The news came through on 14 March 2020 – the first known case of infection with Covid-19 had been detected in Brazzaville. In response, the Congolese government had imposed a general lockdown on the entire population.
“We are extremely concerned for the Pygmy population and for ourselves also”, says Father Franck Bango, the parish priest of Péké, in the diocese of Ouesso in the north of the Republic of Congo. “Some relief measures have been announced by the government – such as free electricity and water – but they will have absolutely no impact on them since they are altogether remote from their world. The pygmies will end up dying, not from the disease, but from hunger. For the pygmies don’t really yet have the habit of saving for tomorrow. They have to be able to work on a daily basis in order to be able to eat”, Father Bango explains. He himself is the parish priest of the first-ever Pygmy parish in the country.
This Congolese priest was due to travel to Switzerland in April to talk about the situation in Congo Brazzaville to the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) which is supporting his work with the pygmies. But he has had to cancel his visit because of the pandemic.
If this virus does indeed arrive in his parish, which is 500 miles (800 km) away from the capital Brazzaville, his people will be completely defenseless. “For in fact there is no hospital nearby to care for us”, Father Bango explains. The Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart do in fact have a large health center, but it is 150 miles (200 km) away in Sembé, and the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Mary, who are closer, only have a very small infirmary, which deals mainly with the more prevalent local illnesses such as malaria and typhoid.
Father Bango believes that there have been Catholic pygmies among the population for some years now, but their presence remains somewhat hidden. It is not easy to count their true number since they are a nomadic people. But he believes there are around 3000 of them, spread here and there throughout the diocese, and with round about a hundred in his own parish.
When he arrived in Péké in 2014, the priest found various fundamentalist sects present, such as the “Church of God of the Oil”, the “Pentecost Church” and also the “Chapel of the International Conquerors”. But these sects were telling people that when they fell ill, it was because an uncle or an aunt had cast a spell on them – thereby creating division among the families. “For the pygmies, the family is sacred, so these sects did not completely convince them. And once the coronavirus arrived, they packed up their bags and left.”
The Catholic faith has changed something in their lives
In order to properly get to know the pygmies, this missionary priest lived among them, went fishing with them. At first, “they were mistrustful, because they had already had experience of broken promises by the various electoral candidates…” And additionally, “they thought that Christ was not compatible with their own traditions, but I discovered that they were already living many of the Gospel values without even knowing it.” For example, Father Bango explains, couples marry for life. The concept of divorce does not exist among them, nor does that of polygamy. And they are not in the least materialistic.
Today these Gospel values have become fully integrated in their lives. Sunday Mass is no longer simply an option, but an essential part of the life of faith.
The people are also favourably disposed to the Church’s efforts to lead them away from their fetishist practices, which consist in casting spells and are a cause of many internal dissensions, Father Bango reports. “I am also, for example, trying to teach them not to take what does not belong to them. They have no notion of storing food, for of course they don’t have any kind of material means of doing so, such as a refrigerator, and that exposes them to a precarious, hand-to-mouth existence.”
In the past, he explains, they used to always work in the fields for other people. “Now they are learning to work for themselves. With the lockdown decreed by the government to prevent the spread of coronavirus, they have taken advantage of this time to work in their own fields. And this is an important step forward!”
ACN has been supporting the diocese of Ouesso, where Father Bango ministers, for the past 25 years. Over the past five years it has funded 15 projects for a total value of over 150,000 Euros.
A people threatened with extinction
The indigenous peoples of this region (the pygmies) are divided into a number of distinct groups, such as the Twa, the Aka, the Baka and the Mbuti, spread across a number of different countries of Central Africa, including the Central African Republic, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Cameroon and Gabon. According to various sources there are thought to be several hundred thousand pygmies in these regions of equatorial Africa, possibly as many as 900,000. There are estimated to be almost 600,000 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo alone.
Seizure of their traditional lands
In many places the indigenous pygmy populations, along with many other local communities, have fallen victim in recent decades to the seizure of their traditional lands for agriculture and logging operations. The pygmies are suffering as a result of deforestation and the intrusion of mining companies and also from the wars that are ravaging their lands. They can only watch helplessly as the traditional sites are destroyed, places where there were treasured fruit trees, such as mangoes, safou trees (African pears) and avocados… To say nothing of the graves of their ancestors.