Thursday, July 29, 2010
After tea was served, the second meeting of the Committee for the Advancement of the Pygmy People was convened on my porch at 7:45 one morning this week. Present along with myself were Rio Bosala, Director of the Disciples CAP at Ikengo, and Sandra Ngoy, daughter of the Regional Minister of the Bolenge Region. Pygmy rerpresentatives were a watchman for the Mbandaka power company, a primary school teacher and John Benani, the co founder and now Director of REPEQ, a non profit supported by UNICEF which promotes Pygmy civil rights.
John Benani has emerged as a national spokesperson for Pygmy civil rights and as UNICEF’s primary contact with this minority population which makes up one fourth the population of Equator Province. Our conversations have educated me on the very slight progress of his people from their traditional status as an inferior, even sub human caste, exploited by their Bantu neighbors.
With my encouragment, the Ikengo CAP director Rio has spoken more openly of his history of support and affinity for Pygmy friends. It is becoming more widely accepted now that this minority must be educated and integrated into the Bantu-dominated society for the Equator Province, with the largest pygmy population in Congo, to develop economically.
That statistics for completion of primary school in Equator Province remain abysmal, some say as low as ten per cent of the children finish sixth grade, is due in part to the incapacity of Pygmy parents to pay their children’s school fees. An unfortunate irony of the Mobutu years of corruption and self indulgence is the fact that the policy of free education of Pygmy children ended with the fall of the dictator’s regime. That gesture of support for the minority did little to relieve the exclusion of Pygmies by the Bantu population.
As an example of the traditional segregation of Bantu and Pygmy, it was only recently that an integrated spring water source was established at a large village 30 kms. from Mbandaka. Where two springs had in the past provided water separately for Bantu and for the Pygmy inhabitants of Bongonde, UNICEF funded the cementing and piping of a new source providing clean water for all in the village. One of the participants in our meeting Tuesday morning teaches in the local primary school. He informed me that 721 men and women enrolled last year in the village’s adult school to gain basic reading, writing and math skills.
My curiosity here about the Pygmy population’s motives in settling in greater numbers in the Bantu villages and even cities of Congo comes in part from the reading of the great book by the anthropologist Colin Turnbull, The Forest People. As the author’s account of being captivated by the life and culture of the pygmies of the Ituri rain forest in eastern Congo, the book deserves its reputation as one of the most widely read books on Africa. Turnbull’s recordings of Pygmy songs on Folkways Records also enthrall, and in the book he notes that the words of their songs are few but often profound. The following words are sung only after the death of a fellow Pygmy clan member:
“There is darkness all around us; but if darkness is and the darkness is of the forest, then the darkness must be good.”
For a Congo traveler these days, Turnbull’s book provides a fine contrast to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as the work of a man who took pains to get to know very well one of the cultures here. Turnbull casts light on the life of the rainforest which for Conrad remained a place of inscrutable mystery and foreboding.