The treatment of minorities in Africa: A case study of Pygmies in Central Africa

30th April 2013 By: In On Africa IOA

“The aim of a democracy is to safeguard the rights of the minority and avoid the tyranny of the majority.”(2) This quote, from the American philosopher Cornel West, has enlightening implications. Indeed, a thorough assessment of the progress made on the front of human rights should focus on how a government treats the majority of its people, but, more compellingly, attention should be paid to how it treats the unheard, the members of ‘minorities’.

In the Central African rainforest, tribes of hunter-gatherers have been living for several centuries. These peoples, designated as ‘Pygmies’, are characterised by their short stature and their love of nature. Adults usually grow to be only three or four feet tall. The word ‘Pygmy’ is derived from the Greek word pyme, which means ‘a cubit in height’. In 1904, the Saint Louis World's Fair that was hosted in the United States brought African Pygmies for exhibition. One of them, named Ota Benga, later became part of an exhibition in the Bronx zoo, where he was displayed in a cage in the Monkey House. Benga moved on to work in a tobacco factory; however, in 1916, uprooted and having completely lost his identity, he took a gun, went into the woods, and committed suicide.(3)

This paper discusses the rights of the Pygmy people in Central Africa, today. Pygmy tribes try to maintain their own culture according to their beliefs, traditions and languages. However, this is proving extremely difficult - Pygmies are widely considered by society as inferior people and are discriminated against on this account. Moreover, they are the direct victims of the vast deforestation occurring in the African rainforest. Pygmies have little access to education and health, and with a lack of political support, the survival of the Pygmies in Africa is under great threat.(4)

A community slowly disappearing: The last hunter-gatherers

The Pygmies are thought to be the original inhabitants of the African continent,(5) and proof of their existence can be traced back from Ancient Egypt.(6) Other mythological references to Pygmies can be found in the Greek literature - for example, Homer, the author of The Odyssey, narrated stories about them.(7) Pygmies are predominantly members of hunter-gatherer communities, living in equatorial rainforests across Central Africa for millennia.(8) The Central African rainforest spans large parts of Cameroon, the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Rwanda and Uganda. The DRC, in particular, contains the second largest rainforest in the world (the first being the Amazon).(9) African Pygmies live in several ethnic groups across Central Africa: the Mbuti in DRC, the Aka in CAR and northern Congo, the Baka in southern Cameroon, the Twa in the central DRC river basin and the Batwa in Uganda.(10) The Pygmy groups speak different languages, mostly related to those of neighbouring non-Pygmy peoples. However, there are a few words that are shared between even widely separated Pygmy tribes, suggesting they may have shared a language in the past.(11)

Pygmies are the largest group of hunter-gatherers left on earth (12) and constitute a minority everywhere they exist. For instance, a great number of Pygmies live in the DRC’s rainforests,(13) but they only represent 1% of the DRC population.(14) The hunter-gatherer way of life has first been threatened by laws intended to preserve animal and plant species.(15) For instance, the Batwa in Uganda are regarded as “some of the most marginalised people in Africa,” and in 1991, the forests where they were living became national parks for gorilla conservation.(16) Such an event suggests that the destruction of forests for industrial purposes has contributed to the plight of the Pygmies.

How deforestation participates in jeopardising the life of the Pygmies

The Pygmies are forest inhabitants. They live by hunting animals such as antelopes, pigs or fish, and by gathering honey, berries and other plants. They consider the forest’s spirit as a god who provides for their needs.(17) Jerome Lewis, an English scholar and member of Britain’s Royal Anthropological Institute, has been working with and living among the Pygmies since 1993. He asserts that the Pygmies’ love for their ancestral lands is reflected in their singing, which they use to “commune” with the jungle, mimicking the sounds of birds, monkeys and insects.(18) Thus, Pygmies rely on their lands and resources for their economic, cultural and spiritual integrity.(19)

This is why economic policies consisting of extensive logging in the rainforests puts more than just the rainforests in jeopardy.(20) Indeed, as an outcome of those massive deforestations, Pygmies are forced out of their traditional homelands. A report from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has noted that, as a result of their loss of habitat, these formerly nomadic, hunter-gatherer communities have been relying increasingly on wage labour and sedentary agriculture in neighbouring communities, where they suffer poverty and extremely low wages.(21)

The perception of inferiority: A long-standing discrimination

The definition of a minority group is a “nondominant group of individuals who share certain national, ethnic, religious or linguistic characteristics that are different from those of the majority population.”(22) With their particular way of life and their striking numerical inferiority, Pygmy peoples correspond with the idea of a minority. Mark Lattimer, the Executive Director of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Minority Rights Group International has suggested, “in every world region, minorities and indigenous peoples have been excluded, repressed and, in many cases, killed by their governments.”(23) For the particular case of Pygmy people, there is a long-standing perception of their inferiority as human beings. They are considered as such by non-Pygmies, by governments and even by themselves. Indeed, a journalist observed that “there is this very long history of marginalisation and discrimination which has become internalised in the communities themselves.”(24) Also, prejudice and superstition trigger acts of violence against pygmies; according to a report issued by the British NGO Forest People, “the violence is often linked to perpetrators’ prejudiced belief that as inhabitants of the forest, indigenous peoples have special powers.”(25)

As such, there is traditionally a societal and an institutional contempt for the Pygmy people. Pygmies are even regarded “as pets”(26) by the rest of society. For instance, in 2007, during the Festival of Pan-African Music (FESPAM) in the DRC, Pygmy musicians were housed in a zoo, while the non-Pygmy musicians were housed in hostels.(27) It has been observed that in Gabon, the “perception of Pygmy populations as inferior makes it extremely difficult to obtain birth identification cards.”(28) Also, the lack of legal identity means that Pygmies are unable to make claims against their different governments’ deforestation policies.(29)

There is arguably a problem in terms of self-perception - the violence and discrimination might have been deeply ensconced into Pygmies’ minds, depriving them of the capacity to empower themselves through self-knowledge in order to mobilise for defence of their rights. For instance, in Congolese villages, where Baka Pygmies work for Bantu, the Pygmies are paid “at best about half of what a Bantu labo[u]rer would get paid.”(30) Pygmies are also subjected to forced labour.(31) It is likely that a lack of political representation further entrenches the invisibility of minorities, and their ongoing mistreatment.(32) Moreover, this lack of political representation relates to an underlying challenge that the Pygmies are faced with: a lack of access to education. Indeed, it remains rare to witness Pygmy peoples attending educational institutions past primary school.(33)

Protecting minorities through the African Charter of Human Rights: Wishful thinking?

In legal language, the concept of ‘soft law’ refers to “rules that are neither strictly binding in nature nor completely lacking legal significance.”(34) The African Charter of Human Rights, adopted in 1981, is an example of soft international law. Indeed, this instrument is a resolution on the rights of the indigenous peoples and communities of Africa.(35) Several of the Charter’s provisions prohibit discrimination and violence towards minorities. For instance, Article 19 ensures that “all peoples shall be equal; they shall enjoy the same respect and shall have the same rights. Nothing shall justify the domination of a people by another.”(36) Article 22 vindicates the right of peoples to economic, social and cultural development, “with due regard to their freedom and identity and in the equal enjoyment of the common heritage of mankind.”(37) Article 28 further puts forth that “every individual shall have the duty to respect and consider his fellow beings without discrimination, and to maintain relations aimed at promoting, safeguarding and reinforcing mutual respect and tolerance.”(38)

Each of the quoted provisions is violated when it comes to the way that Pygmy peoples are treated in Central Africa. However - and this is the problem with international soft law - governments cannot be forced to actually implement the content of principles they have ratified. Nor can they be sanctioned on this ground.(39) Even requests for information on adherence to international legal standards can be ignored. This remains the case in the DRC which has yet to reply to the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations concerning the treatment of Pygmies in respect of international law requirements regarding labour law.(40) This request was issued in 2010.

Concluding remarks

Due to deforestation, great impoverishment, and violence against them, Pygmy peoples are under threat. Lewis contends that Pygmies “represent one of the original groups of human beings that lived in Africa some 100,000 years ago, so they really are a very ancient African people, from whom all the Bantu people are actually descendants.”(41) In this sense, the treatment of Pygmies should be of concern to all Africans, “who are linked to Pygmies by blood.”(42)

Pygmies have managed to adapt to the particular ecological conditions of the rainforest, and this, as well as the particular culture of Pygmy peoples, should be protected (43) as part of African cultural diversity. This calls for resource management that would not result in leading the Pygmies out of the forests. It has indeed been suggested that the “foresight and planning skills needed to successfully transition from life as hunter-gatherers to agriculture are lacking among the Pygmies.”(44) Currently, due to unenforced policies to protect the rights of Pygmy peoples, “there is no life” for Pygmies “inside or outside the forest. We can neither live in our original habitat nor are we allowed to have our own land.”(45) Political intervention, in line with international commitments, is therefore needed. The greatest threat to the existence of Pygmies is the forced and unchecked discrimination that fosters their poverty, labour exploitation, under-education, and poor health.(46)

Written by Mariam Diarra (1)


(1) Contact Mariam Diarra through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Rights in Focus Unit ( This CAI discussion paper was developed with the assistance of Laura Clarke and was edited by Kate Morgan.
(2) West, C., 2001. Race matters. Beacon Press: Boston.
(3) Collet, M., ‘Ota Benga: The Pygmy who was caged in the Bronx zoo’s monkey house’, Environmental Graffiti,
(4) ‘Merciless plight for African Pygmies’, Cultural Survival, 26 August 2003,
(5) ‘Who are the pygmies?’, IRIN News, March 2006,
(6) Dawson, R.W., 1938. Pygmies and dwarfs in ancient Egypt. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 24(2), pp.185-189.
(7) Theoi Greek mythology website,
(8) Ibid.
(9) Rainforest facts website,
(10) Butler, R.A., ‘People of the Congo rainforest- the Pygmies’, Rainforests Mongabay, 9 January 2006,
(11) ‘African people and culture’, Africa guide,
(12) Raffaele, P., ‘The pygmies’ plight’, Smithsonian Magazine, December 2008,
(13) ‘African people and culture’, Africa guide,
(14) Zajtman, A. and Rabaud, M., ‘Pygmies: Endangered people’, France24, 23 February 2009,
(15) ‘Congolese pygmies struggle to integrate’, Turkish Weekly, 13 September 2011,
(16) Samani, V., ‘Uganda’s first Batwa Pygmy graduate’, BBC, 29 October 2010,
(17) ‘African people and culture’, Africa guide,
(18) Taylor, D., ‘Pygmies of Central Africa driven from ancestral jungles’, Voice of America, 11 April 2011,
(19) ‘The rights of indigenous Pygmy peoples in the Democratic Republic of Congo’, The Forest People Programme, 30 April 2008,
(20) ‘Land rights and Pygmy survival’, IRIN News, March 2006,
(21) ‘Equality at work: Tackling the challenges’, International Labour Conference, 2007,
(22) ‘Indigenous people and minorities: A global and historic assault’, IRIN News, March 2006,
(23) ‘Iraq tops list of threatened minorities’, Al Jazeera, 20 January 2006,
(24) ‘Congolese Pygmies struggle to integrate’, Turkish Weekly, 13 September 2011,
(25) ‘The rights of indigenous Pygmy peoples in the Democratic Republic of Congo’, The Forest People Programme, 30 April 2008, 
(26) ‘Pygmies in the Congo treated like “pets”: Report’, Global Post, 13 November 2011,
(27) ‘Pygmy artists housed in Congo zoo’, BBC News, 13 July 2007,
(28) ‘Religious freedom in Gabon’, The Institute on Religion and Public Policy, 26 June 2012,
(29) Ibid.
(30) ‘Equality at work: Tackling the challenges’, International Labour Conference, 2007,
(31) ‘Report of the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations’, International Labour Organisation, 2010,
(32) ‘The challenges of Pygmy political representation and mobilisation’, IRIN News, March 2006,
(33) Samani, V., ‘Uganda’s first Batwa pygmy graduate’, BBC, 29 October 2010,
(34) ‘Soft law and legal definition’, US Legal,
(35) ‘Pamphlet No. 6 of the United Nations guide for minorities’, Minority rights under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights,
(36) ‘African [Banjul] Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights’, 27 June 1981, Banjul: Organisation of Africa Unity,
(37) Ibid.
(38) Ibid.
(39) ‘Report of the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations’, International Labour Organisation, 2010,
(40) Ibid.
(41) Taylor, D., ‘Pygmies of Central Africa driven from ancestral jungles’, Voice of America, 11 April 2011,
(42) Ibid.
(43) Arbi Ben-Achour, A., Backiny-Yetna, P. and Wodon, Q., ‘Socioeconomic status of the pygmies in the Democratic Republic of Congo’, The World Bank, April 2011,
(44) Ibid.
(45) Samani, V., ‘Uganda’s first Batwa Pygmy graduate’, BBC News Africa, 29 October 2010,
(46) Arbi Ben-Achour, A., Backiny-Yetna, P. and Wodon, Q., ‘Socioeconomic status of the pygmies in the Democratic Republic of Congo’, The World Bank, April 2011,