Real Live African Pygmy

Meagan Ciesla


in memory of Ota Benga, 1884-1916

Campbell pulled the Pygmy's top lip up, bottom lip down, and found what he'd been searching for on his trek to the Congo. A cannibal's set, sharpened by machete, with each tooth coming down to a perfect spearhead's point.

The saliva from the Pygmy's teeth glinted in the sun and the Belgian slavers grunted. Campbell felt his skin vibrate. His heart pummeled inside of his chest. The purse for finding the Pygmy would be enough to erase his debts and he took this as a gift from the Lord.

Musa showed off to encourage the sale; he pressed his top teeth against his bottom lip and made a sucking sound. He would do anything to escape the slavers, the same men who had slaughtered his family, his entire village, several months before.

Campbell paid for the Pygmy as he would pay for a newly tailored shirt and then clapped his hands once and slung his meaty arm around Musa's narrow shoulders. At once they started back through the jungle, Musa trailing behind, stepping inside of the footprints of the curious white man who could speak the Pygmy language, whose heavy steps flattened the thick grasses underfoot.


On the steamer headed towards the St. Louis World's Fair Campbell told Musa how he would have an exhibit of his own, a small cone-shaped hut where he could live without fear of capture, where people would visit him, would laud and praise him. They would come to St. Louis just to admire him, a real live African Pygmy, and would tell of him to their children and their children's children.

The men exchanged near-death tales in the dark humid steerage of the ship and they laughed at how other passengers kept their distance when they reenacted their most daring adventures by candlelight, their long shadows cast against ship walls. In captivity Musa had been forced into silence. To talk with Campbell was a precious act. To speak his language once again was to remember the feeling of a dream, if not the dream itself.

Musa sifted through the steamer trunks Campbell had filled with artifacts and the two men smoked from long pipes the explorer had gathered along the way. Musa was only nineteen years old but had lived the lives of many men and he was taken with Campbell, with his fervor and excitability, how he spoke so highly of God; Musa tried to imagine what Campbell's God would look like when they finally arrived on the other side of the sea.

Musa did not know Campbell experienced nervousness or that, several weeks into their journey, the explorer would break down on the deck of the ship. Musa caught him at the rail's edge and guarded him for weeks as Campbell fell into deep depressions followed by bouts of manic chatter. In a surge of guilt, Campbell admitted to fathering two Congolese children and leaving them both behind without baptism or money. Musa worried that, in a night's fit of delirium, Campbell might throw himself overboard and that he, without translator or ally, would be compelled to follow. Musa sat by Campbell and comforted him until his friend's eyes no longer looked out at the cold water with what he recognized as a lust for life's end; Musa himself had know such loneliness before.

The morning before he'd been captured had been a good morning. He'd hunted an elephant, a large beast with long ivory tusks, but when he returned to share the good news his village was gone. The huts were burned, the people were razed and scattered all over. Musa remembered seeing his children and then his wife's body leaning against their hut. He tripped while rushing over to her and stepped on a hand and felt the crack of the bones under his narrow heel.


Within sight of America the two stood on the deck and gazed at the land before them. Campbell's health had improved and he stood, placid, watching the coast as the sleeve of his coat brushed against Musa's ear. The sea air was cold and Campbell noticed the bumps on Musa's skin; he draped his jacket over his friend's bare chest and the hem hung down well past his knees.

Musa did not know when they reached the World's Fair and Campbell received his purse that he would vanish, traveling first to South America and then back to Africa, gathering native people along the way and going into businesses of ivory and rubber. Musa did not know that after living for six months in a well-made hut at the Fair that no one would know what to do with him so they would send him to live in the monkey house at the Bronx Zoo, and then an orphanage for small children where he would be forced to wear underwear that restricted his testicles in an itchy, infuriating way.

Campbell did not know these things either, had not known that to fill a man with promises and then desert him in strange country is to let him die slowly; to refuse Musa his only interpreter was a slow assassination. Campbell did not realize that Musa would wait for his return for thirteen years, or that after such a long time he would borrow a pistol that felt cold and cumbersome in his hand and fire it into his own heart. Campbell also could not know that some years later he would lose all of his money in poor investments and be beaten to death by a man in Sierra Leone to whom he owed a large sum.

Neither had known these things that day on the steamer as the water slapped against the rusted sides of the ship. They could not have known. For if they did, they surely would have jumped together, hand-in-hand, and splashed into the frigid sea.