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  • The existence of pygmy tribes in Africa has fascinated the West for centuries. In the early days of the 20th century the Bronx Zoo even hosted an exhibit in which Oto Benga, a member of a pygmy tribe in the Belgian Congo, was displayed in the zoo's Monkey House.

    The day I met Geoffrey Nzito, the King of the Basua pygmies, we were both guests at another king's party. The more I learned about King Geoffrey and his tribe, the more aware I became of the brutality and beauty of life in Africa.

    The Rwenzururu Kingdom, based in the mountainous jungle along the Uganda-DRC border, was celebrating 50 years of independence in the village of Bundibugyo. King Geoffrey and I were there for the festivities

    The world may have moved past the overt racism Oto Benga faced, but the daily reality of life for the Basua remains tragic. They were evicted from their traditional home in the Semliki Forest in 1993 as part of the Ugandan government's conservation efforts. Their hunter-gatherer lifestyle became illegal and the tribe has been subjected to forcible government re-locations ever since.

    Even more devastating to this community were rumors that began in the 1990s that having sex with Basua women cures HIV. Members of the Ugandan military and paramilitary groups like the Allied Democratic Forces proceeded to track down Basua women in the jungle and rape them. The subsequent infection of Basua with HIV and the tribe's lack of access to contraception, medicine and effective treatments for the virus decimated the population.

    All of these forces combined to bring the Basua to the brink of extinction. With only about 100 members of his tribe left, even King Geoffrey admits that his people are dying.

    But that day in Bundibugyo the King and his subjects had a chance to list their grievances to members of the local and national government. Even Amama Mbabazi, the Prime Minister of Uganda, attended.

    The Basua came to the celebration, played their instruments and danced their way up to the Prime Minister's reviewing stand. King Geoffrey spoke in a language I did not understand but with an assertive tone that I could not fail to recognize. All the while the Basua held their heads high, proud to sing their own song.

    Their suffering is too steep a price to pay for my inspiration. But there was something powerful and unforgettable about bearing witness to a people who refuse to die quietly.

    In King Geoffrey and his fellow Basua, I saw a part of the human spirit that will never give up.
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