A race of hunters and gatherers, the Baka Pygmies, found in Cameroon, live together with various ethnic groups of Bantu farmers, with whom they exchange goods.
With an average height of 1.5 metres, the Baka are, strictly speaking, pygmoids rather than pygmies. Nevertheless, in everyday usage, the term “pygmy” is employed.
The exact numbers is difficult to determine, as a semi-nomadic group, they roam the rain-forest taking up temporal residence in specific areas that offers rich games and natural resources, but estimates range from 5,000 to 28,000 individuals.
They occupy forest ecology and they exploit the gifts of nature or the ecosystem. Over the years important exchange relations have developed between the hunter-gatherer Baka and the neighbouring Bantu cultivators. However, this relation has been one of tolerance and characterized by hostility. The situation has been caused by the condescending attitude and derogatory comments with which the Bantu describe their Pygmy neighbours, looking upon the Baka as goods belonging to them, they are victims of racism and exploited in plantations as cheap labour.
One of the most important differences between the Baka pygmies and their Bantu associates is the fact that they owe their total existence to the natural resources which nature has endowed on their habitat, the rain forest.
Like other pygmies the Baka are culturally, linguistically and physically different from their Bantu neighbours.
They live in huts they call mongulu which are one-family houses made of branches and leaves and nearly always built by the women. After a frame of very flexible, thin branches is prepared, recently-gathered leaves are fit in the structure. After the work is complete, other vegetable materials is sometimes added to the dome in order to make the structure more compact and waterproof. Besides the mongulus the Baka also build rectangular huts made of leaves or bark, just like the other ethnic groups do, only they use mud and wood.
The Baka, know the variety of forest foods, animals and the specific seasons when these products can easily be found. Of the different seasons which these pygmy people experience each year, the three-month period of prolonged heavy rain is the most important. During this period when the forest is in its abundance the Baka leave their permanent villages for the deep forest and for several months roam gathering food. The men perform the more prestigious but undoubtedly more hazardous job of supplying meat for the group through hunting and trapping. The women carry possessions in baskets and follow their husbands.
Types of hunting performed in the rainforest are with bows, poisoned arrows, crossbows, spears and traps. Contrary to what occurs in other pygmy cultures, the Baka do not know the use of hunting nets. The forest animals killed are a various species of primates, artiodactyls, rodents, etc, which are hunted at night. They place traps near watercourses to hunt crocodile, which is usually killed by spears.
Looking for food in the forests is one of the most important activities for the survival of the group, gathering yam, fruit, mushrooms, but in some seasons of the year it’s possible for them to find small animals, such as termites and caterpillars.
Carried in baskets by the women, the products come to camp and are shared by all the families.
Hunting is one of the most important activities, not only for providing food but for the symbolic meanings and prestige traditionally attached to it. Skilled Hunters are very respected and taken into great consideration, especially if they specialize in the most rewarding and significant game activity: The Big Elephant Hunt.
Massive deforestation these days deprives the pygmies of the natural resources essential for their biological and cultural survival. Unfortunately, due to the diminishing number of prey and less frequent expeditions in the forest, today, hunting does not provide the Baka an adequate supply of animal proteins which causes serious nutritional problems especially in the children.
With inadequate diet and health problems, many live a quiet life keeping a strong cultural identity and marking the boundaries between their form of culture and that of the other ethnic groups in the forest.
Of all the aspects of nature which surrounds the Baka pygmies, they perceive the tropical 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, guardians of a huge natural pharmacy. Thus their whole life is occupied with the welfare of their forests.
“We are born and grew up in the forest; we do everything in the forest, gathering, hunting and fishing. Now where do they want us to make our lives? ”
Mbeh: Baka guitarist
Baka Beyond/Baka Gbine
Music has a central role in the life of the Baka. From an early 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 ritualistic purposes, music for passing on knowledge, stories and the history of the Baka people, and music for pure enjoyment. This communal music-making constantly helps to strengthen the bonds between the individuals in the groups.
Baka Music is perhaps best described as bursts of harmonic yodeling, intertwining in a dynamic, rhythmic fashion. It is quite hypnotizing and the environmental forest setting 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 they had visited the tribal people.
They recorded an album “Spirit of the Forest” under the name Baka Beyond which pushed them into worldwide recognition. The band has since then 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 Czech Republic and on the Jazz Stage at Glastonbury; Musica Mondial in Sao Paulo, Brazil and many more 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 TV soundtracks, particularly in nature programmes on BBC and have been nominated for the BBC Radio 3 World Music listeners awards.
Su Hart says, “It was the amazing bird-like singing that first attracted me, the women will get together before the dawn to sing, enchant the animals of the forest and ensure that the men’s hunting will be successful. Song and dance is used by the Baka for healing, for rituals, for keeping the community together and also for pure fun!”
With ongoing help from Martin and Su, they were then being invited to play at local feasts, weddings and funerals in Cameroon. After recording their album “Gati Bongo” in 2000, they decided upon the name “Baka Gbine” (Gbine translated means ‘help’).
The band includes guitarists Pelembir, Mbeh and Zow, percussionist Masekou, two women – Ybunga and Lekeweh, who bring the phenomenal singing to the concerts, and traditional music.
Giving it back to the Baka
Baka Gbine is one of the few groups who ensure that they put as much back into the culture as they take out. Royalties earned by 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 has helped them to win land rights and recognition as Cameroonian citizens, as well as the funding of their own medical centre and a Music House. These steps all help to protect the Baka’s culture, forest environment and unique hunter-gatherer way of life.
Roger Harrabin reports-
The biggest threat comes from a road into the rainforest which has been upgraded by Cameroon’s government with funds from the European Union.
The World Bank and the African Development Bank refused to finance the upgrading.
They said it would accelerate logging and the hunting of endangered species. But the EU handed out the money without making any environmental assessment.
Steve Gartland, the World Wildlife Fund’s man in Cameroon, says the inevitable is now happening.
“Road-building programs tend to bring development into the forest areas. As soon as you get the forest areas opened up you get the poachers going in, leading to depletion of wildlife and deforestation,” he said.
Sixty per cent of Cameroon’s forests are already being exploited.
Some firms wreck the forest by bribing their way round laws permitting only selected mature trees to be cut. Others appear to play by the book – felling only the occasional large tree.
Forester Jean Francois Pagot admits that the most valuable species are being depleted because they’re not being replanted.
“The main reason is the long life 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 are finding it harder to get other sorts of meat since poachers started using the EU’s road to sell their catch from the forest reserve.
One Baka said: “They killed elephants, gorillas, chimps, panthers, buffalos, deer – all in the reserve”.
European Union (EU) taxpayers are funding wildlife conservation in this reserve as well as paying for the road which makes life easier for the poachers.
The EU is now funding anti-poaching education projects. But hunting wildlife is too profitable for some to resist. Conservationists say it is a typical problem caused by the EU’s aid program. They say aid from Brussels is often poorly administered and damaging to people at the sharp end – like the Baka.