MBANDAKA, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nov 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sixteen-year-old Elisée Nyanokonzo used to be afraid to walk alone around the streets of Mbandaka, the crumbling provincial of Équateur Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
As a Batwa pygmy, Nyanokonzo was constantly fearful of being taunted or attacked by someone from the majority Bantu population, known to routinely stigmatise the Batwa minority.
"I never felt comfortable approaching a Bantu. I'd been made to believe I was less than them, that we pygmies weren't whole people," Nyanokonzo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
But that changed last year, when Nyanokonzo was recruited into a project at a community radio station called Radio Mwana - meaning 'child' in the local Lingala language.
Launched in late 2014 with the support of Congolese non-profit groups Secteur Media and Children's Radio Foundation, Radio Mwana aims to empower the province's indigenous people by training pygmy teenagers as youth reporters.
Together with young Bantu reporters, Nyanokonzo and other teenage Batwa reporters now produce eight radio programmes a month, drawing a sizable listenership across Mbandaka and in the forested countryside that surrounds the city.
Broadcast from a small, stuffy studio, the programmes cover a range of themes, from education and healthcare to child marriage.
The topics are eagerly discussed by the young reporters at their weekly editorial meetings under a blue plastic gazebo in the courtyard of Radio Mwana's cinder block compound.
The aim is to highlight the problems facing indigenous communities, promote their rights and encourage reconciliation with the Bantu majority.
The programmes usually take a talk show format, with impassioned discussions on the chosen theme, interspersed by local popular music. Sometimes the radio broadcasts pre-recorded interviews and even segments on Congolese law.
"Thanks to the radio, I'm not afraid anymore," Nyanokonzo said. "Our programmes have taught me and are also teaching the listeners that we all have the same rights. And if we bleed, we all have the same colour blood."
ON THE MARGINS
Comprising about 1 percent of Congo's population of nearly 80 million, pygmy communities including the Batwa have been hit hard by decades of conflict, industrial logging, rapid population growth and poor protection of their land rights.
Across Central Africa, pygmies have been forced off their ancestral forest land, often living in makeshift shelters along roadsides and returning to the forest to gather food.
In Congo, growing numbers are living in shoddily-built, mud brick houses in impoverished, rubbish-strewn settlements that have mushroomed on city fringes.
"Congo's indigenous people have always been very attached to and dependent on the forest, so when they leave the forest, they become very vulnerable," said Danny Molongi, 33, of the Mbandaka-based indigenous rights group GASHE.
"They easily become the most marginalised communities. It's something that has become an ingrained part of local custom."
Guy N'djali, a charismatic local radio journalist and the coordinator of Radio Mwana's youth reporters project, said pygmies have always lived on the margins in Mbandaka, a river port with an economy built largely on shipping and forestry.
"We want to banish that spirit,' he said. "We want pygmies to be able to live together in harmony with us Bantus. So we are looking to inform our pygmy brothers and sisters through the radio, to make them feel included and empowered. Even just for them to hear other pygmies on the radio, working together with Bantus, it's very powerful."
'HUMAN AS I AM'
Radio Mwana has also changed attitudes among the majority Bantu.
"I used to think pygmies were dirty, that they smelt bad and had a bad attitude," said Mitterrand Bafango, 27, a motorbike taxi driver in Mbandaka, who listens daily to Radio Mwana.
"Radio Mwana has helped me to see that they are just as human as I am."
Radio is an effective medium in a country that thrives on oral tradition, and where internet connectivity and literacy rates are low, said Bob Yala, project director at Secteur Media.
"Oral accounts are so ingrained in our culture. This is how we've shared legends, stories and knowledge throughout our history. So radio has taken on a similar kind of authority in our communities and it draws on that to educate and inform."
Many of the pygmy reporters live far from the centre of Mbandaka and struggle to pay for transport so their attendance at Radio Mwana is irregular. Their families often cannot afford to pay for their education and healthcare.
One of the station's pygmy reporters, a bright 18-year-old called Jacques Mboyo, fell ill in 2016 and died - his parents could not afford the hospital fees.
Another Radio Mwana reporter, 15-year-old Benjamin Bafoko lost his parents and little sister in the space of six months in 2013. The newly-orphaned boy was taken in by a local Bantu pastor, but he refused to pay for Bafoko's schooling.
The young reporter still hopes to find the funds to finish his education, but in the meantime spends most of his free time at Radio Mwana. When there are no production commitments or jobs he can help N'djali with, Bafoko watches educational YouTube videos on a dated PC in the corner of the studio.
"When I come here to the radio, I feel very much at ease. I'm with my friends and we have fun," Bafoko said. "I also know my rights because of the training I had here, and now I am passing that knowledge on to other pygmies that makes me proud."