Suzanne Ndjele, a Baka from the village of Assoumindelé, in south Cameroon, is one of many Baka who feels life has changed since they were stopped from entering the forest they had considered their land since birth. The villagers of Assoumindelé used to be able to enter the forest freely, but now it has become the Ngoyla-Mintom Reserve, and for years she has been waiting to hear if she will ever be able to enter it again. She shares her story.
“The forest was a large space where everyone could go and carry out their activities. Our parents told us this.
“They said this was the space where Baka and living creatures nourish themselves with what they find in the forest.
“Every morning when I was a young girl, when we woke up, there was an organisation of women who would tell us the activities for the day, e.g. today we will go and collect leaves, or fishing, or collecting yams, in this or that area of the forest. This was all guided by these women, who we called les moda.
“These activities were well organised. If we were going fishing, we’d go to a certain place, we’d build a temporary dam – a wall to gather the fish to catch them. We knew we must fish only the small amount we were going to eat, and not use any chemical products.
“If it was digging for yams, we would know exactly where to find them. When we were digging for yams, we would take out the root to eat, but re-bury the seed so it would grow back again. That was the way to conserve the environment. That was the way we did it, so as to not destroy the environment.
“For fire, we collected only dead wood from under the tree. Our use of the forest was very rational and sustainable. We received education of the environment, but also on illness, and on puberty and sex education – how to approach a man and avoid sexually transmitted diseases. That was a really great education because the old women would really looked after the young girls.
“Today, it’s not the case. People are becoming more and more independent. Since people have come out of the forest to live by the side of the road, things have changed. Their mentality has changed. Young Baka aren’t so close to their parents any more.
“The big change between now and then is that the Baka can’t enter the forest. Our forest is now occupied by the government and that’s really reduced our space. We can’t go into the forest and gather forest products. We can’t pass on our knowledge to the future generations.
“It’s been four years since I’ve been out of the forest. Ecoguards came and told us ‘nobody can go into the forest anymore’. If we continued to enter the forest we were threatened. I went in and was beaten.
“Once, me, my husband Andre Bako, and my step brother Leon Béké left and went into the forest, just behind the village. There is a forest path from here. We arrived to where Leon has a hut, where he had a small field. A Bantu called Koba went into the forest and found us. He came out and told the ecoguards that we were there – that he didn’t know if we were hunting, but that we were there. The ecoguards came and found us and hit us. They made us sit on the floor, with our legs out and our feet flexed. They hit our bare feet with the flat edge of a machete. Then they hit us on our bottoms. They made us lie on our stomachs and stamped on our back. They hit us. My husband nearly lost his eye. It still hurts him today.
“They didn’t even ask if we were hunting or just walking. They just wanted us gone.
“Before these changes, the animals would be further away, but now they come to the village and walk over our fields. One person’s field – by his house – was completely destroyed by a gorilla. He had nothing left to eat. Sometimes we come back from wherever and they are in our garden, and we can’t even get back into our house. If there are gorillas in our village, it means they are very abundant in the forest.
“What annoys me, what hurts me, is that they want to preserve the forest, but they want to exclude the Baka, and that reduces the cultural knowledge of the Baka. The forest was our school of life. Even if they say they will replace the forest with other things, like livestock, that is not the Baka way. It’s not the same. If they gave people cattle, for example, the Baka wouldn’t eat it as it’s not the meat we like. And if they did a project where they gave us chicken it wouldn’t benefit us because the training wouldn’t suit us and our culture and we wouldn’t want to eat the meat.
“When Komba [the Baka God] created the world, he placed all living creates in it, and he placed man above them to control and watch over them. When Komba placed humans on earth, the Baka stayed in the forest to eat the fruit and the trees, and had just a little bit of meat to eat. The Baka didn’t abuse the forest, it was our way to survive. Everything we used in the forest, we conserved because we did not want everything to get spoiled.
“The forest, for us, was a great supermarket and pharmacy. What are we going to do now?”