Baka : A cry from the rainforest

The above titled documentary came unexpectedly crashing into my life last Friday evening. About twenty five years ago I watched Baka: People of the rainforest and almost half a life time ago it made a big impression upon me. It featured people living  in the rainforest of South Eastern Cameroon living a simple life,  free from the technology and industry of modern life. It was a very tough life even then, but there was something different and superior to our modern life. What stood out was the Baka’s connection with nature, for them nature was life or death.  Their medicines came from the forest, their food came from the forest.  Equally diseases and predators came from the forest. I was more naive and romantic back then, but at times it really appeared to be  idyllic.   Their songs stood out, music  made from instruments that  they crafted themselves.  The sheer joy in the children’s singing. At the time I purchased Heart of the Forest (The music of the Baka forest people of South East Cameroon).  I am listening to it now and on this quiet Sunday it still sounds uplifiting.

In the last twenty five  years my life has evolved in good and bad ways like everyone else.  I guess on Friday I had hoped it would be business as usual for the Baka.  Unfortunately Phil Agland the film director had to tell a far  more tragic story.  Modern life was increasingly encroaching upon this part of Africa. The Baka were now banned from parts of their own forest which were being developed by the government as nature reserves. Other parts of the forest were now being forested  by the logging companies who were  after the mahogany.   They were now prohibited from hunting the bush meat which had been an important part of their diet.  Accordingly they were  working on farms of the Bantu people.  Often they were paid in strong alcohol made out of  fermented bananas. Despite the scale of the other threats it was this alcohol which was doing the most damage.  Some of the Baka women  were  drinking heavily whilst pregnant, leading  to foetal deformities which they did not have the infrastructure to deal with. Equally the  men who drank the alcohol were being damaged in the process. The title of the film captured the scale and nature of the challenge.

The most dramatic element of the film was the screening of the previous film to the Baka people of today. The film was screened in the forest on a large projection screen.  The Baka people were fascinated to see themselves and their ancestors and requested repeated screenings each night. They glimpsed what had been lost in the passage of time and they even attempted to return to old ways of living, but in fairness they were swimming against a tide of progress which cannot be resisted.  The optimism was conveyed in a young girl called Ambi who was going to study in a nearby Bantu village.  There was light and hope in her eyes that suggested  at least for some of the Baka people something more.  Beyond this it was difficult to envisage in twenty five years the Baka tribes existed in anything more than a tourist theme park.