Gabon’s people of the forest

On a beautiful recent morning in this remote village in northern Gabon, men sat in the ‘corps de garde’ in the town square and women stood nearby with apprehensive but happy children running around them.

In Esseng, located near the Minvoul District, members of the Pygmy ethnic group didn’t mind missing one working day on the plantations – because on that day, they were expecting some very special visitors.

A multidisciplinary team would visit the village to register the children for birth certification and vaccinate them against deadly childhood diseases. Too many Pygmy children have already suffered and died from these easily preventable illnesses.

‘Invisible’, isolated and vulnerable

Pygmies – sometimes know as ‘people of the forest’ – were forced to settle close to roads or rivers during the colonial era in Gabon, and policies persist to keep them there. The lands they once occupied were claimed by Bantu farmers, who often used the pygmies as cheap labor.

The result is that around 50,000 pygmies live in precarious conditions in camps, each of which consists of around 100 people from two or three large family clans.

Often seen here as inferior, most Pygmies cannot register the birth of their children, who therefore have no identity cards and are ‘invisible’ with regard to the law, and excluded from the country’s development process. Without registration, these children are denied fundamental rights to education and health care – services that are especially important to an isolated and vulnerable population.

Health and protection services

In 2004, a UNICEF-supported measles immunization campaign brought significant changes to Pygmy life in Gabon. Apart from saving children’s lives by vaccinating them for the first time against the disease, it put a spotlight on the issues affecting Pygmy children and their families.

Since then, these families have benefited from multiple UNICEF interventions, including birth registration, immunization, nutrition, HIV/AIDS prevention, and hygiene and sanitation programs. Children aged six months to five years and pregnant women have been vaccinated and supplied with immunity-boosting vitamin A by mobile vaccination and birth registration units.

The project aims to bring health and protection services closer to 3,500 Pygmies, 1,200 of whom are under 15, in 26 of the villages of Wolleu Ntem in the north and Ogooue
Ivindo in the northeast.

Sylvie is Baka, a member of the main Pygmy ethnic group. She does not know her age and never went to school. Until recently she had never been to a health centre. She gave birth to her five children in the forest, assisted only by the matron of the tribe, just like all the women of Esseng village.

Sylvie’s children have never attended school either. She works on the plantations, while her husband Banze is a hunter.

“Before the project started, I was unaware that I need medical care to monitor my pregnancy or to vaccinate my children,” recalls Sylvie. “We, the Baka, have good knowledge of all the secrets of the forest; our traditional medicine can look after all the diseases.”

But Sylvie lost two children – the first one a few days after birth, and the second when he was two years old. “They suffered from diarrhea and fever, and they could not survive it,” she explains, sounding resigned.

Peer educators in villages

This year, the UNICEF project serving Gabon’s Pygmy population will train and equip 104 peer educators (4 in each village) to promote better hygiene, nutrition and health care in their villages. Actively involved in instructing their communities, they will ensure sustainability of the project.

Sylvie could not volunteer to become a peer educator because of her workload. Still, she says, “With this project, I have the hope that for my three surviving children it is not too late. Today, I am registering my newborn baby and also my two older children who missed the registration session last November. They can attend school when they get their birth certificate.”

She also agreed to take her children to the health center, where they will receive mosquito nets to prevent malaria, as well as vitamin A and de-worming capsules. “I know how to better take care of my children,” says Sylvie. “I am happy because things are changing for my family and for the entire Baka community.”

In a sign of those changes, three high government officials traveled for the first time to a remote village late last year to deliver birth certificates to 94 Pygmy children.

Each step brings the people of the forest closer to gaining real recognition as Gabonese citizens and enjoying the health services they need.

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