Displacement and discrimination – the lot of the Bambuti Pygmies

GOMA, 1 September 2010 (IRIN) - Conditions in Mugunga camp for displaced people on the outskirts of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo city of Goma are tough, but tougher still are those endured by hundreds of people from the Bambuti Pygmy community living just outside the camp.

“We can’t plant seeds here,” said Bambuti chief Mupepa Muhindo, scratching the ground, which is littered with lava from a 2002 volcanic eruption. “It's not possible to cultivate the land.”

The Bambuti are believed to be among Central Africa’s oldest inhabitants. For generations they were nomadic forest-dwellers, living off the land, hunting and gathering.

For Muhindo, life changed in 2004 when he and millions of others fled the war in eastern DRC. Life was hard for all IDPs but even worse for the Bambuti, whose lives are blighted by violence and daily discrimination.

One international specialist described DRC’s indigenous people as the most marginalized of all the marginalized people with whom he had worked.

The group quit Mugunga camp, in DRC’s North Kivu province, after fights with other residents, which left one dead. Now they live with little if any support from humanitarian agencies. They have no electricity or running water; straw-covered roofs on makeshift shelters provide poor protection from the frequent rain.

“Although the Pygmies do not receive plastic sheeting or other material assistance, UNCHR, through its partners in UN-Habitat and the government of North Kivu, is advocating for the development of nine hectares of land set aside for them by local authorities,” the UN Refugee Agency said in an emailed response to questions.

The agency said that around 300 Bambuti families were living in Hewa Bora, the settlement near Mugunga camp.

Lack of services

Hodi Nyiramajambere, an elderly woman, had been living in nearby Virunga National Park - home to rare and endangered animals, including mountain gorillas - which is protected land. “The government made me move from the park so the government is responsible for my life,” she said.

Of particular concern is the lack of access to even basic healthcare. “The nurses put us out,” said Nyiramajambere. “They don’t give us medicine, because we have no money. Our children and babies are dying.”

Mark Lattimer, executive director of the London-based Minority Rights Group, says discrimination against Pygmies dates back hundreds of years and is deep and ingrained at all levels of Congolese society.

“One of their biggest problems is that they have great difficulty accessing any kind of public or social service, partly because they don’t have the money,” he said. “They are routinely turned away.Officials or anyone in authority will simply say ‘you’re a Pygmy, go away’.”

Such attitudes mean parents rarely register new births so total population numbers are unclear. Lattimer estimates there are about 30,000 in North Kivu and 200,000-500,000 in the country as a whole.

War toll

Though they never took up arms, the Bambuti were victimised by almost all the armed groups. Brutal human rights abuses against Pygmies were common, particularly in the northeastern Ituri region in 2004 where MRG documented a campaign of rape, torture, murder and even isolated cases of cannibalism committed by soldiers from Jean-Pierre Bemba’s Mouvement de libération du Congo (MLC) and the Rassemblement congolais pour la démocratie (RCD).

Bemba, DRC’s former vice-president, is awaiting trial before the International Criminal Court for crimes in the Central African Republic.

MRG says such violence is linked to superstitious beliefs that Pygmies hold supernatural powers and that ailments can be cured by sleeping with Bambuti women, a frequent excuse for rape.

“I doubt the perpetrators really believe this,” said Lattimer. “It’s used as a justification. The real problem is just the impunity that surrounds any kind of attack on Pygmy communities and their complete marginalization in Congolese society.”

There are few programmes to improve their lives, with the attention of local and international aid groups focused elsewhere in DRC, though MRG has programmes to encourage children into school. Up to 90 percent of DRC Pygmies are illiterate, says Lattimer.

Muhindo says he cannot pay the school fees, about US$5 per month, or afford the uniforms. “Pygmy children don’t study,” he said. “Because we don’t have any education, we can’t consider ourselves people like others. The Bantu don’t consider us people like others.”

Land issues

Also affecting their future, says Lattimer, is lack of land – a particularly serious problem for IDPs who return home to find the place where they lived for years has been sold off to someone else.

“Bambutis are effectively refugees in their own country, because they do not have titles to their land,” said Lattimer. “In North Kivu in particular land is really the key to development. They have lived in the same place for generations, but they don’t have a piece of paper saying they own the land.”

UN-Habitat is trying to ensure the Bambuti near Mugunga get land titles.

Some have moved to cities like Goma, the North Kivu provincial capital, to try their luck. Michel Nganga Buruki Kisolobo has opened an information centre – an empty wooden building with a guitar and bedroll on the wall – for those struggling to adjust to city life.

Nganga, a herbalist, has been able to support himself in Goma but says other Bambuti often find it difficult as discrimination follows wherever they go. “Pygmies want to get jobs, but it’s not easy,” he said.

Nganga also worries that those who come to Goma could forget the old ways. “Our children must know about the animals living in the bush,” he said.

Read more: Minorities Under Siege - Pygmies today in Africa