Pygmies, masters of the forest, tackle lifestyle changes


Thu, Sep 13, 2018 - Page 6

Just back from the hunt with a choice selection of plants, Ebona feels at home in the endless forest where many Gabonese fear to tread.

“Townsfolk paid me to find these leaves,” the Pygmy said, setting the heap down outside his wooden hut, 500m from the rest of Doumassi village in north Gabon.

Ebona’s people, the Baka, are held in folklore to be Africa’s oldest inhabitants, living in forests stretching from the Gabon and Cameroon inland to the Congos and the Central African Republic.

The dense woods where national borders cease to exist hold no mysteries for the Baka.

“This is our first home,” said another villager, who introduced himself as Jean, declining, like the other Pygmies, to divulge their Baka names, used only within the community. “We sleep in it, we hunt in it, we live in it.”

The ethnic Baka Pygmies often have a difficult relationship with their Fang neighbors, the main ethnic group in the area, who tend to treat them like children.

They also struggle to have a legal existence in Gabon, as they find themselves without identity cards.

“I am Gabonese, 100 percent, but I don’t have an identity card. They promised us that we would have it, but we’re still waiting,” said villager Christian, who, like other Baka, wants the same rights as other Gabonese citizens.

“How will I send my children to school?” he asked. “How will I vote? How do I get medical care?”

Just weeks before parliamentary elections, the first round of which is planned for Oct. 6 with a second round later next month, electoral officials have made little effort to put Baka adults on the voters’ roll.

However, many Baka steer clear of national politics, saying they just want to “survive.”

Jean-Baptiste Ondzagha-Ewak works for the Association for Family Mediation that seeks to bring mutual understanding to the communities.

The non-governmental organization (NGO) records Baka births to make them official so the children can go to school and receive healthcare.

For lack of access to health facilities, villager Norbert saw five of his seven children die prematurely, but he joyfully announced that his wife is pregnant once more.

For a long time, the ways of “city people” had a limited impact on communities of hunter-gatherers.

The Baka are still reluctant to go where “cars make a noise,” except to buy goods such as “tobacco, soap, alcohol and petrol,” Christian said.

Despite their poor relations, the Baka are nevertheless prepared to hunt for their Fang neighbors.

“At close range, they never miss their shot,” said Rigobert, a Fang who sent two Baka off to hunt for him.

Jean was one of the huntsmen.

“The army offered to enlist me, but I said ‘no.’ I have my family, I’m a hunter,” he said. “That’s inside me, why should it change?”