August 22, 2006

Batwa: Congo's Marginalised Pygmies See Hope in Polls

The July 30 Congo's first multiparty elections for four decades prompted celebration all over Congo, but the official recognition conferred by the ballot box and photo registration card was particularly sweet for Pygmies, long used to being ignored and vilified.
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 Oct. 29.

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 marginalised.

"People see us as more gorilla than human," says Ndavuma's neighbour 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 neighbour -- Rwandan Hutu rebels including the Interahamwe, the militia blamed for the 1994 genocide.

VICTIMS OF WAR

The Interahamwe and Congo's other warring parties including the Rwandese army and Mai-Mai militia, have terrorised 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.


FOREST CURES

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 neighbouring communities.

Malaria, intestinal worms, measles and diarrhoea 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 neighbours. Tellingly, infant mortality rates for Ugandan Batwa dropped from 59 percent to 18 percent when families were given land.

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 Programme.

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

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."