Sunday, 23 October 2011

Lessons from the Baka Pygmies

The Baka are a tribe of Pygmies living in central Africa. These nomadic hunter-gatherers live in the central African forests and have one of the oldest surviving cultures in Africa, certainly older than that of their taller black neighbours living on the open plains. They are endgangered - more in danger than the whale (which makes me wonder why I have never yet seen anyone walking around with a badge declaring "Save the Pygmies"). But we should call them the Baka, not Pygmies. The name "Pygmy" was coined by foreigners, who have generally behaved despicably towards these people, which is why the Baka prefer to be known by their own name.

From time to time white people think there is a question that needs to be answered - the question of what it is that makes us different from (other) animals. The most common answer the white people come up with is that we are beings with Reason. In contrast to the animals lost in a world of thoughtless instinct, we can think rationally. How would the Baka answer that question? I imagine they would find it a very strange question because it assumes that we are set apart from the natural world, whereas they believe themselves to be a part of it. However, if pushed (because the white people are very good at pushing) the Baka could well answer: "What makes us different is our singing." Singing is a huge part of their culture, and they sing brilliantly. If they have to do someting as a group - say, going fishing - one of them will start singing, and slowly the others will join in.

Listen to the women singing HERE.

I have just been to the tax office - and the taxation system is one of the achievements of the rational mind. It was not a pleasant experience. It made me think of the Blake poem describing the marks of woe on the faces of the passers-by and the "mind-forg'd manacles" that Blake saw . The employees were at their desks - one each. The walls were white and blank, save for a large poster of a wild green landscape. No one was singing.

Of course our white culture still gives a place to singing. Two places, actually. There is singing as spectacle, which is also singing as commodity - as an industry. But to find communal singing among fully-fledged adult citizens, we have to go to the football ground. Do those songs bear any comparison, though, with those of the Baka?

Baka culture has very nearly been destroyed. While they were left to themselves the Baka and the other Pygmy tribes managed to sustain a way of life that dates back to way before the time of the Pharoahs. The whites and the Baka's black neighbours, the Bantu, have driven the Baka out of what remains of the forest, and forced them to live in villages. Paul Raffaele has written an excellent first-hand report of how the culture of the Baka and other Pygmy tribes has collapsed, suffering exploitation, harassment, neglect, disease and drug abuse.

We - as a culture, as a civilisation - can no longer sing, but surely we should be able to see the inestimable value of neighbours who still know how to live through song - neighbours who help to keep alive what we have lost. The Bantu, who consider themselves civilised, despise the Baka and consider the Pygmies the sort of thing that they can own. Are we any better? Are we doing anything to help the tribe survive in a world which is more threatening than anything that previously lurked in the darkest corners of their forest?

To see what we might be doing let's pop over to the UNESCO website where there is lots of material about protecting our World Heritage. Let's put "pygmy" in the search box. We find a page about a West African forest which is now a national park, where the pygmy hippopotamus can now live unthreatened, together with "11 species of monkey which are of great scientific interest". The park dates back to 1926, when it was declared a Forest and Wildlife Refuge by the French. It became one of UNESCO's World Heritage sites in 1982.

The pygmy hippo is safe. What of the Pygmy people, though? The UNESCO website has only three lines about them. Apparently a 3-day conference was organised in Gabon in 2002 to discuss how to "include the pygmies in the development process". The fact that "pygmy" is written with a lowercase "p" is revealing. There is no news of what conclusions the conference came to or what is being done to help the Baka and the other Pygmy tribes. UNESCO have, though, compiled a CD of Pygmy music, just so that it is not lost forever.

The forests, which are full of things of "great scientific interest", are to be protected by being made into national parks. What this usually means, though, is that the indigenous people are expelled, as the Baka have been in Cameroon. Presumably these indigenous people and their amazing culture are not part of our World Heritage.

Within the space of 6 years Paul Raffaele witnessed a massive erosion of Baka culture. Am I mistaken in thinking that it would be so easy to help them survive so that they could hold their own and learn how to resist the threats both from the white and the black worlds?

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