Displaced Pygmies from Pool Region, Congo Vaccinated Against Polio
Mounkomo Village, Bouenza Region, Republic of Congo
29 July 2002
“Our village was completely burned to the ground,” says Malima Dominique. “We all ran into the forest to hide when we heard the
guns and the shooting. We only had the clothes on our back. The children were scared and hungry and the elders were exhausted. We stayed hidden in the forest until it was quiet again, but when a few of us returned to Nko, we found that it had been completely burned to the ground – all our houses and even the village school. We have lost everything we had.”
Malima is the Chief of the Pygmies of the village of Nko, located in Congo’s volatile Pool Region, from which an estimated 100,000 people fled recent fighting that erupted on 30 March 2002 between government troops and the Ninja rebel militia. The fighting continued on into April and tension in the region continues to this date. Nko is situated close to the town of Vinza, home of Pasteur Ntoumi, the mercurial religious-military leader of the Ninja militia. Amongst those who fled the fighting were Malima and the 110
Nko village Pygmies. A soft-spoken, elderly man with a well-trimmed grey beard, Malima became Chief of his Pygmy village 5 years ago when his predecessor passed away. “We fled the fighting for good on April 2 and finally arrived here in Mounkomo by foot on 14 May. We’ve been displaced here ever since.”The journey from Pool Region to Mounkomo, in Pool’s neighbouring Bouenza Region was long and difficult for the Pygmies - along the way, one pregnant woman gave birth to a stillborn child and one of the elderly men died on arrival from exhaustion. “We had to cross through forests and rivers and we hid in the forests at night,” says Malima. “It was very difficult because we had no food, no clothes or blankets and people started to get sick. We were frightened of being attacked and killed.”
It has never been an easy road for Congo’s Pygmies. Centuries ago, the Pygmies were the first to inhabit the area now known as the Congo. Bantu groups, including the Teke and the Kongo, followed them and established powerful kingdoms. The Pygmies, with their expert knowledge of nature, were used by both groups to cultivate land and to hunt in the forest. However, they reaped little benefit from their work for the Teke and Kongo kingdoms. For hundreds of years, they lived together in small, tight groups, always on the periphery of the Teke and Kongo villages. Today, five hundred years later, there is very little difference.
“We fled the fighting with the Teke of Nko whom we work with”, says Malima. “We stopped here three months ago at Mounkomo because the Teke of Nko knew the Teke of Mounkomo. When we first arrived, we all slept together in the church, but some of us were sick with tuberculosis and the Teke arranged for us to stay in a few houses here.” The few houses are located on the outskirts of the Teke village of Mounkomo. Centuries after the first Pygmies arrived in the Congo, the 110 Pygmies of Malima’s village still live like their ancestors: on the periphery of a Teke village – even when it is a village of newly displaced.
This afternoon, the Pygmies who are not out in the field working for the Teke are gathered around Chief Malima, who is dressed regally in an orange shirt, sitting on a small stool in the shade under the branches of a large safoutier tree. “Our relations with the Teke are good”, says Malima. “They pay us for our day’s work in the field and we can buy food with that. The Teke of Mounkomo have even asked if we will stay here, but my people want to return to Nko as soon as we can. That is our home and there we know the forest for hunting.” “How many of your children have been vaccinated against polio?” asks Isabelle Mouyokani
of UNICEF-Brazzaville, to Chief Malima. “Last year, the children were vaccinated and some of the children were vaccinated again
yesterday” says Malima who speaks Teke, but not French, Congo’s national language. “But others were not here so they need to be vaccinated today.” “Okay, that’s fine – today we’ll vaccinate all the children who weren’t vaccinated yesterday. But, first of all, who knows what polio is and how to prevent it?”, asks Isabelle in French. After the translation is made into Teke, there is a shuffling from behind the group. An elderly woman comes forward, carrying her grandson. He is about six years old and he holds her tightly around the neck – both of his bone-thin legs dangle below him, providing no support.
“This is my grandson, Malonga. I think he has the disease you’re talking about”, she says. “We had to take turns carrying him all the way from Nko because he’s never been able to walk.” “Yes, he does … he does have polio”, says Isabelle. “This is what can happen to your children if they don’t take the polio vaccine. All your children under 5 years of age must be vaccinated against polio. They must also be vaccinated two more times – one month from now and one month after that. The vaccine is free, it is not harmful and it will prevent your children from becoming crippled.”
Malonga has now been placed on the ground – the open cuts on his knees are covered in flies, but either he has no feeling in his legs or he simply takes no notice. Instead, his bright eyes are fixed intently on the visitors. “Do you go to school, Malonga?” Malonga is very shy and hides his face in his hands. “But the school was burned down, remember?”, says Malima.
“Yes, of course, you’re right. But before that, did he go to school?”
“No”, says his grandmother. “He doesn’t go to school. Look at his legs.”
“But polio has only affected his legs. He’s a smart boy – look at his eyes. He looks very intelligent to me. The polio hasn’t affected whether he can learn to read and write. You must treat him the same way you treat all the other children. Did you know that one of the presidents of the United States had polio in both legs, just like your grandson … and he still became President.” This generates some conversation after being translated into Teke and Malima leans down and smiles, giving Malonga a pat on the shoulder. Malonga buries his face in his hands again, shy and perhaps not used to so much attention.
“Chief, will you please have all the children under 5 years of age brought here for their vaccination?”, says Isabelle. Malima gives a few orders in Teke and the Pygmy children are brought forward … one by one receiving the two drops of polio vaccine along with an appropriate dose of Vitamin A, which amongst other benefits, helps to boost their immunity against infection. Malonga’s grand-mother carries him up to the line but the local Ministry of Health vaccinator gently explains to her that the polio vaccine won’t be of any help to him now. With a kind smile, he pats Malonga on the back as his grandmother turns away.
Due to fighting in the Pool Region, the Nko Pygmies – and tens of thousands of other people displaced from Pool - have lost everything they had: their homes, their belongings, their school. But they have not lost their hope.
“We are only waiting to be sure that the fighting has stopped completely in Pool Region”, say Malima. “When it has, we will return to Nko and rebuild our lives. We hope that peace will come soon ... I want to see Malonga go to school one day.”
Malonga hides his face in his hands again. But he quickly peeks out from behind them, and this time he’s smiling.