When Pygmies Come To Town: Forced Out Of Rain Forest, Minority Making Strides

Pygmy children in Shasha, North Kivu
Pygmy children in Shasha, North Kivu
Mustapha Mulonda

GOMA – There are more than a dozen Pygmy ethnic groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo, making up between five and 10 percent of the country’s population. Traditionally these nomadic hunter-gatherers have lived in the Congolese rain forest, far removed from urban centers.

But in recent years, Pygmies have been increasingly forced out of the forest and into towns and villages. The arrival of the minority in more populated areas has provoked discrimination and prejudice, though attitudes are beginning to change for the better. But no less importantly, their economic status is also slowly showing signs of improvement.

“I’m a motorcycle-taxi driver. I make $15 a day, which I use to pay for my childrens’ school fees,” says Byamungi Kituki, a Pygmy living in Goma. Like many other Pygmies, he decided to leave the Mugunga refugee camp located 12 kilometers from the capital.

To survive in this new environment, they farm their own fields and make charcoal. At the market in Saké, 25 kilometers from Goma, a young Pygmy tells us that she produces five bags of charcoal a month: “I earn $25 per bag to feed my family and pay my son’s tuition at the University of Goma."

As there are more and more Pygmies in the cities, attitudes are changing, and prejudices are slowly disappearing. The more familiar they become, the less people call them “outcasts”, “have-nots” or even “incompetent,” or accuse them of stealing cattle and crops.

“We used to believe that Pygmies were not able to think properly. But their children have good grades,” admits Dominique Karenzi, a teacher at Ateluya Primary School. Her top pupil is a Pygmy.

Mrs Buyana, deputy chief the Mugunga neighborhood, is happy to see more Pygmies embracing the lifestyles of other communities. She says they have become “honorable.” “The Pygmy families who settled in Central Mugunga and Goma have adjusted easily,” she adds.

Kanane Mateene, the manager of Saké’s central market says the Pygmies bring better quality charcoal to her market. “Four years ago, Pygmies would only come to the market to beg," she says. "Now they have their own stands where they sell the beans, peanuts, and vegetables they grow.”

Victimized Pygmies = more NGO subsidies

However, some NGOs would prefer it if Pygmies continued to be victimized: “If our sponsors discover that Pygmies are doing well, they will stop donating money and we will lose our jobs,” says the coordinator of a local NGO for Pygmy integration, who wished to remain anonymous.

A growing number of complaints have been lodged against unscrupulous non-profit organizations that use Pygmies as bait for subsidies. "You just need to draw the sponsor’s attention with a few photographs of their makeshift lodgings to get donations,” adds the coordinator.

Not all NGOs are using the Pygmies’ plight for profit: some associations are working closely with Pygmy chiefs to discourage the dishonest organizations pretending to fight for the rights of Pygmies. According to Diele Mochire, head of the Judicial Council for Pygmies, some NGOs have also embezzled funds earmarked for Pygmy development projects. A number of them are being audited for fraud by the Goma court.

The camps, which are the victims of these embezzlements, are emptying themselves. “Our children are suffering from malnutrition. NGOs promise to send us food and medical supplies, but once they’ve gotten the donations that were made in our name, they never come back,” laments Muhiyirfwwa Mubawa, chief of the Mubambiro refugee camp, two kilometers from Saké. He deplores the expensive yet useless efforts made to help the Pygmies.

When Congo’s forests became national parks and World Heritage sites, things changed for its indigenous inhabitants: environmental organizations arrived to convince the Pygmies to leave Congo’s protected forests. “When we were trying to convince Pygmies to leave the Gorilla reserve of Walikale, they saw us as the enemy, although our mission was to help them give up their remote way of life” assures Mubobge Mukulumanya, from the Union of Associations for Gorilla Conservation and Community Development (UGADEC) in eastern DRC.

Ten years ago, the UGADEC tried to convince the Pygmies to leave the forest reserve located 135 kilometers from Goma. Today the communities who remained in the Virunga national park and other reservations are told to leave the forest for safety reasons.

The threat is not deforestation or environmental protection, now Pygmies are threatened by the rebel groups, which are using the rainforest as their hideout.

“The forests are full of armed groups which beat our brothers up,” worries Mubawa Bone, whose cousins have just arrived from Virunga national park to stay with him in the city. In the past, there have been brutal abuses against Pygmies by armed groups, including rape, torture, murder and even cannibalism.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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