A group of pygmies carrying goods to sell near Mbandaka in DRC. At this present day the government of DRC doesn't have a single Batwa pygmy representative.
Although the new constitution for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) guarantees the protection of fundamental rights and equality for all its citizens, pygmies – who are indigenous to this vast and verdant Central African country – said they are still overlooked by the rest of the society.
Lobilo Bopali Nasoli, 38, lives with his family in Mbandaka, the main town of Equateur Province. He said that the majority of his people, who are called the “Twa” locally, did not understand the impact of the new constitution and what it represented at the political level. “Even though, as we were told, the new constitution ensures minority rights and protection, pygmies are still marginalised and could stay this way for a long time,” he said. “The proof is that we do not have a single representative in the government, which is supposed to be one of national unity.”
Bopali, a father of two, is one of very few pygmies to have been educated up to the fourth grade. He reads and writes French and works as a driver for a nongovernmental organisation in the capital, Kinshasa. Very few members of his community understand the DRC’s political situation, he said. Nor did they understand that the current constitution, which was passed in a referendum in November 2005, guaranteed minority rights. Even the significance of the forthcoming national elections on 30 June is lost to them.
“Not a single pygmy has shown any interest in being a candidate, because everyone knows pygmies are discriminated against by the other tribes and that the Bantus form the majority in the country,” Bopali said. According to the Congolese Ministry of Social Affairs, about 900,000 pygmies make up 1.5 percent of the nation’s 60 million population. Most live in the dense tropical rainforest. Political pawns and forced labour
Bopali said politicians had played the pygmy card in an effort to gain support, especially during the country’s civil war, in which at least 3.4 million Congolese were killed and some four million displaced.
The most blatant example of using pygmies towards political ends was in 2004, when people who were allegedly close to president Joseph Kabila brought a group of pygmies before the public to declare that they had witnessed acts of cannibalism by the rebels of the Mouvement pour la liberation du Congo (MLC), which is headed by current Vice-President Jean-Pierre Bemba, who will oppose Kabila in the upcoming presidential vote. Human rights activists condemned the incident. In turn, people close to Bemba brought the very same group of pygmies – who came from Mambasa, Oriental Province – to the nation’s capital, where the group admitted to reporters that they had been bribed to make the cannibalism claims.
In addition to being manipulated by politicians, pygmies in the DRC have also been forced to work for very little pay. Local NGO Oeuvre pour le developpement culturel et social (Work for Cultural and Social Development), which is engaged in advocacy work on behalf of pygmies in Equateur Province, said some pygmies were “enslaved” by the Bantu ethnic majority. Jean Francois Mombia, coordinator of the NGO and committee member of the United Nations Network for the Defence of Native Peoples, said pygmies living in the villages next to those of the Bantu were subjected to forced labour by their neighbours. Pygmy groups living a more traditional hunter-gatherer existence in the forest often fell prey to the logging industry, he said.
“Hunting has become almost impossible, because the animals have become rare, having fled the noise of machinery used by the loggers,” Mombia said. “Pygmy hunters are often forced to walk for a week before finding game, while their families starve.” In violation of Congolese law, logging companies had done nothing to ease the woes of the pygmies, who lack social services, hospitals and schools. While the companies occasionally “employ” pygmies to fell trees, they never pay them fair wages.
Land ownership is another indication of the ethnic discrimination of pygmies, Mombia said. “Pygmies have no land to cultivate or carry out their artisanal activities. The rivers belong to the Bantus, so the pygmies, a sedentary people, are forced to work for others and are often paid with food,” he said. Despite the variety of food crops pygmy field hands planted for landowners, they usually received only cassava leaves as payment.
Marc Mali, of the Pelican Centre NGO, which helps pygmy communities in Kamanda, Kisangani and Beni in the northeastern and eastern provinces of Orientale and North Kivu, said pygmies were exploited in other ways. During the civil war, they were often forcibly recruited in the fight against various rebel groups and used as human shields; as guides through the near-impenetrable forest; as porters of looted goods; and as spies on people targeted for execution or robbery. Currently, the abuse of women and girls is a larger problem. “Girls and women are often raped or used as sexual slaves, and they do not resist for fear of being killed,” Mali said.
Even in times of relative peace, there are many regions where pygmies live as second-class citizens among Bantu who view them as inferior and, therefore, doomed to servitude.
“Sometimes, they are captured and buried alive with dead Bantu chiefs,” said Mombia, who claimed to have witnessed such scenes. “Generally speaking, Bantus are forbidden to have sexual relations with pygmies. Whoever breaks this code is rejected by society, but this does not discourage people from doing it secretly. If a pygmy becomes pregnant, however, she conceals this so as to avoid severe punishment.”
The Congolese authorities have acknowledged these practices, but insisted that times have changed. “These practices no longer exist because all the previous governments have done all they could to change mentality. Burying a pygmy alive is punishable under the law,” said Yves Mombando Yogo, governor of Equateur Province, which is home to some 350,000 pygmies.
Jean-Pierre Lola Kisanga, governor of Orientale Province, said the collective illiteracy of pygmy communities was the source of their mistreatment. In his province, only two out of 1,000 pygmies had access to education. “The numbers are too low, but efforts are being made to improve the situation,” Lola said. A push for the education of both adults and children has been on the national agenda for the last five years in DRC.
Lola said that cultural norms often hindered educational efforts, citing pygmies’ preference for tradition, like using medicinal plants and roots for their health needs rather than going to clinics. “We would like to haul them out of the primitive life and introduce them to modernity, but we have difficulties because many pygmies prefer to maintain their original way of life,” he said.
Poverty and politics
The home of a Batwa family near Mbandaka in DRC. The low number of pygmies with access to education has resulted in both ignorance and apathy when it comes to political affairs.
Congolese authorities are convinced that the dire circumstances for many pygmy communities would improve if they set their traditions aside and assimilated with the majority. While Lola and Mombando maintained that pygmies were no poorer than other ethnic groups in the DRC, aid agencies have said their existence is particularly bleak. “To this day, there are places where entire pygmy families are naked because they have no clothing,” Mombia said. “Pygmy children who don’t have pens or chalk in school write their lessons with charcoal on large leaves, with the risk that everything will be erased.”
The low number of pygmies with access to education has resulted in both ignorance and apathy when it comes to political affairs. In spite of campaigns by NGOs to raise awareness before the DRC’s constitutional referendum in November 2005, very few pygmies registered and voted. “The low level of participation of the pygmies in enrolling and voting in the referendum is because the Independent Electoral Commission did not penetrate everywhere,” Lola said. “There were not enough enrolment offices open, like in the forest, where the pygmies live. There are pygmies who were not informed of what was going on.”
The commission did not have any figures on how many pygmies participated in the electoral process. “The vote is universal. We do not differentiate when it comes to voting to know which social group voted and who they voted for,” said Norbert Basengezi Kantintima, the commission’s second deputy president.
Even if most pygmies in Equateur voted, however, they represent only one-third of the DRC’s entire pygmy population, and this has not increased the overall rate of pygmy participation in the referendum.
It remains to be seen if members of the pygmy community will vote in the upcoming presidential elections. Mombia was not terribly optimistic, given the level of participation in the referendum: “It is simply a combination of ignorance, insufficient sensitisation efforts and the pygmy conviction that the elections will only benefit the Bantu because only they get elected,” he said.