International Ministries

The Twa : Trying to Establish Their Place in Modern Congo

April 1, 2014 Journal
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For some followers of our journals this may be a little too dry.  But we think it helps to understand more about the circumstances that shape the lives and outlooks of the people with whom we work.  This short piece complements Miriam’s recent blog about the literacy team’s trip to Inongo.  Ed and Miriam

Pygmies in Congo are people living between two worlds.  They live in clusters but are scattered in nearly every province of the country.  For generations the government has wanted to see them settled in towns, abandoning itinerant life in the forest.  Some Pygmy groups have settled voluntarily, hoping for a more stable and prosperous life.  While some succeed, most find only poverty, malnutrition and marginalization outside the forest.

The Twa living around Inongo encounter multiple barriers to progress in life outside the forest.  Many of the majority Bantu have deep prejudices against the Twa that lead to abuse and exploitation.  Legally they are full citizens of the Congo.  However, enjoyment of legal protections and rights is not automatic even for Bantu citizens; for the Twa, prejudice often eliminates any rights they have.  They are often forced to work without pay or for half of what a Bantu would get.  The law does not recognize traditional Twa forest-use rights and Twa bands hold land only at the sufferance of a Bantu land chief.
Bantu prejudice excludes or severely limits Twa access to education and health care available to the majority population.  Teachers and fellow students disapprove of Twa students sharing classrooms with Bantu students.  Extreme poverty makes it hard for Twa parents to pay school fees.  Health service workers are often unsympathetic and unwelcoming.  Public health outreach (vaccinations, well-baby clinics, deworming and nutrition campaigns) often pass them by, forcing the Twa to rely exclusively on traditional medicine.  Poor education and poor health have predictable effects on their ability to earn a living, and ability to influence the social and political structures that define their opportunities.

Of course Pygmy tradition and the dysfunctional adaptation to settled life impose their own limitations.  Seasonal hunting and gathering remove children from school, interrupting learning progress.  Lack of proper attention to hygiene, poor nutritional practices, early marriage and motherhood : all contribute significantly to poor health.  The stresses of life on the margins of Bantu society also lead many Twa to seek relief in alcohol or cannabis.

In making the transition to settled existence, many Twa have not yet fully adopted permanent agriculture: when they have fields, they're often very small.  Becoming a farmer requires hard-to-obtain land, unfamiliar seasonal planning, food stores in reserve, and assurance that the harvest will belong to the family rather than the landowner.  It is a long and daunting list.  Cutting fields for others, and working as hired labor for Bantu farmers is often a more familiar (if much less lucrative) decision for people with the day-to-day mindset of hunter-gatherers.
Facing barriers every day of one’s life can crush the spirit, suck away hope.  The Twa don’t need any do-gooder’s pity.  But they do need constant reminders that they are cherished by God and bear His image.  They need inspiration, knowledge of how others facing similar challenges in a changing world have transformed their circumstances.  They need imagination and creativity that help them to understand and protect the distinctives that make up their essential identity . . . and help them to adapt to the modernizing world.  We ask the Lord to be their guide, their refuge, their strength.