The village of Ikengo welcomed me as a son of the village on my return. On our first visits there forty one years ago my role was to drive the Youth Department truck loaded with thirty plus youth singing above the groaning of the truck springs on the 30 km, two hour trip from Mbandaka . Everyone but the driver evacuated the vehicle at the culvert fashioned with branches which often had to be repaired before the last leg of the journey.
My two return trips this summer have been made comfortably seated in a plastic lawn chair placed in a pirogue powered by a 15 horsepower outboard motor. The village has grown considerably; what had been a sleepy village of 500 inhabitants is now several times larger. The deterioration of the road from Mbandaka, similar to the deplorable conditions of the roads and transportation infrastructure throughout the country, has not prevented the Governor of Equator Province and other dignitaries from making the trek to Ikengo these days.
The reputation for size and quality of the pigs raised at the Church’s Centro Agro Pastorale (CAP) d’ Ikengo, and the lovely retreat-like setting on the Congo River attract most of Ikengo’s visitors with vehicles these days. This was not the case ten years ago when a large cattle and pig raising ranch was in full swing. Former President Mobutu’s Minister of Finance maintained the road for the multiple vehicles of his ranch, developed on the land across the road from the Church’s CAP. The rain forest where giant trees emitted the shrieks and squawks of monkeys and birds was cleared in 1980 to house a large work force and sheds for the livestock. The ranch ceased operations with the death of the owner but the CAP maintains the village’s identity as the prime source for the tastiest pork in the Mbandaka area.
Rev. Paul Elonda’s founding vision of the Church’s vital role in developing the natural resources of the country is carried out at CAP today by the cultivation of the most advanced vegetable seed varieties, pig and chicken raising and the trainings carried out at the Center. The full time staff consists of ten workers and the CAP Director, with nine of the men being of Pygmy background. The current director, a Bantu, helped start a network of Pygmy civil rights groups in Equator Province before beginning work at the Center. That organizing effort began his collaboration with one of the Province’s very few Pygmy secondary school graduates now working at the Mbandaka office of UNICEF.
The preponderance of Pygmies on the staff remains something of a mystery to me so I look forward as I write this to having some of my questions answered. Whether the Peace Corps volunteer who spent two years at the Center in the mid 70s brought the village Pygmies into the Center’s life is an unknown. What I do know is that Church leaders years ago spoke out against the widespread discrimination against the Pygmies as an “inferior“, even “subhuman“, minority of the village and Equator Province population. Although I don’t recall ever meeting a Pygmy resident of Ikengo forty years ago, they were confined to the end of the village at the time, I did learn that they were masters of the hunt and supplied villagers with meat from the forest. This weekend I preach in the Ikengo Church where Pygmies now worship and I will no doubt have some fresh learnings to report on later.
The story of the Peace Corps volunteer who married a girl from the village also remains something of a mystery. Before returning to the States they had three children while he worked in Peace Corps headquarters in Kinshasa. No one I’ve spoken with to date seems to know his whereabouts or that of the wife and children. The foundation of the adobe brick house he built next to the River bank provides the outline today of the Center’s “Payote”, the thatch roofed hut without walls where visitors to the Center are now welcomed.