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Cameroon's indigenous Baka sing to save their vanishing forest home

By Ngala Killian Chimtom in Yaounde - RFI
Cameroon © RFI / Ngala Killian Chimtom
SUN, 05 NOV 2023 LISTEN
© RFI / Ngala Killian Chimtom

In the south-eastern rainforests of Cameroon, the indigenous Baka people are seeing their habitat decimated by logging, farming, mining and construction. Where once they sang and danced to celebrate a hunt or give thanks to the spirits, their traditional performances have become acts of protest and calls for conservation.

The sun has set, but the forest is alive with sounds.

The Baka gather around a large fire, their faces glowing in the flickering light. They are ready to celebrate a successful hunt, to honour their ancestors, and to connect with the spirit of the forest, which they call the Jengi.

They form a circle around the fire, their music produced by clapping of hands, beating of drums and alternating vocal sounds that pierce the forest. Clad in their exquisite costumes of leaves, feathers, beads and rattles, they sing in unison, producing an intricate polyphony that reverberates through the woods.

But all is not well in the forest.

Singing for survival

“We are singing for the survival of the animals and birds,” Ngarlo Freddy, a legendary Baka dancer, told RFI.

“We have to preserve the forest biodiversity so that our children and grandchildren will grow to see them, the same way our grandfathers and us are seeing today, because there are some places where everything has been lost such that children can't even see the dung of an elephant.”

It's a concern shared by the more than 30,000 Baka people who live in the forests of south-east Cameroon, who have seen their ancestral habitat decimated in the interest of development.

Cameroon plans to attain the status of “emerging country” by 2035. Road construction, forest exploitation, mineral extraction and plantation agriculture have become key parts of that strategy.

And that means the natural home of the Baka people is fast disappearing.

According to Global Forest Watch, Cameroon lost 1.84 million hectares of tree cover between 2001 and 2022 – nearly half of it precious humid primary forest, which typically stores more carbon than other forests and offers irreplaceable benefits for biodiversity.

'The forest is ours'

What is happening in the forests of Cameroon reflects a trend across all countries that share the vast basin of the Congo River. Considered the second “lung of the earth” after the Amazon, the Congo Basin rainforest has come under severe threat.

A recent study by the Observatory for Central Africa Forests suggests that at least 27 percent of undisturbed rainforests in the Congo Basin present in 2020 will disappear by 2050 if deforestation and forest degradation continues at its current pace.

The sounds of chirping birds, screaming chimpanzees, croaking frogs and trumpeting elephants are gradually being replaced by the sounds of chainsaws and the rumbling of trucks loaded with logs destined for European and Asian markets.

The Baka are responding in music. Songs to celebrate a successful hunt have been turned into songs of protest.

La forêt est pour nous” (“The forest is ours”) is the title of one of the many songs Ngarlo's musical group has produced.

“This is our forest, this is our home,” Freddy's brother and fellow dancer, Marcelin Ngarlo, tells RFI.

“Nothing should stop us from going into the forest. The forest is our culture. We get so many things from the forest, like yams and honey – that is why we call it our forest.”

But his eyes turn misty as he watches his three children play in the courtyard, oblivious of the change around them. “If this continues, I am afraid for their future,” he says.

According to Ngarlo, the destruction of the forest would also mean the destruction of everything the Baka hold dear: their source of food and medicine, and most especially the Jengi – the forest's spirit and the beginning and end of life itself.

Baka women join in the singing, their calls echoing through the trees. They say they want to awaken the spirit of the forest and remind the world of its beauty – and its importance.

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