Albertine isn’t sure of her age but thinks she’s around 40. She owns two slightly worn and patched shirts, which she carefully hangs up in the small hut she shares with 11 other family members. All their clothes have been given as wages in exchange for long hours of labour in other people’s fields.
Albertine and her family now live in a village but she grew up as a nomad, moving from one settlement to another every few days. Like many pygmies, she never had the chance to attend school and has found herself having to work for the wealthier Bantu ethnic groups. Without a doubt, pygmies are marginalised and taken advantage of. It’s not uncommon for them to be used as slave labour.
They also suffered terribly during the 10-year civil war, which ended just seven years ago. Albertine vividly recalls how she and her family were forced into hiding when militias came to her area. It’s why she’s so fearful, even now, she says. The unexpected approach of a car or a bird darting out of the woods in front of her can make her heart race.
But, despite the hardships of her life, Albertine is a happy woman. And that’s thanks to attending church.
“When I started going to church I was told about a God that loves all people, whether they are pygmies or Bantus,” she smiles. “We’ve always felt that we are worth less than other people. But one thing I’ve learned at church is that nobody can take away God’s love for us. It’s such an empowering thing to know that.”
She’s also overjoyed that she is finally fulfilling a long-held dream to learn to read and write. Every Thursday, she and her nephew, Chico, take a break from their work in the fields and gather under a tree with 30 other villagers to attend Bible-based literacy classes. Run by a village elder who was trained by the Bible Society of Congo, they are learning to read and write in Lingala – one of the two national languages that most people can speak.
“Being able to learn to read and write is a dream I never dared to believe could come true,” says Albertine. “And it’s wonderful to learn in Lingala. Now when I go to the market I’m able to read the labels and buy the products I need from the Bantu people with confidence. Getting the chance to learn makes me feel like I own something precious that can never be taken away.”
Please pray for the Bible-based literacy classes that are taking place among indigenous people in different parts of the Republic of Congo. Around 3 out of 5 men and 4 out of 5 women among indigenous ethnic groups, including the pygmies, are illiterate and vulnerable to exploitation.
Story and photos provided by Grace Smith from the Bible Society in England and Wales.