Justin Wren returns to the mixed martial arts ring this weekend after a five-year hiatus during which he lived as one with the Pygmy people in Africa, whom he helped secure their own land and launch sustainable farming initiatives. He wrote this essay on his time in Africa and his reasons for getting back in the ring.
“Can you help give us a voice? We have none.”
The Pygmy chief looked up at me, trying to hide the urgency in his eyes.
Only two days earlier, I’d held the lifeless body of a Pygmy baby who had succumbed to water-borne disease and malnutrition. His name was Andibo. He’d been the last living relative in his family besides his mother. Now she was alone, sitting in the corner of the hut, listless and barely able to shed a tear from sheer starvation. I stayed and dug the grave for little Andibo until my hands blistered and bled – it was the least I could do for these destitute people, who were starving and suffering greatly.
I was on the tail end of my second trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is one of the world’s greatest resources for natural elements but still one of the poorest nations in the world. The Pygmies are on the lowest rung of society; they aren’t afforded any rights like citizens and have been enslaved by neighboring non-Pygmy tribes to work in their fields for generations upon generations. Pygmies are paid for their labor in clothes or with scraps of food, like two small bananas or a minnow or two for an entire family. One woman I met was paid with a small patch of goatskin hide, not to wear, but to eat!
The Pygmies were at the mercy of their slave master tribes, who called them their “animals.” The hunting-and-gathering people had lost their way of life when deforestation scared all the animals away and pushed the Pygmies off their own land. In addition, there were over 30 rebel militia groups moving through the forest as part of the war over the country’s minerals, and they pillaged Pygmy villages that fell into their path. The Pygmies, who were known as “The Forest People,” had come to call themselves “The Forgotten People.”
Now here was that village’s chief, only half my size, asking for my help. I’d been hesitant to promise the Pygmies anything, as I didn’t want to let them down. But holding Andibo, hearing his village moan together in mourning, and watching the Pygmies cover their eyes while Andibo’s tiny coffin was placed in the ground, stirred something in me. I finally said, “Yes. I will help you.”
How did I get here? I thought about this a lot on the 17-hour plane ride back home to the States. Only a few years earlier, I’d been a depressed drug addict, yet a pretty successful professional mixed martial artist. But I’d walked away from MMA to save my life and found my faith through God. I saw that the shiny, gold belt I craved wouldn’t solve my problems and that I had a bigger purpose. I was meant to love people and once I met the Pygmies, I knew that they were the ones I was supposed to love the most.
In 2013-14, I spent an entire year in the DRC, much of that time sleeping in the rainforest beside my second family, the Pygmies. With money I’d raised stateside — and collaborating with the Shalom University of Bunia (a local college that has been interacting with the Pygmies for years) and my new organization, the Fight for the Forgotten Initiative — we purchased land for the disenfranchised people.
Water-borne disease is the number one killer among the Pygmies, so we next set out to hire a local Congolese team to dig water wells. We got a big break when I connected with Water4.org, who graciously sent a master well driller to the DRC to teach us how to drill. This was a game-changer. We bartered with the slave masters to let “their” Pygmies go free in exchange for water wells. We successfully freed hundreds of Pygmies, moved them onto their own land, provided them with water wells and educated them on how to keep their new water source from getting contaminated.
Over the next year, myself and our team, the Shalom Drillers, dug 12 water wells. In the 10 months I’ve been back from that trip, that number has nearly tripled. Shalom students and faculty have also begun introducing farming to the villages, so the Pygmies will have their own food sources.
Back home, I realized I had another big platform available to me to get the Pygmies’ voice heard as I’d promised. I started to train for my MMA return last January. I signed with Bellator MMA and will make my promotional debut this Friday (9 p.m. ET/PT) on Spike TV. I haven’t stepped into the cage in five years, but I’ve never had so much motivation. I’ll fight with pride under the name my second family gave me, Justin “The Big Pygmy” Wren.
I no longer fight for the same reasons. Sure, the competitor in me wouldn’t mind the shiny, gold belt, but my real aim is to raise money for the Pygmies, as much as I can. I’m giving part of this fight’s earnings to FFTF, and in future fights for the length of my career, my entire win bonuses will go to the initiative.
Fight for the Forgotten is now my lifelong passion. It’s what I will dedicate my life to. My plan is to fight, win, then head right back to my family halfway around the world. I’ll spend my downtime in the forest with them, waking up in the mud after a stormy night. There, I’ll continue to help with the land, water, and food efforts.
I’ve been blessed enough to share my story in a book. “Fight for the Forgotten: How a Mixed Martial Artist Stopped Fighting for Himself and Started Fighting for Others” will be released on Sept. 15. One-third of the book’s profits will go the FFTF Initiative. My hope is the book will encourage others that life is worth living and you can love from anywhere you are.
I’m not unique. I’m not some special guy who’s a hero. I’m just a normal, average dude who likes to fight and fight for people. We all have greatness inside of us to love others. If you believe in something greater than yourself and you’re not focused on yourself, but those outside of you, you can change the world. I guarantee it.
To donate to the Fight for the Forgotten Initiative, go to FightfortheForgotten.org.