COVID-19 In-depth Analysis

COVID-19 and African indigenous peoples: Cameroon’s Pygmies, Mbororo and Kirdii

Absent from the dominant narrative about the societal impact of COVID-19 has been the plight of indigenous peoples, who tend to disproportionately experience higher rates of infection, particularly women when confronted with health crises emerging from modern pandemics. This is linked to cultural factors, as well as weakened access to healthcare and linguistic differences that contribute to higher rates of infection.

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NABILA EL HADAD/AFP via Getty Images
NABILA EL HADAD/AFP via Getty Images

This article focuses on the plight of indigenous peoples, with a specific emphasis on Cameroon’s Pygmy, Mbororo and Kirdii groups, as a case study towards raising awareness in identifying the impact of COVID-19 on these communities in the last six months. The article further brings into focus the marginalisation of these particular groups of people and the socio-economic impact the virus has on them.

The AU must engage its 42 member states with indigenous populations to come up with substantive and appropriate policies that alleviate what is already known, as well as the current unknowns, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the United Nations (UN) and World Bank, there are an estimated 476 million indigenous peoples spread across 90 countries throughout the world. While this represents only 6% of the global population, indigenous peoples constitute 15% of the world’s poorest people, as they experience higher rates of poverty, homelessness and malnutrition while existing as “stateless” and on the margins of society. As a consequence, the World Bank estimates that the life expectancy rate for indigenous peoples is 20 years shorter than the rest of the citizens in the countries in which they are found. In many instances, indigenous peoples generally survive as hunter-gatherers, living deep in inaccessible forests and mountain ranges. The nature of indigenous peoples’ nomadic existence tends to traverse several borders – and by not confining themselves to a single territorial state, they therefore exist without official recognition, citizenship or access to public health systems. Instead, indigenous peoples’ livelihoods and health systems are intimately linked with the ecosystems in which they live, in both a physical and spiritual manner.

In an effort to respond and draw attention to the plight of indigenous peoples, in September 2007, 144 member states of the UN adopted the legally non-binding Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), aimed at encouraging countries to work alongside these marginal communities on global issues affecting their cultures, heritage and livelihoods. In light of COVID-19, an urgent situation exists for nations to mutually examine the specific impact of and required responses towards combating the pandemic on indigenous peoples. This mutual approach is necessary because of the nomadic way of life of indigenous peoples and the cross-border travel they may need to undertake that warrants the control of movement to combat the spread of the virus.

The above is particularly significant in Africa, where indigenous peoples are found in 77% of (or 42) countries. These indigenous peoples include the Doma along the Zambezi River, with splinter groups in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique; the Dan/Gio in Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire, numbering some 350 000; the Pene in Niger, estimated at one million or 8.5% of the population; the Hadza of Tanzania near Lake Eyasi, and the Dorobo; the Ogoni of the Niger Delta, numbering some 700 000; the North African Tuaregs of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, estimated at 450 000, with further groups in Senegal and Nigeria; the Pygmies, Mbororo and Kirdii of Chad, Nigeria, Central African Republic (CAR), Cameroon and the Great Lakes region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda; the Ogiek of Kenya’s Mau Forest, and the Masai – spanning Tanzania, Kenya and lower Sudan; the San in Botswana, South Africa and Namibia; and the Basarwa – Bushmen/Pygmies in Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana, among others. The indigenous peoples found in these countries have had little or no substantive attention by governments, making their plight under COVID-19 even more egregious.

Cameroon stands at the crossroads of the Central African area, hosting several hunter-gatherer groups and indigenous peoples from sub-Saharan Africa. The country’s current experience of its indigenous peoples – comprising the Pygmies, the Mbororo and the Kirdii – highlights the threat of COVID-19 on these groups of people in the absence of appropriate responsive policies. The Mbororo are identified as the largest indigenous group, with an estimated one million people (or 12% of the Cameroonian population) living along the border area with Nigeria, Chad and CAR. They can be broken down into three groups: the Wodaabe, located in the North Region; the Jafun, living primarily in the Northwest, West, Adamawa and East regions; and the Galegi, also popularly known as the Aku, located in the East, Adamawa, West and Northwest regions. The second-largest group are the Kirdii, populating and living high in the Mandara mountain range in the north. The third group are the Pygmies, who are located in the Central Region but whose precise demography remains fluid as a consequence of constant movement. The remote locations where they reside – including designated national parks or conservation areas – were immediately closed down when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. This impacted the tourist trade – the proceeds of which had become an alternative source of livelihood for the former hunter-gatherers, who are no longer allowed to roam freely, as had been their tradition. The immediate effect of the lockdown on Cameroonian indigenous peoples was therefore severe food insecurity for these communities, which have no reserves and survive from hand to mouth.

In addition to the shortage of food, the weakened state of the Cameroonian public health system not only faced challenges in coping with its registered citizens but was absent from supporting indigenous peoples. In retrospect, as the evidence showed, the majority of Cameroonian citizens gravitated towards traditional health, as well as the popular churches that preached that COVID-19 was fake, with known disastrous results. While Cameroon has signed up to the UNDRIP, it is not yet ratified. In practice, Cameroon has established a separate ministry responsible for indigenous peoples’ affairs. This ministry has developed and adopted a Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) and Action Plan for the Development of the “Pygmy”, as part of the wider indigenous and vulnerable peoples located along the Cameroon–Chadian oil port of Kribi.

An added threat to the lives of indigenous peoples is the modern commercial and infrastructure development in the country, which is exerting increasing pressure on the finite land holdings and natural resources. In turn, this impact worsens the living space and livelihoods of indigenous peoples. Furthermore, particularly in the north and adjacent to the Nigerian border, there is an active conflict in Cameroon that has devastated community environments.

In conclusion, COVID-19 has exacerbated the plight of indigenous peoples, in Cameroon and the rest of the continent and world. Using the preliminary findings in Cameroon, it behoves upon the African Union to engage its 42 member states with indigenous populations to come up with substantive and appropriate policies that alleviate what is already known, as well as the current unknowns.

Martin Rupiya is the manager for training and innovations at ACCORD.

Marisha Ramdeen is a senior programme officer in the Peacekeeping Unit at ACCORD.

ACCORD recognizes its longstanding partnerships with the European Union, and the Governments of Canada, Finland, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, UK, and USA.