The Baka

The Baka comprise an intensely marginalized indigenous population, pejoratively known as “Pygmies,” of 40,000 people in Eastern Cameroon.  As hunter-gatherers, the Baka live semi-nomadic lives, following the rhythm of forest activities as they have for millennia.  They are masters of the forest in every way, knowing the nutritional, medicinal, and spiritual value of its flora, fauna, and waters.

The Baka way of life is in jeopardy.  Logging and mining companies have reduced the forest’s richness, and the conservation movement prohibits human activity in designated national parks.  Though perfectly sustainable, unchecked impositions on the forest will render their traditional lifestyle impossible.

Two boys in Ngatto Ancien
Two boys in Ngatto Ancien

In Assoumindélé, for example, iron mining will soon raze miles of forest and bring 10,000 workers to the area.  Baka subsistence activities will be completely upended; the mining company’s failure to include Baka leaders in stakeholder consultations means they are completely unaware of what will come.  The population influx will bring increased demand for cheap labor, prostitutes, and alcohol.  This will exacerbate exploitation, alcoholism, and domestic abuse that the Baka already experience, and replicate the assault on their lifestyle occurring across Cameroon.

Additionally, the Baka are oppressed and exploited by the Bantu, agriculturalist majority population cohabitating roadside villages near the forest.  The Bantu use Baka for cheap manual labor, paying them in small amounts of money, alcohol, or nothing at all, and referring to them as “my Pygmies.”  This possessive relationship extends to the political realm: Bantu chiefs represent all people, deeming the Baka as childlike, savage, and incapable of self-representation.  Moreover, Baka children are conditioned to be ashamed of their culture, heritage, and language; by adolescence many shun their peoples’ forest mastery as antiquated and primitive.

Lack of formal schooling prevents the Baka from transcending their situation of vulnerability and marginalization; few Baka are literate or conversant in the national language of French, and even fewer are aware of their human rights.

Fishing camp near Ngatto Ancien
Fishing camp near Ngatto Ancien

Structural incompatibilities between Baka culture and formal schooling drive their educational marginalization.   Firstly, their semi-nomadic culture is incompatible with daily classroom learning.  During the dry season from December to March, families form fishing camps deep in the forest for weeks, reaping the rivers’ wealth and passing important knowledge to younger generations. With significant individual and family responsibility, children play key roles in these activities; they miss weeks of school, fall behind, and eventually drop out.   Furthermore, Baka children do not understand the language of instruction (French).  Reprimand by teachers for speaking mother tongue in class cultivates feelings of frustration and inadequacy towards the Baka language.  Baka students are humiliated and stigmatized as “dirty,” “stupid,” and “savage” by classmates and teachers alike, instilling anxiety and shame towards their language and heritage.While formal education offers the Baka the literacy and language skills necessary to defend their rights and interests, the current system forces Baka children and parents to choose between “modern” and traditional educations, and in turn, lifestyles.  An adapted approach to education is needed that conveys these vital skills while enriching and validating Baka culture and language.

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