As pygmy's environment is rapidly shrinking due to deforestation, there is ever less space for this minority and indigenous groups for hunting, gathering and fishing.
As in most Central African countries, the Republic of Congo (ROC) is inhabited by two ethnic groups: the Bantu, which account for 90 percent of the population, and the pygmy minority. Despite evidence that pygmy groups are the indigenous, original inhabitants of the rainforest that spans most of the region, they are often forced by the Bantu majority to live on the margins of society.
“Bantus despise us,” said Albert Likibi, chief of Mikamba village in Lekoumou district in the south, which is home to about 10,000 ethnic pygmies. “They think nothing of us. When they happen to give us food, they use trees leaves [so as not to touch us]. They say out loud that we smell.”
Most of the 150 residents of Mikamba work for petty wages as field hands for Bantu landowners. “When Bantus have us till their fields, they barely pay us 500 CFA [US $ 1] for a day’s work,” said Samuel Mouélé. “Even when we keep the deadlines, they don’t always pay us.” As minorities who are excluded from the legal process, the labourers can do little to address such flagrant abuse: Although the ROC constitution of 2002 declared all Congolese equal, it did not make any specific provisions to protect the pygmy minority, leaving them no legal recourse when their rights are violated.
In the northern districts of Likouala and Sangha, pygmies are excluded from employment opportunities at logging concessions. “Foreign managers are influenced by local Bantus and refuse to hire us,” said Dallet Libata, a pygmy and resident of Impfondo, the main town in the Likouala district. Likouala’s pygmies, who are called Baakas, number about 4,000, according to the last census held in ROC in 1984. Local authorities estimated the figure had multiplied five-fold since.
With few livelihood alternatives, most pygmies in the north eek out a living in the forest, where they hunt, fish and gather fruit in an environment that is rapidly shrinking due to deforestation. Those who cultivate land live precariously, as they rarely possess deeds to the land they farm. Their mud huts are built well apart from Bantu shelters. In public spaces, such as hospitals, they are discriminated against. Most pygmy women prefer to give birth at home, in the traditional way.
A 2004 joint survey comparing living conditions for Bantu and pygmy communities, conducted by the Congolese Observatory for Human Rights (OCDH, Observatoire congolais des droits de l’homme) and the Rainforest Foundation, a British NGO, found that most pygmies were not registered with the government and lacked legal documentation that could be used to assert their basic rights. “The government has no plan to enhance the protection or livelihoods of pygmies,” the study found. In response, OCDH petitioned the state to draft a specific bill for the legal protection of the pygmy people.
In July 2005, the Congolese Ministry of Justice and Human Rights has recently appealed to nongovernmental organisations for help drafting a bill to offer particular protection of pygmy rights. This new law should provide pygmies access to public services such as health care and education. Successful integration in the Plateaux district
Some communities have shown, however, that it is possible for Bantu and pygmy groups to coexist in a more equitable way.
Pygmies in the Plateaux department in central ROC are called Bambengas and Atswâs. “We call them pygmies because that’s the original name, but they are similar to us,” said Armel Mboussa, a young football coach in the town of Gamboma, the largest division in the Plateaux department, some 350 km north of Brazzaville.
Béné is a pygmy village, 3 km from Gamboma. The village houses around 200 inhabitants and spreads over 700 metres. “Even though Béné is our village, we do all our business in Gamboma,” said Ange François Leyeba, the 45-year-old deputy chief of the village. He spent most of his childhood in Béné, where he now has two wives and four children. In the Gamboma market, pygmies sell food and goods – like palm nut oil, asparagus, firewood and cassava leaves – in stalls next to Bantu shopkeepers. “There was a lot of discrimination in the past. But now we are free, and we can go wherever we want,” Leyeba said.
Denial of access to medical care is a complaint in many pygmy communities throughout Central Africa. However, during vaccination campaigns against poliomyelitis and measles in Béné, the mainly Bantu doctors treat pygmy children. Some Bantus actually come to Béné to consult pygmy witch doctors and healers. “The Bantus who come to us for healing have no problem eating our cola nuts and the things we cook,” said Jean-Didier Atipo, a resident.
Pygmies also have the right to vote. “During the elections, our polling station is in the village, and no one forces a candidate upon us,” said Joseph Ngopo, a local resident. Pygmy labourers negotiate their wages with Bantu farmers. “Sometimes we ask to be paid in advance, to avoid problems when the work is done,” said Ghyslain Akabo, a field hand. Gamboma is also ROC’s third military region. “Many of our brothers are in the army. They go to work in the camp every day and come back at night. They are not troubled,” said Leyeba.
A positive integration into society. An association called Regard to Pygmies, headed by Sorel Eta, a Bantu, organized a traditional musical group who eventually presented their songs as an official gift to Koichiro Matsuura, head of the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), during the fifth Pan African Music Festival (FESPAM) in Brazzaville in 2003.
Bernard Gambou, who heads the Schools in Cooperation Project (ECCO, or Ecoles en coopération), set up in cooperation between Norway and ROC, has a theory as to why the two communities were able to integrate so successfully: “The evangelical church was instrumental in this integration, because since the 1950s, Bantus get baptised in the same pools as pygmies,” he said. ECCO rehabilitated the primary school building in Béné with the help of UNICEF and the Congolese ministry in charge of literacy. Almost 100 pupils attend the school.
Congo and Norway also implemented a teacher-exchange programme in 2004-2005. “The school system is quite different from the Norwegian one,” said Norwegian teacher Randi Gramsahud. “When it rains, pygmy children stay at home,” she said. “I’ve taught them a bit of English, how to say hello and a few basic sentences.”
The Norwegian volunteer organisation Fredskorpset has rehabilitated a joint pygmy-Bantu school in Oniamva, a village in the nearby Ngo district, and engages in advocacy against racism and discrimination. “If the whites have no problems coexisting with the blacks, why should the Bantus reject the pygmy, his own kind,” said Gambou.
There are even members of Bantu communities who have initiated projects to help promote pygmy culture. An association called Regard to Pygmies, headed by Sorel Eta, a Bantu, organised a traditional musical group comprised of 10 pygmies. The band issued a 10-song CD, which was presented as an official gift to Koïchiro Matsuura, head of the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), during the fifth Pan African Music Festival (FESPAM) in Brazzaville in 2003. UNESCO had contributed more than CFA 2 million [US $ 3,800] to the production costs. “The pygmy culture must be preserved and offered access to the global stage, because these people have a contribution to offer,” Eta said.