The Osani Circle Game

“When people see this image, it draws their attention.
When they read what it’s about, they fall in love.”

What is the circle game?

Efé children of the Ituri Forest in Zaire (Rep. of Congo, central Africa) begin the Osani game sitting in a circle, feet touching, all connected.

Each child in turn names a round object like the sun (oi), the moon (tiba), a star (bibi) an eye (ue) and then goes on to name a figurative expression of “round” like the circle of the family, togetherness, a baby in the womb, or the cycle of the moon. As players fail to come up with a term that is “circular” they are eliminated from the game. Eventually, only one remains. Tradition has it that this player will live a long and prosperous life.

(This description is printed on the Osani Poster and the Osani Greeting Cards.)

The story behind Osani

Belgian adventurer, naturalist, humanitarian and art collector Jean-Pierre Hallet was born in 1927, son of the Belgian painter Andre Hallet who lived in the Congo (home of the Efé people). At six years of age, Jean-Pierre left his Efé friends to attend school in Europe (by that time, he was already the height of an average adult native). He returned at age 21, 6’5”, with a degree from the Sorbonne in Agronomy and Sociology.

Jean-Pierre became a blood brother of the Lega, Tutsi and Nande tribes, and was initiated as a Massai warrior. When I first met him in 1984 (after seeing Osani in a magazine and calling the publication to track him down), I was immediately struck by his passion for the Efé. He told me he had mastered 17 African dialects traveling extensively in Africa. But it was the Efé people, the so-called “Pygmies”, that captured his heart, and he spent most of his life in their service. In 1974 he began The Pygmy Fund with the mission of saving the Efé from extinction and preserving their way of life, with self-reliance and dignity. His persistence and dedication led to a Nobel Peace Prize nomination.

As he stood before me, one-armed (having blown off the other arm while dynamite fishing in 1955 at Lake Tanganyika) he was an imposing presence. When he told me of his mission to provide seeds, tools, medicine and farming methods I knew I had to help, and agreed to write a funding proposal. A generous grant from the Threshold Foundation provided funding to bring winged bean farming to the Efé. Jean-Pierre hoped to put an end to dangerous dynamite fishing practices and provide ongoing sustenance to “his beloved people” whom he believed to be the most peaceful on earth.

Jean-Pierre explained that the Osani photograph, his one and only of this traditional game, was taken during the 60’s. I was lucky to see hundreds of Jean-Pierre’s fantastic Efé images, but I fell in love with this one; the circle drew me in, and reminded me of fundamental connections – to the earth, to the natural cycles that occur in life, to a desire for community and a deep respect for traditions that carry such sensibility and wisdom. I felt the photo spoke, instantly, to so much of what I cared about. And I could see it moved others the same way. So… I hung it on my wall.

Decades passed. When in Los Angeles I would visit Jean-Pierre’s crowded shop full of African art and artifacts. I would buy beads, and we’d talk. For hours. And then one day I acted on impulse: after 25 years of friendship I called Jean-Pierre to acquire the Osani exclusive rights, with the hope of making this evocative image more accessible. He happily took my call – on the very day he was diagnosed with terminal leukemia.

It is with great sadness I report that Jean-Pierre Hallet passed away only 90 days later in January of 2004. He was truly larger than life in every respect – a remarkable man.

To read more about Jean-Pierre Hallet’s incredible life, please check out his bio and learn about the “staggering and heroic adventures” described in his autobiography, Congo Kitabu.