KRIBI, CAMEROON — (NEWSONE) Assembled deep in the lush, green hills of Kribi, an untouched beach resort located about 90 miles south of Cameroon’s largest city, Douala, are a group of men, women, and children who simply wait to tell their story. They sit on two spare benches across from each other in a clearing with two ramshackle artifices behind each bench that serve as shelter. The seemingly fragile buildings lack walls; in fact, to call them “buildings” is a clear misnomer because they each have just four posts with a thatched roof.
American journalists have come to the dense region to meet one of Cameroon’s national living treasures as a part of the Africa Travel Association’s 38th Congress, where officials meet to promote tourism in their respective countries. After a brief observation of the initially unfriendly community, though, it is clear that even characterizing their daily life as a “living” is a bit of a misnomer too.
The Baka people are better known as the Pygmies of Cameroon, and they — including dozens of toddlers — are eerily silent as they wait for the customary introductions to proceed. The exchange is awkward and forced, with the Baka appearing disinterested in their new company.
After some prodding, a few of the male spokesmen discuss what life has been like since they were displaced from the rainforest 50 years ago to their current environment. With 45-year-old Paul’s words being translated from his native language to French and then English, a translator says, “He does not use the word [happy] again, because he can’t live his life like he used to do. With the coming of the deep seaport, they cannot go in to the forest for fire or to do hunting. They don’t have animals here, so that is why their activities are reduced, so very soon they will be moving out of here to go back to the forest because of the developments. They are not used to the developments of the place so he is doing very bad here, very bad.”
Paul is doing “very bad” because of the increasing deforestation of his homeland, which has given way to development. In addition, China’s building of the seaport just a brief mini-bus ride away adds to both his and his people’s misery.
But the Bakas didn’t always live this way.
An Ancient People
Pygmies can be found throughout much of Africa, from Uganda to Rwanda to Burundi to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Botswana to Namibia to Zambia to Equatorial Guinea, and even Gabon. In the Congo alone, between 250,000 to 600,000 Pygmies are said to exist as hunter-gatherers in the rainforest. Their way of life not only respects nature but has always replenished it.
And while Pygmies are most-overtly characterized by their height, they are officially recognized for having the second-most ancient and divergent DNA in the world; the Pygmies have lived virtually unchanged for the last 60,000 years.
And even though one would think that the Pygmies would be viewed and treated as national treasures, disenfranchisement, prejudice, and violence outside of Cameroon has come to dominate much of their everyday lives.
Maligned and Massacred
During the Congo Civil War between 1997 and 1999 and the Rwanda genocide of 1994, Pygmies were reportedly murdered. In the Congo, Pygmies claim that they were the victims of cannibalism with armed men believing that their flesh had mythical powers. In Rwanda, the Pygmies were also said to be slain during the genocide.
Together, 70,000 Pygmies were reportedly murdered during the wars due to the stealing of land, beliefs that they are subhuman, and the aforementioned “magic” they supposedly embody.
And while Cameroon’s Pygmies have not been subjected to the same level of violence and genocide, they would probably argue that they are dying a slow death for not being able to continue to live as their ancestors did. Service Head for Promotional Activities for Cameroon’s Department of Tourism Judith Ewonkem spoke about the Baka’s predicament, “They want to keep their culture; they don’t want to give up their way of life. Even the cars we drive to see them, they don’t like us bringing our cars there. They rarely go to town. They spend almost all of their time in the bush. That’s the only life they know.”
When asked whether she values the traditional life of the Pygmy, Ewonkem said, “I think they should stay as they are because that is their culture, and people travel all around the world just to see them.”
The Cameroonian government has attempted to “modernize” the Baka people by mandating that all Pygmy children go to school, but that hasn’t had the desired outcome, “There was a time when we used to pick them up and take them to school, but it didn’t work. They would still go back to the forest; that is their culture,” Ewonkem said.
Still, according to Eagle Tour Operator Fabian Ekukwe, the government is still looking for ways to improve the lives of the Bakas; meanwhile, they haven’t all shunned school, “While in the past the Pygmies were neglected, I think the [government] finally heard their cry.
“So we have this international organization in Cameroon that trains those who are willing to at least learn something to put in their [minds] and they go back there and teach their people. You have them enroll in universities, and when they come out…you have some who become the director of ministries; they are out there working white collar jobs.”
But that obviously isn’t the experience of the majority.
The government is attempting to relocate the Baka in a settlement 10 kilometers from where they currently reside, but not surprisingly, many of the Baka aren’t keen on going. In fact, Ewonkem says that the reason the numbers are so small at this particular settlement is because many Baka have returned to the forest, and according to Ewonkem, there are just about 200 Baka in the rainforest.
When John was asked why they aren’t looking forward to moving from this area since it doesn’t support their lifestyle, he said, “It’s not better, because we live in folly and poverty. Going there [to the new settlement], we will only be able to farm, and from that, with the forest being destroyed, we aren’t sure of the crops we are going to farm and what animals we will be able to hunt. I am willing to stay here if the government will help us. I am willing to work but they must keep our culture.”
In the late afternoon sun, the Baka form a circle, with some of the men making drumming sounds with sticks that they hit against a narrow log. The women and remaining men begin clapping as each one takes his or her turn to briefly express themselves in the circle.
While some of the previously resigned men and women appear to come to life as the music seeps its way into their souls, the younger generation doesn’t seem as enthusiastic. In fact, they seem to drag their feet on the dirt; their claps are lackluster, and their eyes impart a sadness as if they are fully aware of their precarious future: With no education and an increasingly diminishing forest to subsist on, where is their place in the world and how will they survive?
After 29-year-old Joe is asked about whether he would allow the new generation to go to school, he says, “Yes, they can go to school. We want them to go to school, but we don’t understand or know what they are learning so how can we help them?”