Deep in the Dja Faunal Reserve in southeast Cameroon, Baka Pygmies endeavor to live as they have always done: off the forest and firmly within it.
Anthropologists estimate the Baka hunter-gatherer culture has endured for over 40,000 years, and Central Africa’s Pygmy population – somewhere in the region of 500,000 to 900,000 people – is on a genealogical par with the San of Southern Africa. “They are, in effect, who we are all related to,” explains Jerome Lewis of University College London. “These are civilizations that make ancient Egypt look like a spring chicken.”
But the Baka way of life is changing – forcibly so. Territory is shrinking for communities as alleged conservation and industrial interests create obstacles for a nomadic existence. Where the canopy was once a shelter, many Baka now live in roadside huts, pushed to the forest’s edge and away from what they know.
The city lights are calling, too. Cameroon is a nation of approximately 220 ethnic groups, and the melting pot of its capital, Yaounde, promises much to young tribespeople.
Modernity, in one shape or another, is at the Baka’s door. So what next?
Bidjima Emmanuel is 19 years old and was born into the 1,900 square mile expanse of Dja. Emmanuel is one of a handful of Baka receiving a Western education courtesy of Spanish nongovernmental organization Zerca Y Lejos. Cameroon’s Pygmies are among its most discriminated against minorities, but at the fee-paying College Vogt in Yaounde, Emmanuel rubs shoulders with the sons of government ministers and the scions of high society.
“It was another world, a different world,” he says, describing parents dropping their children off in cars and showering them with gifts. Emmanuel has faced prejudice from some of these city boys: “They mock you saying things like ‘You’re a villager … you’re poor, you’re this, you’re that.’ It affects my mind,” he admits.
But Emmanuel is excelling, say his teachers. Literature has become an outlet for the teenager, with “The Contemplations,” a poem by Victor Hugo, a personal favorite:
“I know that you await me.
“I will go through the forest,
“I will go across the mountain.
“I can no longer remain away from you.”
Hugo’s reflections on the death of his daughter seem pertinent to Emmanuel’s relationship with the Dja. The pull of the forest is strong. After nine months at boarding school, CNN followed his 155-mile journey home for the summer; one which highlights the shifting life of the Baka.
A place called home
Baka life began to change around a century ago, when missionaries made contact and were piqued by the people’s adherence to monotheism. The Baka deity Komba is still followed by many, but some, like Emmanuel, have converted to Christianity.
In recent years, state policy has had a huge impact.
“The Cameroonian government made a first push to get the Baka out of the forest in the ’60s,” explains Lewis. “There was an initial pressure … due to communist rebels hiding out there.”
“Once they’d cleared up the insurgency, people returned to the forest. But then this process of zoning the forest – which the World Bank promoted in the ’90s – marked the death knell of Baka hunter-gathering culture,” he argues.
“So instead of the Baka having access to their forest, safari hunters have it, or miners or loggers. The result was they had nowhere to go.”
Lewis says forest roadsides became the only place the Baka “were allowed to be,” and it is along one such roadside in Dja, in a village called Bifolon, that Emmanuel’s family lives.
Dja, a largely undisturbed UNESCO World Heritage Site, contains an abundance of flora and fauna the Baka have relied upon to survive. The forest floor contains rodents and other mammals, the trees birds and honey.
It’s not just nature’s larder, but pharmacy, too. One plant, gouga, when boiled with water, is claimed to cure malaria; another, pando, purportedly soothes pain when rubbed on the skin. “The forest encloses many secrets,” says Sylvain, Emmanuel’s former teacher. “The forest is very rich and they know the forest.”
“This way of living in the forest seems to outsiders to be primitive, but it’s in fact extraordinarily sophisticated,” Lewis adds. “It’s almost a zen-like affluence they have, because all the resources they need for their lives are around them.”
But this abundance is curtailed if territory is limited.
“(The Baka) are used to living in the forest,” says Emmanuel. “Baka people don’t want to be on the roadsides as they are now.”
Negotiating the future
Returning to Dja, Emmanuel is welcomed in the traditional fashion, with music, perhaps the Baka’s most lauded cultural export. Known as a symbol of their communality and relationship with nature, the Baka employ polyphonic singing and water drumming to create their sound – similar to the Aka, a neighboring Pygmy people in the Congo Basin, whose oral traditions have been declared Intangible Heritage by UNESCO.
Music, food and family bring joy and comfort, but already the 19-year-old has his goals set elsewhere. “If I finish my studies in Cameroon with good grades, my wish is to travel abroad to study more,” he says. “I have to discover a life far from my parents in order to know what I should do with my future.”
“I am so proud of him,” says his mother. “It makes me sad not to see him all the time, but I know this will give him the chance one day to get out of this poverty.” It’s a poverty, one must note, that has been newly found.
“I don’t want Baka people to lose sight of their origins, even if they are moving towards modernity,” Emmanuel argues. “We should always return to the forest; to never forget what we have always done in the past.”
Emmanuel has opportunities never afforded to his parents, nor theirs. But likewise, his prospects in his ancestral home are not the same once afforded to them. Change, to some extent, has been thrust upon him.
“Education has an important role for helping Baka negotiate their futures with more understanding and appreciation of the alternatives that are available to them,” adds Lewis. “Education is absolutely vital to the Baka to find their space in the modern world.”
There’s an education that classrooms cannot teach, however; one Emmanuel’s father hopes he will never lose. “Even if he leaves the forest, he must never forget what we have taught him: to hunt, to catch animals, to fish. It will protect him forever.”