Congolese pygmy seeks to enlighten his kin

Kapupu Diwa Mutimamwa, a 55-year-old pygmy, poses on April 5, 2013 in Gombe, DR Congo.  By Junior D.Kannah (AFP/File)

Kapupu Diwa Mutimamwa, a 55-year-old pygmy, poses on April 5, 2013 in Gombe, DR Congo. By Junior D.Kannah (AFP/File)

KINSHASA (AFP) – Kapupu Diwa Mutimamwa, a pygmy from the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been to university and is a champion for his people, trying to open their way to education, health care and a place in politics.

Lively and talkative, the 55-year-old man of medium height calls himself “indigenous” to his country, but worries whether he is being politically correct. No serious studies have been undertaken to find out which ethnic groups arrived first on the vast territory of the DR Congo.

“In different times, ‘pygmy’ was an insult,” he says.

Founder of the National League of Pygmy Indigenous Associations in the Congo, Mutimamwa talks with politicians, plays a role in the growing national and international debate on managing the country’s enormous natural resources, and attends meetings with government ministers, foreign envoys and non-governmental organisations.

Born in 1957 at Mwaga in the eastern South Kivu province, Mutimamwa recalls with amusement his primary school nickname. “They called me Cassius Clay, because I was always fighting.”

After a few weeks, the religious community that ran the school hired his father as a watchman to prevent him from fleeing back to his village. “I couldn’t stay seated twiddling my thumbs for two hours.”

“Indeed, I know how to follow a bee and tell you where its swarm is, I know where a snake has passed by because I can see the tracks, I know how to set traps, but I went to the University of Geneva,” he says, adding that he believes that he was the first pygmy to be educated in the Swiss city.

Mutimamwa regards draft legislation being drawn up on land rights in the DR Congo as fundamental and argues that it should take account of the legitimate claims of pygmies. “Afterwards, it will be difficult to ignore indigenous peoples.”

During a 2008 conference in Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, Mutimamwa told the authorities that “we are not warriors”, though pygmies live in a part of the country that has been wracked by conflict for decades.

During conflict in the mineral-rich southeastern Shaba province – now Katanga province – in the 1990s, 5,000 pygmies were enlisted to fight, but armed only with their bows and arrows few returned home.

The DR Congo’s population comprises more than 400 ethnic groups, of which about 30 are pygmies, which anthropologists define as any group where the adult men are on average less than 150 centimetres (59 inches) tall.

Mutimamwa puts the number of pygmies at between 350,000 and 600,000, which means that at most they constitute one percent of the Congolese population, roughly the same as in neighbouring countries.

However, the pygmies have not been included on the voters’ register. “Why would you want (electoral agents) to walk for five or six days” to reach their territory, Mutimamwa says, claiming that “we live in the paradise you’re looking for (…) I call the forest our supermarket!”

All the same, there are very few schools and no health centres. The only schools installed in forest territory are private ones and health care facilities are very rudimentary.

Tuberculosis ravages the pygmy population and so does alcoholism. Deforestation and mining operations are eating away at traditional homelands.

On the island of Idjwi in Lake Kivu, 25 pygmy families have recently called on Mutimamwa for help in finding land where they can settle safely, free of constant harassment from the local chief.

Educated successively at the University of Bukavu, then in the northeastern city of Kisangani and finally at Geneva’s Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Mutimamwa was first employed as a teacher of accountancy in neighbouring Burundi. He was then appointed to a regional organisation and went on to guide many NGOs in their aid programmes.

“The pygmy is an object of curiosity, and that’s where it stops (…) with sporadic, non-sustainable actions,” he says.

“Everything that you do for us without us, you do against us,” he adds, paraphrasing Mahatma Gandhi.

However, he is full of praise for an initiative by President Denis Sassou Nguesso of the neighbouring Republic of Congo, who founded the first forum of indigenous peoples, which takes place every three years.

“I never negotiate with pygmies,” Mutimamwa explains, arguing that a prime difficulty arises from a deeply entrenched inferiority complex among his own kind.

“This has been engrained into people for generation after generation. They say ‘Yes’ all the time, but I know what that ‘Yes’ really means. I want to open their minds.”