chief couldn’t even tell me about his history or the story behind his artifacts (an ornate machete, a feathered chapeau, and a bundle of reeds) other than they were older than he was. And that he pulled them out and put them on when the moon was full. Well, there’s something. Ok, how about dances? Or songs?

Fast forward to an impromptu party in the rain forest, people.

The most extraordinary polyphonic voices accompanied by drumming on an old plastic jerry can, and some serious rhythmic dancing worked these villagers into an absolute frenzy. Kids danced first, then the men, then the women. Absolutely called the spirits forth. So what were the songs about, I inquired? Christian hymns. Christian hymns that were Batwa-ized. And as the sun set and the music reached a fever pitch, I kid you not, the sky opened up and it proceeded to lightning and thunder so hard, I could actually smell the electricity in the air. And then. It rained. And rained, and rained, and rained like only the rain forest can withstand. God only knows how, but the inside of my tent actually stayed dry. A real bonus considering all of my camera equipment was with me.

As the sun rose and the wet, heavy fog lifted, it was business as usual in Lokuku. Mama’s heading out at dawn to tend to their fields, papa’s firing up the first of many cigarettes around the base of a shady palm tree, and hundreds of children kicking around a makeshift soccer ball made of reeds and rubber tree bark. And I, water logged, smelly, and happy, head back into the boggy abyss the way I came, only to come out the other side humbled by a group of people existing despite their circumstances and the assumptions of others.

Next chapter: the Bonobos.