Aka Pygmies of the Central African Republic, between traditional and modern medicine

Juliet, a pygmy in her fifties, sits down on the examination table, slowly lifting her clothes. His back, covered with thin scars, is deformed to an excessive size.

On the edge of the Central African Republic’s rainforest, the village of Sakungu has been hosting a clinic run by Senitizo, a small American non-governmental organization specializing in access to health care, for nine months.

Far from abandoning their ancestral rites, a.k.a., the nomadic Pygmy people from the forests of the southwestern Central African Republic and northern Democratic Republic of the Congo, come here for free treatment, infected with viruses or bacteria infiltrating from a more modern world that their elders did not know about until recent times.

Over time, some of them settled in villages or cities, often escaping deforestation and violence in this country, where many armed militias made or still make laws here and there, and where conflicts between communities are often bloody.

A pygmy child in his hut in Sakungu, March 11, 2022 (AFP – Barbara DEBUT)

In Sakungu, about 200 kilometers south-west of the capital Bangui, in the Lobaye prefecture area, violence continues to be absent.

The territory is red, the path leading there breaks through lush vegetation. A few terracotta brick houses of non-pygmy villagers sit side by side on the edge of the forest with shelters made of plain dried aka leaves that are still discriminated against and scorned across the country.

Near the clinic, one of the few signs in the village nonetheless calls: “Pygmy village, let’s protect our minorities.” The Aka, also called bayaks, are considered by UNESCO to be the earliest inhabitants of the Central African Republic.

– exiled, exploited –

But ostracized and literally exploited by other communities, they are outcasts, the poorest of the poor in the world’s second least developed country according to the UN, in a civil war for more than eight years and almost entirely dependent on international humanitarian aid. to feed and care for its nearly 5 million inhabitants.

Patient at Senitizo Medical Center in Sakungu, March 11, 2022 (AFP - Barbara DEBUT)
Patient at Senitizo Medical Center in Sakungu, March 11, 2022 (AFP – Barbara DEBUT)

“There is discrimination against pygmies everywhere in Central Africa,” Alain Ebelpoint, an anthropologist at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in France, told AFP. “Very low wages, hard work… serfs by the rest of the population.”

Musicians – UNESCO classified their polyphonic songs as a World Heritage of Humanity in 2003 – hunter-gatherers and soothsayers-healers, they are even “threatened with extinction, like their forest ecosystems”, Mr. Ebelpoin warned back in 2012 in his essay . “Pygmy Pride and ‘Pygmites’: Racism and Positive Discrimination”.

“I live between the forest and the village,” says Juliet, dean of Akas Sakungu, with a sweet smile on her lips, despite the ailments she suffers from: in addition to an ugly abscess in her back, chest pains, dizziness and parasites.

She never resorted to the help of modern medicine until the opening of the Senitizo center.

– Low life expectancy –

“Akas have many more health problems than others, and their life expectancy rarely exceeds 40 years,” explains Jacques Bebe, a doctor at the center.

“They consume non-potable or even stagnant water, they have no hard shelter, no sheets, no mosquito nets, they hardly limit themselves to taking medication and are primarily treated in the traditional way. sometimes it’s too late,” the practitioner says.

Patient receiving medication after consultation at Sakungu Medical Center on March 11, 2022 (AFP - Barbara DEBUT)
Patient receiving medication after consultation at Sakungu Medical Center on March 11, 2022 (AFP – Barbara DEBUT)

Jean-Claude, in his thirties, came to the center for medicine before venturing into the jungle in search of bushes. “This is for a headache and this is for a backache,” he explains, pointing to a plant with thin leaves and another with thicker tops.

Juliet also heads to the forest entrance to find her family. There are only three basins and a saucepan in his hut. On the roof, leaves and bark dry in the sun.

In the background, water boils on fire. A woman from her family prepares a decoction of various plants. “Very effective for the stomach, here everyone knows forest remedies,” she says proudly.

However, “when there is a medical center nearby and they don’t feel discriminated against, they go there,” Alain Ebelpoin told AFP.

In the waiting room, Gaspard, who is in his forties, comes to treat his back. “Life in the forest is hard, so I come to the village from time to time. To live, I collect caterpillars (a popular dish), but I grow cassava and bananas, a hunter and a fisherman,” says this man in tatters. .

“Modernization, I have nothing against it, but I am afraid that our traditions will someday disappear,” he says thoughtfully.

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