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The Baka Pygmies of Cameroon

A tribe of hunters and gatherers, the Baka Pygmies, found in Cameroon, live alongside various ethnic groups of Bantu farmers, with whom they trade goods.

With an average height of 1.5 meters, the Baka are, strictly speaking, pygmies and not pygmies. However, in everyday usage, the term “pygmy” is used.

Exact numbers are difficult to determine, as they roam the rainforest as a semi-nomadic group and temporarily reside in specific areas that offer rich game and natural resources, but estimates range from 5,000 to 28,000 individuals.

They occupy the forest ecology and exploit the gifts of nature or the ecosystem. Over the years important exchange relationships developed between the hunter-gatherer Baka and the neighboring Bantu cultivators. However, this relationship was one of tolerance and was characterized by hostility. The situation has been caused by the condescending attitude and derogatory comments with which the Bantu describe their Pygmy neighbours, seeing the Baka as their property, victims of racism and exploited on plantations as cheap labour.

One of the most important differences between the Baka pygmies and their Bantu counterparts is the fact that they owe their entire existence to the natural resources that nature has endowed in their habitat, the rainforest.

Like other pygmies, the Baka differ culturally, linguistically and physically from their Bantu neighbors.

They live in huts called mongulu which are single dwellings made of branches and leaves and almost always built by women. After a frame of very flexible, thin branches is prepared, the newly gathered leaves are attached to the structure. After the work is completed, other plant materials are sometimes added to the dome in order to make the structure more compact and waterproof. In addition to the Mongolian, the Baka also build rectangular huts from leaves or bark, as do other ethnic groups, only they use mud and wood.

The Baka, know the variety of forest foods, animals and the specific seasons when one can easily find these products. Of the different seasons that these pygmies experience each year, the three-month long period of heavy rain is the most important. During this period when the forest is in abundance the Baka leave their permanent villages for the deep forest and for several months they wander around gathering food. Men perform the most famous but arguably most dangerous job of providing meat for the group through hunting and trapping. Women carry belongings in baskets and follow their husbands.

The types of hunting carried out in the rain forest are with bows, poisoned arrows, crossbows, spears and traps. Unlike other pygmy cultures, the Baka do not use hunting nets. The forest animals killed are various species of primates, artiodactyls, rodents, etc., which are hunted at night. They set traps near watercourses to hunt crocodile, which is usually killed by spears.

Foraging in the forests is one of the most important activities for the survival of the group, gathering yams, fruits, mushrooms, but at some times of the year they are likely to find small animals such as termites and caterpillars.

Carried in baskets by the women, the produce comes to the camp and is shared among all the families.

Hunting is one of the most important activities, not only for providing food but also for the symbolic meanings and prestige traditionally attached to it. Skilled Hunters are highly regarded and considered, especially if they specialize in the most rewarding and important game activity: The Big Elephant Hunt.

Mass deforestation these days deprives pygmies of the natural resources necessary for their biological and cultural survival. Unfortunately, due to the decrease in the number of game and less frequent expeditions into the forest, today, hunting does not provide the Baka with an adequate supply of animal protein which causes serious nutritional problems especially in children.

With poor nutrition and health problems, many live a quiet life maintaining a strong cultural identity and marking the boundaries between their form of culture and the other ethnic groups in the forest.

Of all the aspects of nature that surround the Baka pygmies, they perceive the rainforest as the most valuable force with which they interact.

The typical Baka pygmy will not leave his home in the forest even for a state-of-the-art palace in the city.

They have a thorough knowledge and understanding of the forest and its products, including the healing power of plants and are in fact the keepers of a vast natural pharmacy. Thus their whole life is occupied with the welfare of their forests.

“We were born and raised in the forest, we do everything in the forest, gather, hunt and fish. Now where do they want us to live our lives?”

Mbeh: Baka guitarist

Baka Beyond/Baka Gbine

Music plays a central role in the life of the Baka. From an early age they have a strong sense of rhythm, as soon as a baby is able to clap it is encouraged to participate in all the joint music creation. There is music for ritual purposes, music for imparting knowledge, stories and history of the Baka people, and music for pure enjoyment. This shared musical creation continually helps to strengthen the bonds between individuals in groups.

Baka music is perhaps best described as bursts of harmonic yodeling, interwoven in a dynamic, rhythmic manner. It is quite hypnotic and the forest environment makes the overall effect fascinating.

Inspired by the magical rhythms and melodies of the Baka people, British musicians Martin Cradick and Su Hart founded Baka Beyond in 1993 after visiting the tribe’s people.

They recorded a “Spirit of the Forest” album called Baka Beyond which propelled them to worldwide recognition. The band has since grown into a multi-cultural, dynamic live act with album sales of over a quarter of a million copies.

They have played at WOMAD in the UK, USA and the Czech Republic and on the Jazz stage at Glastonbury. Musica Mondial in Sao Paulo, Brazil and many other festivals in the UK, USA, France, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal, as well as headlining the Vancouver Folk-Roots Festival. Their tracks are often heard on television soundtracks, particularly nature programs on the BBC, and have been nominated for the BBC Radio 3 World Music listeners’ awards.

Sue Hart says, “It was the amazing bird-like song that first drew me in, the women will gather before dawn to sing, bewitch the animals of the forest and ensure the men’s hunt is successful. Song and dance are used by the Baka for healing, for rituals, to keep the community together and also for pure fun!”

With constant help from Martin and Sue, they were then invited to play at local celebrations, weddings and funerals in Cameroon. After recording their album “Gati Bongo” in 2000, they decided to name themselves “Baka Gbine” (Gbine translates as “help”).

The band includes guitarists Pelembir, Mbeh and Zow, percussionist Masekou, two women – Ybunga and Lekeweh, who bring amazing singing to concerts and traditional music.

Giving it back to Baca

Baka Gbine is one of the few groups that make sure to put back into the culture what they put out. Royalties earned from the sale of the albums are channeled back to the Baka Pygmies through the UK-based charity Global Music Exchange – or as the Baka call it, ‘One Heart’.

This ongoing relationship with the Baka community helped them gain land rights and recognition as citizens of Cameroon, as well as funding their own medical center and a Music Corps. All of these steps help protect the Baka culture, forest environment and unique hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

Roger Harrabin states-

The biggest threat comes from a road into the rainforest that has been upgraded by the Cameroonian government with funds from the European Union.

The World Bank and the African Development Bank refused to finance the upgrade.

They said it would speed up logging and hunting of endangered species. But the EU distributed the money without doing any environmental assessment.

Steve Gartland, the World Wildlife Fund’s man in Cameroon, says the inevitable is happening now.

“Road projects tend to bring development to forest areas. Once forest areas are opened up, poachers move in, leading to wildlife depletion and deforestation,” he said.

Sixty percent of Cameroon’s forests are already under exploitation.

Some companies are destroying the forest by bribing the laws that allow cutting only selected mature trees. Others seem to be playing by the book – cutting down only the occasional large tree.

Forester Jean Francois Pagot admits that the most valuable species are being depleted because they are not replanted.

He says:

“The main reason is the long lifespan of the trees. Some take two or three hundred years to fully mature – and no timber license lasts that long – so the diversity of the forest is being eroded.”

The Baka have found it more difficult to procure other types of meat since poachers started using the EU road to sell their catch from the forest reserve.

One Baka said: “They killed elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, panthers, buffaloes, deer – all in the reserve.”

European Union (EU) taxpayers fund the conservation of wildlife in this reserve, as well as pay for the road that makes life easier for poachers.

The EU now funds anti-poaching training programmes. But wildlife hunting is too lucrative for some to resist. Environmentalists say it’s a typical problem caused by the EU aid program. They say aid from Brussels is often mismanaged and hurts people at the sharp end – like Baca.

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