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Posted December 2, 2007
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"You have to be willing to put up with being treated like a second-class citizen."

A Pygmy Traveler Gives Voice to a Marginalized People





THE first thing you notice about Antoine Lonoa, a Pygmy from Congo, is that contrary to the stereotype, he is not unusually small. Indeed, his size would not draw attention on any street in New York.

The second thing you notice is how easily Mr. Lonoa, the president of a group called the African Congress of the Pygmies, engages a roomful of curious Americans. With his quick smile, strong handshake and emphatic delivery, he passionately describes the plight of Congo’s Pygmies, whom he describes as “longtime victims of stigmatization, exclusion and contempt.”

He also knows how to tell a joke. In his opening remarks at a recent conference here, Mr. Lonoa said he had heard that Americans were getting shorter. He wondered if that meant that eventually “there could be 300 million Pygmies in the United States.”

The humor helps. As a rare spokesman for the hundreds of thousands of Pygmies in nations like Congo, Mr. Lonoa is only too familiar with what he calls the “repugnance” society feels toward his people and the “inferiority complex” it has engendered in them.

While most Pygmies still live in the forest, they are being displaced and driven out by the relentless encroachment of the modern world: huge logging enterprises, settlement, the development of national parks, and violence among militias and rebel groups. Forced to relinquish their traditional territory — “land which we have occupied forever,” Mr. Lonoa said — and lacking both civil documentation and a political voice, Pygmies often take up a precarious existence at the shabby margins of society.

But here in Lynchburg, a grimly symbolic place in Pygmy history, Mr. Lonoa and his wife, Thérèse Pambo, were treated as celebrity guests by scholars and students at a three-day conference in late October dedicated to their cause. Generations ago, Ota Benga, a Congolese Pygmy infamously displayed in a cage at the Bronx Zoo in September 1906, lived the last six years of his life here in Lynchburg. He committed suicide here in 1916, when he was in his early 30s, and was buried here.

So it was that Mr. Lonoa, Ms. Pambo and Grégoire Bokungu, a pro-Pygmy activist who traveled with the Pygmies from Kinshasa, Congo, found themselves in comfortable lodgings at idyllic Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Va., riding in a shuttle van each morning past curiosities like Biscuitville, Food Lion, AutoZone and Dixie Outfitters.

Although he lives in Kinshasa now, Mr. Lonoa, 63, is from rural Bandundu Province, east of Kinshasa. He is among the small percentage of Pygmies who can read and write. Going to school, he said, is difficult or impossible for Congo’s Pygmies; most of them still live far from towns and all of them face discrimination from the majority Bantu.

“You have to be very, very strong,” he said. “You have to be willing to put up with being treated like a second-class citizen.”

AS a boy, Mr. Lonoa said, he had the good fortune of going to live in a town where the Bantu tribe was more tolerant of Pygmies, a move he made at the urging of a brother who was already there, and Bantu helped Mr. Lonoa get his schooling. Eventually he became a teacher and school administrator in Bandundu, a considerable accomplishment. But in Kinshasa, where he has lived since the mid-1990s, he has had a couple of different jobs, including parking attendant, and has often been unemployed.

Scientists believe that Pygmies were the original inhabitants of central Africa’s vast rain forest, which has always provided for all their physical and spiritual needs. There are many different Pygmy societies in about a dozen African countries; Mr. Lonoa and Ms. Pambo are Batwa Pygmies. In Congo, a country of more than 60 million people, most estimates put the Pygmy population between 250,000 and 600,000.

Many Bantu refuse to eat or socialize with Pygmies, or to pay them what they would pay a Bantu for the same work. “Pygmies are abandoned to their own fate,” said Mr. Bokungu, a Bantu.

Despite its name’s suggestion of grand meeting halls and assembled legislators, the African Congress of the Pygmies is a small, struggling collaborative of people trying to promote and protect Congo’s Pygmies. It has very little money and no office.

Like many of the Pygmies in Kinshasa, Mr. Lonoa and Ms. Pambo, who is a vice president of the collaborative, did not even have a permanent place to live until their new friends in Lynchburg stepped up. Enough money was raised to make a $500 deposit on an apartment and to start paying the $50 monthly rent.

When Mr. Lonoa was asked how he would spread the news about his trip to America once he got home, he laughed. With no office and little money, communication is difficult.

“I don’t have the material possibilities to do this,” he said, speaking French through an interpreter. “If you give me money, I’d like you to give me some people, too, to guide me.”

Mr. Lonoa and Ms. Pambo were not the only Pygmies in the United States this fall. In October, two Pygmies from Congo met with officials of the World Bank in Washington. Pygmies recently scored a moral victory against the bank when a leaked report by the bank’s own watchdog panel said the bank had backed environmentally destructive logging projects without consulting the Pygmies, and without considering the effects of the logging on the Pygmies’ way of life. The report also found that logging companies had not delivered on pledges to invest in aid projects like schools and clinics.

One of the people most responsible for waking Lynchburg to its Pygmy legacy and bringing Mr. Lonoa here is Dibinga wa Said, a Congolese political activist who now lives in Boston and is a patron of the African Congress of the Pygmies. A few years ago, having learned the story of Ota Benga, Dr. Dibinga came to Lynchburg in search of the Pygmy’s burial site.

“They are animals, as far as the Congolese are concerned,” Dr. Dibinga, a Bantu, said of the Pygmies. He said Westerners displayed “a form of racism” when they showed more concern for Africa’s endangered gorillas than for the Pygmies and other trampled peoples. “Africa is not a zoo for your amusement,” he said. “It is a continent of people who are struggling.”

MR. LONOA’S trip to America included his first visit to a dentist, for an extraction, and a journey by bus to New York and the United Nations. Still, he did not seem overwhelmed by New York. “There were so many people, it was so crowded, it reminded me of Kinshasa,” he said.

He said he and his wife had been warmly welcomed by Americans, who struck him as so cheerful and positive that a visitor from Africa might wonder “if they even have troubles at all,” he said.

Coming from a country bigger than California and Alaska combined that has only several hundred miles of paved roads, Mr. Lonoa was particularly struck by one convenience that Westerners take for granted.

“The roads are very well maintained,” he said.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, International, of Saturday, December 1, 2007.

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