Ethnographer Talks Bongo Culture Loss

On Wednesday, Nov. 2, British anthropologist Judith Knight visited St. Mary’s College to present a lecture in Cole Cinema as part of the Department of Anthropology’s Visiting Ethnographer Series. Her presentation focused on her ethnographic study of the pygmy people of Gabon in West Africa.

While Knight stated in the beginning that, “pygmy,” is now considered a controversial term due to its disrespectful connotation for people of this culture, she explained that she, nonetheless, was at a loss of what other term to use and needed to describe this Bongo society as a group of, “pygmy people.”

Currently working as a fellow with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History on the creation of a pygmy collection, Knight was described by Interim Chair of the Department of Anthropology, Professor Bill Roberts as a, “definite four-field anthropologist,” meaning that she dabbles in each subdivision of anthropology: cultural, archaeological, linguistic, and biological.

Her lecture, titled “‘Men are Like Fish, They Move …’ : Shifting Perspectives on Central African Hunter Gatherers Through the Forest Peoples of Gabon,” primarily focused on her aim to, “broaden peoples’ perspectives of Central African forest peoples because I believe they’re being very stereotyped,” said Knight.

These stereotypes over the ages have come about from exaggerated or false assumptions of the cultures of forest peoples and hunter-gatherers from around the world. The title of her talk, she said, was a quote from an old pygmy man she encountered, as he tried describing, “why he was where he was from.” The title was also a call for people to be more dynamic with how they view forest peoples.

Despite this new view of the different cultures of forest peoples, “these people [still] represent the earliest type of societies: the hunter-gatherer society,” said Roberts.

Much of Knight’s work within the area has not only been her ethnographic study of this culture, but also consists of projects focused on conservation, eco-tourism, and indigenous rights. The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) has even covered her work with the Bongo people, which has caused this previously unknown culture to come straight into a worldwide spotlight.

BBC states on a page of their website dedicated to the Bongo people that, “their expertise and knowledge of the forests is unique,” but that, “commercial logging is destroying [the forest] at an alarming rate.”

This logging industry has greatly decreased the amount of forest that they can live in. The forests have direct ties to their culture, since “types of initiations are completely integrated into the landscape,” said Knight. This means that their culture is also becoming greatly affected by commercial logging.

“I hope that I have given you some insight into the complexity of the situation of the pygmy forest peoples in Gabon,” said Knight as she concluded her lecture.

“I came to see Judith Knight because we had read her articles for my anthropology class,” said first-year Caroline Szendey, “and it really helped give a voice to her articles. However, I wish I could have heard more about her personal experiences.”

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