February 18, 2004
Dear Friends of The Pygmy Fund,
Sadly, we are writing to inform you that our father, Jean-Pierre Hallet, founder and president of The Pygmy Fund, passed away on January 1, 2004, after a long and tough battle with internal bleeding and later, leukemia. As he wished, there was no formal funeral service.
We can assure you that until the end, his greatest concern and passion continued to be The Pygmy Fund’s mission, “To Save a People”. He recently remarked to us, as he reflected on his life, that he was particularly pleased with The Pygmy Fund’s accomplishments.
He was always extremely grateful for your generous support that encouraged him and fueled The Pygmy Fund through many, many challenging periods. Looking through his files, we are most impressed by the sustained nature of your support and care. Our father often described how he valued knowing and communicating with many of you individually, often on a very personal level. The boxes of correspondence he kept in his office confirm this strong connection. In this context, we thank all of you who recently sent cards during the holidays and words of encouragement; he read essentially all your notes but, unfortunately, was unable to respond.
During this time of grief, we are doing little else but taking care of pressing Pygmy Fund administrative needs, as well as personal matters. Over the next few months, we will be discussing with the governing board of the Pygmy Fund a plan to maximize the positive impact of The Pygmy Fund in the future.
Much thoughtful reflection will be required to design a realistic plan that clearly contributes to the cause of The Pygmy Fund and that is consistent with our father’s wishes and his legacy. While developing this plan we will need to recognize the severe difficulty of working in this troubled part of Africa where warring factions maintain general civil and military unrest. Importantly, we must also recognize that our father’s passion, devotion, knowledge and resourcefulness simply cannot be replaced.
Your kind thoughts and prayers are much appreciated.
On behalf of our father, we thank you.
Marc and Bernard Hallet
Jean-Pierre Hallet died on January 1, 2004, at the age of 76. He was internationally renowned as an africanist, ethnologist, sociologist, humanitarian, agronomist, naturalist, author, lecturer, explorer, photographer, cinematographer, artist, African art authority and collector, and death-defying adventurer. He was best known and revered, however, as the world authority on the culture, languages, and history of African pygmies in general and the Ituri Forest Efé clan of the Bambuti pygmies in particular.
Jean-Pierre was the creator and driving force behind The Pygmy Fund, the only organization devoted solely to the preservation of the lives and culture of surviving forest-dwelling Efé pygmies. Numerous organizations can be found to protect and assure the perpetuation of rare and endangered animals and plants. But none exists with a similar objective of protecting rare and endangered human ethnic societies. The Ituri Forest Efé pygmies occupy less than 1% of the land preserved for African wildlife. Their numbers have been reduced over the past 75 years from 35,000 to about 3,000 individuals. They are subjected to enslavement and endangered by the destruction of the pristine Congo forest on which their lives depend.
African pygmies were, in Jean-Pierre’s view, especially deserving of our concern and protection. Their former widespread distribution and historical and cultural importance were a focus of his scholarly studies. These established that the African pygmies are the most ancient surviving human race (since confirmed by DNA and genetic studies) and have unique cultural and linguistic characteristics. Without their protection there would be an irreparable loss of a basic branch of humankind that has much to teach us, as Hallet established in his final published book, Pygmy Kitabu (Random House, 1973). His extensive knowledge of the pygmy language resulted in a dictionary of some 18,000 terms, which unfortunately was never published.
The last 45 years of Jean-Pierre Hallet’s life were devoted to ensuring the survival of the Efé. His boundless energy and confidence, along with his personal resources, were dedicated to that cause. His earliest memories were playing with pygmy children north of Lake Kivu, in the northeastern part of the former Belgian Congo. His father, the famed “Artist of the Congo”, André Hallet, lived and painted along the northern shore of Lake Kivu, in the adjoining mandated territory of Ruanda-Urundi (divided into Rwanda and Burundi after independence). His work was widely recognized and his paintings of Congo scenes and portraits hang in galleries throughout Europe, Japan, and the US. André´s energy and output were prodigious with over 5,000 paintings completed in 50 years. André´s equally famed volcanic temper and great sensitivity surely influenced the development of the child. Jean-Pierre remained in Africa until age 6, living among pygmy and Bantu children, dressing and living as they did. Speaking only their languages and refusing to speak French, he was consequently sent to Belgium at age 6 for a “proper” European education, living with his aunt. During World War II he fought with the resistance at ages 15 and 16 (1942 and 43), and with the Belgium army, 1944-45, receiving several medals for valor. He was educated as an agronomist and sociologist at the University of Brussels, 1945-46, and the Sorbonne, 1947-48. His intent and purpose were to return to Africa to work with the local tribes-people, among whom he had spent the happiest years of his life. He therefore joined the Ministry for Colonies as an agronomist to work in the former Belgian Congo (1948-58).
A deep love and understanding of pygmy society, of their peaceful qualities, gentleness, family devotion, and their intimate knowledge and respect for their forest environment developed in Jean-Pierre during the 18 months he spent at ages 30 and 31 as an adopted member of the Efé tribe. It began with his near-death from a pygmy’s poisoned arrow, and his subsequent rescue by the chief and witchdoctor of the people attempting to defend their encampment. The chief cut deeply into his upper leg (without anesthesia) allowing blood to drain along with the poison. Jean-Pierre somehow survived the usually incurable neurotoxin that had entered his leg with the pygmy arrow. The story of this period is related in the first of his 3 books, the autobiographical Congo Kitabu (Random House, 1964).
In the years from 1950 to 1957 beginning when he was 23, Jean-Pierre was initiated into a number of African tribal secret societies, making him a blood-brother of the Lega (Bwama Secret Society), the Masai, the Tutsi (Watutsi), and the Nande. The Masai initiation is one that few non-Masai would dream of attempting: to kill a charging lion with a spear while enclosed within a circle of Masai warriors. This, he somehow accomplished with a combination of bravado, strength, determination and discipline, all characteristics that typified his entire life.
Among his hairbreadth escapes —19 near-death experiences prior to his 2-year final fatal bout with leukemia— one life-determining episode remains a testament to his incredibly powerful personal drive to survive. This is the shattering story of blowing off his right hand and forearm by a prematurely exploding double stick of dynamite deployed while he was in a canoe on Lake Tanganyika, killing many tons of fish to feed thousands of starving part-pygmy Mosso people of southern Burundi. The ensuing struggle to rescue himself — alone — from attacking crocodiles, from which he barely escaped to the shore, staggered a mile to his truck, tied a tourniquet above the bleeding stump with his teeth and surviving hand, and, ignoring many other serious wounds, drove 200 miles on a narrow, steeply curving mountain road in a race to beat a night-time road closure and get to a clinic...alive...outdoes any of our TV-nourished current sagas. Equally compelling was his overwhelming determination to create a new one-handed life for himself, mastering the switch from a strongly right-handed to a left-handed pattern, transferring his artistic as well as his writing talents to the surviving (but seriously injured) hand.
The ultimate test of that transition occurred the following year, after surgery and rehabilitation in the US to fit him with a prosthetic device-which he never used. He requested a return to his Belgian Congo post and was based at Mbau on the western edge of the Ituri Forest. A short time later, while heading into pygmy country with a team of porters, one of Jean-Pierre’s men was attacked by a large male leopard. What followed must be unique in the annals of human-animal encounters. Hallet leaped onto the leopard’s back and with his arms and legs managed to spread-eagle the animal’s limbs with their lethal claws and somehow sustained that grip over a 20-minute rolling struggle of man against beast. Finally, a fearful porter threw a knife within 20 feet and Hallet managed, over an additional 10 minutes, to roll with the leopard to that spot and grab the tip of the knife with his only hand while thrusting the stump of his other arm against the animal’s throat. Several misses and a successful thrust finally ended the battle.
The fame of that incredible feat, along with his tribal initiations, led Jean-Pierre into many close associations with East and Central African peoples. In all he lived and worked with 17 tribes, representing 650,000 Africans, learning the dialects and traditions of each. His mastery of languages made it possible for him to enter deeply into the cultures and customs of these distinct groups. Speaking the local language was the key for him to gain insight and knowledge of the people along with their respect and friendship. That alone marked Jean-Pierre as unique, as colonial administrators rarely learned more than a few words of any local language. The Richard Burton/Jean-Pierre Hallet approach and great linguistic ability have always been exceedingly rare.
Jean-Pierre’s knowledge, love, and deep respect for the pygmies resulted in his writing, advocating for, and obtaining an official acceptance of his “Declaration of Emancipation” for the endangered Efé pygmies of the Ituri Forest, Zaire in 1957. His humanitarian work was declared, also in 1957, to be an “Ethnological Revolution, the most remarkable social achievement of recent years” by the Press Africaine. Jean-Pierre’s dedication to this cause was compellingly expressed in his books, in over 30 articles, and in numerous lectures, TV and radio interviews. He wrote, produced and directed a feature documentary film titled “Pygmies” in 1973, and in 1975 produced two educational films for the Encyclopedia Britannica on Efé life and culture. He narrated television specials and appeared in major national and local TV shows. To bring people to the region, he organized and led from 1969 to 1972 the “Jean-Pierre Hallet Special Cultural Safaris” to the Congo and surrounding regions. In 1974 he founded The Pygmy Fund, a nonprofit organization to raise funds to help preserve the Pygmies’ lives, culture, and habitat by helping them achieve, in Jean-Pierre’s words, “self-reliance with dignity”. The unwavering pursuit of his objectives, made Jean-Pierre Hallet a one-man ambassador and spokesman for the “little giants of the Ituri”, his frequent expression.
His public appearances and political and financial efforts in their behalf were directed by him personally as well. He taught them to prepare the soil and grow their own food — for the first time in their 200,000-year history as hunter-gatherers. He brought them the “winged bean” of New Guinea, a fast-growing bountiful and highly nutritious legume, as a great hope for pygmy survival in regions where traditional hunting and gathering were no longer possible. Under his direct leadership hundreds of acres were put under cultivation. Ultimately thousands of neighboring Nande and other tribes-people followed suit.
Wide recognition of these efforts resulted in over 100 awards and citations as well as numerous newspaper and journal accolades. King Baudouin I of Belgium awarded him the “Gold Medal of the Royal Order of the Lion” in 1959, and the “Silver Star for Meritorious Service” in 1960. In 1976 he was proclaimed “Humanitarian of the Decade” by the Ambassador International Cultural Foundation. In 1987, The Pygmy Fund received the “US Presidential End Hunger Award, with Special Recognition”, for the winged bean program. The same award was given the previous year to the Peace Corps for 25 years of service by 100,000 volunteers!
Jean-Pierre amassed a vast collection of African art during his travels and professional activities. His collection, considered one of the world’s greatest, was effectively donated to UCLA in 1963. After Congo independence and the wars that followed, Jean-Pierre went through incredible travails to get the 1700 tons of precious cargo trucked safely out of a chaotic Zaire, to Burundi and Kenya and shipped to the US. He then developed extensive plans for a 600-acre African center in Kern County, California, to serve as a wildlife sanctuary/Efe´ village/African art gallery — “Congoland USA”. The plan ran into endless political and financial roadblocks, which, despite enthusiastic local support, ended this ambitious undertaking. Subsequently his collecting urge reached out to Tanzania, southern and western Africa and other regions, resulting in a second fabulous collection, which literally filled every room of his home in Malibu, California, as well as a separate warehouse and a large store and gallery for the sale of African art and artifacts in Santa Monica, California. Much of the proceeds from sales went to The Pygmy Fund.
Beneath this driving ambition and selfless dedication is an enigmatic and truly remarkable man, oversized in all dimensions. One of Jean-Pierre’s most striking characteristics was his utter fearlessness, to the point of intentional risk taking. Life threats were to him a perpetual personal challenge, making his life a succession of wildly improbable life-threatening adventures, often of his own choosing.
After leaving the Belgian Ministry for Colonies, from 1958 and until his departure for the US in 1960, Jean-Pierre created an “Ethnographical Gallery of Traditional Arts”, which he built and operated at his home in Kisenyi, in present-day Rwanda. He wished to add an adjacent zoo as an addition that would be of great popular interest, as few of the local people had actually seen the African animals so familiar to us. He purchased an aggressive full-grown male lion and was determined to teach it circus tricks...and succeeded in a matter of weeks, simply by walking unarmed into the animal’s cage and gradually assuming the role of top lion. This was more than bravado and luck. He always carefully calculated an animal’s probable response, based on intimate knowledge of its habits and an ability to monitor and anticipate its movements and moods. He subsequently added to his zoo a pair of trained elephants with their Indian mahouts, and brought in and himself trained a rhino, leopard, hyena, chimpanzee, and baboon. He assembled these and an array of other animals and several thousand birds. His knowledge of animal behavior and personal experiences with them are well documented in his second book, Animal Kitabu (Random House, 1968). It describes with extraordinary insight details of the life histories and characteristics in a chapter for each of the best known African animals: leopard, lion, cape buffalo, elephant, hippo, rhino, crocodile, baboon, chimpanzee, and a selection of other animals, many of which he hoped to bring with him to the US to populate “Congoland USA”.
Part of Jean-Pierre’s fearlessness, complete self-confidence, and decisiveness stems in some measure from his size. His physical presence was impressive, a heavily muscled 6’5” 250-pound frame, a handsome head with its massive beard that masked facial scars from the arm-shearing explosion that so nearly destroyed him at age 30. He was always the largest in his age group, starting with a 14-pound birth-weight, which required his mother to take a 6-month recuperation, though she showed the same survival power her son later exhibited, living for over 100 years. The impact of Jean-Pierre’s massive size and manner, tied to his keen intelligence and alertness, his confidence, heartiness, and forthrightness gave him an immediate advantage in any confrontational or hazardous situation--of which he had many. At the same time, his basically warm and gentle manner won friends and followers wherever he went.
Jean-Pierre could not enter a room without arresting all attention. He could commandeer any conversation, usually redirecting it towards his worthy objectives. Strong opinions strongly–-and fully--delivered were a trademark. He was indeed larger than life, a powerful presence, one who led a full, unrestrained unconventional independent and important life. Jean-Pierre Hallet was, and remains, a significant force in the lives of all who were privileged to have known him.
Donald Heyneman, Ph.D.
Professor of Parasitology, Emeritus
Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics
School of Medicine, University of California
San Francisco, California 94143
The Pygmy Fund, PO Box 277, Malibu, CA 90265