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The Baka Pygmies of Cameroon

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

With an average height of 1.5 meters, Baka are strictly speaking pygmies, not dwarfs. Despite this, the term “dwarf” is used in everyday usage.

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

They practice forest ecology and exploit the gifts of nature or ecosystems. Over the years, important exchanges developed between the hunter-gatherer Baka and the neighboring Bantu cultivators. However, this relationship was characterized by tolerance and hostility. The situation was caused by the condescending attitude and disparaging remarks with which the Bantu describe their pygmy neighbors, seeing the Baka as their property, victims of racism, and exploited as cheap labor on plantations.

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 gave to 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 family houses made of branches and leaves, almost always built by women. After making a frame of 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. Along with the Mongols, the Baka also build rectangular huts made of leaves or bark, just like the other ethnic groups, only they use mud and wood.

Baka knows the variety of forest foods and animals and the seasons when these products are easily found. Among the seasons that these dwarf people experience each year, the three months of prolonged heavy rains are the most important. During this period, when the forest is abundant, the bucks leave their permanent villages for the deep forest and roam for several months gathering food. Men do the more prestigious, but undoubtedly more dangerous work of providing meat for the group through hunting and trapping. Women carry their goods in baskets and follow their husbands.

In the rainforest, they hunt with bows, poisoned arrows, crossbows, spears and traps. Unlike other dwarven cultures, bucks do not know how to use hunting nets. The forest animals killed are various species of primates, artiodactyls, rodents, etc., which are hunted at night. Traps are set near watercourses to hunt crocodiles, which are usually killed by spearing.

Foraging in the forest is one of the most important activities for the survival of the group, gathering yams, fruits, mushrooms, but at certain times of the year they may find small animals such as termites and caterpillars.

The women carry the produce to the camp in baskets and all the families share it.

Hunting is one of the most important activities, not only for providing food, but also because of the symbolic meanings and prestige traditionally associated with it. Skilled hunters are highly respected and highly regarded, especially if they specialize in the most rewarding and significant game activity: the Great Elephant Hunt.

Today, massive deforestation deprives the dwarves of the natural resources essential for their biological and cultural survival. Unfortunately, due to the decreasing number of prey and less frequent forest expeditions, today hunting does not ensure the adequate supply of animal protein for Baka, which causes serious nutritional problems, especially for children.

Due to inadequate nutrition and health problems, many live a quiet life, maintaining a strong cultural identity and marking the boundaries between themselves and other ethnic groups living in the forest.

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

The typical Baka pygmy will not even leave his home in the forest for an ultra-modern palace in the city.

They have a thorough knowledge and understanding of the forest and its products, including the healing powers of the plants, and are in fact the guardians of a vast natural pharmacy. Thus, their whole life is occupied with the well-being of the forests.

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

Mbeh: Baka guitarist

Baka Beyond/Baka Gbine

Music plays a central role in the life of Baka. From an early age, they have a keen sense of rhythm, as soon as the baby can clap, they are encouraged to participate in making music together. There is music for ritual purposes, music for the transmission of knowledge, stories and the history of the Baka people, and music for pure enjoyment. This communal music-making continuously helps to strengthen the bond between the individuals of the groups.

Baka Music is perhaps best described as bursts of harmonic yodeling, which are dynamically and rhythmically intertwined. It’s quite mesmerizing, and the surrounding forest setting adds to the overall effect.

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 tribal people.

They recorded the album “Spirit of the Forest” under the name Baka Beyond, which made them famous worldwide. The band has since evolved into a multicultural, dynamic live stage show with over a quarter of a million albums sold.

They have played WOMAD in the UK, USA and the Czech Republic, as well as the Glastonbury Jazz Stage; Musica Mondial in Sao Paulo, Brazil and many other festivals in the UK, USA, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal, as well as headlining the Folk-Roots Festival in Vancouver. Their compositions are often heard as TV scores, particularly on BBC nature programmes, and have been nominated for a BBC Radio 3 World Music Student Award.

Su Hart says: “I was first attracted by the wonderful bird-like singing, the women gather before dawn to sing, enchant the animals of the forest and ensure that the men’s hunts are successful. The song and dance are used by the Baka for healing. , for rituals, community cohesion and pure fun!”

With the continued help of Martin and Su, they were invited to play at local feasts, weddings and funerals in Cameroon. After recording their album “Gati Bongo” in 2000, they decided on the name “Baka Gbine” (Gbine translates to “help”).

The band consists of guitarists Pelembir, Mbeh and Zow, percussionist Masekou, two women – Ybunga and Lekeweh – who bring phenomenal singing and traditional music to the concerts.

Give it back to Capricorn

Baka Gbine is one of the few groups that make sure they put back into the culture as much as they take out. Royalties from album sales go back to the Baka Pygmies – or as the Baka call it, ‘One Heart’ – through the UK charity Global Music Exchange.

This ongoing relationship with the Baka community helped them win land rights and recognition as Cameroonian citizens, as well as funding their own health center and a Music Hall. These steps all contribute to the protection of the Baka culture, forest environment and unique hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

Roger Harrabin reports on

The biggest danger is the road leading to the rainforest, which the Cameroonian government modernized with European Union funds.

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

This was said to accelerate logging and hunting of endangered species. However, the EU distributed the money without an environmental assessment.

Steve Gartland, the World Wildlife Fund’s Cameroonian, says the inevitable is happening now.

“Road construction programs usually bring development to forest areas. As soon as the forest area opens up, poachers move in, leading to wildlife depletion and deforestation,” he said.

Sixty percent of Cameroon’s forests are already exploited.

Some companies are destroying the forest by bribing laws that only allow the cutting of selected, mature trees. Others seem to be playing by the book – just occasionally cutting down the big trees.

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

Says:

“The main reason is the longevity of the trees. Some of them take two to three hundred years to fully mature – and no wood lasts that long – so the diversity of the forest is eroded.”

It is more difficult for the people of Baka to get other kinds of meat, since the poachers used the EU route to sell their catches from the forest reserve.

One Baka said, “Elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, panthers, buffaloes, deer have been killed – all in the reserve.”

European Union (EU) taxpayers fund the protection of wildlife in this area, as well as pay for the road, which makes life easier for poachers.

The EU now funds anti-poaching education projects. But wildlife hunting is too lucrative for some to resist. Conservationists say this is a typical problem caused by the EU’s aid program. They say aid from Brussels is often misadministered and hurts the people at the top – like Baka.

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