Central African Republic: A week with the Ba’aka Hunter-Gatherers
June 2013, Volume 11-3

In the village of Yandounde in the south of Central African Republic a disagreement erupted between a mother and daughter. The whole village bore witness, commenting, gesturing and joining in at the appropriate moments. In a community where survival is and always has been a team effort, privacy doesn’t rank high on the priority list. Open-ended, dome-shaped homes face one another, and children play freely between them. The village, however, is not the only home a Ba’aka pygmy child knows; in fact, many would assert that the true home of a Ba’aka is in the forest, where they spend short periods of time throughout the year, hunting, gathering and connecting with the forest spirits they have celebrated for thousands of years.

June_p15The morning of the mother-daughter dispute also was marked by the beginning of one such forest sojourn. Gradually, the departing group assembled. Hunting nets, baskets, spears and other supplies emerged from the ostensible chaos, babies were slung over shoulders and truant children were chased back to school. Perhaps a little more excitement than usual accompanied this trip, owing to six partaking foreigners. This was to be a unique experience for us, a chance for the Ba’aka to share their culture in its organic state and perhaps the start of a small-scale eco-/ethno tourism project that could bring income to the impoverished region and some security to the precarious future of these forest- dwellers.

Departure: There was no clear leader but decisive collective will seemed to launch nearly fifty individuals into the embrace of the expansive forest. Furious pace, unmatched stamina and uncanny navigation skills characterised our progress to our camp for the night. This night was to mark the transition from village to forest life through song, dance and ritual. In the temporary camp, a mere clearing in the forest, family groups laid out mats around small fires and the never-ending camp activity was soon underway. The smoke soon mingled with smells of dinner, some duiker meat from a brief afternoon hunt, cassava (the staple of the region) and leaves and nuts gathered on the way. Screeching cicadas and choruses of crickets competed with the clinking of spears being sharpened and the chopping of wood. Spirits were high; the Ba’aka were home.

Through the buzz floated occasional strains of the harp-zither, a bow-shaped, three-stringed, six- toned instrument. A whistling youth idly picked up on the tune and, from the other side of the camp, the pounding of cassava fell into beat. The simple melody was playfully bounced around and by the time most dinners were devoured, everyone seemed to have added their own variation. The growing chorus was a complex polyphony as first men, then women and young children gravitated towards a central fire. Traditional drums are used in the village but here percussion was improvised on cooking pots, containers and by bundles of leaves beat against the ground. This, we were to learn, was the Boyobe, the hunting ceremony. While the basic theme is old, repetitive and trance-like, improvisations with topical lyrics develop freely and are interspersed with energetic and impressive clapped rhythms (from the women) and drumming (from the men). As the flames dimmed, the Bobe (bo-bay) or forest spirits emerged. Unbeknown to us, a few individuals had snuck off and decorated themselves with a phosphorescent moss, found in abundance on the forest floor. These dancing spectacles appeared as eerie specks of floating light in the thick forest darkness. Through light-hearted call and response they oscillated in and out of the ceremony, at times mockingly imitating the themes in distant, high-pitched cackles, at times encircling the group with vigorous dance movements and finally entering into
the circle for a dancing showdown. This was an exercise in group theatre and also a deeply meaningful practice. For over four thousand years the forest has been a home and life-source to Pygmies throughout Africa’s tropics. Forest spirits are thus central characters in the cosmologies of all the tribes of today’s quarter-million strong Pygmy population.

June_p16The next morning’s journey to our permanent camp began with a Makuse (ma-koo-say) ceremony, performed before sunrise around the base of a large tree, to guarantee a fruitful sojourn. It’s also a “farewell” to the village and often ends with the Ba’Aka cursing at all aspects of village life. Another fiercely paced march brought us to our site and, almost immediately, machetes and axes were at work, clearing the site and collecting the saplings and leaves from which their dome-shaped dwellings are constructed. As the camp took shape, our first hunt in this part of the forest commenced. This began the hunting and gathering where the innate and established relationship between these people and their environment is most evident.

Not a moment is lost as every tree and termite mound is explored en route. Medicinal and ritualistic saps are tapped from trees, while coco leaves are gathered for cooking. Water-yielding vines are cut when needed and seemingly rotten fruit, discarded even by gorillas, are gathered and hacked open for a thin white sliver of Payu, a high fat substance used in cooking. A myriad of fungi species provide a few edible mushrooms for the baskets, yams are uprooted and tortoise eggs provide valuable protein. Perhaps the most impressive feat we were privileged to witness was the gathering of honey. In an elaborate team effort, smoke bundles ascend up to thirty meters on the backs of nimble, perfectly balanced climbers, often using only a vine to reach the buzzing hives. The rest is up to skill, experience and high pain thresholds, as furious bees are smoked and chopped out of holes in trees and the precious honeycombs are lowered down in makeshift baskets on vine ropes.

Hunting takes several forms, involves everyone, and is a process inseparable from the relentless and opportunistic gathering. Net hunts, involving thigh-high nets constructed of vine-strung string, are the most prolific and inclusive, while the highly ritualised, male-only, spear hunts augur great feasts when they produce the sizeable Red River Hogs. The solitary crossbow hunter demonstrates deadly accuracy against primates in the towering canopies and dogs are sometimes used on porcupine hunts.

Some of these methods are more recent additions to the Ba’aka repertoire, and all have evolved with changing external influences over the ages. The introduction of metal to Bantu communities with which they traded gave rise to metal spear- and axe-heads. The origins of the crossbow are unclear but the design is not unlike that of the Portuguese, with whom they might have come into contact a few centuries back. Dogs too are a relatively recent addition. The custom of having a Bantu village nearby each Pygmy settlement has saved the group from complete cultural isolation. Traditionally, the Bantu were more agricultural people, while the Pygmies were the more able hunters. Excess meat from successful hunts would be traded with the Bantus’ surplus harvest. Accordingly, a balance was struck and maintained.

Now, that balance is being threatened by a changing economy, volatile politics and moving  populations. In the worst cases, anarchy has resulted in an explosion of prejudice, superstition and human rights abuses against the Pygmies. Reports of the killing and eating of Pygmies leaked out of the DRC civil war, Rwandan Pygmies were left landless during the country’s horrific nineties and in the Congo, Bantu-Pygmy tradition has deteriorated into a slave-like ‘ownership’ of Pygmy families by the Bantu. The Ba’aka, a relatively lucky group, have been allowed traditional hunting rights in an area of primary forest outside of reserves and logged regions.

However, with tempting short-term financial temptations of logging companies dangling before their noses, governments’ promises are never guaranteed. The governments of many developing countries lack a tangible motive to protect their natural resources. In a country where nearly half the population is illiterate and life expectancy has yet to reach 44 years, big words like sustainability and conservation don’t carry much weight. The life-giving rainforests of central Africa are a universal asset and the developed world needs to motivate their preservation by making them financially viable to sustain. Economic incentives in sustainable industries and development aid is needed in countries that would otherwise turn to timber for income and employment. In addition to loss of habitat, logging concessions bring population movement that is destroying the social fabric of the region. In CAR’s bleak economic environment, promises of jobs in sawmills draw hoards of prospective workers to the forests. This in turn opens up roads and markets for bushmeat, tempting residents into illegal hunting in the forests. Shells litter previously unexplored paths and gunshots are heard almost nightly. Ba’aka hunting success has plummeted in poached areas. Poaching has soured many Bantu-Pygmy relations, and the signs are ominous. Unlike the traditional methods of the Pygmies, shotgun hunting is not sustainable.

This ongoing conundrum has been highlighted by recent political developments in the CAR, as a violent change of government and subsequent power vacuum has directly led to the mass slaughter of elephants in the Dzangha-Ndoki reserve. With little hope of outside intervention, poaching seems set to increase and the future of this world heritage site (tied in with that of the Ba’aka) is uncertain.

Our six days in the forest were about more than just hunting and gathering. The forest routine is where their community structure has developed and is best felt. Their music, ceremonial and jovial, is ever-present in the high-spirited camp – Ba’aka foetuses are said to be programmed to sing from the time their pregnant mothers take part in the constant communal singing. Storytellers’ tales are based on creatures of the forest and initiation is when youths learn all the forest knowledge collected by generations past. It is unwritten culture like this that is so easily snuffed out with changing lifestyles.

But let’s not allow for a rose-tinted view of the status quo either. With a life expectancy of forty-years and an infant mortality rate of fifty percent, the Ba’aka situation cries out for healthcare assistance. The sustainability of indigenous lifestyle is also marred by the realities of ever-present economic incentives to the Ba’aka themselves, as well as an insecurity brought about by their dependence on others to protect their homelands.

Realistically, as they straddle the rickety fence between two vastly different worlds, there have been hopeful signs that the Ba’aka to strike a balance of adaptation and security versus preservation of their heritage. Children are getting an elementary education (though funds are erratic and conditions poor) and some healthcare facilities are available. In an effort to become more self-sufficient (thus avoiding exploitation of their labour), the Ba’aka have begun to cultivate their own cassava plantations. Perhaps, as responsible tourism in the region grows, income from this will also help to bolster local health and schooling systems. However, this too depends on the current political developments. For now, all tourism has been shut down, though Sangha Lodge plans to re-open as soon as travel becomes possible again.

Our forest sojourn ended as abruptly as the journey began. Hunting gear, some animal hides, smoked meat and a few belongings disappeared into baskets and before our light-weight tents were down, the Ba’aka seem rearing to go. As soon as our high-tech (non-degradable, anti-social) temporary homes were also packed, they were off, without a backwards glance, as if to say ‘we can always come back’. I hope they were right. In a few weeks, new shoots and undergrowth will engulf our camp and the surrounding trees will forget they ever played host to over fifty people in a truly amazing week. I won’t.

Background: For more details go to Sangha Lodge website or contact the author Tali Cassidy  talicassidy@gmail.com. A stay at Sangha Lodge in the Central Africa Republic (CAR) allows visitors a unique wildlife experience, viewing Western Lowland Gorilla and the incredible Sangha Bai, home to hundreds of forest elephants and other scarce species. However, perhaps the biggest draw for many is a chance to interact with the Ba’aka, a small community of hunter- gatherers. These visits are often facilitated by Louis Sarno, an American who has lived with the Ba’aka for over 30 years. Tali’s story recounts one of the first such visits.

Author: Tali Cassidy