A Community Of Animals And Plants Interacting With Their Environment The Baka Pygmies of Cameroon

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The Baka Pygmies of Cameroon

A race 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, pygmoids and not pygmies. However, in everyday usage, the term “pygmy” is used.

Exact numbers are difficult to determine, as a semi-nomadic group, they roam the rainforest taking up temporary residence 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 use the gifts of nature or the ecosystem. Over the years, important exchange relationships have developed between the hunter-gatherer Baka and the neighboring Bantu cultivators. However, this relationship has been one of tolerance and characterized by hostility. The situation is caused by the condescending attitude and derogatory comments with which the Bantu describe their pygmy neighbors, seeing the Baka as belonging to them, they are victims of racism and exploited on plantations as cheap labor.

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

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

They live in huts they call mongulu, which are single-family homes made of branches and leaves and almost always built by women. After preparing a frame with very flexible, thin branches, recently collected leaves fit into the structure. After the work is completed, other plant materials are sometimes added to the dome to make the structure more compact and waterproof. In addition to the Mongols, the Baka also build rectangular huts made of leaves or bark, just like other ethnic groups, only they use mud and wood.

The Baka know the variety of forest foods, animals and specific seasons when these products can be easily found. Of the various seasons these pygmies experience each year, the three-month period of prolonged heavy rain is the most important. During this period when the forest is abundant, the Bakas leave their permanent villages for the deep forest and wander for several months gathering food. Men perform the most prestigious but arguably most dangerous job of providing meat for the group through hunting and trapping. Women carry wealth in baskets and follow their husbands.

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

Foraging in the forest is one of the most important activities for the survival of the group, gathering mushrooms, fruits, mushrooms, but in some seasons of the year it is possible for them to find small animals, such as termites and caterpillars.

Carried in baskets by the women, the produce comes to the camp and is shared by 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 respected and highly regarded, especially if they specialize in the game’s most useful and important activity: Hunting the Great Elephant.

Mass deforestation these days deprives pygmies of natural resources essential to their biological and cultural survival. Unfortunately, due to the reduction in the number of game and rarer expeditions into the forest, hunting today does not provide the Baka with a sufficient supply of animal protein, which causes serious nutritional problems especially among children.

With insufficient diet and health problems, many of them live a quiet life maintaining a strong cultural identity and marking the boundaries between their form of culture and that of 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 in exchange for an ultra-modern 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 custodians of a large natural pharmacy. Thus their whole life is occupied with the welfare of their forests.

“We are born and raised in the forest; we do everything in the forest, gathering, hunting and fishing. Now where do they want us to make our lives?”

Mbeh: Guitarist Baka

Baka Beyond/Baka Gbine

Music has a central role in Baka’s life. From a young age they have a keen sense of rhythm, as soon as a baby is able to clap, it is encouraged to participate in all the communal music making. There is music for ritual purposes, music for conveying the knowledge, stories and history of the Baka people, and music for pure enjoyment. This shared music continually helps strengthen the bonds between individuals in the group.

Baka music is perhaps best described as harmonic yodeling bursts interwoven in a dynamic and rhythmic manner. It is quite mesmerizing and the environmental setting of the forest makes the overall effect attractive.

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 tribesmen.

They recorded an album “Spirit of the Forest” under the name Baka Beyond which propelled them to worldwide recognition. Since then, the group has evolved into a multicultural, dynamic live stage show 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 songs are often heard on TV soundtracks, particularly on BBC nature programmes, and have been nominated for BBC Radio 3 World Music listeners’ awards.

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

With continued help from Martin and Su, they were then invited to play at local parties, weddings and funerals in Cameroon. After recording their album “Gati Bongo” in 2000, they decided on the name “Baka Gbine” (translated Gbine means ‘help’).

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

Giving it back to Baka

Baka Gbine is one of the few groups that ensure that they give back to the culture as much as they take out. Royalties earned from album sales are channeled back to 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 has helped them gain land rights and recognition as Cameroonian citizens, as well as funding their medical center and a Music House. All these steps help protect the Baka culture, the forest environment and the unique hunter-gatherer way of life.

Roger Harrabin reports-

The biggest threat comes from a road in the rainforest, which has been improved by the Cameroonian government with funding from the European Union.

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

They said this would accelerate 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 building programs tend to bring development to forest areas. Once forest areas are opened, poachers move in, leading to wildlife depletion and deforestation,” he said.

Sixty percent of Cameroon’s forests are already being exploited.

Some firms destroy the forest by bribing their own laws that allow only selected mature trees to be cut. Others seem to play 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 being replanted.

He says:

“The main reason is the longevity 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 Bakas are finding it harder to get other kinds of meat since poachers started using the EU route to sell their catch from the forest reserve.

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

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

The EU is now funding educational projects against poaching. But hunting wildlife is too lucrative for some to resist. Conservatives say it’s a typical problem caused by the EU’s bailout program. They say aid from Brussels is often mismanaged and hurts people at the sharp end – like Baka.

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