Two weeks ago a Pygmy elementary school teacher was seated as the first member of his ethnic group to become a deputy in Equateur Province’s Assembly in Mbandaka. Jerome Bokele, 44 years old and a teacher in a Disciples sponsored school in Ingende territory, declared his election and the approval of his seating by the Assembly has become “a great source of pride for his people”. While the Pygmy population is as much as one fourth of the total population in Equateur Province, they continue to be discriminated against and looked down on by the Bantu majority in the Province.
On the occasion of World Women’s Day last month, the U.N. Mission in Congo (MONUSCO) communications office featured a story on Pygmy women’s status in one Equateur community. Jean-Tobie Okala wrote: “As part of Bikoro territory, Iboko is one of those places where discrimination against women and girls is coupled with an ethnic bias. “
The MONUSCO journalist further noted, “In this locality of 80,000 dwellers, women of the Pygmy community are regarded as sub-humans by the Bantu, with whom they share the land. A Bantu man will not buy or eat from a Pygmy woman; or a Bantu will not marry a Pygmy, just as a Bantu woman will usually avoid fetching water at the same source as a Pygmy. Sexual violence committed against Pygmy women is almost never reported. “
Very few Pygmy men or women have in the past achieved literacy much less graduated from primary school. New parliamentarian Mr. Bokele’s story is remarkable. He described his childhood as more difficult “than anyone can hardly imagine”. Graduating from Kabasele-Longa secondary school (another Disciples sponsored school) at age 27, he says, “You had to walk 28 kilometers (over 20 miles) both ways each day, to and from school”.
Last summer I was struck by the dramatic increase in the number of Pygmy residents and their involvement in village life and in the Disciples farm project (Centre Agro-Pastorale) at Ikengo. Nearly the entire staff at the farm and several members of the local Disciples parish are of Pygmy origin . While on a trip with Church leaders to Ingende territory, we met
with a Pygmy pastor who supervises Bantu catechists in the area of Bokatola and worshipped in two largely Pygmy Disciples churches. For more on “The Pygmy People” see my July entry in this Blog’s Archive by entering those words in the grey search box in the upper right section of the blog home page.