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Lured Toward Modern Life, Pygmy Families Left in Limbo
Group Fled Forest To Escape Militias, But Lost Benefactor

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.

Then, the chief said, she simply vanished.

"The last time we saw her was maybe four years ago," said Ngenderezi, who has since become suspicious that some aid groups are using the plight of the storied African Pygmies simply to raise money. "So many local NGOs have come to visit and promised to build houses. But so far, nothing."

An aid group dropped off some rehydration packets, which were quickly used up. A group called Solidarite passed out some plastic tarps now worn with holes. A campaign entourage for Joseph Kabila, one of the two candidates vying for the presidency, breezed by, handing out yellow caps and buttons. And more recently, a group called CIDOPY, which receives funding from the Netherlands and has an annual budget of $200,000 to help several Pygmy camps in the area, gave some cabbage seeds.

Its field director, Achille Biffumbu, said the owners of the land where the Pygmies are living recently sold it. He is now cutting off aid to encourage them to leave, because, in his estimation, they would be better off back in the forest.

"You have to understand the cultural parameters," Biffumbu said, sitting in an office in Goma full of arty photo books of Pygmies and articles with titles such as "Central African Hunter-Gatherers in a Multidisciplinary Perspective." "We can't solve all their problems."

So far, 15 members of the group have died from hunger or exposure, according to the chief, who thinks they have been here four years in all, or maybe six. He is certain, however, that he does not want to go back to the forest, where life was difficult even before the fighting began.

"I'd like having a house and knowing I could leave my child in that house," he said. "I would like to see my brother Pygmies owning businesses like other people."

They were never exactly isolated, Ngenderezi explained. If their parents could gather money for tuition, some children attended school. Pygmies often traded their pottery in nearby villages, where they would see bicycles, cars, houses and, in general, what appeared to be a better life. When the time came, they embraced Mugunga as a way out.

Since their arrival, the chief and others have made a habit of walking the dirt road into Goma a few times a week to look for work.

There they find themselves amid thousands seeking jobs, with former soldiers hobbling on crutches in the dust and others competing in the daily carnival of selling used loafers, or bananas or bricks.

By some estimates, the unemployment rate in Goma is 90 percent. A few wealthy businessmen and politicians live behind barbed wire along the shores of blue Lake Kivu, where the notorious dictator Mobutu Sese Seko once had a palace. In a country of untold mineral wealth, Goma is a city without electricity most of the time, a place lit at night by roadside fires and lanterns.

Still, to the chief, the crowded streets of Goma seem better than Mugunga, which seemed better than the forest.

He sees bustling markets and roads buzzing with motorcycle taxis. He sees the vast blue and white United Nations compound, and one local aid organization after another lining the streets, including some with names containing the word "Pygmy," he noted.

Once, he visited the CIDOPY offices to ask for a job, which he thought would be of more help than the cabbage seeds they offered.

"I told them I could write, but they said I cannot work with them," he said. "There are NGOs that claim to work on behalf of Pygmies, but I can't even work in their office, because they are afraid I'll learn their secrets."

And so Ngenderezi, who was educated through the sixth grade, returns to Mugunga, where the skills that were useful in the forest are of little help. He and his people used to hunt animals, for instance, but there are none to hunt around here. They used to make pottery from the soil and sell it, but the dirt in Mugunga is unsuitable. The thick forest used to help shelter their huts from heavy rains, but now they are vulnerable to the wide-open sky.

They pass the time tending to a few rows of vegetables, gathering firewood or fetching water from the lake. Sometimes, local farmers hire a few people, but that is sporadic at best, especially because they do not have good tools.

Other times, for fun, they kick around a homemade soccer ball, having learned a bit about the sport from Ma Jacqui.

And other days, Ngenderezi just sits in his hut and thinks.

He imagines himself in a dry house, he said. He imagines driving a motorcycle taxi like the ones he sees in Goma. By now, though, those notions are tempered by a mild sense of the absurd.

"I have children here being sent home from school because we can't afford tuition," he said. "I don't understand how I can adapt to normal life if I don't have children studying like others do. Thanks to learning history, we've learned that the only man lost today is the Pygmy."

Last Sunday, those who were eligible cast ballots in Congo's first presidential election in four decades, and the other day, some in the group were still wearing buttons that Kabila's camp had handed out. A woman was using a Kabila scarf as a blanket in her banana-leaf hut. The camp's co-chief, Mutembwa Ngenderezi, attended to the cabbages in a bright yellow Kabila hat.

"I went to meet with them so I could tell them how we are getting kicked out of here," he said. "And they gave us this hat."

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