Slaves of the Congo

Tradition has minority Pygmy people living in servitude to majority Bantus

Fellows Fall 2006

By Katie Thomas

June 02, 2009

A Pygmy family in Boyelle, a village in the Republic of the Congo, in front of their house constructed in the Pygmy style with mud, sticks and palm fronds.

A Pygmy family in Boyelle, a village in the Republic of the Congo, in front of their house constructed in the Pygmy style with mud, sticks and palm fronds.

March 4, 2007

ENYELLÉ, Republic of the Congo -- Deep in the jungles of northern Congo, it's still easy to find slave owners. Davila Djemba, the teenage niece of the country's minister of forestry, is eager to show off some of the 100 Pygmies her family owns.

She laughs and chatters as she makes her way along a footpath toward her family's estate in this growing logging village. She's eager to play hostess, since she doesn't get many foreign visitors.

Djemba walks past typical scenes of African peasant life - an old woman squeezing oil from palm nuts and a young mother walking in from the field, with a baby on her back and a machete in her hand. Banana and palm trees sway in the breeze above.

But the bucolic setting masks an ugly truth, one that surfaces as Djemba considers how to entertain her guest tonight. As she nears her family's home, surrounded by half a dozen Pygmy huts, Djemba gets an idea. "We can make them sing and dance for you, if you want," she offers.

The Republic of the Congo is a deeply stratified society of two major ethnic groups. Pygmies, the diminutive people of Central Africa's rain forest, live in servitude to the Bantus, an ethnic group that makes up the majority in this country of 3.7 million but is clearly the minority in jungle villages like Enyellé.

Many Pygmies belong from birth to Bantus in a relationship that Bantus like Djemba call a time-honored tradition.

Pygmies call it slavery.

Interviews with dozens of Pygmies and Bantus during a weeklong trip through remote northern Congo in November revealed a strained, lopsided and, some say, abusive relationship that is increasingly attracting the attention of human-rights groups.

"It is clear that there is a very serious pattern of discrimination of this minority," said Silvia Luciani, program coordinator for UNICEF in Congo. "We have to change attitudes, to reverse the idea that Pygmies are a different species."

Pygmies say they are not compensated fairly for often exhausting work and are subject to discrimination that limits their access to health centers, schools and often prevents them from voting and traveling. Many Pygmies say Bantus consider them less than human.

Bantus, for their part, say Pygmies are an uneducated, less advanced people who cannot be trusted with money and still rely on the guidance of their Bantu masters to survive.

Pygmies, who make up between 5 to 10 percent of Congo's population, are responsible for much of the hunting, fishing and manual labor in jungle villages like Enyellé, but Pygmies and Bantus alike say Pygmies are often paid at the master's whim: in cigarettes, used clothing, or even nothing at all.

Before 1960, when Congo gained independence from France, "the whites practiced slavery on the Bantus," said Jean-Bernard Nzamongo, pastor of an all-Pygmy evangelical Christian church in Enyellé. "Now, it is the Bantus who practice slavery on the Pygmies."

Pygmies born into servitude

The ties between the two groups are complex and vary from family to family, village to village. Some Pygmies live exclusively in the forest, rarely visiting Bantu villages. In Enyellé and throughout northern Congo, ownership of village-dwelling Pygmies by Bantu families is widespread. Pygmies are not bought and sold, but are considered to belong to Bantus from birth. Some choose to leave their masters, but often end up in similar relationship with other Bantus.

In other regions of the country, Pygmies no longer live in such rigid relationships. But even when they do not belong to a Bantu master, they encounter severe discrimination. Rape of Pygmy women is common, say human-rights activists. In some health centers, they report, Bantus and Pygmies are segregated in separate quarters. No Pygmies serve as elected officials in Congo, although they are allowed to vote if they have the proper papers.

Now UNICEF and human rights activists are speaking out. A law that would grant special protections to the Pygmy people is currently awaiting a vote by the Congo parliament. And for the first time, the United Nations named the treatment of Pygmies one of its top priorities for the country in 2007.

Pygmies say they are ready for change. "These words that we tell to you, this must go directly to the government," Hélène Moyo, a Pygmy from Boyellé, a village 15 miles from Enyellé, said. "We are really suffering."

But many activists acknowledge that their task is formidable. For one, no one is quite sure what the Pygmies themselves want. Pygmies are an egalitarian people, who organize in small groups without anointing a clear leader. Although interviews with Pygmies show that nearly all want their situation to improve, some voiced reluctance at giving up their old ways - of trading a semi-nomadic jungle lifestyle, for example, for organized work or schooling.

In 1873, a German botanist named Georg August Schweinfurth was the first Westerner to "discover" the Pygmy people on a expedition through the central African jungle.

Ever since Schweinfurth's "discovery," Pygmies have fascinated Westerners. In 1906, the Bronx Zoo displayed a Pygmy in the monkey house, a move that drew protests by African-American groups at the time. In 1961, anthropologist Colin Turnbull made the Pygmies famous again when he published "The Forest People," a popular book that portrayed them as a peaceful, nature-loving people.

Before Europeans colonized Africa, anthropologists believe that Pygmies and Bantus, who were farmers, maintained loose relationships. Pygmies entered villages only to trade meat for goods like cooking pots and machetes.

But as Pygmies left the forest for the villages - a migration encouraged by Congo's French colonizers that continued after independence - their relationship with Bantus hardened into something experts have compared to medieval serfdom. Dependent on the Bantus for work, Pygmies became servants to the Bantu "masters," who in turn were expected to provide for their basic needs.

Bantu: Pygmies are family

Jean Gonda, a Bantu master who lives in Boyellé, calls the tie between Pygmies and Bantus a "crossing between families." Gonda, who is the master of 22 Pygmies, says he has given some of his Pygmies small parcels of land to farm. Ending their servitude isn't something he has considered.

"These are my relatives. When I need something from them, they come, and I help them afterwards."

Pygmies interviewed don't see it the same way.

"Here, it's still slavery," said Richard Bokodi, a Pygmy and evangelical pastor who served as a translator for this story. Pygmy women who carry baskets of manioc root, the starchy staple of Bantu and Pygmy diets, are paid 250 Central African francs, or about 50 cents a day, he said: "With 250 francs, it's impossible to feed your children. We are suffering." Jean-Pierre Mangota, a Pygmy in Enyellé, said he works for days to fill a basket with fish, but when he tries to sell it to Bantus, sometimes they pay him nothing at all, or offer him a few cigarettes.

"It's barter by force," Mangota said, adding that he'd rather be paid fairly, and in cash.

Élise Bokombo said she can't walk through Boyellé's main market without getting taunted. "If the Pygmy women walk around the village, the Bantu women insult them. 'This isn't your village,' they say."

Roch Eulonge N'Zobo, a representative of the Observatoire Congolaise des Droits de L'Homme, a local human rights group, said Pygmies are "completely forgotten. There is no real concern for the rights of minorities here."

Sometimes, the discrimination is blatant, such as the "torture device" human rights observers spotted near the town of Dongou, south of Enyellé, last year. Village leaders forced the feet of misbehaving Pygmies into two holes carved into a tree trunk. The Pygmies were hung upside down for hours under the hot sun, according to a report released by the human rights observers in June.

Bantu men have been accused of raping Pygmy women, the group reported. In the Lekoumou region of the Congo, a village chief told the human-rights group that Bantu men often brag about the rapes afterward, waving the victims' underwear through Pygmy neighborhoods. Other Pygmies interviewed said that rape by Bantus is widespread.

Cultural differences contribute to the Pygmies' second-class status. Because Pygmy women rarely deliver their babies in hospitals, their children do not receive identity cards under current Congolese law, and as a result, cannot enroll in school, vote or travel to other regions of the country.

Frederic Aimé Ibeaho, the director of the 259-student public school in Boyellé, said not a single Pygmy child attends his school, even though Pygmies are the majority in the village.

Their absence isn't only due to a lack of identity cards or money - tuition is less than $5 a year, which is expensive for many Pygmies, but not prohibitively so. Even village-dwelling Pygmies often disappear for months into the forest, especially during the honey season and the harvest of a particularly coveted species of caterpillar. Several parents said they never attended school themselves and didn't plan to enroll their children.

When Pygmies abandon a forest lifestyle for the village, they lose access to herbal medical treatments and are often denied entry at local health centers, according to a May 2006 article in the British medical journal the Lancet.

In Enyellé, several Pygmy children showed signs of malnutrition - bloated stomachs, stick-thin arms and thin, discolored hair. A mother with a particularly sick boy said she had not taken him to the hospital because she had no money.

'They mistreat us'

Davila Djemba, whose family owns about 100 Pygmies, shows one of the Pgymy huts that surrounds her home.

Simon Limbola, who like most Pygmies does not know his age, had come to Davila Djemba's back porch at her behest. The teenage Bantu mistress wanted the elderly man to describe his life to a reporter.

But no sooner had Limbola begun to talk than Bokodi suddenly refused to continue translating.

Instead, he asked Djemba to take over for him. She refused at first, but prodded by other Pygmies who had been listening, she agreed.

"Here in the village, they mistreat us," Djemba said, translating from Limbola's Baka language into French. Limbola wouldn't say whether Djemba's family mistreated him. Instead, he said, "It's all the Bantus who make us suffer."

Djemba said her family treated their Pygmies well, although she couldn't account for others who sometimes borrow their Pygmies to do work. "He is in our house. There is lots for everyone," she said. "They are spoiled, my Pygmies."

Bokodi's act of resistance underscores a gradual shift in Enyellé and elsewhere as Pygmies and human-rights groups begin to call for change.

Soon after the June human-rights report was published, Congo's minister of justice introduced a law that would protect the rights of Pygmies.

In practice, the law - which has cleared several hurdles and now faces a vote by Parliament - would not do much beyond strengthening protections for minority groups in Congolese law. But it is believed to be unique in Central Africa.

"Indigenous people get a raw deal wherever they are found - in all the forest countries in Central Africa," said Cath Long, program director for the Rainforest Foundation UK, which funded the June 2006 report by the Congolese human-rights group. "In some ways what's happening in Congo in developing this new law is really a big step forward."

UNICEF, the UN agency that is in charge of child welfare, has stepped up its push to encourage Pygmy children to enroll in school and has also sent several health missions deep into the forest to vaccinate Pygmy children and provide basic health care.

This year, the United Nations' Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs placed the situation of Pygmies on Congo's priority list for donors next year.

"These people still need special attention from us, especially on the protection level," said Dieudonné Bamouni, head of the UN's coordination office. "They have a right to basic social infrastructure: schools, health care, and the right to be included in the political process."

Henri Djombo, the minister of forest economy and the environment, is Davila Djemba's uncle. Djombo, who leaves the daily oversight of the family's Pygmies to his brother Jean-Pierre Djembe, said he thinks no law should be passed before the government hears more from Pygmies themselves.

"We must begin a dialogue between these communities, to listen a little to their testimony," Djombo said.

Other Bantu masters acknowledge that the system needs to change.

Pygmies in 'Middle Ages'

Bantu Master Michel Mokobo holds a Pygmy girl he named after his mother-in-law. Bantus often say that their Pygmies are like family members.

Michel Mokobo, a Bantu master in Enyellé who works as a radio and television reporter, said Pygmies must learn to follow the example of Bantus, who were once oppressed by white Europeans.

"It's true they came and colonized us," Mokobo said. "But afterwards, we tried to copy what they did, and little by little, we ourselves became interested and we went to school."

Jean-Pierre Djembe, Davila Djemba's father, agreed. "The Pygmies still live like the Middle Ages. They are still in a practically savage state," he said.

Many Pygmies said they envy the Bantu villagers' way of life - their sturdy homes, tin roofs and new clothes. For these Pygmies, Richard Bokodi, the evangelical pastor and translator, is a role model.

In the town of Dongou, Bokodi is the only real Pygmy leader in what is traditionally an egalitarian society. Several Bantus proudly said that Bokodi was one of the few "civilized" Pygmies in Dongou.

It is true that Bokodi is one of the few Pygmies in the region with an education - he studied for three years in seminary school in the Central African Republic. Bokodi likes to pull his old student card from his breast pocket and run his fingers along the text.

But even Pygmies like Bokodi face discrimination that colors nearly every interaction with Bantus.

The Rev. Jean-Maryce Mbemba-Moussosso, a Bantu and the parish priest in Enyellé, didn't mask his surprise when Bokodi entered his office with a Western reporter.

"You're a Pygmy?" the Catholic priest asked Bokodi, staring at his clean button-down shirt and slacks.

I'm an indigenous person," Bokodi said quietly.

"You mean a Pygmy?"

"An indigenous person," he repeated.

"You're a Pygmy and you speak French?"

Bokodi's jaw clenched, but his voice remained timid. "Yes."

The priest's eyes then dropped to Bokodi's hand.

"A Pygmy with a telephone?"

Finally, Bokodi exploded. "What do you mean by that question?"

The priest rolled his eyes and changed the subject.

No matter how hard he struggles, it seems, Bokodi will never be accepted as the Bantus' equal. But that doesn't stop him from trying.

For years, he has been building a new house alongside his Pygmy-style home of mud, sticks and palm fronds. The new place is made with kiln-fired bricks, and the walls of the three rooms are smoothed in concrete. He needs only three more shingles before the house will be complete.

Bokodi looked puzzled when a reporter asked him why he built his new home in the style of Bantus, and not Pygmies.

"Because I'm not an animal," Bokodi said. "I am, after all, a man."

Q&A

Who are the Pygmies?

The term "Pygmies" refers to several related ethnic groups of hunter-gatherers who inhabit the rain forests of Central Africa.

Why are they called Pygmies?

In the 1870, a German botanist named Georg August Schweinfurth came across a group of hunter-gatherers while on a trek through the Central African jungle. They came to be known as "Pygmies," from the Greek word meaning "dwarfish," because of their short stature. However, many Pygmies now prefer to be called "indigenous peoples" or by their specific ethnic group.

So just how short are they?

Pygmies are shorter than many of their neighbors, who belong to the Bantu ethnic group. They are often less than five feet tall.

Where are Pygmies found?

Pygmies are found throughout Central Africa, not just in the Republic of Congo but also Rwanda, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, and other countries.

What language do they speak?

In some areas, Pygmies speak the same language as their Bantu neighbors. In others, they speak their own language. In the northern Congo jungle, most Pygmies speak Baka, which also is the name of their ethnic group.

What religion do they practice?

Pygmies practice a form of spirit worship that focuses on achieving harmony with the forest in which they live. More recently, many Pygmies have converted to Christianity because of missionary work in the area.