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When Pygmies Come To Town: Forced Out Of Rain Forest, Minority Making Strides

Article illustrative image Partner logo Pygmy children in Shasha, North Kivu

GOMA – There are more than a dozen Pygmy ethnic groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo, making up between five and 10 percent of the country’s population. Traditionally these nomadic hunter-gatherers have lived in the Congolese rain forest, far removed from urban centers.

But in recent years, Pygmies have been increasingly forced out of the forest and into towns and villages. The arrival of the minority in more populated  areas has provoked discrimination and prejudice, though attitudes are beginning to change for the better. But no less importantly, their economic status is also slowly showing signs of improvement.

“I’m a motorcycle-taxi driver. I make $15 a day, which I use to pay for my childrens’ school fees,” says Byamungi Kituki, a Pygmy living in Goma. Like many other Pygmies, he decided to leave the Mugunga refugee camp located 12 kilometers from the capital.

To survive in this new environment, they farm their own fields and make charcoal. At the market in Saké, 25 kilometers from Goma, a young Pygmy tells us that she produces five bags of charcoal a month: “I earn $25 per bag to feed my family and pay my son’s tuition at the University of Goma."

As there are more and more Pygmies in the cities, attitudes are changing, and prejudices are slowly disappearing. The more familiar they become, the less people call them “outcasts”, “have-nots” or even “incompetent,” or accuse them of stealing cattle and crops.

“We used to believe that Pygmies were not able to think properly. But their children have good grades,” admits Dominique Karenzi, a teacher at Ateluya Primary School. Her top pupil is a Pygmy.

Mrs Buyana, deputy chief the Mugunga neighborhood, is happy to see more Pygmies embracing the lifestyles of other communities. She says they have become “honorable.” “The Pygmy families who settled in Central Mugunga and Goma have adjusted easily,” she adds.

Kanane Mateene, the manager of Saké’s central market says the Pygmies bring better quality charcoal to her market. “Four years ago, Pygmies would only come to the market to beg," she says. "Now they have their own stands where they sell the beans, peanuts, and vegetables they grow.”

Victimized Pygmies = more NGO subsidies

However, some NGOs would prefer it if Pygmies continued to be victimized: “If our sponsors discover that Pygmies are doing well, they will stop donating money and we will lose our jobs,” says the coordinator of a local NGO for Pygmy integration, who wished to remain anonymous.

A growing number of complaints have been lodged against unscrupulous non-profit organizations that use Pygmies as bait for subsidies. "You just need to draw the sponsor’s attention with a few photographs of their makeshift lodgings to get donations,” adds the coordinator.

Not all NGOs are using the Pygmies’ plight for profit: some associations are working closely with Pygmy chiefs to discourage the dishonest organizations pretending to fight for the rights of Pygmies. According to Diele Mochire, head of the Judicial Council for Pygmies, some NGOs have also embezzled funds earmarked for Pygmy development projects. A number of them are being audited for fraud by the Goma court.

The camps, which are the victims of these embezzlements, are emptying themselves. “Our children are suffering from malnutrition. NGOs promise to send us food and medical supplies, but once they’ve gotten the donations that were made in our name, they never come back,” laments Muhiyirfwwa Mubawa, chief of the Mubambiro refugee camp, two kilometers from Saké. He deplores the expensive yet useless efforts made to help the Pygmies.

When Congo’s forests became national parks and World Heritage sites, things changed for its indigenous inhabitants: environmental organizations arrived to convince the Pygmies to leave Congo’s protected forests. “When we were trying to convince Pygmies to leave the Gorilla reserve of Walikale, they saw us as the enemy, although our mission was to help them give up their remote way of life” assures Mubobge Mukulumanya, from the Union of Associations for Gorilla Conservation and Community Development (UGADEC) in eastern DRC.

Ten years ago, the UGADEC tried to convince the Pygmies to leave the forest reserve located 135 kilometers from Goma. Today the communities who remained in the Virunga national park and other reservations are told to leave the forest for safety reasons.

The threat is not deforestation or environmental protection, now Pygmies are threatened by the rebel groups, which are using the rainforest as their hideout.

“The forests are full of armed groups which beat our brothers up,” worries Mubawa Bone, whose cousins have just arrived from Virunga national park to stay with him in the city. In the past, there have been brutal abuses against Pygmies by armed groups, including rape, torture, murder and even cannibalism. 

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