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Pygmies’ Exhibition Causes Uproar

August 20, 2002

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YVOIR, Belgium (AP) _ Marie Alem and nine other Pygmies came to Belgium two months ago and built a traditional village, complete with huts and life-size figures at a private nature park.

They showed videos about Pygmy life, played music and sometimes performed dances for visitors in return for a cut of the admission fee. The Pygmies say their goal was to bring in money to pay for wells, schools and hospitals for their Baka tribe back home in Cameroon.

What they and the park have mostly drawn is a storm of criticism. For many Belgians, recalling the country’s sometimes brutal colonial past and mocking exhibits of Africans in the 19th century, the Pygmy show is demeaning and racist. Few people have visited.

Alem says she and the other Pygmies have had enough of the criticism and they’re ready to go home, although the show runs until Aug. 31.

``I don’t understand,″ Alem said in broken French. ``We are carrying out a humanitarian project ... for a better life. That was our objective for coming here.″

The exhibit was the brainchild of Louis Raets, who runs the Oasis Nature Park in the Meuse River valley just outside Yvoir, about an hour’s drive southeast of Brussels. The park normally features tropical fish and butterflies, but those exhibits were removed for the Pygmy show.

Pygmies, not all of whom are below average height, are believed to be the earliest inhabitants of Central Africa. Over the centuries, the legendary hunters retreated into the region’s dense rain forests to keep away from the more powerful Bantu tribes.

Raets, who said he paid the air fares for the five female and five male Pygmies, said he got the idea for the show as a way to help the Baka tribe during a visit to Cameroon last year.

``This is for a 100 percent humanitarian operation,″ he said. ``Everything has become so political in this case ... All we are trying to do is to give them a hand up.″

Not many people have seen it that way.

``We disapprove of this exposition, which brings back the exploitation of humans and defies human dignity,″ said Joseph Aganda of the Movement for New Migrants, an advocacy group for African immigrants in Belgium.

Human rights activists and the immigrant group appealed to Belgium’s civil rights watchdog to halt the show. The agency declined, ruling the show is not racist, but that did not stop the criticism and protests.

``Belgium, like other former colonial countries, has a history of exhibiting people,″ Johan Bosman, an analyst at a Belgium support group for indigenous peoples, wrote in the newspaper De Morgen. ``We only have to look back at the colonial expositions of King Leopold II, during 1894 and 1897, where ‘real Congolese’ were brought over and looked at by some 1 million people, who threw peanuts at them.″

Seven Congolese died in those exhibits from exposure to cold weather.

``Many question if people do this for a good cause, even if they are free to come and go as they please,″ Bosman added.

Criticism also has come from Cameroon, where the show has attracted widespread media coverage.

In an editorial, the state-run Cameroon Tribune asked if the Pygmies even understood what was happening to them.

``Do they know what is expected of them, and how the resources accruing from their exhibition will be used?″ it wrote. ``Certainly not. As Jean Bibe, one of the Pygmies noted, he is content with having entered an airplane and a train.″

Raets said he couldn’t say how much money they show has brought in, but said not many tickets had been sold.

Alem and another Pygmy, Roger Owonu Ze, said the group doesn’t know how much money it has raised. They are to get about 40 percent of each $6 admission ticket. But because of the criticism, only a few hundred people have come, Owonu Ze said.

``This (criticism) has created a lot of prejudice,″ he said.

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