Pygmy Advances Toward Justice and Equality Meet Violent Backlash in Congo’s Tshuapa Province

One of the Batwa homes destroyed in the attacks by nearby Bantu villagers in early 2021. (Photo by Thomas Fessy, Human Rights Watch, Oct. 2021)

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.

Violent conflict has broken out between Bantu villagers and Batwa ("Pygmy") inhabitants and protectors of the Salonga Nature Reserve in Tshuapa Province.  Though largely unreported by the  media, the growing resistance to their centuries old oppression by the Bantu feeds the conflict.
In a meeting organized by Deputy Celestin Engelemba for peace and reconciliation, Bantu villagers discuss the motives and background of the conflict with the Batwa (Radio Okapi photo)

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.