ENYELLE, REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO -- Deep in the jungles of northern Congo, it's still easy to find slave owners. Davila Djemba, the teenage niece of the country's minister of forestry, is eager to show off some of the 100 Pygmies her family owns.
She laughs and chatters as she makes her way along a footpath toward her family's estate in this growing logging village. She's eager to play hostess, since she doesn't get many foreign visitors.
Djemba walks past typical scenes of African peasant life. But the bucolic setting masks an ugly truth, one that surfaces as Djemba considers how to entertain her guest that night. As she nears her family's home, surrounded by half a dozen Pygmy huts, Djemba gets an idea. "We can make them sing and dance for you, if you want," she offers.
The Republic of the Congo is a deeply stratified society of two major ethnic groups. Pygmies, the diminutive people of Central Africa's rain forest, live in servitude to the Bantus, an ethnic group that makes up the majority in this country of 3.7 million.
Many Pygmies belong from birth to Bantus in a relationship that Bantus like Djemba call a time-honored tradition.
Pygmies call it slavery.
Interviews with dozens of Pygmies and Bantus during a weeklong trip through remote northern Congo in November revealed a strained, lopsided and, some say, abusive relationship that is increasingly attracting the attention of human-rights groups.
"It is clear that there is a very serious pattern of discrimination of this minority," said Silvia Luciani, program coordinator for UNICEF in Congo.
Less than human
Pygmies say they are not compensated fairly for often exhausting work and are subject to discrimination that limits their access to health centers, schools and often prevents them from voting and traveling. Many Pygmies say Bantus consider them less than human.
Bantus, for their part, say Pygmies are an uneducated, less advanced people who still rely on the guidance of their Bantu masters to survive.
Pygmies, who make up between 5 to 10 percent of Congo's population, are responsible for much of the hunting, fishing and manual labor in jungle villages like Enyelle, but Pygmies and Bantus alike say Pygmies are often paid at the master's whim: in cigarettes, used clothing, or even nothing at all.
Now UNICEF and human-rights activists are speaking out. A law that would grant special protections to the Pygmy people is awaiting a vote by the Congo parliament. And for the first time, the United Nations named the treatment of Pygmies one of its top priorities for the country in 2007.
'It's still slavery'
Jean Gonda, a Bantu master who lives in Boyelle, calls the tie between Pygmies and Bantus a "crossing between families." Gonda, who is the master of 22 Pygmies, says he has given some of his Pygmies small parcels of land to farm. Ending their servitude isn't something he has considered.
"These are my relatives. When I need something from them, they come, and I help them afterwards."
Pygmies interviewed don't see it the same way.
"Here, it's still slavery," said Richard Bokodi, a Pygmy and evangelical pastor who served as a translator for this report. Pygmy women who carry baskets of manioc root, the starchy staple of Bantu and Pygmy diets, are paid 250 Central African francs, or about 50 cents a day, he said: "With 250 francs, it's impossible to feed your children. We are suffering."