Pygmy groups in Cameroon: Baka, Bakola, Bagyeli and Medzam

As the first inhabitants of the Cameroonian forest, the Pygmies form an illiterate, primitive and totally marginalized minority, both socially and economically or politically. Most anthropological studies mention three Pygmy ethnic groups in Cameroon:

• The Baka in the Eastern and Southern Province, geographical area of Sangmélima, Djoum, Mintom and Dja. It is the largest group Pygmy, it gathers about 40,000 individuals.
• The Bakola in the Ocean Province (Lolodorf geographical area and the whole area including the forest strip from the coast to the border)
• The Bagyeli in south-western Cameroon, near the Atlantic coast, from Bipindi and towards the border, the regions of Kribi, Akom II and Campo. They are of Bakola origin and their knowledge about plant medicine is highly respected in Cameroon. Bakola and Bagyeli form a group valued at 3,000 members.
• The Medzam in the Tikar Plain (Central Province). This group consists of only about 1000 people.

From the first days of its independence, Cameroon decided to settle the Pygmies so that they would become fully involved in the economic development of the country. In 1960, the sedentarization process of the pygmies started the East of the country, in Moloundou, (department of Boumba) and Ngoko. This sedentarization process was also applied to the Pygmies of Bipindi, Lolodorf, and Ngovayant in the Southern Province. Around 1968, the 2nd Development Plan (1965-1970) launched the ‘’opération mille-pieds’’ aimed at developing industrial facilities among the Baka Pygmies. Simultaneously, multiple social actions for the emancipation of the Pygmies are launched. But the role of the government has proved to be insufficient in this integration program. Despite a presidential decree on the organization of the status of Pygmies, the program on integrating the pygmies is still at the starting point. Therefore, some actions have been initiated on the ground by humanitarian associations and NGOs to break the impasse and bring solutions from the integration of Pygmies in the country’s development. It is now unquestionably recognized that the key to this problem lies in the schooling of children, civic education and the political socialization of the Pygmy populations.

The Pygmies Bagyeli and Bakola: Region of Bipindi, Cameroon

In the sharing-based Pygmy tradition, no one misses anything because nature, and more specifically the forest, generously offers its resources that can be exchanged and shared. Unfortunately, the Bagyeli Pygmies today are confronted with the Bantu’s own way of life, based on the appropriation and accumulation of resources. Unable to adapt to this new economic system to which they are not prepared, the Pygmies find themselves completely impoverished. Totally unprepared to the social environment imposed on them, the Pygmies Bagyeli and Bakola are also victims of marginalization due to the non-recognition of their fundamental rights: destruction of their natural environment, no land, precarious housing, social insecurity, nutritional deficiency, no access to primary health care and education structures, no access to the job market and employment. Their survival is endangered.

Traditional life of Pygmies

  • Economical activities

The economic activity of the Pygmy populations is generally limited to solving the problem of their diet. The Pygmies take all their resources from the forest; they are hunters, fishermen and fruits pickers. Hunting is considered virile and is the responsibility of men while fishing and fruits picking are more the domain of women. But it is common that, within a family, everyone participates in all activities to get a better harvest or more abundant meat.

  • Traditional way of life of Pygmies

The Pygmies live from day to day, without thinking of the next day. They do not store or accumulate resources that they can get when needed (wood, leaves, stones, plants, etc…) Traditionally, they exchange what nature cannot provide. They exchange their products with their Bantu neighbours. This makes them the victims of the economic system of their Bantu neighbours, based on the appropriation of wealth. Indeed, the Bantu do not limit these exchanges to the resources of the forest. Very often, they employ Pygmies for agricultural work such as forest clearing or carrying wood, construction of huts, and then pay very poorly in bags of flour or cassava. Although this provokes international reactions, it is generally accepted that the Bantu treat Pygmies as their slaves.

  • Social and political organization within Pygmy settlements

Social organization
Traditional social structures are based on an affiliation and age-class system. The affiliation system is based on family, lineage, sub clan, and clan. The clan is composed of individuals claiming the same ancestor, real or fictional. Among the Baka, the clan is designated by the term Ye, Yelikemba means for example clan of Likemba.

Political Organization
A Pygmy community is subject to the verdict of the Council of Elders and placed under the authority of a traditional chief. Far from being a formal structure, the Council of Elders meets only occasionally, to solve a specific problem that arises in the camp. They discuss the issues of young pygmies’ marriage, marital disputes and problems of initiation. The authority is usually in the hands of an old man whose power is exercised by right on the whole community.
For lack of information, but especially because of the non-recognition of their identity, the Pygmies populations are not interested in the national political life and take no part in the elections, social changes, economic developments…

Women in the Pygmy tradition

  • A leading role

Women play an important role in almost all areas of Pygmy society and culture.

  • At the level of the family

Pygmy women enjoy immense importance within the group, whether within the family or within the larger group that is the village. In the family, the woman has a crucial role since it is often the newly wed husband who moves to live in the camp where the woman is from. Moreover, since the introduction of money into the life of the Pygmies, it is the woman who has taken the responsibility of managing the savings of the home: she makes the decisions concerning purchases, sales and investments of the family. It is also common that the woman has the last word because it is she who is responsible for the education of children, cooking and caring, just as she is responsible for the construction of shelters for the household each time that the family changes camp.

  • At the camp level

At the camp level, women also have a prominent place. Unlike men, they spend most of their time in the villages where they take care of agricultural and domestic tasks. That’s why they really have a say in Pygmy society, both at home and in community meetings.
In the traditional Pygmy society
In the traditional Pygmy society, the woman is synonymous with luck, especially for hunting. Indeed, men do everything to be good with their women because when they go hunting, women do some rituals to bring luck. These beliefs are still very strong in pygmy environment; the woman is and remains the pivot of the society and her influence is great.

Pygmies and traditional medicine: renowned healers

The Bagyeli Pygmies are known by all Cameroonians for being the best healers in the country. Even the Bantu come to consult them, to ask for plants or care. The Pygmies, respecting their traditions, use the resources put at their disposal by nature to heal themselves. They make their own remedies, on the one hand because they are attached to a way of life inherited from their ancestors and on the other hand because without money and without administrative papers, they do not have access to the care provided by the hospital, where they are anyway poorly received.
Plants are the core component of the care provided by the Pygmies. They use tree barks, roots, leaves to make decoctions, herbal teas, powder for scarification, and nasal injections for their different care. Bush meat is also a very popular element of pygmy medicine. It is not uncommon to find a pendant of gorilla bones held by a piece of animal skin around a child’s neck; the goal being to allow the child in question to have hard bones like that of the animal. They also use the hair of some animals to heal burns for example. Some types of stone are also used to heal; a stone is thrown into the fire and after being heated up, it is removed and placed in front of the patient and the healer pour over a medicinal solution. The Bagyeli Pygmies have settled in south-western Cameroon for its abundance of wild animals and plant species needed for their medicinal remedies. However, in recent years, large plantations have been established on these lands, and the construction of a pipeline has also jeopardized the balance of the natural environment. Many plant species are disappearing and animals are becoming scarce.