In Congo-Brazzaville, a priest guides vulnerable Pygmies, as the coronavirus threatens
THE FIRST KNOWN CASE of a coronavirus infection in Brazzaville in mid-March prompted the Congolese government to impose a 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 the Congo.
The pastor of the first-ever Pygmy parish in the country told Aid to the Church in Need (ACN): “Some relief measures have been announced by the government—such as free electricity and water—but this will have absolutely no impact on them, since they are altogether remote from these commodities. The Pygmies will end up dying, not from the disease, but from hunger. For the Pygmies don’t have the habit of saving for tomorrow. They have to work every day in order to be able to eat.”
If this virus hits his parish, which is 500 miles away from the capital Brazzaville, the Pygmies will be defenseless. “There is no hospital nearby to care for us,” Father Bango says. The Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart run a large health center, but it is 150 miles away. The Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Mary, who are closer, only have a very small infirmary, which deals mainly with 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 determine their actual number, since they are a nomadic people. The priest estimates that there are around 3000 of them, spread throughout the diocese and about a hundred live in his own parish.
In order to properly get to know the Pygmies, this missionary priest lived among the and went fishing with them. At first, he says, “they were mistrustful, because they had already had the experience of broken promises made by various electoral candidates running for office. They also 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; they have no concept of divorce nor 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, such as casting spells. Father Bango reports: “I am also trying to teach them not to take what does not belong to them. They have no notion of savings, such as storing food, because they don’t have any material means of doing so, such as a refrigerator. This makes for a precarious, hand-to-mouth existence.”
The Pygmies used to always work in someone else’s fields. But, says Father Bongo, “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. This is an important step forward!”
It is estimated that there possibly as many as 900,000 Pygmies in the region of equatorial Africa; almost 600,000 are believed to live in the Democratic Republic of the Congo alone. Like other indigenous peoples, Pygmies are subject to seizure of their lands by agricultural or logging concerns; besides deforestation, they also suffer the intrusions of mining companies.
ACN has been supporting the Diocese of Ouesso for the past 25 years. Since 2015 it has funded 15 projects for a total value of more than $170,000.