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Last Updated: Saturday, 12 May 2007, 10:45 GMT 11:45 UK
A pygmy conference in the rainforest
By John James
BBC News, Republic of Congo

It was 0830 in the morning when I clambered out of the cab of the battered French 10-wheeled truck, wiped the sweat off my forehead with an already soaked shirt-sleeve and looked for the nearest patch of shade.

Pygmy meeting in the forest
The first international forum for indigenous peoples in Impfondo

I had flagged down the truck to hitch a lift to the pygmy meeting, but I found myself deposited on a mud road in a tropical jungle. My skin was already burning.

The first clue to the location of the conference was the chanting which drifted out of the rainforest.

I headed towards it down a narrow track through the forest. Small figures flitted in and out of the trees on the path ahead.

A few seconds later the trees parted to reveal a shaded clearing; on it, somewhat incongruously, a pile of white plastic chairs.

Everything else around was clearly made from and in the tropical rainforest.

Leaves had been bent and twisted and then shaped into small domed huts. Inside, children slept on, oblivious to the large circle of men and women shuffling, swaying and singing outside.

The soundtrack was provided by the beat of drums, several taller than a man.

International forum

I had arrived at the first international forum for indigenous peoples in the Congo basin. The delegates were from settlements of ancient forest peoples - many commonly called pygmies.

River into Impfondo
Supplies can only reach Impfondo via the Oubangui river
Some indigenous rainforest communities dislike the word pygmy, others maintain they are proud of it.

They had come to the remote town of Impfondo in the far north of the Republic of Congo.

There are no roads linking this place to the rest of Congo. Just the Oubangui river, which flows into the mighty Congo river just after it crosses into the southern hemisphere.

Untouched forests

For outsiders it is a daily battle to make a home here in the rainforest.

Supplies can only be shipped in to Impfondo when the river is high enough or on the Soviet-era propeller planes that fly in from Brazzaville 500 miles (804 km) to the south. Electricity comes from the massive town generator, but only if there is enough oil.

Map of Congo
Congo-Brazzaville, as this country is often called, is much smaller than its neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo. But it is not small. It is roughly the size of Germany with a population of less than four million.

The majority live in the two southern cities of Brazzaville and Pointe-noire; so the rest of the country has some of the most untouched forests in the world.

These are the forests where outsiders came in waves for rubber, ivory, palm oil and timber.

They may have thought this was a land untouched by human habitation, but it was in fact already home to thousands of pygmies.

Preconceptions about pygmies

Ilundu Bulanbo Stephane
Ilundu Bulanbo Stephane is a Twa pygmy from South Kivu
Most of your preconceptions about pygmies would vanish if you met Ilundu Bulanbo Stephane, a Twa pygmy from South Kivu in East of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

He is not tall but when we first meet in the jungle I find he is sharply dressed in a grey suit and striped tie.

As I take his photograph he jokes, in his polished French, "people don't expect to see pygmies wearing clothes like government ministers".

He says there is a time and a place for everything. "It is good to wear traditional clothes in the village, but you can't wear a traditional loincloth in town or at school."

Seen as sub-human

As a delegate from Cameroon puts it, indigenous people from the forests of central Africa are the third world of the third world. Their way of life - hunting in the forest and moving from one spot to another - makes it tricky for them to take advantage of education and health services.

Women making baskets
Nearly everything at the conference was made from the rainforest
Meanwhile the bureaucrats among the non-forest people find it difficult to deal with those born in a jungle, away from officialdom.

So, for the pygmies, there are problems getting birth certificates, attending school, taking part in elections and playing an active role in the wider society.

There is also the problem of exclusion from the forests, because of logging companies.

And it is not uncommon to hear about others kept in slave-like employment, by neighbouring farmers who regard them as sub-human.

End discrimination

So they have come to Impfondo on the Oubangui river to meet similar forest people from across central Africa to talk and to work out how to end discrimination.

There is a willingness to modernise: in some areas they have even started using the latest global positioning satellite technology to map out their hunting grounds and sacred sites.

There is also a strong appreciation of the role education can play in helping the communities fight for their rights in the outside world.

"Of course we can take on new things that are good for us", says Stephane. "But our values are also good for the 21st Century", he says.

"We are a peaceful, egalitarian people who share and live at peace with others. These are values we ask others to copy."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 12 March, 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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