The Efe Pygmies are “wholly non-aggressive,” Jean-Pierre Hallet told me. Could
that be true? Since Hallet largely grew up with the Efe in equatorial
Africa, and has lived with them for much of his sixty plus years, I figured
he might know.
And since aggressive people increasingly threaten our lives, both locally and internationally,
his claim seemed worth checking out. Whether or not humans are genetically violent, as some
maintain, has significant relevance for we who are peace activists. The root causes of aggression,
both interpersonal and international, matter greatly regarding effective strategy for prevention and
elimination of human violence. And, while I cannot tolerate false hope, I was feeling a need for
first-hand information that could offer genuine hope of a better world for our human family.
My fascination with the African Pygmies began in the 1960s, when I read The Forest People
by Colin Turnbull, who had lived with the Mbuti Pygmies for three years.
In the late ‘60s I attended Turnbull’s lecture series at the Museum of
Natural History in New York City.
In the early 1970s I heard Jean-Pierre Hallet speak about the Efe Pygmies
at the University of California in Berkeley. At that time he showed his
1972 documentary film on this indigenous African tribe. Later I read
Hallet’s book, Pygmy Kitabu. Hallet has lived with the culturally pure Efe
Pygmies from early childhood. He gave startling evidence of the trusting,
cooperative, and joyful lifestyle of these forest people.
Thus I was pleased to meet with Jean-Pierre Hallet in his Malibu home. He
is six feet and four inches tall, far from pygmy size, and speaks with
passion. He lost his right hand while dynamiting Lake Tanganyika for
fish to feed a group of starving Africans in South Mossi. Dubbed “one of
the most remarkable men of the 20th century,” he is the only white man
to become a member of the Bwame Secret Society, and a blood brother of
the Lega, Tutsi, and Nande tribes. He is also an initiated Maasai warrior.
Mr. Hallet was born in Belgian, but went to Zaire’s Ituri Forest,
where his artist father had been living, when he was only six months old.
Hallet told me that, for the most part, he grew up with the Efe Pygmies.
He went barefoot, wore a loincloth, and did everything that they did. He
still spends time with them every year.
The following account of Pygmy life draws upon my meeting with Hallet, as well as other
firsthand reports from him and Colin Turnbull. What emerges is a picture of a
culture based on honoring—to use a Native American concept—“all our
Sexual Maturity and Pregnancy
The Pygmies are well aware of the connection between sex and conception, Hallet explained
during our meeting, and sexual relations before marriage are accepted. If a girl becomes pregnant,
she always knows who the father is, because it is customary to have only one lover at a time. Should
the couple wish to marry, they do. If they choose not to, then many men will want to marry the
mother-to-be, because children are most desirable.
Hallet said he has delivered more than 500 African babies, Pygmy and non-Pygmy. He
described Pygmy labor as being very short, natural, and easy, even for a first-time mother. And this
is in spite of the fact that Pygmy babies are, proportionally, the biggest babies in the world. For
example an 80-pound Pygmy mother typically gives birth to an eight-pound baby, about one-tenth of
her body weight. This would compare to a 130-pound woman birthing a 13-pound baby.
When the mother’s membranes rupture, she notifies her two midwives, who then walk with
her to the river, one on either side. “At the time of the pain,” Hallet said, “she will walk and sing,
sing and be joyous.”
Once at the river, the pregnant woman squats on a flat rock. The midwives hold her on each
side, and breath deeply with her in what Hallet referred to as “a tremendous feeling on oneness.”
When they feel the time has come, the women hold their breath. “They pause together,” said Hallet,
“and then you see the baby coming out.”
One of the midwives briefly holds the baby upside down, washes the upper part of the body to
make sure the baby is breathing well, and then returns the child to the mother for nursing. The
other midwife works her teeth down the umbilical cord until she finds the narrow part, a few inches
from the infant’s abdomen. “This is the place where, if a baby were dropped from the womb of a
standing mother, the weight of the child would be enough to break that cord at that point,” said
Hallet. The midwife bites this narrow part very slowly, and then gently squeezes the cord with her
fingers. There is usually very little bleeding.
To celebrate the birth of her child, Hallet noted, a mother will sing this song:
My heart is so joyous,
During the birth, the father stays away. Birth is considered to be women’s business. After
birth, when the mother and baby have returned to their leafy, dome hut, the father comes to them
and asks permission to enter. Then the father might clap his hands and thank his wife for their very
My heart flies in singing,
Under the trees of the forest,
The forest, our home, our mother.
In my net I have caught
A little bird,
A very little bird,
And my heart is caught
In the net with my little bird.
According to Hallet, there is no bonding ritual, but there is a bond — “like a fruit to its
branch” — a physical attachment for the first year or so. During this year, the baby is “never
separated from the mother.” In Hallet’s view, this constant contact is one reason why Pygmy infants
rarely cry. Pygmy babies appear to feel good. “They are satisfied in all of their requirements,” he
stated. On the rare occasion when a baby does cry, it is only for a moment, because the baby’s need
is immediately taken care of. Often this means nursing, which satisfies the baby’s necessity for
close contact and attention, as well as for nourishment.
Hallet remarked that the baby is usually carried in front, although sometimes on the back.
In either position, Pygmies feel it is essential to maintain skin-to-skin contact, with the child naked
against the mother’s bare skin. If clothing is needed for warmth, the mother wraps a clothe around
both herself and her child, not between them. This constant skin contact continues for at least the
first six months. Thereafter, the mother continues to provide plenty of touching as well as baby-led
A Pygmy baby continues to nurse for about five years, Hallet reported. If there’s any milk left
after the new baby is finished, the breast may go to the baby before, and then to the child before
that one, in turn. The priority is always the newly born child.
Hallet said, “Sometimes you’ll see little children playing, perhaps making a bow and arrow.
They interrupt their play to go to their mother, reach for her breast and suckle a little bit . . . still
finding the warmth of a few drops of milk.”
The breasts of women with many children may be really flat, going all the way down to the
waist, commented Hallet. I thought this might result from a combination of breastfeeding along with
a physically active lifestyle and no bras. Although such “droopy breasts” may be unattractive from a
modern point of view, to the Pygmies it is a good sign, I learned, because it indicates a woman has
been feeding a lot of children. Prolonged, child-led nursing also provides a natural form of birth
control and child spacing.
The Pygmies do not equate breasts with sexual stimulation, Hallet claimed, and they do not
use the breast for erogenous foreplay. The breast is considered sacred, reserved for the child.
The father takes great interest in his baby. He plays, holds and hugs the child as much as
the mother does. Men and women equally manifest love and care. In fact, fathers will sometimes
hold their babies for very long periods of time. Hallet recalled, “The most beautiful time for a father
is when he holds his baby for the very first time. He will hold his newborn with great . . .
tenderness. And usually he will cry, because he is so touched by his baby.”
Close physical contact, nursing as often as the child feels the need, emotional warmth, and
loving care are among the basic requirements of very young children, according to the Pygmies.
Fulfilling these needs maximizes the child’s potential to develop into a naturally sociable and
responsible human being who can enjoy a good life.
Family members sleep together. The big girls cuddle on the left side of the hut with the
mother. The boys line up beside the father, on his right. The youngest child who is still
breastfeeding sleeps between the father and mother. Pygmies feel that this is an intrinsic part of
life, Hallet said. Since their only blankets are each other, they cuddle and fit against one another’s
bodies in a very natural way.
This feeling of closeness carries beyond the family hut. Hallet said that children refer to
their parents’ peers as “mother” or “father.” Children outside the immediate family are called
“brother” or “sister.” As Hallet’s documentary revealed, there is a great deal of affectionate touching
among all of the Pygmies. Babies and small children are held and carried. Older children and adults
frequently hold hands or sit with an arm around a friend, or place their head in another’s lap.
Anyone feeling the need for reassurance may touch someone briefly or go for a hug. Many enjoy
Girls and boys are treated and valued equally, according to Hallet. Marriage involves no
dowry or bride-payment, but rather simple exchanges. Most areas of work are not limited solely to
one gender or the other. A man will gather food if he passes something tasty and his hands are free.
And all the people—men, women and children—play a part in the hunt.
Hallet never saw a Pygmy adult hit or criticize a child. Nor do they tell their children how to
behave. When I asked how they control their children, Hallet answered, “They don’t. The children do
not need to be controlled. Whatever the adults do, the children do. The woman goes to gather wood
for the fire, and the little girl follows and picks up a few pieces too.”
Once he saw a toddler heading straight toward a blazing fire, and called out to alert the
mother. The mother calmly replied, “Let him go.” As Hallet put it, the mother knew the child would
soon feel the heat and slow down. She trusted nature, including the instinctual wisdom of her
child’s human nature. The child might touch a glowing twig and learn about fire without serious
harm to either his fingers or his budding self-confidence.
“This is probably the most striking difference between the Pygmies and our society,” said
Hallet. “They do not tell their children what to do or what not to do.”
After an easy birth and attentive childcare, what quality of life do Pygmies experience in
According to Hallet, Efe Pygmies are physically healthy. Living traditionally, they do not
succumb to such modern diseases as high blood pressure, heart disease, or cancer. Death is usually
due to pulmonary diseases like pneumonia, a result of the constant nearly 100 percent humidity of
their forest environment. The second leading cause of death is what Hallet termed “accidents,” such
as being crushed by a falling tree.
For simple ailments like an infected cut, the Pygmies have natural medicines derived from
various combinations of roots and plant juices. They have a cure for every normally occurring illness,
according to Hallet. They either eat the substance, drink it, or make a little scratch and absorb it
into the bloodstream much like an injection. Through centuries of trial and error, they know what
works and what does not.
The emotional health of the Pygmies is also impressive. Hallet, constantly touched by their
goodness, believes that the simplicity, harmony, and serenity that the Pygmies experience are
qualities we could learn to incorporate. “They are not afraid,” he said. “They are totally secure.”
They have a high level of respect for themselves and others.
Most significantly, Efe Pygmies are free of hatred, greed, and competitive feelings. Physical
violence against others is forbidden.
Hallet’s documentary reveals the role that social responsibility plays in a telling scene of
conflict between an Efe wife and husband. The argument heats up with much shouting, hands on
hips, and dramatic finger waving. Suddenly the husband picks up a stick. The wife disappears from
the screen—but soon reappears bearing a club taller than herself. At this point, the women hold
back the wife, and the men hold back the husband.
What usually happens when a husband and wife fight, says Hallet, is that they are
encouraged. “If a man is about to hit his wife, the others will give him a stick and say, ‘Hit her with
this. You are a strong man. You can kill her!’ By this time, the husband already feels a little
ashamed. The others group around and call out, ‘Okay! Go! Go for it!’ And then he realizes how
foolish he looks. They end up making a joke out of it, a sort of soap opera. Then every body claps, and
they are happy.”
Pygmies express all of their emotions freely. According to Hallet, if Pygmies feel like crying,
they cry. If they want to scream, they scream. They yell. It is acceptable for a man to cry openly.
They pygmies do not suppress their emotions; instead, they say, “Tell the truth. Do not hide it—let it
Turnbull referred to the bright-eyed, open look of the playful Pygmies, and was surprised by
the extent of their emotional freedom: they may even fall to the ground and roll around when
expressing intense sorrow, or laughter.
Even though Pygmies usually do pretty much what they feel like doing, community
relationships do not suffer. As Hallet sees it, a major part of their great personal freedom comes
from a mutual feeling of trust. As he spoke I thought, because the innate trust human babies are
born with is not betrayed by their caregivers, that trust can continue. According to Hallet, Pygmies
concentrate their attention on the betterment of their personal relationships. He said that the
entire Efe society had not one criminal, not one rapist, one molester, or one case of incest.
Although a man might think of making love with a woman other than his wife, knowing how
that would threaten the root of their sacred marriage for life, he would resist the temptation.
The Pygmies have no chiefs, no courts or prisons. Turnbull wrote that they did not want
individual power, preferring shared decision-making.
More than anything else, what forms the basis of the healthy relationships that Pygmies
enjoy is respect. For instance, respect is shown in the handling of food, which is shared with all. If
food is scarce, the first to be fed are the children and then the elders—those who are the most
Great respect is shown for the elders. In Pygmy society, the elders are “the stars of the
show.” According to Hallet, they are the most important people because they have the wisdom, the
honor, the beauty that deserves respect. They have worked all their lives. They have given a lot of
love to other people. They naturally reap the reward of becoming truly important in the eyes of all
others. The Pygmies have a saying: “Thank God if you live to grow old.”
When I heard that I wondered how many of our modern elders feel as honored and grateful
in old age.
Pygmies also show respect for their forest environment and resources. “Never cut the tall
trees,” they say in Hallet’s Pygmy Kitabu. Ecology is a natural part of their religion.
According to Hallet, the Pygmies believe in one God, one Spirit, one Creator of all life. They
consider no form of punishment, no hell or revenge, because they see God as being only benevolent.
In The Forest People, Turnbull records the words of a song he heard his Pygmy companions sing:
". . . If darkness is, then the darkness must be good.” So completely do the Pygmies experience a
Pygmy lives are now endangered. “It is impossible for them to survive with their traditional
hunting and gathering because their forest is being destroyed at a tremendous rate,” said Hallet. In
fact, many experts predicted that the Efe Pygmies would be extinct by 1977. In that year, their
population numbered 3,800—not yet extinct, although a significant decline from the two or three
million who were once the only inhabitants of central Africa.
“The forest, that perfect ecosystem that took millions of years to be established, is destroyed
now to less than ten percent of its former glory,” said Hallet.
He repeatedly stressed the view that humanity needs to help the Pygmies survive because
they are also the key to our own survival. “The Pygmies are the living evidence of our innate
goodness.” In a world threatened by oppression, conflict, and violence, these forest people
demonstrate that when we gently birth, nurture, and guide our children, without violence and other
repressive controls, we human beings can live together in freedom and harmony.
Nurtured by a community that reflects the loving care adults received early in life, children
develop freely in an environment of safety, warm concern, cooperation and shared pleasures. The
Pygmies say, “Love the children extravagantly, with all your heart!”
The Future: Danger of Extinction
The images and expectations we hold in our minds powerfully influence our children’s
development. The picture of “human nature” given by some modern people depicts a human
“inheritance” of violent and selfish “instincts.” When we believe that humanity is innately violent or
greedy, we fearfully demand obedience from our children, and strive to maintain rigid controls over
the emotional responses that we have been taught to fear in our own childhoods. Dominance over
others’ behavior, and over our own natural emotions, brings neither inner nor outer peace. Instead,
viewing human nature as dangerous has helped to create perilous consequences for the human
The image of human nature demonstrated by the living Pygmies offers us the hope of better
ways of relating, arising from a more accurate view of our original nature. The Efe Pygmy culture
reassures us that we need not assume that human beings are genetically violent or greedy.
Therefore we need not teach our children to suppress themselves or to blindly obey others. Pygmy
society shows us that when children’s needs (life requirements) are lovingly provided for, they will
not grow up harboring unmet needs that may become greed. They will not develop the rage and fear
that result from early neglect and punishment, and may be destructively expressed for the rest of
Startling to our modern minds, it becomes clear that it is unnecessary to teach our children
to love. Instead we can trust and support their innate tendencies toward empathy and generosity,
which I too experienced while living in Africa and elsewhere. We can safely allow
our children emotional freedom, while gently guiding them in appropriate,
mutually respectful ways of behavioral expression.
In short, the Pygmies demonstrate that we do not have to war with our children. We do not
have to teach them violence by our example when they are small. Instead we can cooperate with
them in the graceful unfolding of their inborn integrity and kindness.
What happens in our parenting as we begin to act from this harmonious image of human
nature? For one, we find ourselves reviving such ancient practices as natural homebirth,
unrestricted breastfeeding, carrying our infants and maintaining close physical contact with them.
Rather than punishment, we teach our children by example. In so doing, we are not simply
returning to our roots. Rather, in our individual ways, we are weaving a new synthesis appropriate
for our times, one that creates fresh possibilities for the whole of humanity.
From the self-respecting awareness of our inherent human goodness, a sweeter, grander
version of ourselves will emerge.
Summary: A Sustained Culture Reveals Possibilities For Humanity
| Pygmy Proverbs
“Goodness and kindness put an end to badness.”
“God returns the good that one does.”
“With truth one may reach God.”
“A bad mother is not a mother.”
“Children are people’s treasures.”