Saturday, July 14, 2007

A Room With a View at the Zoo

Organizers of this year's Festival of Pan-African Music (FESPAM) in the Republic of Congo drew criticism from human rights activists after housing a group of Baka pygmy performers in tents at the Brazzaville Zoo. While national Forestry Ministry officials claimed that the 20 musicians, including 10 women and a baby, were placed in the high profile and rustic accomodations so that they would not be removed from their "natural environment," human rights activists blame the maltreatment on a long-held perception of pygmies being less than human. Zoo patrons reportedly found it a noteworthy spectacle, video-recording the musicians as they collected firewood on the park grounds.

According to Roy Richard Grinker's In the Arms of Africa, the attention is not all negative, as "The Pygmies have long been called the premiers citoyens (first citizens) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a title that not only assumes their primordial existence in the forest but also accords them the privilege of not paying taxes."

Nonetheless, the U.S. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor has denounced the Congolese government for permitting pygmies to be "excluded from employment opportunities, social programs, and the political process, in part due to their isolation in remote forested areas of the country, their culture, and their stigmatization by the majority Bantu population.

Also, in a 2002 United Nations inquiry, rebels of the Congolese Liberation Movement were found to have "killed, raped, and robbed civilians, sprayed livestock with automatic fire, raided fresh graves to look for treasure, and eaten human flesh." Victims of these crimes were primarily Ituri pygmies who were accused of being forest scouts for rival forces. Although the accusations of the rebels' cannibalism were eventually rescinded, the inhumane treatment of pygmies was again brought to light and even the most atrocious stories are believable.

You can find the BBC story on FESPAM here.


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