The Congo Basin Expedition
In March 2012 we finally set off for our long-planned expedition to the Congo Basin's rain forest and to the Pygmies. They are well known hunters-gatherers, whose home and source of living were always the forests of equatorial Africa. We wanted to find out how the things are today.
Because it's very hard to find any information about this area the easiest way, for practical reasons, was to start our journey in Cameroon. But there we soon discovered that the local Baka Pygmies do not live in the forest anymore, in fact they are not even allowed. They were pushed out and forced to settle in villages along the road by the government, which does not recognise their rights to the forest in which they lived for many generations. Priority is given to the interests of timber companies, the Bantu farmers, and even the protected natural areas. Pygmies, who know and respect their ecosystem like nobody else, do not have access into national parks.
We found all the Baka villages which we saw on our way through south-east Cameroon quite depressing. They consisted of square clay houses (like the Bantu ones) instead of traditional semi-circled ones made from the jungle leaves. New, sedentary, life style brings many problems though. Villages are overpopulated and many children suffer from malnutrition, because the traditional Pygmy diet, which used to consist mainly of bush-meat, have changed into manioc-based diet poor in protein. Alcohol is a huge problem among adults too. The Bantu majority society still considers them inferior beings, primitives. It's known, that the Bantu lived with Pygmies for centuries in a kind of dependency, or symbiosis. However, until very recently, it was almost at the level of slavery, as many ethnographical studies mention.
Next we went to see the forest elephants and lowland gorillas in Lobéké national park in south-east Cameroon, but also without much success. Gorillas are definitely inhabiting Lobéké's beautiful rain-forest, but we were not lucky enough to see them, only their foot prints and other signs of their presence. Very few elephants are left in the park, mainly due to the huge problems with poaching. And there is also a noisy, dusty road to Congo running right through the national park, very busy with trucks carrying massive trunks of centuries old rain-forest trees.
From Cameroon we continued to the Central African Republic to look for Pygmies BaAka, or Bayaka which in their language means people of the Aka tribe (but they also call themselves BaBenzele). They live in south-west corner of the CAR (and also in northern Congo), that's also the location of the Dzanga-Sangha Protected Areas. Part of it is the famous Dzanga Bai; a natural jungle clearing with soil rich in minerals and salts, and therefore frequently visited by forest elephants. One afternoon we saw one hundred and ten of them there, all at the same time! What a wonderful experience!
BaAka live in the whole area, also around Bayanga village where the park headquarters is based. But it seems that like in Cameroon here also their life have changed. They are not allowed to hunt or collect in the protected area, and outside of it there is not enough animals nowadays to support the rapidly growing population. Young BaAka generation is quickly loosing the knowledge and skills of their parents. They prefer to sit around and wait for handouts.
We were hoping that we would still find some remainder of the BaAka still living traditionally; but also here, there was a big problem to find any useful information, or to arrange anything. To complicate things further, the BaAka are very distrustful of outsiders. Eventually, we found someone who promised to take us to the real hunting camp in the forest, so we could learn a little bit about the BaAka life and culture. But when we arrived, after about two hours marching through the very pretty forest, we discovered that the ’camp’ was built that day, only for us. There was not even enough people for the BaAka traditional net-hunting. Our guide had just sent a few people to the forest in the morning, to make everything ready for us. It was already late afternoon, however, and so we had to stay for the night anyway. And that was as well, because despite the fact that the camp was not authentic, in the evening the people sung their beautiful songs for us. In the end even the forest spirit came .....
Later we made yet another attempt, with similar result. Everyone there was telling us that we were at least 30 years too late. Unfortunately, they were right.