Pygmies try to come to terms with tough lifestyle changes

Amaury Hauchard –
Just back from the hunt with a choice selection of plants, Ebona feels at home in the endless forest where many Gabonese fear to tread. “Townsfolk paid me to find these leaves,” the Pygmy says.
Ebona’s people, the Baka, are held in folklore to be Africa’s oldest inhabitants, living today in forests stretching from Gabon and Cameroon inland to the Congos and the Central African Republic.
The dense woods where national borders cease to exist hold no mysteries for the Baka.
“This is our first home,” says another villager, who introduces himself as Jean.
“We sleep in it, we hunt in it, we live in it,” he adds.
The ethnic Baka Pygmies often have a difficult relationship with their Fang neighbours, the main ethnic group in the area, who tend to treat them like children, leading to complaints by the Baka.
They also struggle to have a legal existence in Gabon, as they find themselves without identity cards, which complicates their lives.
“I am Gabonese, 100 per cent, but I don’t have an identity card. They promised us that we would have it, but we’re still waiting…,” says villager Christian, who, like other Baka, wants the same rights as other Gabonese citizens.
“How will I send my children to school?” he asks. “How will I vote? How do I get medical care?”
Just weeks before parliamentary elections, electoral officials have made little effort to put Baka adults on the voters’ roll.
But many Baka steer well clear of national politics. They say they just want to “survive”.
Despite their poor relations, the Baka are nevertheless prepared to hunt for their Fang neighbours, too.
While they tend to treat the Pygmies as “subhuman” on account of their short stature, the Fang acknowledge there is no equal to a Baka hunter’s skills.
International wildlife NGOs hire Baka guides, while urban residents pay them to fetch bushmeat and valued plants. But the Baka are also employed by ivory poachers to track elephants.
“With one cartridge, I can kill him (an elephant). If I hit here, behind the ear, I kill him,” boasts Jean.
He is also the official tracker for an NGO dedicated to protecting the endangered beasts, but Jean has no love of the law.
“I’ve always eaten elephant, this is our home and that is our meat,” he says. —AFP