Housing Pygmies at Zoo Sparks Uproar

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 26, 2005

BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo – A group of Pygmy musicians performing at an annual festival were temporarily put up in a zoo by Congolese officials, attracting tourists and prompting a protest from a human rights group.

Authorities said they were trying to make the indigenous musicians feel comfortable. But after a flurry of media coverage, they moved the visitors to a high school dormitory late Friday. The Pygmies are now being housed with musicians from elsewhere in the Republic of Congo, while foreign artists performing at the Festival of Pan-African Music were lodged in hotels.

The Pygmies’ presence in a tent on the zoo grounds had attracted tourists, who came to stare and take pictures, the Congolese Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement Friday.

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“(We) vigorously protest the discrimination, exploitation and bad treatment of these 20 indigenous people,” the rights group said. “Since their arrival in Brazzaville on July 4, these people have been sleeping exposed to mosquitoes and the cold … whereas the other delegations have been housed in hotels.”

Pygmies, not all of whom are below average height, are believed to be the earliest inhabitants of Central Africa. They live in the forests of Congo, its larger neighbor the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as in other countries such as Central African Republic, Cameroon and Burundi.

Officials said they offered the accommodation on the forested zoo grounds so the 10 women, nine men and one baby would feel more at home.

“It’s not a case of discrimination,” said Yvette Lebondzo, the director of arts and culture for the Republic of Congo. “We lodged them in the park near running water and a forest simply because that will remind them of their usual surroundings _ which is the forest.”

“I think our intention was noble toward our brothers who came directly out of the forest and have never seen a city,” she said.

Security barriers prevented reporters from being able to speak to the Pygmies before they were moved from the zoo.

“We would like to reassure people that our intention was simply to put them at ease in an environment that resembles their ecosystem,” said Dieudonne Mouyongo, who directs the festival.

Founded in the 1940s, the Brazzaville Zoological Park was plundered during the country’s civil war in the 1990s. Lions, elephants and monkeys were killed for their meat.

It now has no big game _ only 13 monkeys, one jackal, two crocodiles and birds, zookeeper Jean Pierre Bolebantou said.

He said he does not understand the fuss over the Pygmies.

“They were happy to find here an environment similar to what they knew in the forest. They have already shown us several medicinal plants,” he said.

(This version CORRECTS UPDATES with Pygmies being moved from zoo; ADDS background on Pygmies; corrects time element in graf 3 to Friday sted Saturday)

A service of the Associated Press(AP)