Lured Toward Modern Life, Pygmy Families Left in Limbo

Byeragi Ngenderezi is chief of about 160 families of Congo Pygmies, who cannot pursue their traditional hunting and gathering in their new environment.
Byeragi Ngenderezi is chief of about 160 families of Congo Pygmies, who cannot pursue their traditional hunting and gathering in their new environment. (By Stephanie Mccrummen -- The Washington Post)
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 12, 2006

MUGUNGA, Congo -- When he dreams, Pygmy chief Byeragi Ngenderezi dreams of having basic things: a good plastic tarp, some decent fishing nets, perhaps a few garden hoes. When he dreams big, he envisions a life altogether different from the one his ancestors have lived for thousands of years in the equatorial forests of Congo.

He imagines trading up, moving out of his leaky banana-leaf hut and into something a bit roomier.

"First of all, I would like to have my own compound," the chief began one recent afternoon. "Second? A house like this one," he said, pointing to a 20-by-20-foot wood-plank house, the only one in sight. "Third? A motorbike. I would learn how to ride it and become a taxi driver."

For the moment, however, the chief and his people, around 160 Pygmy families accustomed to hunting and gathering in the tropical green mountains, are stuck tending to vegetables in Mugunga, a flat and treeless limbo of gravelly earth at the foot of a dormant volcano.

Like so many millions of Congolese, they fled their homes because of the militia fighting that has consumed this mineral-rich eastern region over the past decade. Unlike other refugees, this particular group of Pygmies had their own personal benefactor, or so it seemed: a woman they initially knew only as Ma Jacqui, who brought them here promising help, then left them with little more than a desire to join the modern world.

As this impoverished country awaits results in the first democratic elections in 40 years, Ngenderezi and his group, among an estimated 600,000 Pygmies considered to be the aboriginal people of Congo, are perhaps as good a barometer as any of the fragile aspirations of its people .

After all, the Pygmies, the marginal among the marginal, voted last Sunday, too, walking a mile from their dilapidated huts in Mugunga to cast ballots to elect a president for the first time ever.

"We are human beings," said Ngenderezi, his thumb still stained with the black ink that showed he had voted. "And we'd like to live like other human beings live."

Perhaps more so than any of the 400 other ethnic groups in Congo, Pygmies have historically been ostracized or romanticized for their traditions, and cut off from education, health care and any legal means of securing land they have inhabited for centuries in the forests. In recent decades, a relatively small number have managed to attend school and join the life of Congo's villages and cities, but most have remained in the forests, with some communities made nearly extinct by various diseases, including AIDS.

A decade of fighting among militias in the east has been even more devastating, with Pygmies being singled out for particularly sordid and psychotic forms of violence, according to human rights groups.

Ngenderezi simply said that soldiers "were killing us like flies."

When Ma Jacqui encouraged them to leave the forest for Mugunga, they followed her, exchanging their usual clothing of bark strings for donated Levi's and permanent-press slacks, Celine Dion T-shirts and San Jose Sharks sweaters. They built their traditional huts on the volcanic rock. And Ma Jacqui, who Ngenderezi later learned worked with a Catholic relief organization in the nearby city of Goma, began teaching them to farm and to fish in the nearby lake.

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