Big Ideals and Puny Brains

About a month ago I made an editorial decision not to run a story. I’ve been kicking myself ever since. Toward the end of the 2007 Festival of Pan-African Music (Fespam) in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, news reports started leaking out that the organizers of the festival had housed pygmy musicians at the Brazzaville Zoological Park. National press organizations swooped in and zeroed in on the story as human rights activists started to circle with hackles raised and bared bloody fangs.

Here’s the story. The group of Baka musicians from the northeast forest region of Likouala, consisting of twenty individuals, including several women and a three-month old baby were given one tent- one tent for all of them to share – and herded into the capital’s zoo for the remainder of their stay. Other musicians were tucked away in nice, cozy hotel rooms. Left in the cold with the thirteen monkeys, two crocodiles and jackal, not to mention a horde of mosquitoes, the pygmies were basically left to their own devices like gathering their own firewood and cook for themselves. The kicker to this is that the pygmies became a photo opportunity for the tourists visiting the zoo.

Now the director of arts and culture for the Republic of Congo, Yvette Lebondzo didn’t see anything wrong with this. Her response to criticism was, "We lodged them in the park near running water and a forest simply because that will remind them of their usual surroundings – which is the forest." Bravo, Ms. Lebondzo, invite your musician guests to the big city, plant them in the dirt somewhere and make them homesick.

Ms. Lebondzo went on by saying, "I think our intention was noble toward our brothers who came directly out of the forest and have never seen a city." Never mind that at previous Fespam festivals the pygmy musicians had been treated to hotel rooms.

My favorite flunky commentary in this mess came from the zookeeper Jean Pierre Bolebantou of the Brazzaville Zoological Park who pointed out, "They were happy to find here an environment similar to what they knew in the forest. They have already shown us several medicinal plants." So, your guests behaved in a gracious manner even if you didn’t. Who would have thought such a thing possible!

Fortunately, the media attention and raging criticism over the story soon got the pygmies moved to a school putting an end to the story.

I chose not to run this story because it was so close to the end of the festival that by the time the story would have been posted the festival would have been over. I had another reason. News organizations like AP, Reuters, the New York Times and the BBC all ran this story, but ran no stories on the festival itself. I got a creepy feeling about it. It was one of those things where only the negative news gets on the news. Having wrestled with some cultural differences at the Fez Festival of Music in Morocco, I wasn’t so sure that I wanted to be one more in the horde armed with a pitchfork over what is essentially a positive force in the Republic of Congo after years of war and strife, which is what Fespam is intended to be.

I was content to let the story settle into the dust, hoping that the festival’s shame would fade over time. While reading something unrelated to the pygmy story, another news bit caught my eye. It was the theme for this year’s Fespam – "Emancipation Music and Liberation Movements in Africa and the Diaspora." The ironic play between the theme and the pygmy fiasco hung heavy in the air around my office for weeks. I realized that I had to jump back on the bandwagon with all the other pitchfork bearers.

Now I’ll admit that the festival organizers might indeed have had the best of intentions for housing the musicians at the zoo, but they failed the first rule of hospitality about making guests feel at home. This means making your guests feel welcome at your home not recreating what you think is a facsimile of their home. Chances are that if you are not comfortable where you house your guests, your guests won’t feel comfortable either.

My other reason for taking up the pitchfork is the downright stupidity of such a blunder, considering the festival’s theme was based on emancipation and liberation. Somehow housing a bunch of indigenous people in a zoo seems the kind of thing a clueless American would do. Despite the best intentions, the thinking was small and that’s what really rubbed me the wrong way. I want to think that the director of Fespam, armed with a great theme and a spectacular lineup of musicians, would create an environment that pursued those big ideals.

Unfortunately, all this bad press has tainted this year’s festival, taking the focus away from emancipation and liberation in a land that desperately needs some good press. Maybe before the next festival they should house all the officials at the zoo.

Pygmies photo by Kate Eshelby, courtesy of The Rainforest Foundation UK.

Festival information at: http://www.fespam.org.

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