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Sue Nair
Sue Nair

An ESL teacher and teacher educator who has spent much of her life in South East Asia, Sue now lives and writes in her home county, Yorkshire.  Influenced by the places in which she has lived and her experience as a researcher, she particularly enjoys writing creative non-fiction.

The Pygmies of Brandesburton

I must have been expecting them. When two appeared in the doorway I nodded in greeting and continued using the rasp on the horse’s fourth hoof. I was relieved the horse couldn’t see them.


They waited quietly. But as I led the animal out to the yard the shorter of the two approached us slowly. Perhaps his stature, less than four feet, reassured the horse rather than startled it. Perhaps, too, she was colour blind. The Pygmy reached up, patted the mare’s hindquarters then returned to his place by the door, grinning broadly.


Out in the yard, I hitched the horse to Mr. Clappison’s trap. It left at a greater speed than usual. The visitors’ habit of carrying spears, bows and arrows did not encourage social intimacy.    


I knew they spoke some English. They played football with my children and their friends and had taught my children to say “toilet” in Pygmy language. I’d heard what I assumed to be mangled versions of Pygmy all week, accompanied by screams of laughter.


The Pygmies were polite enough now, shaking hands and saying hello. The purpose of the visit became clear. Spilling out their arrows, they pointed to the absence of heads. Having just shoed a horse, the answer was on the floor: cast off ends of horseshoe nails. These were seized on and, with great dexterity, fitted to the shafts. A little dance demonstrated their great happiness at this success.


Fashioning spearheads was not such an easy undertaking. Using sign language and Pidgin English we reached an agreement: they would leave one spear behind and I would see what I could do to make heads to fit. We shook hands on the deal.


The reason for their anxiety and delight became clear as I walked home. Notices announced that Brandesburton Hall would be open for two days so the public could view the Pygmies’ hunting and dancing skills.


My wife was not pleased. “Thousands went to see them in London. The village will be swarming with people. At this time of the year, too, when the farmers need to use the lanes. They’ll be full of people on bicycles.”


“Perhaps the Pygmies like performing.” Certainly, they were uninhibited people.


“More like the Colonel wants the money to fund his hunting trips. Regular showman. Had them performing as soon as they arrived in the country. Mrs. Bird tells me he brought them over because his friends wanted to see them. Showing them to the whole country now.”


Mrs. Bird was the cook at the Hall. I could imagine the pandemonium the Pygmies’ visit was causing the domestic staff.


On their second visit, all four Pygmy males arrived. I was still making the spearheads. The process fascinated them. And for good reason: it became clear they had made the implements being replaced. The concept of bellows was familiar to them, but sign language suggested that in their experience the fire was in the ground and the bellows placed underneath the fire. What was less clear was where the iron ore came from. Something must have been lost in translation. Surely it wasn’t lying on the surface of the land?


Despite this amazing evidence of intelligence, their childlike, excited response to the forging process made me quite certain that giving them access to the anvil or hammers would lead to disaster. Their size, the peculiarities of their communication, made it difficult to treat them like men.


I did not see their performance at the Hall. But the large entrance fee did not stop thousands of other people attending. It was agreed the Pygmies were wonderful hunters. Two rabbits released from a bag were killed using only two arrows. Hundreds of sparrows were speared. They were quite civilized too: on a raised platform, they ate using European cutlery; and they mixed easily with the crowds. Then they went to Europe.


The next summer, my wife announced the Pygmies’ return to the Hall. Thrilled, she gave me Mrs. Bird’s version of the Mbuti wedding that had taken place almost immediately upon that return. The ceremony had required permission from the chief. It featured the mixing together of the participants’ belongings in one basket; there was dancing, smoking and a feast made up of boiled eggs, sardines, mutton, fish, rice and fruit.


I wondered if all of their belongings really did fit into one basket. How sad if that were the case. Didn’t they like cake? Which of the four I had met was the bridegroom? I hoped they needed arrow and spearheads so I could find out.


The bride accompanied them on their third visit. I paid special attention to her, knowing my wife would want the details: in a high-necked, high-waisted, long-sleeved dress of some dark material, the Pygmy wife looked demure and fashionable. Her husband was next in height to the chief. I was pleased for her. They gave me a book of photographs, taken of them in London, and left.


I was glad when the men returned the next day. Over the following year, a friendship developed, interrupted only by the Pygmies’ professional travels—travels they found increasingly onerous, but which were a source of wonderful re-enactments. Their imitation of a wrestling show seen in London was real theatre. Gifted mimics, they sang the different tones of my hammers, creating astonishing music. Dancing to a drum, a rattle and a clicking noise produced through split pieces of cane, their twisting movements kept perfect time with their music. Yet they would sit for hours in silence, watching the fire, the sparks as I worked, smoking cigarettes or long bamboo pipes of charcoal and smouldering leaves.


Invited into my home, the Pygmies immediately ran up the stairs, laughing and waving at passersby from the bedroom windows. My wife moaned endlessly about the mess they created. I regarded that mess as a tribute to our friendship. Attending tea parties in other villagers’ houses, the Pygmies were merely dignified and polite.


Our hospitality was returned. Colonel Harrison had built a glass house in the Hall’s grounds, attempting to reproduce the equatorial temperatures of the Pygmies’ home. Yet when we visited them there, the two ladies spent the evening outside in a hut skillfully created of branches and covered in leaves. Such huts are built wherever the Pygmies make a temporary stop. Perhaps the glass house suggested a permanence the nomadic ladies did not wish to contemplate. My wife, having perspired all evening in the Colonel’s gift, vowed never to make another visit. 


But she went when asked to attend the baby’s birth. I was spared the details. The baby did not live. The Pygmies did not speak of it.


Their visits stopped. I did nothing. In the awful silence between us, I felt a dreadful guilt. Surely one benefit of their sojourn should have been good medical treatment. What is the point of civilization if it cannot save a baby? Or provide comfort to those it has failed? So I greeted the news of their imminent return to Africa with some relief. In their absence, I might more easily forget their tragedy; silence the private disquiets it had raised.


I joined the other villagers waving an apology of a last goodbye. The Pygmies were driven to Hull where, on their last day in England, they performed in an eight-hour fundraising event in support of Hull Royal Infirmary.


I miss them. The London photographs are not of the people I knew. I create my own pictures of them: encircled by foliage constructed huts, sitting round a fire; using bellows, making spearheads, roasting birds, smoking, laughing. Colonel Harrison couldn’t find them when he last visited Africa. Perhaps this time they succeeded in hiding from him.



'Colonel Harrison's African Pigmies'



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