Goma — Having sex with a pygmy woman is a cure for backache. This is one of the many superstitions held by people living in Virunga National Park in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
It's also a reason the country's indigenous population has been forced off land they've inhabited for generations.
"When I pass by people, they hold their noses claiming I stink," says a pygmy woman who wishes to remain anonymous. "It is so hurtful," she adds.
Like this woman living in Rusayo village, most pygmies have settled in villages outside Goma since their expulsion from Virunga National Park. Several years later, though, they still struggle to live in harmony with others. Their lack of education and distinct physical appearance - being relatively short in stature with long arms and short legs - are among the obstacles to their integration in Congolese society.
The DRC's pygmy peoples, known as the Bambuti and the Batwa, are considered among the earliest inhabitants of Central Africa. They mainly live by hunting, fishing and gathering.
"An estimated 23,000 pygmies currently live in the North Kivu province, not including those who may be in inaccessible or conflict areas," notes Joseph Itongwa Mukumo, coordinator of the Program for the Integration of the Pygmy People in North Kivu (PIDP).
"Out of the forest"
Mukumo says: "Many consider pygmies to be backwards, just having come out of the forest. The integration of pygmies as an equal population group remains a great challenge, as they face discrimination and rejection due to their cultural and social difference."
He also points out that the term 'pygmy' itself is derogatory. (According to the Oxford dictionary, the word is "chiefly derogative", referring to "a very small person, animal, or thing".)
Justin Shamutwa Masumbuko, himself a pygmy and coordinator of an NGO for the promotion and protection of pygmy rights and interests in the DRC, has also denounced the prejudice. "Having sex with a pygmy woman is no cure for backache! It's simply a superstition about the pygmy people," he exclaims.
"Others believe that having sexual intercourse with a young pygmy virgin can cure a number of diseases. As a result, our daughters and wives are being raped," adds Mukumo.
Masumbuko says such crimes are committed by rebel groups in and around the Virunga National Park, "but also by park rangers and sometimes ordinary civilians".
Property and politics
Less extreme though no more fair, property rights violations are among the most frequent abuses against pygmies in North Kivu. This year alone has so far produced eighteen recorded cases of despoliation of land.
The discrimination is also felt at the political level. "There is no pygmy in Parliament, nor does any hold an important position in government," says Masumbuko. What's more, he adds: "There is no policy or effort from the Congolese government for an effective integration of the pygmy people."
The struggle for the recognition of pygmies is far from over. Groups like PIDP continue to champion for their equal treatment.
According Mukumo: "Because they are also human beings with equal rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we will continue to denounce all types of discriminations against pygmies and fight for their rights, especially the right to equal treatment as Congolese citizens."
Yet to accomplish this, it seems that the DRC will require not just a change of law, but a change of mentality.