Date: Fri, 8 Aug 97 19:37:47 CDT
From: rich%pencil@VTVM1.CC.VT.EDU (Rich Winkel)
Subject: CAMEROON: Loggers Force Pygmies off Land
/** headlines: 162.0 **/
Pygmies Face Challenge of Integration
By Tansa Musa, IPS, 3 August 1997
YAOUNDE, Aug 3 (IPS) - Relentless felling of trees in the tropical rainforests in which they live has forced pygmies in southern Cameroon to give up their nomadic lifestyle and face the challenges of modern society.
One community that has had to make the switch to permanent settlements is the Bagyeli, who live between Lolodorf, 300 km south of here, and the Atlantic port of Kribi.
Like other pygmy groups, they used to wander from place to place, surviving on hunting and fruit gathering, and living in temporary homes made of sticks and leaves. But over the past two to three decades, they have fallen victim to large-scale logging and the clearing of forest for roads and agriculture by their Bantu neighbours.
These activities have driven them from their ancestral land -- as has happened to indigenous people elsewhere in the world -- cut them off from their traditional way of life and compelled them to integrate with the dominant Bantu society in Cameroon.
To face up to this challenge, the Bagyeli formed the Committee for the Advancement of the Bagyeli people of Bipindi and Kribi (CODEBABIK) in 1994 with the help of Catholic missionaries. Three years on, they are proud of their achievements so far.
"When one enters a Bantu kitchen, one is struck by the quality and quality of utensils one finds there and the clean environment," says 40-year-old Jeanne Mbamitoo, who is in charge of hygiene and women's activities in CODEBABIK. "Thanks to our self-help loan-thrift society, we can also aspire to having half if not as much as Bantu women have."
"Pygmies who still wander around, live on hunting and fruit gathering are those of the older generation," says another member of the group. "Today we are settled and agriculture is our main activity.
"We practise it with the spirit of 'Subibaba', which in Bagyeli means 'unity is strength'. Our farms may be small and disorderly but every day we are learning to improve on them and adopt modern technology. In addition to agriculture we operate a loan-thrift society to provide better utensils for our women."
Bagyeli villages are a far cry from what they used to be two decades ago. The traditional makeshift huts have given way to mud- plastered houses roofed with zinc sheets and equipped with modern furniture. The wireless set is a familiar companion.
The Bagyeli have also understood the importance of education and now send their children to school. "Education is the key to our further progress," says 44-year old Joseph Nkoro, three of whose five children are in school -- the eldest is attending high school in Yaounde.
"When I arrived here in 1994, there were only seven Bagyeli children in school," recalls Jean Paul Mimboh, headmaster of the primary school at Nkoungio, a locality in the area. "Today they are 60 and are among the best pupils."
A government programme to provide free education to pygmy children is yet to take root. The only assistance some of them receive is from church missionaries. Otherwise they pay for their children's education with their earnings from farming and small- scale livestock rearing.
However, the government has provided some primary health care. Each week, a team of health professionals headed by the chief medical doctor for the district of Lolodorf travels around the Bagyeli camps (small villages) consulting and giving practical lessons on primary health care and hygiene and sanitation.
"It is true there has been a net improvement in our standards of living," CODEBANIK Secretary-General Jacques Ngoun, a teacher who was trained by Catholic missionaries, tells IPS. "That has not come about in three days. It has taken time."
The Bagyeli still lag behind their Bantu neighbours whom they have traditionally served as house boys and guards. However, Ngoun is optimistic that this gap will some day be closed.
"Development takes time, patience and hard work," he says. "Our primary goal is to strengthen Bagyeli unity and, depending on our own efforts to improve our overall conditions of living.
"It is encouraging to note that the number of camps that are members of CODEBABIK has increased from 13 in 1995 to 20 today and that more and larger farms are created each passing day, ensuring our survival."
According to Sister Dolors of the Congregation of the Small Sisters of Jesus, the missionary group that helped found CODEBABIK, the Bagyeli have today reached the stage of fighting not just for survival but for real progress.
The Congregation has been working among the Bagyeli since 1952, she says, adding: "We can leave them today and go to help others elsewhere. We are sure they will stand on their own and, given the opportunities, can even beat their Bantu countrymen."
"I only fear that while moving ahead they may forget or lose their own rich cultures - their dance, music, etc."
Cameroonians in general stand to lose much if this happens since, in addition to music and dance, the pygmies are famous for their deep knowledge of herbs, which they have used to save many lives in this Central African country.
[c] 1997, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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