Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Batwa of Kahuzi-Biega

Women stand beside the well that has no water.
Pygmies are thought to be the first and oldest inhabitants of Congo. Before waves of Bantu migrations from western Africa began displacing them 4000 years ago, these small forest people lived in villages throughout equatorial Congo.

Pygmy children don't see many white folks . . . and they lack medical care.

The Batwa pygmies are indigenous to northeastern Congo. Before outsiders came, they had developed a culture uniquely their own with systems of managing forests and wildlife, some subsistence farming, and trade with neighboring tribes.

They lived in the rainforest surrounding Mt. Kahuzi and Mt. Biega until 1975, when the government of then Zaire created the National Park system. Then they and other indigenous people were evicted and relocated outside the parks, settled without reparation on borrowed land with no means of support. Only the Bambuti of Ituri were allowed to continue living inside the park, where they remain today. http://www.tribaltrust.org/

Pygmy village

I visited a Batwa village outside the Kahuzi-Biega National Park with Dominique Bikada, a local guy who grew up playing with pygmy children in the jungle before it became a park. He now runs PolePole, a community-based NGO dedicated to conserving park habitat and animals-- and to helping its indigenous people. popofdrc@yahoo.fr

Dominique in the meeting hall with pygmy women.
The Batwa are very poor, because they own nothing-- 35 years after being evicted from their forest home, they live like lepers, segregated from society and discriminated against by just about everyone. The Congolese government ignores them.

And although it was members of this tribe who first "sensitized" the gorillas of Kahuzi-Biega Park to accept humans in the 1970s, and some of their men are guards in the park today, they continue have no say in park matters.

The pygmy gentleman who desensitized the first gorillas 30 years ago.

My first glimpse of the Batwa was the smiling faces of their beautiful children as they ran up paths amid tea plants to greet the car. Everywhere I went I was surrounded by children of all ages-- I felt like the Pied Piper!

The children were not in school, because Rwandan soldiers had recently trashed their schoolrooms.

School principal stands in classroom where soldiers burned desks and chairs.

The pygmies remind me of gypsies, as both are tribal people who live outside society with their own culture and values, and prefer it that way. It's too bad they don't have their own land where they can live in peace!

With love and gratitude,

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