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Living with the Babongo Pygmies of Central Africa in Gabon

A life in the margins of society-Foraging, hunting, dance, music, spirituality, poverty and discrimination.........Ramdas Iyer

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My quest to seek ancient cultures and its people has become more difficult since globalization took root these past two decades. What made ancient tribes and communities very special; their myths, traditions, rituals, garb and house building techniques are fast disappearing. The yeoman's effort of anthropologists to preserve some of the hundreds of tongues that are becoming extinct every day, music and verbal traditions have been praiseworthy.
The Babongo “Forest people,” or Pygmies, inhabit the rainforest of Gabon in West Africa and have an estimated population of around twelve thousand people. The landscape embedding the Babongo villages is characterized by dense tropical rainforest intersected by large river courses, rugged terrain and by hot and humid climate. Access to the villages requires the crossing of the broad Ngounié River by pirogue or embarking on the local ferry which is occasionally out of order. Once on the other side, when transport is available we followed logging roads, crossing numerous precarious wooden bridges. The access road has been carved through the forest canopy by an Asian logging company operating in the area and is maintained only where passage of logging trucks is needed. At the river crossing the watercourse represents the physical divide between forest-dependent, hunter-gatherer communities and the cash economy led “modern” world. After crossing the river communication is cut back to the minimum - phone, radio and TV signals get weaker the deeper one ventures into the jungle. Soon, the only “connection” rest with the sounds and smells of the forest occasionally fended by roaring logging engines. Babongo people have been occupying these areas for centuries, although migrations occurred during colonial times.
It was late in the day when after 10 hours driving through muddy logging roads, dangerously weak bridges built hastily over fast waters, we were approaching some pygmy settlements deep inside the Waka Forest, a 26000 Sq.KM rain forest turned into a National Park in the 90's. Marcel Bombe a Pygmy leader who escorted me along with Antonio Anoro of Gabon Untouched my tour leader and friend, Paul Mbombe a Bantu Bwiti Shaman, and I stopped in front of the tallest and largest tree we had seen that day in utter amazement. Paul and Marcel immediately proceeded to approach the mighty tree( Moutambi-the unsurpassed one) to pray to their god Komba, the supreme creator of everything. Added, they also invoked Jengi, the spirit of the forest. I joined them in their reverence to a great tree which is not too different from our own Hindu worship of Banyan, Peepal and need trees.As we looked up at the canopy, a large Blue Morpho (morpho pelides) butterfly circled above our heads. Paul mumbled to me that this was a forest spirit and would choose to sit on his lips shortly. Lo and behold within a few seconds the butterfly chose to sit on Paul's lips for a while and eventually flew away. The spirituality of this moment can be questionable to some but the event was nevertheless real. I was utterly shocked by this event which well documented by Antonio who was having fun with the camera whilst we were praying. Marcel was moved by that event and bestowed on me the pygmy name Moutambi, which is how everyone addresses me till this date in Gabon.

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Getting here was not easy. Heavy rains, much to my dismay had stopped us from visiting another settlement at a different location, which was more remote requiring porters and an 8 hour uphill trek. Antonio reached out to his friend the great Tatayo, master of Iboga medicine in Libreville. Tatayo dispatched Marcel Bombe, chief delegate of all indigenous people (pygmies) in Gabon, Congo and Cameroon to come to our rescue. Marcel, a very small, slight fellow with sparkling eyes traveled for 10 hours, using buses and share taxis to reach us in our lodge located on the banks of the Ngonie river in Fugamou, where we waited patiently. In the course of waiting for him we called for a taxi to take us to dinner to a 'western "restaurant. The taxi that arrived was a late model SUV much to our surprise. The driver a well groomed and well spoken personality joined us for 'Pizza" a southern European mainstay poorly attempted in central Gabon. Paul Mbombe is a well built Bantu shaman and fearless. His father was a government functionary who was assassinated in a purge by the dictatorship of Gabon a decade ago. He asked the taxi driver if he was spying on us on behalf of the secret police.The driver replied that they are aware of a Spaniard, American and Gabonese checking into the local hotel and the hotel personnel were instructed to keep tabs on us and yes he was indeed assigned to us. The conversation eventually turned cordial, yet the policeman asked us to visit the precinct the next day to register since we were going into territory not quite policed. In the interim Marcel arrived from Libreville tired yet eager to escort us the next morning. He set about organizing a Toyota pickup that would take us into the forest along with Bantu businessmen who traded with the pygmies.

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Like in most of Central Africa, indigenous peoples, the so-called ‘Pygmies’ are often treated as second-class citizens. Few have birth certificates or identity cards; they lack access to education or healthcare and are frequently subject to exploitation and mishandling when exposed to the “outside world”. Like other indigenous peoples scattered across the Congo Basin, the Babongo have a unique and rich knowledge of the natural resources on which they depend. The practice of Bwiti rituals and the use of Iboga, a powerful hallucinogenic root bark, lie at the heart of Babongo culture, and make members of the tribe renowned for their spiritual and healing powers. The Babongo are surrounded by Bantu people, some of whom regard the first peoples as little better than animals. Babongo people are generally independent of formal authority and they keep their own traditions and decision-making structures. The Babongo have a powerful reputation as sorcerers, and inspire awe in the Bantu neighbors for their knowledge of the forest and of the Ibogha - the sacred plant central to their beliefs and rituals. Exposed to outside forces and authorities, the Babongo are struggling to retain their identity and traditional institutions. When living in the jungle, their hunting skills and knowledge of fauna and flora are unmatched. When exposed to the cash economy or drawn outside the forest, the Babongo risk losing not only their most valuable skills but also their own sense of history, culture and identity (BBC, 2008). The Babongo are hunter-gatherers and live substantially off wild resources in the forest. They usually hunt using wire traps, nets, bows and arrows or guns, often loaned from Bantu neighbors in return for a portion of the valuable bush meat they catch. Men also fish and gather honey from wild bees. Since some years, because of the unsuccessful policy to settle them engaged by mostly all the states in the region, Babongo Women people sometimes grow banana, maize, manioc, peanuts and sweet potatoes on small slash and burn patches. Children catch crabs and freshwater prawns. At the time of our visit the elephants had wreaked havoc on their manioc plants.

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The earliest known reference to a Pygmy—a "dancing dwarf of the god from the land of spirits"—is found in a letter written around 2276 B.C. by Pharaoh Pepi II to the leader of an Egyptian trade expedition up the Nile. In the Iliad, Homer invoked mythical warfare between Pygmies and a flock of cranes to describe the intensity of a charge by the Trojan army. In the fifth century B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus wrote of a Persian explorer who saw "dwarfish people, who used clothing made from the palm tree" at a spot along the West African coast.
More than two millennia passed before the French-American explorer Paul du Chaillu published the first modern account of Pygmies. "Their eyes had an untamable wildness about them that struck me as very remarkable," he wrote in 1867. In In Darkest Africa, published in 1890, the explorer Henry Stanley wrote of meeting a Pygmy couple ("In him was a mimicked dignity, as of Adam; in her the womanliness of a miniature Eve"). In 1904, several Pygmies were brought to live in the anthropology exhibit at the St. Louis World's Fair. Two years later, a Congo Pygmy named Ota Benga was housed temporarily at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City—and then exhibited, briefly and controversially, at the Bronx Zoo.

There is no one Babongo language, but three. In the central regions variations of Tsogho are spoken, in the South East it is the same but with Teke and Kaning’i as the starting languages. Interpretations of these vary between groups dependent on historical and cultural differences such as contact with Bantu speaking neighbors. Only a very few speak broken French. As a result we had a Bantu and pygmy in our group to be able to communicate and exchange ideas. Pygmy to Bantu to French to English

As far as it is possible to tell the Babongo have always been hunter gatherers living in bands of up to twenty people, a situation suiting a traditionally nomadic lifestyle in a bio-diverse environment. Some Babongo are famed for using nets in their hunting activities, snaring bush meat to complement the plant stuffs provided by Babongo women and their knowledge of rain forest flora. The Babongo have historically traded with Bantu farmers exchanging forest goods such as honey and meat for metal tools and guns to aid them in their hunting. Though in some respects this relationships has proved advantageous for the Babongo it has also left them open to exploitation at the hands of the Bantu as a recent UNICEF report shows.
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The Bantu often do not share the Babongo’s view of themselves as the first people of the earth, yet they are often fearful of them. The Babongo are renowned sorcerers and boast a vibrant animistic tradition called ‘Bwiti’ which centres around the use of the psychedelic Iboga plant which some Bwiti experts believe to be the tree of knowledge. According to the Babongo, Iboga can facilitate soothsaying, healing, and communion with the dead by liberating the soul of the body for a time.
Our journey was getting fraught with serious problems. Many of the bridges, seven in total, did not have wooden slats to make river crossings. We scampered for lumber often substituting with ones in front of us for use in the rear. At that moment I had given up all hopes of moving ahead, especially with the thought of our pickup truck plunging into the river. The 5 pygmy passengers who had hailed us along the way immediately got to work collecting logs for our move forward leaving me holding my heart in my hand.( see video link).
Driving through thick vegetation I realized that it will not be too long before the vegetation completely swallows this ever narrowing road. Out of nowhere I could see children rushing from a far away village towards the car. The sound of our vehicle had given this quiet corner some excitement about the arrival of strangers. Suddenly we were surrounded by two dozen adults and children looking at us with large eyes. The young children became extremely shy as I emerged from the vehicle and actually started looking down trying to avoid my eyes.They were delighted to see us and I was ecstatic to finally meet the pygmies in their heartland.
A fact not lost to us was the knowledge that that this was also Marcel Bombe's home village from which he had left as a child to the city. His mud house consisting of three rooms was made available to us during our stay. Since we arrived in darkness, I could not quite understand the layout of the village. Other than our headlamps the only other source of light was a powerful tree resin used by the locals to illuminate the darkness that surrounded us.
As we settled down the villagers arrived to come and watch us go about our ways like a movie that was playing in front of them. The chief welcomed us and helped unload all our supplies and the many gifts that we had come to exchange with them. Congyani, our neighbor and a very determined and aggressive lady was assigned the role of caretaker. She washed vessels, brought water and prepared our meager meals. The chief asked us not to leave our area for the evening since the village was having a ceremony in the communal hut. It is a well known fact that pygmies keep their rituals secretive and only show the outside world a decoy version of the real thing. Later that night a series of chimpanzee hoots and shrills were made by the villagers which penetrated the quiet darkness of this mountain village. Upon investigation I was told that they were gathered in a ceremony involving the spirits of wisdom from the chimpanzees. The chimpanzee howls were so amazing that when I came home I read up on the evolution of the communication sounds of the pygmies.They were one of the progenerators of spoken languages as we use them today
"When hunters are getting themselves fired up for the Duiker hunt. They clap and do a call-and-response type of chant. Louis Sarno, an American who has been living with the Pygmies for more than 25 years, explains: “It’s a hunting song that calls out to the forest spirits asking for success, although the song is more about the musical rhythm than the actual words.”
The night passed with hundreds of cockroaches and an occasional rodent scurrying on the floor. Being tired, I quietly closed my eyes, quite horrified but yet managed to get some sleep in an unpleasant surrounding. Not a fan of extreme darkness, I had brought with me battery operated bulbs that hangs with a carabiner that kept burning all night. This kept the creepy crawlers on their defensive!.
The village was a large clearing in the middle of the forest. I suppose this village must be in existence for at least 20 years, it was clean and unpolluted except for their waste lagoon that ultimately melds with the rainwater. With over twenty homes I expected the population to be under 100 while another nearby village constituted another 20 homes. Walking past each family and meeting members of their families took up most of the morning.These villages were set up during colonial times when pygmies were 'encouraged' to set up settlements near logging roads.
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A formal meeting was arranged with the villagers regarding the purpose of our visit. As an exploited people the villagers were always on alert often demanding exorbitant 'gifts' in return for access to their village , their rituals and dances. All the men and women were gathered along with my contingent of Antonio, Marcel and Paul. With drama and fanfare our pygmy friend Marcel Mombe introduced me to the gathering." Our fathers were pygmies, our fore fathers are pygmies and we are now the proud Babongo. Among us is a visitor who has crossed two oceans, several rivers and forests to come to visit us. He must be a pygmy too since the universe was begun by pygmies. Let us show our hospitality to him. We have brought gifts for all to show our gratitude.....'.
Outside the hut were two strong men carrying two basket loads of gifts, almost worth $300, one for the men folk and other for the women. An equality system that had been established by the forest dwellers long before the west thought that it may be a necessity.
Each basket contained two 5 liter bottles of palm wine, three bottles of Pernod Pastis( Anise liqueur), 12 packs of soda and beer, two cases of cigarettes, match boxes, cooking oil, rice, sugar and candy for the children. Thereafter Congyani, the leader of the women's contingent expressed her dissatisfaction at the gifts offered. Knowing this is the normal course of negotiation, a bucket was brought in, another bottle of palm wine emptied into it and served to the women, who then excitedly started lighting up cigarettes and began warming up to our gestures of reconciliation.
The men had two factions, one reasonable and the other with a completely out of control leader. He mentioned that BBC was there a few months ago and gave them a lot of money and what we have brought in those baskets was an insult. Again the negotiations went back and forth with Paul using his Bantu skills and position explaining to them that the BBC is a rich organization whereas M0utambi( myself), here was acting on his own capabilities. He went on to describe a large hunt versus a small hunt as an analogy. Yearning to lay their hands on the alcohol the men agreed reluctantly .A few CFAs( Central African Francs) exchanged hands that amounted to a few dollars.
Within a matter of two hours the whole village including anyone over 12 years of age were drunk and happy. The women started getting dressed and for two hours gave us an amazing performance of drum and dance. It was expected that the men would do the same after dusk but they conducted a very interesting ceremony with initiated boys performing a ceremony for us. The men still held back and agreed to perform late in the night. These initiated performers who also take the iboga root as a trance inducer can dance all night but nothing in reality happened; the recalcitrant faction did not put out. Around midnight Paul Mbombe an Nganga master gathered the willing and we had music, storytelling and Bwiti dancing all night but with less fanfare. Sleep was scarce that night.
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With rain clouds looming, we decided to get out of there lest we get stuck in the forested gauntlet that we had to cross, especially those scary bridges. The send off was very warm especially with all the villagers coming to say goodbye.
On reflecting on my trip the following thoughts came to my mind. If this were 100 years ago, entering their realm and disturbing their quiet life of oneness with nature would have been a gross violation. But today with resettlement, commercial mixing with Bantu villages and the need for modern produces of convenience our trip should have been one that they should have accepted wholeheartedly, especially given that we were encouraging them to practice their culture which has been on the wane. Instead they behaved like spoiled children with ridiculous demands, with the ones with access to the outside world acting as adults on their behalf. It was sad to see their plight. Their land was being deforested steadily, they had no access to schools or health care, while alcoholism was not common they imbibed it with no constraints.
Commercial logging is rapidly depleting Gabon’s rain forest with thirty percent already cleared. As a result of the vast roads bulldozed through the forest many Babongo have experienced the traditionally damaging effects of contact with the outside world, disease, violence and 'governmentality'. Mortality rates have risen as the result of deforestation whilst the governmental contribution has been to begin a resettlement program to move the Babongo to villages beside the roads flayed from the forest. Here, considered as the backward remnant of Gabonese society, the Babongo suffer discrimination in the form of pitiful levels of access to healthcare and education. In socio-economic and political spheres, the Babongo people are not seen as equal to the Bantu villagers. They rely on the farmers for trade opportunities. They exchange some of their primary goods (fruits, wild nuts, medicinal plants etc.) for money and industrial goods. The farmers are the Babongo's only connection to the Gabonese bureaucracies. Because of this, they often work as indentured servants to the farmers.
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Gabon covers an area of approximately 26.7 million hectares and maintains some of the largest remaining rain forest in West Africa. Although the actual extent of forest cover is unknown, experts estimate between 17-22 million hectares, or 85% of the total land mass (Christy et al 2003). Indigenous hunter-gatherer communities (known variously as the Baka, Bakoya, Bagama, Babongo, Akoa, etc.) are located throughout Gabon, and include numerous ethnic groups separated by locality, language and culture. According to the most recent census (Massandé 2005), the Pygmy populations number as many as 20,005 out of a total national population of approximately 1,400,000 (previous estimates 7,000-10,000).

Despite the threat of assimilation there are hopes that the Babongo have a brighter future than the negative developments of recent years may suggest. Logging is being rapidly restricted as national parks are established across the country to encourage eco-tourism. Efforts are being made to enable the Babongo to take their future into their own hands given this potentially beneficial transition. One way in which this is being attempted is through the innovative grassroots use of Participatory mapping technologies which have allowed some Babongo groups to commune and mark out their traditional territories, safe guarding them for future generations.
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The End
contact info: riyerr@aol.com
WWW.RAMDASIYERPHOTOGRAPHY.COM

Sources:
Smithsonian Magazine: Pygmies Plight By Paul Raffaele, DEC 2008
National Geographic/ BBC
Gabon Untouched NGO: Antonio Anoro

PHOTO GALLERY:
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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 18:10 Archived in Gabon Tagged antonio untouched gabon ramdas iyer pygmies babongo iboga bwiti gabon- anoro

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Comments

Man...your post about our visit to Waka is so moving. Moutoumbi,this story will keep us together for life. Akewa.

by Antonio Anoro

Of course Mapunza!-en mi corazón por siempre- For ever. Let us continue our adventures this December. Have you advertised our dates from Dec 3 to Dec 17. Please forward article to Paul Mombe and Tatayo.

Moutambi

by Ramdas Iyer

Your compassion for these people is felt and appreciated.

by Mark Riesenberg

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