A pocket full of Pygmy teeth
December 26, 2009
Much of the care I provide in remote areas of the world involves extracting rotten teeth. I learned early on during my trips to Vanuatu, Honduras and Nepal that I could relieve a lot of suffering by pulling a bad tooth. I have gotten quite good at the anesthetic, so people line up for hours waiting for relief. Normally I don’t save the teeth. But I had never seen anything like the filed fangs I pulled from the mouths of the Pygmy tribes of Cameroon.
Last spring, while on my 15th trip to the rainforests of Honduras providing care to the last remaining tribes of Tawakan Indians, I kept wondering if there still existed even more isolated peoples in the world.
Like, where and who are Pygmies anyway?
When I returned home I wrote the single word “pygmy” on a sticky note to remind me to look that up some day.
A few weeks later one of my patients saw the posters in my waiting room of the “Pennies for PJ” donations I received from the Breckenridge Elementary School children. He is a consultant for a mining company in Cameroon and asked if I would consider working in Africa with a remote tribe of Baka rainforest people.
“You might know them as Pygmies,” he said.
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So started my medical mission to the mysterious “Pygmy tribes” of the central African rainforest, the largest group of hunter-gatherers in the world.
Except for a T-shirt and machete, these wonderfully friendly, curious people live the same as they have for thousands of years in small leaf huts, filing their teeth into sharp points for beautification, and singing a complex and captivating yodel-like music praising their loving rainforest god for their good fortune. The chief of the first Baka tribe I visited wore a tattered, unseasonably warm overcoat as he crawled out of his leaf hut. His beard and balding head were my only clues to his age, because he had the height and slight build of an 8-year-old boy.
I went as a volunteer with the nonprofit organization GeoAid, which is funded primarily by GeoVic, a Colorado-based mining company with mineral rights to develop a cobalt deposit deep in the rainforest of southeast Cameroon. The UN’s Equator Principles require that if a foreign corporation extracts minerals, they must complete environmental and social impact studies and mitigate those impacts.
GeoAid sent two full shipping containers of medical supplies from the U.S. to Cameroon last June. I spent the first week of my trip unpacking and repacking one of the 40-foot containers to prove we were not smuggling anything into the country and not so patiently knocking on bureaucrats’ doors waiting for approval to distribute these supplies so badly needed by the poor citizens of their country.
Not willing to offer bribes to unblinking officials, the two shipping containers remained locked in customs. Seeing this was unlikely to change in the month I had available, I used $3,000 I brought from home to buy as much medicine as would fit into the back of a Land Rover and headed for the bush.
GeoAid had already established the infrastructure of a dedicated field staff in a small rented office, a pickup, a Land Rover and a four-wheel drive ambulance. With these resources at my disposal, I was able to help facilitate a government polio vaccination program of 3,000 children, deliver three propane refrigerators for clinics without electricity to keep vaccines cold, distribute 1,250 mosquito nets, leave several months worth of medical supplies in three remote village health centers, drain countless boils and pull about 100 teeth.
I actually only brought two teeth home, but I’ll bet they’re the only pointy Pygmy teeth in town.
“Doc PJ” Perrinjaquet, MD is the president of High Country Health Care and has worked as a family
physician in Breckenridge for more than 20 years.