August 21, 2006

Congo’s marginalized Pygmies see hope in polls

By Euan Denholm

CHOMBO, Congo (Reuters) - After queuing for hours to mark
her ballot paper in Congo's first multiparty elections for four
decades, Salome Ndavuma confesses she had a little dance.

"I just never thought the day would come," she says,
beaming and breaking into another impromptu jiggle.

The July 30 polls prompted celebration all over Congo, but
the official recognition conferred by the ballot box and photo
registration card was particularly sweet for Pygmies like
Ndavuma, 28, long used to being ignored and vilified.

The vote, meant to draw a line under a decade of conflict
and chaos, failed to produce an outright winner. President
Joseph Kabila, who finished well ahead, will stand against
former rebel chief Jean-Pierre Bemba in a run-off on October

Pygmies, such as the Batwa of South Kivu, are thought to be
the original inhabitants of once vast equatorial forests in
central Africa but they have been subjugated and marginalized.

"People see us as more gorilla than human," says Ndavuma's
neighbor Kabwana Mwendanabo, 25.

That left Pygmies particularly vulnerable to rape and
enslavement, even cannibalism, during wars that have convulsed
eastern Democratic Republic of Congo over the last decade.

Chombo has seen more than its fair share of conflict. The
village lies in lush banana groves just outside the
Kahuzi-Biega National Park, 35 km (22 miles) north of the
regional capital Bukavu and home to one of the last groups of
mountain gorillas.

Where the Pygmies long lived, the protected primates now
share their habitat with a rather more sinister neighbor --
Rwandan Hutu rebels including the Interahamwe, the militia
blamed for the 1994 genocide.


The Interahamwe and Congo's other warring parties including
the Rwandese army and Mai-Mai militia, have terrorized the
local population whilst fighting each other and stripping the
land of its wood and mineral wealth.

Pygmy villagers were killed, raped, looted and enslaved.

Chiza Mwemdena, 36, was captured by the Interahamwe:

"We walked the whole night and didn't stop walking until
morning. They shouted at me and beat me until I was almost
dead. The raping started when we stopped the next morning.
There were about 50 soldiers ... about 30 took it in turns to
rape me."

She contracted HIV and never saw her husband again.

The Interahamwe have not disappeared since a 2003 peace
agreement but security in the region is much improved. Kabila
gets much of the credit here.

"Before I used to sleep in the bush and now I can sleep in
the village," says Ndavuma. "Kabila has unified people and
that's why everyone here has voted for him.

"If Kabila came here the first thing I'd ask him to do for
the village would be to get the Interahamwe out of the forest.
They have destroyed our spirit," says Ndavuma.

But with five of her nine children killed by disease, the
soft-spoken village chief's sister knows that peace alone won't
bring that spirit back.

Outside, a mother sits staring vacantly, her two boys lying
prostrate. Their brother died in the night from malaria.


Aid workers say more than 1,000 people still die every day
from hunger and illness related to the latest war, adding to
the 4 million already killed during and after the conflict.

A recent paper on the health of Africa's indigenous peoples
in the British medical journal the Lancet showed that Pygmies
suffered from consistently worse health and healthcare access
than neighboring communities.

Malaria, intestinal worms, measles and diarrhea had all
taken a heavy toll on the Pygmies, whose forest-based lifestyle
and herbal medicines had previously offered protection.

Infant mortality among Congolese Mbendjele Pygmies was
around one and a half times higher than among their Bantu
neighbors. Tellingly, infant mortality rates for Ugandan Batwa
dropped from 59 percent to 18 percent when families were given

The Batwa of Chombo have been reduced to squatting since
being evicted from their ancestral forests in 1970 to make way
for the national park -- now a UNESCO world heritage site.

"We are refugees in our own country," said Mwendanabo, "and
we will stay like that until we are given some land."

Without their own land to work, diets are poor. Children
are acutely malnourished and there is nothing to spend on
livestock, healthcare or education. Some villagers work on
Bantu-owned land down the hill but the pay is derisory.

"A Pygmy gets 200 francs ($0.45) for working in the fields
but a non-Pygmy gets 300 francs. What can you do with 200
francs," Ndavuma says.

In other areas, such as Ituri province, Pygmies still live
in the forest but risk losing their habitat to loggers unless
the law is changed, according to a report from Pygmy
campaigning groups led by the UK-based Forest People's

"Concessions for logging are routinely granted on and
around indigenous territories without notifying, consulting
with or seeking the consent of affected indigenous peoples," it

Sitting in the darkness of Chombo's one classroom Salome
Ndavuma knows what she wants her surviving children to do.

"We die like animals because we don't have the money to go
to the hospital. If some of our own can train to be doctors
then perhaps we will get treatment. So that's what I'd ask of
Kabila if he came to Chombo -- train my child to be a doctor."