Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Congolese Pygmies Struggle to Integrate

Former forest dwellers in east of the country unable to revive traditional way of life.
By Espérance Nzigire

As many of those uprooted by the conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, return to their villages, pygmy people who have long lived in the region’s forests are struggling to rebuild their lives.

The Batwa and Bambuti people have been forced to abandon their subsistence lifestyle following raids by local militia groups and the more recent introduction of new laws governing the use of the forest.

Since 2002, ongoing fighting between Rwandan rebels, the Congolese army and Mai-Mai militia has displaced people from the Masisi, Walikale and Kalehe territories of the Kivu region.

The minority people’s hunter-gatherer way of life has been threatened by laws intended to preserve animal and plant species.

Kanyaruchinya, a village 20 kilometres south of Goma, is currently home to around 800 pygmy people who live in difficult conditions with little food and a complete lack of healthcare or adequate housing. The village also has no fresh water supply.

“We fled our small village in the woods when men carrying weapons invaded it,” said Deodat Mukankusi, a mother of five children from the Batwa tribe who lives in Kanyaruchinya. “They would kill men they met in villages, rape women and take all the food.”

The pygmy people say that a lack of support from the government as well as local and international organisations on the ground has left them struggling to access services, including healthcare and education. Having moved from their customary surroundings in the forest, they are now finding it hard to survive in a more conventional settlement as displacement camps empty out.

“Me and my husband have seven mouths to feed. My husband has no work so I make clay pots and sell them for between 200 and 500 Congolese francs (20 to 50 US cents) so that I can buy just a little food,” Mukankusi said. “But I have to go to Masisi (80 km away) to get clay, so I have to pay at least 9000 Congolese francs (nine dollars) transport to get there and back, and it’s difficult for us.”

Pygmy men still try to make a living by going back into the forest to collect charcoal and wood. They earn less than one dollar a day. Meanwhile, women and children have resorted to begging in the streets of Goma town.

Local experts agree that the pygmies find themselves in a difficult situation as the return process progresses.

"The main problem for Batwa people is the fact that they are left behind in so many respects, with no experience of living in mainstream society,” said Ndeze Paul, who heads the local administration of Bwisha in Rutshuru territory. “[But] they are partly responsible for this, since they didn't want to get close to others [when living in the forest].”

The pygmies say they are not admitted to hospitals for lack of money, forcing them to turn to traditional medicine when they fall ill. Women give birth at home because they cannot afford to go to the local maternity hospital. They say they need support from the government as well as local and international organisations to aid their integration into society.

“We also want to live like others, we are not animals, we can live together in peace if for once we’re given this chance,” Kahindo Motogari, another pygmy woman living in Kanyaruchinya, told IWPR. “We want to be taken care of with the provision of a maternity hospital and have a school for our children.”

The government has given the pygmy people land because they had nowhere to go and they refused to return to the forest for fear of insurgents. They had also wanted to live together. However, little targeted assistance has been forthcoming from either the government or local or international organisations working in eastern DRC.

“We did not get any assistance, we went to complain to some organisations taking care of displaced people but they say they have no budget for pygmies. Only ASAF (Action on Women’s Health) gave us drinkable water but it is not enough since there is only one tap for 800 people,” Muhindo Mupepa, the Kanyaruchinya village leader, said.

International non-governmental organisations say they lack funds to specifically target the Batwa people. While international agencies are willing to help, they face myriad challenges in the region.

“The bigger international agencies operating on the ground are facing such complex problems already that they find dealing with the particular problems of the Bambuti [or Batwa] a challenge too far,” said Mark Lattimer, executive director of Minority Rights Group International which campaigns on behalf of the pygmies.

“Most of them (international agencies) are very sympathetic about the problem. Some say they’d like to do more and they try to do a bit. But many of them say we can’t pick and choose; we have to deliver services to all Congolese.”

But whatever support initiatives are put in place, the central problem remains that locals discriminate against the Batwa people.

“They are happy just to ignore the Bambuti [or Batwa], because they’ve had such a subservient role, such a marginalised role, in Congolese society. They very rarely will come and demand their share,” Lattimer said.

“In the past, [the Batwa] have often been attacked; they’ve often been picked on. They’ve grown up to learn that they have to accept that they are in second or third place. There is this very long history of marginalisation and discrimination which has become internalised in the communities themselves.”

Local experts say the government has a crucial role to play to help the pygmy reintegrate into society and access necessary services in villages such as Kanyaruchinya.

Although some pygmies have managed to register to vote in the upcoming presidential elections in November, they are not represented at the local political level.

In an effort to overcome this, pygmies from Kanyaruchinya have created their own association: Maison d’Accueil et d’Encadrement des Pygmées de Grands-Lacs, MAEPYGL. Its mission is to enable pygmies to rebuild their lives by accessing the same rights as the rest of society.

“The state gave us land. I have a plot but no means to build my house,” Jean-Marie Bauma, a 40-year-old member of the organisation, said. “I am a father, I have to support nine people in total. We live in a small shabby house, four by five metres; when it rains the whole house is flooded. I have five children old enough to go to school but they cannot as we don’t have enough money, so I ask people to help us out of good will.”

The provincial government in the Kivus acknowledges that there is no assistance granted to pygmies and that it needs to do more to help them integrate into society.

“The government did not plan any assistance for pygmies so far, but it is very concerned about their conditions. This group has long lived in the forest, we are trying to stop discrimination against them - that’s why we gave them land,” Mutete Mundenga, the government’s minister for North Kivu, told IWPR.

Mutete is optimistic about the integration of the pygmy people and pledged to help them, “These people are Congolese citizens; they have a right to life, education and to benefit from all rights according to the constitution, that’s why I plan to go on the ground at the end of the month to assess the situation and see what their needs are and introduce a request to the government and see how to plan emergency assistance.”
Both pygmies and international observers say this cannot happen soon enough, however they remain cautious about progress.

“Ultimately [movement on the issue] is about the provincial government of North and South Kivu and about the international agencies who still deliver a lot of the humanitarian subsistence to the population,” Lattimer said. “I’ve never seen any systematic attempt to do something about it. It is largely dependent upon efforts of Batwa campaigners themselves to get enough people to [lobby for the] community. It is a hard process and sometimes works for a while; the time then passes and the money goes away and they go back to how they were before.”

Espérance Nzigire is an IWPR-trained reporter in Goma. Simon Jennings, an IWPR senior journalist, also contributed to this report.

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