A year ago the advances toward equal opportunity and justice made by the Batwa indigenous people were met in Congo’s Tshuapa Province by a violent backlash. Although the attacks on the Batwa (called “Pygmies” since the colonial era) by neighboring Bantu villagers have gone virtually unreported in international and most Congolese media news, Human Rights Watch just released a report on February 9 with the aim of bringing the atrocities to light and calling on the government to act. The report cites the deaths of at least 66 Batwa and the destruction of over 1000 homes in Batwa villages.
Only the UN sponsored Congolese radio network, Radio Okapi, has over the past year reported on the rising tensions between Bantu of the Nkundo ethnic group and the Batwa living in and on the boundaries of the vast Salonga Nature Reserve, the largest preserve of tropical rainforest biodiversity in Africa. Assigned by the Congolese government to manage the Salonga Reserve, two international environmental non profits have seen and supported the Batwa as the guardians of the forest where they have lived before the Bantu migration to Congo many years ago.
Hired by the non profits to oversee protection of the reserve’s teeming life, Célestin Engelemba continues to warn Congolese government authorities of the potential on the reserve’s boundaries for continued conflict. Although M. Engelemba has been elected to the national assembly and serves on its Commission for the Environment, he has been frustrated in his repeated attempts to safeguard Batwa human rights and enlist federal intervention. “If something happens in Eastern Congo”, he notes, “everyone gets involved. The people in my territory have the same right to be protected”.
In response to pleas by Engelemba, the Governor of Tshuapa Province (one of four provinces today produced break up of the Equator Province) in September did succeed in having household and farming implements sent to affected families. Despite this gesture of support, Deputy Engelemba called attention to the schools, churches and health clinics destroyed in the attacks. There are also over 10,000 Batwa left without proper shelter.
In this remote Tshuapa River region accessible only by boat, the Protestant Disciples of Christ Church has been more active than the public authorities in building schools and health facilities for more than one hundred years. The Church has also defended Batwa rights, Engelemba was educated in Disciples schools, and the Church supports many Batwa churches. The growing Bantu-Batwa conflict in the area of the Salonga Reserve and its potential to spread elsewhere in the “Grand Equateur” Region presents a formidable challenge to the Church.
Further complicating the situation is the attraction of the Region’s abundant resources to foreign capital eager to exploit the second largest rainforest in the world. Mahogany, teak and other relatively rare timber from “Le Grand Equateur” forests have become a prized commodity for European furniture makers. After a 2020 tour and dialog with persons throughout the Equateur Region, Deputy Engelemba declared himself in favor of a proposal to send water from the Ubangi River in the north to the drought stricken Lake Chad. “I am for that project as long as it commits profits to the uplift of our Region’s population” he stated.
The progress made in acceptance and understanding of the Batwa by the Bantu Nkundo was obvious in my 2010 visit of Congo. In contrast to the exclusion of Batwa from the Equateur village of Ikengo where I worked in 1970-71 fifty years later they were numerous and visible. The director of the agricultural center supervised a largely Batwa staff and had helped start a human rights organization with a young Batwa in Mbandaka. A year after my visit the first Batwa, a teacher, was elected to the Equator Provincial Assembly and after months of deliberations by its members they consented to seat him.
As there are several lokoleyacongo.com posts on the origins of Bantu-Batwa conflict and on Disciples support for the Batwa throughout the Region of “Le Grand Equateur” those interested can enter “the pygmie people” in the Search window. For a fascinating interview with the author of a PhD thesis on the original inhabitants of the Congo rainforest and the myths used to justify Bantu exploitation and scorn of them enter “Dr. Bijoux Makuta” in the blog Search engine.
Dr. Bijoux Makuta’s doctoral thesis “Evangelism of the Pygmy People: Mysticism and Missiological Challenges in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)” takes on global importance when we consider the role of the Congolese rain forest in absorbing the carbon dioxide we produce. For centuries it is the Pygmy people who have co existed with and protected their rainforest home.
In the interview below she describes her childhood experience of schooling with Pygmy children as a prime motive in study of the topic. Enlisting the aid and participation of Pygmy leaders is crucial, in Dr. Makuta’s view, in the Church’s mission of protection of the natural environment. She has founded, with the help of her students at the Protestant University of the Congo and other faculty, a non profit Imago Dei to provide scholarships and other forms of support for the education of Pygmy children and youth. For information on Imago Dei and how you can support its efforts write Douglas Smith at email@example.com.
You are a child of the Disciples of Christ Community of the Church of Christ of Congo, the CDCC. How has this Community participated in your formation as a modern woman and as a servant of the Church?
Born at the Disciples’ first mission post at Bolenge, the ninth of eleven children, our father Rev. André Makuta Bololo and our mother Ida Likombe Mamongo have served the Lord Jesus Christ all their lives as servants of the CDCC. So in the first place, throughout childhood we all benefited from schooling in the Church’s schools. To cap it all in my case, our mother Church would recommend me as a student of Theology at the Protestant University of the Congo, UPC, and then for a DEFAP (Protestant Mission of France) scholarship to enable completion of my Phd thesis in Paris.
Again with the recommendation of my CDCC Community, since 2007 I’ve been working at the UPC as professor of Missions, Ecumenism and World Religions. I am one of six Disciples who have achieved the doctorate degree and among the three who now serve at the UPC: Ngoy Boliya is the current Rector of the UPC, the Dean of the Faculty of Theology is Ekofo Bonyeku, and I represent the first Disciple woman PhD to teach at the university. Three others served the Disciples Community as President and Legal Representative and although now deceased must be mentioned: Boyaka Inkomo, Elonda Efefe and Ngili Bofeko Batsu. My Community, in making possible my formation at this level of study, has placed me in the debt of these great men and distinguished servants in the history of our Church and our nation and I am proud to be the first Congolese woman doctor of Theology while recognizing the weight of the responsibility this brings to my shoulders.
How did you choose this topic for your thesis: “The Mission of Evangelism among the Pygmy Peoples”?
It comes out of my life story which is in part a mea culpa with origins in the complexity of our Bantu culture’s responses to relationships with the Pygmies in the Democratic Republic of Congo (RDC). Several personal experiences have led me to devote my doctoral thesis to the mission of evangelism on behalf of the Pygmy people.
In the first place, you should know that I lived and studied with Pygmy children who were certainly more intelligent than I, but did not have the financial means to progress in a neglectful education system. Secondly, from my childhood on I participated with my thoughts and behavior in the continued marginalization and stigmatization of the Pygmy population. It was only with my ordination as God’s servant that I took account of the evil treatment of the Pygmy and I committed myself to defend their cause while seeking to understand why we Bantu don’t like this people who are like us imago Dei.
I then stumbled on the legend of Elshout which recounts how Pygmies and Bantu are descended from two brothers. The older brother is the Pygmy ancestor who was disinherited by the father for not following tradition in dividing up an antelope he had killed. In sum, the father did not receive the choice portion which was his due according to custom. Despite the father’s pleas, the elder son didn’t change his ways and the father transferred all his rights to the younger son, the Bantus’ ancestor.
It is also said that the Pygmies became people of the forest because the older son took his sister into the forest and on their return she was pregnant. To flee the shame of incest, they would forever hide away like animals in the forest. And they would be called Batwa or “nomads”, from the Bantu root cwa or tswa meaning “to go”.
And so it was that the Bantu, as the heirs of the father, according to the Elshout legend, became the heirs of the whites while the Pygmies, as the disinherited, were again dispossessed of their lands by colonialism for the benefit of the Bantu. It was the same within the Church when the autonomy of Congolese Disciples came in 1964 and the responsibility of educating the Pygmy was handed over to the Congolese leadership. It is at that time that the Bantu responded in a self serving manner depriving the Pygmy of proper attention and the power and resources that came with the transition.
Yet a third reason for my interest in the topic derives from the mystical beliefs of the Pygmy people. In effect, it seemed to me important that with the tools of research light be shed on the consequences of the Pygmy practice of regular communication with their ancestors. When they go there to ask their blessing of a harvest, their fishing or a hunt, there is no problem. But when it has to do with a marriage, a birth, conflicts over land, life and death matters, the reliance on the ancestors’ counsel serves to perpetuate the conflicts between the Pygmy people and the Bantu. As God calls every human being to undertake a holy mission which leads to eternal life, the white man, the Bantu and the Pygmy need to bury the hachet to save ourselves from our sinful nature and work for each other’s salvation.
Tell us how the Protestant churches of Congo have done in their evangelization of Pygmies and what are the primary challenges in carrying out the mission.
It’s not a positive report to share about what the Protestant churches in general have accomplished in this mission. We wouldn’t want you to think there haven’t been efforts to evangelise the Pygmy population. However, when we take account of how political history evolves, we must recognize that in one setting or another all liberation struggles must consider how the tensions and bad blood in daily interactions bear on the relationships of the dominated people with the dominant population.
While there is not much progress in the evangelistic efforts, it is not due to atheistic disbelief among the Pygmies. It rather has to do with the complex situation of the modern Pygmy. We must remember that Christianity is a religion of the book and the statistics tell us that the low level of educational advance puts the Pygmy more than two centuries behind. Hence, there is the urgent need to help educate the population and then embark on other aspects of their formation. Educational efforts are however impeded by the fact that most Bantu still consider the Pygmy their slaves, like a resource they can use up and dispose of.
As a result, the evangelism among the Pygmy is compromised at the outset by an approach which fails to consider the collective and individual consciousness which doesn’t permit a sincere opening by people who are yet considered as the source of all Pygmy misfortune and the offspring of those who have occupied and seized their land. The thesis notes that the Pygmy population have a long memory. Conversation about the healing of souls always submits to the word of God all the ethical, moral, psychological and sociological domains of human interaction.
To the extent that the Pygmy-Bantu conversation always puts the Bantu on the defensive, that one becomes preoccupied with proving he or she is justified by God’s judgment. The cure of the other’s soul in that context only can take place through the other asking for pardon of the Bantu as preliminary to asking God for pardon of oneself. This is the condition placed on accepting the truth that all is grace since everyone who wishes their life to be valued must also value the life of the other in an act of grace bestowed on the world.
Give us please some idea of the gifts of Pygmy culture that you foresee will be a blessing to the Protestant churches of Congo when they take part in the Church’s mission in the future.
The Church must be served by all its members and, notwithstanding their oppressed status at present, the Pygmy is called according to their gifts to serve as pastors, prophets, evangelists, elders and deacons as well as to be beneficiaries of scholarships to study at the college and post college levels so that they may also serve as intellectuals, professors, counselors, administrative leaders, and governmental leaders. I can testify that both the Church and the State owe themselves what the Pygmy can contribute to their work from the learnings of their culture.
There is no question that their culture offers a whole host of knowledge regarding protection of nature and the conservation of species that are threatened today. Let it be said that the Church needs their expertise in carrying out its responsibility to help protect the environment which nourishes us and without which we will perish.
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.
Ecoles Maternelles”, our equivalent of preschool along the Head Start model, have opened in Mbandaka and other urban areas of Congo. In one of the larger Disciples parishes in Mbandaka, the Nouvelle Cite parish, 180 children enrolled last year.
The Mbandaka UNICEF staff member assigned to Education programs told me the preschools were among the strategies intended to foster completion of primary school in the country. With only two in ten children graduating from the six years of primary school in the Equator Province, the lowest rate of any province in the country, special attention is being paid by UNICEF to the results there.
Rev. Michel LIKOMBA, Nouvelle Cite’s head pastor, serves as Counselor to the provincial volunteer committee charged with oversight of the preschools. The provincial committee’s chair, a Catholic priest, is liaison with the Congolese government for the national movement of Ecoles Maternelles.
While UNICEF leads in funding construction and purchase of furnishings for the preschools, the World Food Program, PAN in the French acronym, supplies daily lunch for the children and staff. Parents’ Committees in each school collect the fees, averaging $1 per month plus an enrollment fee, which results in some children dropping out during the year. Two thirds of those enrolled did complete last year’s instruction at Nouvelle Cite, among them children of Mbandaka Pygmy parents whose fees were covered by the Parents’ Committee organized by the Disciples parish. The Congolese government provides virtually no funding for the program.
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.
The village of Ikengo welcomed me as a son of the village on my return. On our first visits there forty one years ago my role was to drive the Youth Department truck loaded with thirty plus youth singing above the groaning of the truck springs on the 30 km, two hour trip from Mbandaka . Everyone but the driver evacuated the vehicle at the culvert fashioned with branches which often had to be repaired before the last leg of the journey.
My two return trips this summer have been made comfortably seated in a plastic lawn chair placed in a pirogue powered by a 15 horsepower outboard motor. The village has grown considerably; what had been a sleepy village of 500 inhabitants is now several times larger. The deterioration of the road from Mbandaka, similar to the deplorable conditions of the roads and transportation infrastructure throughout the country, has not prevented the Governor of Equator Province and other dignitaries from making the trek to Ikengo these days.
The reputation for size and quality of the pigs raised at the Church’s Centro Agro Pastorale (CAP) d’ Ikengo, and the lovely retreat-like setting on the Congo River attract most of Ikengo’s visitors with vehicles these days. This was not the case ten years ago when a large cattle and pig raising ranch was in full swing. Former President Mobutu’s Minister of Finance maintained the road for the multiple vehicles of his ranch, developed on the land across the road from the Church’s CAP. The rain forest where giant trees emitted the shrieks and squawks of monkeys and birds was cleared in 1980 to house a large work force and sheds for the livestock. The ranch ceased operations with the death of the owner but the CAP maintains the village’s identity as the prime source for the tastiest pork in the Mbandaka area.
Rev. Paul Elonda’s founding vision of the Church’s vital role in developing the natural resources of the country is carried out at CAP today by the cultivation of the most advanced vegetable seed varieties, pig and chicken raising and the trainings carried out at the Center. The full time staff consists of ten workers and the CAP Director, with nine of the men being of Pygmy background. The current director, a Bantu, helped start a network of Pygmy civil rights groups in Equator Province before beginning work at the Center. That organizing effort began his collaboration with one of the Province’s very few Pygmy secondary school graduates now working at the Mbandaka office of UNICEF.
The preponderance of Pygmies on the staff remains something of a mystery to me so I look forward as I write this to having some of my questions answered. Whether the Peace Corps volunteer who spent two years at the Center in the mid 70s brought the village Pygmies into the Center’s life is an unknown. What I do know is that Church leaders years ago spoke out against the widespread discrimination against the Pygmies as an “inferior“, even “subhuman“, minority of the village and Equator Province population. Although I don’t recall ever meeting a Pygmy resident of Ikengo forty years ago, they were confined to the end of the village at the time, I did learn that they were masters of the hunt and supplied villagers with meat from the forest. This weekend I preach in the Ikengo Church where Pygmies now worship and I will no doubt have some fresh learnings to report on later.
The story of the Peace Corps volunteer who married a girl from the village also remains something of a mystery. Before returning to the States they had three children while he worked in Peace Corps headquarters in Kinshasa. No one I’ve spoken with to date seems to know his whereabouts or that of the wife and children. The foundation of the adobe brick house he built next to the River bank provides the outline today of the Center’s “Payote”, the thatch roofed hut without walls where visitors to the Center are now welcomed.