Pygmy tells of journey to Sydney from Congo forests

(Transcript from World News Radio)

An Australian who grew up as a pygmy in the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo has published an account of his journey.


Isaac Bacirongo lived as a hunter-gatherer and was imprisoned and tortured in Eastern Congo for his Indigenous rights activism.

He eventually escaped to Australia with his family as a humanitarian refugee and settled in suburban Sydney 12 years ago.

Mr Bacirongo’s account of his life, ‘Still a Pygmy’, is said to be the first published memoir by a pygmy author.

Will Mumford reports.

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When Isaac Bacirongo was growing up he never would have imagined that he’d end up in Australia.

Growing up the Democratic Republic of Congo, he experienced serious discrimination for his BaTembo Pygmy heritage.

Centuries of oppression had taught members of Mr Bacirongo’s tribe to hide their identity.

However, he decided to take different path, fighting for his education and establishing the first indigenous rights organisation for pygmies in the Congo.

Mr Bacirongo says he’s encountered many negative perceptions about pygmies.

“People start talking negatively about pygmy. There is no educated pygmy, all the pygmies live in the forest, they are naked, they just wear clothes and that makes me upset. I created an organisation to defend the pygmies’ rights.”

However, Mr Bacirongo’s efforts to advocate for better rights and treatment of pygmies made him a target.

He was imprisoned and tortured for his activism while in the DRC, before escaping to Kenya with his wife Josephine and their ten children.

In 2003, Mr Bacarongo moved with his family to Australia, after being granted a humanitarian visa.

He says his life in suburban Sydney is a dramatic contrast to early years.

“When I grow up, just like all the pygmies, we depend on the forest.”

Mr Bacirongo’s wife Josephine is proud of her husband for writing a book about their culture and shared story.

She says in the Democratic Republic of Congo she felt consistently under threat of violence, whereas in Australia day-to-day life is less dangerous.

“When I came to Australia it was good because in my country it was war, when I came to Australia I feel happy because I have peace.”

Mr Bacirongo spent two years writing his memoir with co-author Michael Nest.

Mr Nest says the story is one of determination, and dispels false narratives about the lives and culture of pygmies.

“He was an activist under a repressive regime, in the middle of a war. It takes a lot of courage. In our subconscious we have all these myths and stories about short people who live in wild places and pygmies fit into that and a lot of people weren’t sure if there was such a thing as a pygmy.”