BRAZZAVILLE (Reuters) - Children of Congo Republic’s pygmies will be able to attend special schools set up by retired French teachers in a plan to help fight discrimination against the forest dwellers, the U.N. children’s agency (UNICEF) said.
Pygmies, who live in often isolated communities in the thick forests of several central African countries, often complain of being marginalized and treated with disrespect by their governments, while their habitat is degraded and destroyed.
UNICEF estimates that only 35 percent of pygmy children of schoolgoing age actually attend classes in Congo Republic, in contrast with 76 percent of other Congolese children.
Many of those who do go to school drop out to go to work, or as a result of bullying by the majority population from Bantu ethnic groups.
“They abandon school because they have to follow their parents for seasonal activities such as fishing, hunting, honey or insect gathering, because of financial problems, but also discrimination by other Bantu kids or parents,” UNICEF representative Koen Vanormelingen said in an email to Reuters.
The U.N. agency is collaborating with a charity of retired French teachers, GREF, which is training 15 local educators to give lessons to initially 100 children in the forests of Sangha, in the north-west of the country.
The training is due to finish on October 18.
“The teaching will be done while strictly respecting the cultural values of these populations,” Helene Faye, a former teacher from Toulon and a member of GREF, told journalists in Congo Republic’s capital Brazzaville.
The schools, which will teach a standard curriculum of reading, writing and arithmetic, are intended for the pygmy population but children from other ethnic groups in the Congo Republic will also be able to enroll.
Organizers of the scheme said it was intended to give pygmy children a safe place to start learning, rather than to segregate them from other children.
“The idea of the schools is give them the time to adapt to the Congolese schooling system, for a period of two years,” UNICEF’s Vanormelingen said.
“After that, they are enrolled in the normal schools as much as possible. The idea is not to create a parallel system, just to get them up to speed to follow regular classes,” he said.
Congo Republic’s pygmy communities have denounced cases of neglect and discrimination in the past. None was available to comment on the plan for special schools.
Last year, a troupe of pygmy musicians was made to live in a zoo while performing at a Brazzaville festival. The organizers’ said they had thought the pygmies would feel more at home in the capital in a site that recreated their natural habitat.
The term pygmy, introduced by European explorers to Africa, refers to various forest-dwelling ethnic groups in Central Africa whose adults are shorter than 1.5 meters (five feet).
They use the term themselves although many of them regard it as derogatory, and say there are often significant language and ethnic differences between separate groups in different nations. (Additional reporting and writing by Daniel Magnowski in Dakar; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Matthew Tostevin)