In a small village called Bunyakiri in the eastern Congo’s rain forest, a community of Central African foragers learn to write their indigenous language with 가, 나, 다.
The Chitembo Jeongeum Writing system, devised by four Korean linguists, is an adaptation of the Korean alphabet, Hangeul, to transcribe the sounds of the language spoken by this particular tribe of Twa hunter-gatherers, one of several groups of people known as Pygmies for their short stature. Chitembo is the language this group speaks and Jeongeum comes from "Hunmin jeongeum," the 15th-century document first describing the Korean language, and another name for Hangeul.
“Teachers from a Hangeul school in Los Angeles first taught (the new writing system to) 15 local primary school teachers in January 2020, and then people from the Hunmin jeongeum Society (in Seoul) went to teach the following month. Then I began teaching them,” said Rev. Choi Koan-shin, who has been doing missionary work among the Pygmies since 2013.
"About 40 Twa adults and nearly 300 children have learned the Chitembo Jeongeum alphabet so far, but they're not proficient yet,” he said in an interview with The Korea Herald.
It is unknown how many people speak Chitembo, but it is estimated that between 500,000 and 700,000 people understand the language, Choi explained.
They never had a writing system to record their history or culture with, and have followed the same ways of living for thousands of years. The Democratic Republic of Congo uses the Roman alphabet, but over 95 percent of the Pygmies there are illiterate.
The idea to create a writing system for them was conceived in 2015 when the sister of a Pygmy tribal leader visited Korea for a cultural exchange event organized by the missionaries, and heard about a modified version of Hangeul invented for an Indonesian ethnic minority called Cia-Cia, and requested the same for her people.
Choi asked So Kang-chun, then a professor of Korean language education at Jeonju University, who served as chief of the National Institute of Korean Language from 2018 through 2021, for help, and So pulled it off with three other professors: Kim Ju-won of Seoul National University, Ko Dong-ho of Jeonbuk National University and Park Han-sang of Hongik University.
Despite the Pygmies' struggle for survival, many of them do not know why they need to learn the alphabet. But there are some who want their children to learn it for a better life.
“To teach them anything, we first need to feed them to make them come to school,” Choi said.
“What’s interesting is, if you teach (the Chitembo Jeongeum Writing system to) children, they can write their names in half an hour. But it takes months to teach adults how to write their names.”
Reaching Bunyakiri from South Korea requires a flight to Rwanda and a drive to the border of Congo, before taking a jeep from the border and then switching to a motorcycle due to the ground conditions.
The Pygmies in Bunyakiri were evicted from an area they used to live in, as the Congo government decided to build a national park to protect endangered gorillas, which the Pygmies sometimes fed on.
The tribe then had to move around in search of food, and were often driven out from wherever they settled by “Bantu,” which Pygmies use to refer to locals outside of their group.
The fighting continued, and when Choi asked them what could stop it, the Pygmies replied, “Please teach us.”
Hands for the Little (HFL), the missionary group that Choi is part of, is also translating the Bible into the Chitembo language by using the Chitembo Jeongeum Writing system.
An average Pygmy woman in this region gives birth to 10 to 15 children, and some 70 percent of the infants die of malnutrition or illness before they reach the age of 5, according to Choi.
Most of them eat once a day if they are lucky, and the average life expectancy of Pygmies that survive infancy is about 46.
A few have learned to make charcoal, which they sell to other tribes for a monthly household income of about $10, and some grow potatoes and other vegetables. But there is no way to protect the Pygmies when they are evicted by other tribes, as they do not legally own the land.
“These people’s wish is to be able to live like other people in Africa, to have a place to live, instead of living under the eaves of other people’s roofs,” the reverend said.
Together with other missionary groups, HFL built a nursing college, which was set to open in early January, in addition to a church and primary school in Bunyakiri.
To help the tribe find ways to support themselves, HFL has taught them how to sew, raise livestock, make soap and palm oil.