Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Congo's Pygmies: Can they be 'made equal'?

For 2007 UN agencies are considering intensive programming aimed at establishing the equal rights of Congolese Pygmies (Bambuti and other groups) long denied by the Bantu groups dominating Congolese society, politics and administration. There is little to romanticize in the Pygmy's remote and rustic lifestyle, whose perpetuation is largely the direct result of relentless discrimination by the Congolese majority.

A National Geographic site covers their status in the country today, complete with accusations of cannibalism committed against various Pygmy groups by presidential candidate Jean-Pierre Bemba's armed group, the Mouvement pour la Liberation du Congo (MLC). The degree to which they are subjected to an unparalleled degree of humiliation, ridicule and abuse by Bantu groups across the country explains their currently abject state.

Within the last five years, I have had the occasion to work directly with Pygmy groups outside Isiro, Orientale, and in the Mai Ndombe region of northern Bandundu. In both instances I was struck by the automatic and fierce prejudice with which they were treated by the surrounding Bantu Congolese, people who were living at basically the same level of extreme indigence and dispossession as the Pygmies themselves. The other primary characteristic of their misery was the degree to which they had internalized the Bantu discourse of their inferiority and ignorance.

They were at such a nadir that they actually believed the racist slander to which they were constantly subjected; their inferiority complex was total and all-consuming. Every aspect of their lives was to them proof not of the injustice of the discriminatory discourse around them but of their own failure, their incompetence, their baseness. Their identity as they expressed it in focus group discussions consisted precisely of the very insults they heard throughout their lives from their Bantu neighbors. It was stunning and tragic—they were totally brainwashed. I would not be surprised if the majority of Pygmy communities in the DRC suffered this same degree of self-abnegation, the result of the extreme prejudice and humiliation to which they are constantly subjected.

I am curious to see how the UN approaches this issue: clearly Congolese society is at fault, rife as it is with profound racism and prejudice towards its original inhabitants. Project proposals I have seen base themselves on UN legal precedents recognizing and protecting the rights of indigenous groups, based on the principle of 'autochthony'.

I’m not convinced that in a Congolese context the autochthony argument is the most appropriate to defend/restore their rights and equality. Autochthony as the right to equal treatment of oppressed indigenous groups has its role in international law, although I'm quite sure no such precedent exists in Congolese law.

But are victimhood and a history of oppression the most constructive rhetorical arguments to restore equality between peoples? Victimhood as a tool of empowerment—'victimhood' being a placeholder for autochthony given the oppression indigenous peoples have universally experienced—does not seem to result in sustainable integration or equality between peoples; it simply perpetuates a discourse of difference, resentment and the ‘you owe us’ mentality. If such is the result, I dont see how it can serve the objectives of integration or equality at all.

Even the Congolese see themselves largely as the ‘victims’ of Rwanda, the international community, colonialism, ad infinitum, to the point where they take no responsibility for their predicament because ‘the world owes them’. As anyone who has spent a long time in this country would agree, this enormous and largely vacuous grievance has achieved nothing for the Congolese. My sense is that autochthony—often a sanitized synonym for ‘oppressed group’—as a rhetorical argument to assert the equality of minorities can backfire with disastrous consequences. What worse fate for the Pygmies to go from the frying pan into the fire by trying to beat back ingrained Bantu prejudice with the victim argument... . But, who knows, there are definitely no geniuses at the helm.

More as the 'plotting for Pygmy equality' unfolds...


IPRB said...

Bravo! IPRB users will definately stay tuned for further commentary and analysis of the evolution of policy in DRC. FYI: Your blog has been identified as a relevant information resource on indigenous forest-centered minority populations of the Congo Basin (ie. pygmies) and has been added to the collection of the Indigenous Peoples Resource Bank (Congo Basin Region) at:


A link to this post with an extended excerpt of your commentary can be found in the Section "Blogs".

Finally, a big thanks for your contribution toward enhancing public awareness of the unaddressed crisis of the "pygmy peoples" of the Congo Basin region.

Best Regards - IPRB librarian

edward b rackley said...

interesting, i will check up on your entity as soon as i have time. if i remain involved with this UN initiative here in DRC, i will of course post more on it. right now myu level of implication is being determined. in any case, it wont start (if it gets funding) until march 07. thanks, ed

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