I read this story of a young man. He was from the Belgian Congo and belonged to the Mbuty tribe. His tribesmen were all short statured and dark skinned as was typical to his 'race'. His name was Benga. He was living a content life with wife and kids, until one day his fate took a drastic turn and led to a series of events culminating in his suicide at the young age of 32.
Now this happened a long time back. One day he went hunting with his buddies and returned back to find his wife and children killed by a group of foreigners. (In today’s terms we would call these guys terrorists). They then attacked him and took him in as a slave. He suffered atrocities under these guys. After some time another man named Verner came and negotiated with his captors and took Benga with him and gave him food and treated him well. Benga, who was so glad to be out of slavery, bonded with this man. Verner took Benga to a new world and Benga readily accompanied him because he trusted Verner and he was curious and excited to see this new world. On arriving at this strange beautiful and exciting place, for a while Benga enjoyed everything and aimed to please Verner. Now Verner was a missionary who had agreed to bring some vistors from far off places to a cultural expo that was held at St. Louis, MO. Benga’s short and dark appearance was a curiousity to the locals who had never seen anyone or rather ‘anything’ like him. Soon Benga posed for pictures and became sort of a performer along with other african tribesmen. He was especially popular because of his sharp pointed teeth which had been filed off when he was young as part of his tribe's tradition. He gladly grinned to show off his pointed teeth in exchange for five cents. His short stature and pointed teeth led to various unfounded speculations about him by the mob that gawked at him. People thought he was a cannibal.
As time passed Verner who himself was then trying to find a job could no longer be Benga’s guide. He passed him along to another organization that was willing to take care of him. This organization was the Bronx Zoo. That’s right the zoo took Benga in as an exhibit. He was encouraged to carry around his favorite orangutan that was named Dohong. He was put in a cage along with the monkeys as part of a display endorsing the theory of human evolution. The sign outside read :
Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches. Weight, 103 pounds.
Brought from the Kasai River, Congo Free State, South
Central Africa, by Dr. Samuel P. Verner.
Ex-hibited each afternoon during September
A newspaper reported that "[he] represented the lowest form of human development."
He was eventually moved to an orphanage for ‘colored’ people. Benga tried to work and save money to return to his native soil. But the last shreds of his hope of returning to a known life were shattered when the World War I broke out. With despair eating at him, he reached the end of his rope. He shot himself with a stolen revolver and died at the age of 32.
As was reading his story I couldn’t stop my tears of anger at the people who did this and sadness for Benga. I had already known that humans are capable of extreme cruelty given the circumstances. But I had always thought of such people as aberrant and mentally disturbed; brainwashed possibly. But in Benga’s case a whole community did injustice to him. A human is a human regardless of his race, color, caste, country or creed. I innately thank God that I live in a kinder era and although even now such atrocities occur, I have been lucky to get an education and parentage that inculcated in me the basic decency of treating a human with humanity.
If you wish to see him, you can visit the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which holds a life mask and body cast of a Pygmy. The display is simply titled ‘Pygmy’ even today. It is none other than Ota Benga. Google him to see his pictures and more details about his story and pay a minute of tribute to this poor soul.