MAN IN NATURE
Nature and Human Development
Among the Baka Pygmies
Concepts and Perceptions
John Mope Simo
Paul Nkwi Nchoji
Every human being, male or female, has some genetic endowment which is complemented by the environment in which he/she is born and/or bred. By the concept of environment here we mean the culture and the natural milieu in which it develops (cf. Nkwi, 1992). Both factors have great implications for the development, life-support system and socialibility of any person. In societies studied by anthropologists in Africa it can be deduced from the indigenous perceptions that there is still an integrating relationship between man and nature, the cosmos. In every culture this exterior universe which comprises essentially of the five primordial elements of water, fire, air, earth and the sun or sky are complimentary to people’s rituals, cognitive systems, religious beliefs and sacrificial practices. Historically speaking some of these elements have become for man sacred objects of his external world and symbols of both spiritual and secular power and authority.
Despite the impinging effects of the forces for change and especially Western science and ideology on tribal society, the Africans’ integral vision of nature is characteristically constant yet dynamic. In other words, although the natural and human surroundings are rapidly changing, man from time immemorial has successfully used both components to satisfy his/her material, spiritual and ritual needs and conditions. For instance, with regard to the sociological, psychological and environmental functions of ritual Roy Rappaport argues that "it produces a practical result on the world external not only to the social unit composed of those who participate together in ritual performances but also to the larger unit composed of those who entertain similar beliefs concerning the universe". (1988: 390)
Hence, from cradle to grave this man/nature relationship is maintained more or less in day-to-day encounters. Perhaps it can be argued that the interface between man and nature is prolonged to the world beyond for persons who die having regenerated themselves through procreation. They can be considered by their family or community as ancestors/ancestresses. This does not imply that the people worship their departed relatives as some observers have claimed (cf. Mbiti, 1975: 161). Nonetheless, in African society the dead are perceived as continuing to show interest in the affairs of the living or surviving relatives. The dead are part of the living continuum.
The primary goal of this discussion is to highlight the concept of man and nature in a given African culture. We also want to show how a culture shapes the lives of people into which they are born and grow up in a given environment, free from the constraints of other cultures. The main argument here is that African people live in perpetual communion with nature. Thus their human and cultural development are so much dependent on their external world that their survival would be unthinkable otherwise.
The focus will be on a descriptive analysis of the indigenous people’s concept and perceptions of their environmental-ecological niche, using the example of the Baka pygmies of south-eastern Cameroon. We want to emphasize the extraordinary knowledge the Baka have of nature and the sophistication of their adaptation to it. We shall endeavour to analyze various Baka modes of social treatment of nature, selected for the purpose of demonstrating those processes of personal and community fulfilment that result from the interrelations of people with the external world — the tropical rain-forest.
The encompassing and explicit religious, cosmological, material and other kinds of relationships highlight the specific and general vision of nature within the Baka culture. The impact of the relationship between man and nature shows an interface between social life and nature.
The Baka are a sub-set of the Pygmy polity in the equatorial Africa. They are found in Cameroon, Congo, Gabon and Zaire (cf. Silcock, 1988: 25). Like other pygmies the Baka are culturally, linguistically and physically different from their Bantu neighbours. The linguistic and cultural dissimilarities seem to be a result of the influence of the various non-pygmy cultures with whom they interact and socialize within the same social oecumene. As Lisa Silcock points out: "even so there is no common consensus among anthropologists as to whether they originally formed a single group". (1988: 24).
One of the most important differences between the Baka pygmies and their Bantu associates is the fact that they owe their total existence to the countless natural resources which nature has endowed on their habitat, the rain forest. The Baka have an estimated population between 20,000 to 35,000 (Silcock, 1988: 24). There are many reasons that account for the uncertainty of the population size. The most important is that as a semi-nomadic group, they roam the rain-forest taking up temporal residence in specific areas that offers rich games and natural resources.
The Baka occupy a forest ecology and they exploit skilfully the gifts of nature or the ecosystem. Over the years important exchange relations have developed between the essentially hunter-gatherer Baka and the Bantu cultivators. However, the relation has been at best one of tolerance, at worse characterized by hostility. This difficult situation has been caused by the condescending attitude and derogatory connotations with which the Bantu describe their Pygmy neighbours.
All the time, the Baka have been quite open to change and have been very flexible to external world stimuli. Acculturation process has permitted them to borrow and integrate into their culture foreign cultural values. At the same time they have successfully maintained their identity and independence. With regard to their positive reactions to change while maintaining an impervious attachment to their natural environment, Silcock succinctly argues that:
The above citation explicitly summarizes the interface between Baka people (that is a specific culture) and nature and their mastery over it. We shall elaborate this salient point in the next section with emphasis on Baka pygmies’ traditional knowledge system and how this relates to nature.
Baka Culture and the Tropical Rain-Forest
The natural heritage of Baka pygmies is the tropical rain-forest. The Baka have adapted to this ecosystem and their social ecology is entirely enhanced by the forest ecosystem. This natural world has enabled them to develop their defences against it, their specific culture and strategies for human development are largely determined by this environment.
As mentioned earlier, the external world of the Baka forms part of the green centre of Africa which nineteenth century travellers referred to as the Dark Continent (see Matthews, 1990:48). The African rain-forest is made up of six layers, each with its characteristic flora, fauna and micro-climate. Descending from the top are: the emergent layer open to the sky; the canopy, often of interlocking tree, crowns, lower the upper part of the complex understory; shrub layer, with mature, woody plants and young canopy trees; and at the floor, a base layer of dead or decomposing vegetation (Ibid., 50).
Animals are few and far between, while those not easily visible in the forest’s dense vegetation use it at night for feeding purposes. At the same time this habitat is riddled with poisonous or inedible compounds of one sort or another. According to Silcock "The paradox of tropical forest is that while it is biologically and botanically the richest place on earth, it is also the hardest in which to subsist". (1988: 7)
Over the centuries Baka man like other humans has been able to master what may appear to be an insurmountable difficulty and how his/her culture has evolved. Again Silcock puts the point nicely in her remark that "The sophistication with which these people exploit their environment is equal only to the sophistication of the forest". (Ibid., 8) The pygmies will not be pygmies without the forest. The forest ecology is the lifewire and basis of their culture.
The Baka consciousness of their forest environment and the ways they have developed skills to exploit it represent a rich wealth of knowledge. This knowledge has been embedded into their culture during the course of centuries of living as hunter-gatherers and handed down by elders to the younger generations through word of mouth. As a matter of fact, the Baka so much depend on the forest resources: for medicines (they know plants in the forest can provide curative ingredients; building materials especially for their huts or mongulus; subsistence products other than the cultivated produce they receive from their non-pygmy neighbours; for ritual purposes, as well as for their means of socialization). For example, apart from skills learned in the domestic sphere, children acquire knowledge of gaming through play with traps for catching small rodents and birds for food. Basically, children absorb most of their knowledge simply by watching and listening to their elders. As in the case of adults, there is a strong association between these activities for the social reproduction of the households and the music and/or the rituals that go with them, and so by extension the forest (see Silcock, 1988: 22-23).
In addition to what has been said, the Baka know the variety of forest foods and animals and the specific seasons when these subsistence products can be easily found. Of the different seasons which these pygmy people experience each year, the three-month period of prolonged heavy rain is the most important. During this period when the forest is in its abundance the Baka leave their permanent villages for the deep forest, and for several months roam the forest. The women carry their few possessions in baskets and follow their husbands. The sexual division of labour in this society, impose on the women building of camps composed of huts (mongulus) as they go from one place to another. They rarely stay in one place for more than a week. Meanwhile, the men perform the more prestigious but undoubtedly more hazardous job of supplying meat for the group through hunting and trapping.
Animals are easier to track in the wet ground during this long rainy season, because their feeding sites are more predictable as they flock to fruiting trees. Although the Baka have no specific marriage ceremonies, there is evidence that men usually contract their marriages during this crucial season. The reason is because a man is able to prove his hunting ability by the number and quality of the game he brings home to the father/mother of his future wife.
The Baka depend on the forest ecology during the heavy rains for their food sufficiency. This pygmy group like the many others who live in the Central and Equatorial African region have developed skills in identifying many edible roots and yams (see Silcock, 1988: 25). Usually this is by spotting a thin stem above the ground and digging several feet to get at the yams. Another example of this adaptability process to nature is how to obtain the fruit of the wild mango or peke. The search for this fruit is the principal reason for the Baka’s long trips into the forest during the rainy season (Silcock, 1988:11). The kernels of this fruit are processed to produce a delicious oil paste which is scarce in other forest foods and highly valued in the people’s diet.
Finally, as the forest cycle continues the Baka follow it by switching from the collection of one major food source to another. The honey or foki season is partly induced by the rain as they end, and the rain forest trees flower. At this time there is an excess of nectar and pollen available to the African Honeybee. Silcock describes the process very vividly:
This is a prized Baka food. The search for bees’ nests and the dripping golden combs are not so important.
Admittedly, there are specific seasons for the collection of numerous other foods which are common place in Baka households. For instance, caterpillars, different species of mushrooms and edible beetle larvae in the forest are collected to improve the protein content of their diet. On the other hand, the approaching dry season brings its rewards too, when the forest streams drop in level. This is the best time when women demonstrate their adaptability to the environment as many of them do dam fishing. In normal circumstances the streams are blocked at an arrow point so that below the barrier the water drops to just a few inches. This permits the stranded small fish, crabs and shrimps to be caught.
Whatever the season, the Baka are often ready to turn any opportunity to their advantage. Almost anything can provide them with the due they need to find food and many non-material means of satisfaction in their forest environment. This point logically leads to an examination of how the Baka relate other aspects of their social life — music, dance, ritual practices, religious beliefs, and so on — to their external world.
It must be said that like in other African cultures there is no dividing line in Baka life between the physical and the spiritual. For example, as in the well-known case of the Azande described by Evans-Pritchard, when a Baka man falls ill, it is attributed witchcraft by an ill-wisher. In cases like this Silcock argues that ". . . the ritual dance which heals with fire — the nganga — may be performed, to counteract the magic and to persuade the sick person to fight for his life". (1988:30)
Although the Baka do not actively worship or pray, they adore Komba, their supreme god, who is the creator of all things. However, unlike most other religious belief systems described by John Mbiti (1975), Komba is somewhat distant from the day-to-day life of the Baka. According to Silcock, ". . . he exists as an explanation for the Baka’s presence in the forest and for the order of the world around them". (1988: 20)
Unlike Komba, Jengi, the spirit of the forest, has a very direct influence over the lives of the Baka through a particular important ritual observance. Jengi’s presence is called upon once every few years. The decision is taken during the concentration of male elders when a number of young boys are judged ready for initiation into manhood. As a matter of fact, the Jengi ritual reinforces Baka cosmology and society as a whole. Those people who are initiated on a particular occasion have the protection of Jengi, and through him, the forest. These men in turn protect the women. By and large, Jengi’s presence reminds the people of their debt to the forest as their source of life. On the other hand, it does not only symbolize the unification of men and women but also reconfirm their disparate roles in the community (cf. Rappaport, 1988).
The point should be made here that the Baka do not only use the forest’s chemistry in the acquisition of the variety of foods. They exploit the very chemicals evolved by plants to defend themselves against predators. Some plant compounds are used as sources of fishing and hunting poisons. For example, a Milletia vine (called mongombo by the Baka) is macerated and the pulp rinsed into the water, which has the effect of making the fish float to the surface where they are easily caught. Similarly in hunting the Baka use the vine strophanthus gratus (nea). Their seeds are combined with other plant extracts to form a deadly poison which hunters use on the tip of their arrows for hunting. According to Silcock "The active ingredient in this case is strophanthine — a potent cardiac poison which is used in Western medicine as a heart relaxant". (1988:14)
Evidently, much value should be attached on the rich traditional knowledge of the Baka about their external world and how this accounts for the unique features of their cultural heritage. Despite the rapid changes that are taken place around them, this indigenous knowledge system still has a vital role to play in the development of this pygmy group and the modern Cameroonian society as a whole.
Available evidence shows that the relationship between the Baka and their environment (land, the forest and its many resources, streams, etc.) is not problematic. Rather is can be said that man and his/her external world are intricately and inexorably dovetailed. Moreover, Baka mythologies, ritual techniques, social organization and systems of value significantly testify that the focus of their knowledge is upon the opportunities and limitations of their ecosystem and how they socialize in it. For example, Bakan ritual practices for hunting, food gathering and harvesting are sociologically complex and form an integral part of their cosmologies and their spiritual links with Komba. Their metaphysical importance are demonstrated by the psychological and philosophical value of the practices to the people.
Over and above all aspects of nature which surrounds the Baka pygmies, they perceive the tropical rain forest as the most valuable force with which they interact. Perhaps they will refuse to be resettled in the other natural environments where their Bantu neighbours have found life and the process of socialization both geographically and culturally more rewarding. Put another way, the Baka value their forests and the ritual practice and mythologies associated with them as much and, it may be suggested, often more than their fellow human beings. Thus their whole life is occupied with the welfare of their forests and vice versa.
There is a rich wealth of traditional knowledge that links Baka culture and other African cultures to their nature which, if properly understood and used by outsiders as the insiders have done, could provide a solid basis for the challenges of the future. But what could happen if the rapid rate of ecological destruction and especially deforestation which is taking place in other tropical forest areas of Cameroon (see Mope Simo, 1992: 5-15) eventually affect the Baka natural world too? Surely they will not only experience a ‘divorce’ with their forest and all that it means for their material, spiritual and symbolic well-being, but also cease to exist on the face of the earth.
©1995 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi