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Documentary about African Pygmies

The African: Pygmy People of The Rainforest – Ancient Baka Living culture is a discovery channel documentary. In the Central African Republic the pygmies are known as the Baka. In the Congo, they are called the Mobuti and in Cameroon, the Efi. Their country is the large Equatorial Rainforest of the Central African Republic (CAR), a land of myth and mystery. No one knows for sure how many of them live here. They live under the leaves like apes. For many years people have dismissed them for their small size and nudity. They do not produce anything. The hunt, gather and fish. Their music which is still alive in this documentary is as old as the world. Some 4500 years ago old Kingdom of Egypt discovered some strange people in the forests of the upper Nile. Like us today, the Egyptians were amazed and charmed by the subtle beauty of their music and the sensuality of the dances. Pygmy hunters excelled at big game hunting; elephants and guerillas were their favorites. They hunted with spears which are just as good as hunting bare handed.
Louis Sano was born in New Jersey. After university, he worked in Europe. While there he heard a program about traditional African music on a Belgian radio station and was amazed by it. He bought every record he could buy but was not satisfied. Obsessed by the music, he decided to come to Africa and record new music of such nature; instead he put together this documentary. He landed in the CAR in 1985 and has lived with the Baka since then. He loves going to the forest with the Baka, its invigorating.
As we see in the documentary the Baka are setting up settlement. They are making shelters entirely from twigs and leaves. The camp is located 6 hours walk away from the Bayanga National Park. Here they will stay for a few weeks. As we can see from the documentary, it’s women who construct the temporary structures. Using a stick, a woman hits the machete in her hand transforming it into a musical instrument. She sings to the music. A woman pounds some grain. Another is making ropes.
Louis is fascinated by the complexity of the Baka polyphony. In a single song there is a multitude of voices giving a strange musical sound as can be heard in this documentary. The musical instruments are nothing more than the machetes, water containers and cooking pots. The music is all the same very intriguing. You can hear the forest in Baka music; the music of dreams. In their sleep a person is visited by a spirit who sings him a song. This spirit may be one who everyone receives from his father. When the person awakes, he sings the song. If the rest join in it, it becomes part of the repertory.
The Baka love honey. They risk their lives for it. To them it’s more than just a treat; it’s an annex of life. The best is honey harvested from the top of olive trees some 30-50 meters high. To smoke out the bees the Baka carry fire. According to legend this fire came from the first man. It has never been put out and is transmitted from generation to generation. The men have found a bee hive. One climbs up the tree using a vine belt. The Baka are the only people in the world to ever master this dangerous and exhausting acrobatic. Sometimes they are usually exhausted by the time they reach the top of the tree; one wrong step can be fatal. On inspection, the climber determines that the honey is not ready. He risked his life for nothing. Probably he did not call on the spirits properly before the venture.
The ancestral spirits control everything among the Baka. Overall spirits is called Jengi. The Baka sing and dance for him. If the dance and song is good, Jengi will be happy. He will bless them with many animals when they go hunting.
Among the trees are oases of salt marsh. As we can see in the documentary, the large wild mammals come to lick the salt which their bodies need. Nikama, an old Baka man explains to his children that in the past they would hunt the animals. Today they are protected. After resisting the ban for a long time, the Baka half-heartedly agreed. Nikama tells his kids that the elephants must be protected because they create the forest-paths which the Baka follow when hunting.
The entire camp goes off to hunt. As we can see in the documentary, even the youngest of the Baka is not left behind. The forest is life for the pygmies. Therein, their beliefs, culture and experience is transferred through communal sharing. Their life is an uninterrupted song. Even when hunting we can see the Baka in this documentary still singing. Baka hunting nets are woven from Kosai fiber, a very strong vine. They set a trap by tying the nets one after another forming a wall several meters long. They then scare the animals into the trap. Strikingly in the documentary, the Baka talk to their nets in order that they do a good job. A red digger runs straight into the net. It’s trapped. A young Baka boy kills it instantly in one swing of his machete. The meat is shared according to a complex code. It’s either prepared fresh with mushrooms or its’ smoked. No one goes hungry. In the evening, the Baka gather around the fire to prepare the meat. Thabu, the last storyteller of the Baka narrates an old fairy tale. Even during the story, song and dance accompanies as we see in the films in this documentary.
When Louis arrived in the Congo, he narrates in this documentary, there was no road. One could only access the Baka through the Sangha River. The Dzanga-Sangha, a Bantu fishing tribe was the master of the Baka. They made the pygmies work for them all day for a glass of alcohol. Louis proposed that the Baka be moved away to free them, but the authorities declined. Over time, the Sangha chief agreed. The Baka were moved to the other side of the river. Since then, the situation has improved. In recent years, forestry has brought a lot of people to Bayanga. Today 1500 people live in the village, the river has become small and the people need to be fed. There are no sewers and people are ill. Here people eat caterpillars. In the documentary we can see them being sold in the market. There are lots of goods in the market that did not exist before. These have stimulated the local’s desire for money. In the past there was a lot of game just 10 minutes away. Today poaching has greatly reduced the numbers. There is plenty of bush meat in the market; monkey, antelope and buffalo.
The forest of the CAR has an abundance of highly valuable wood. But the authorities do not have the financial or human resource to oversee the lumbering industry. No one ensures that the loggers plant trees in areas where they obtain wood. If this senseless logging continues the Baka will soon be an uprooted people, Louis says in this documentary.
In the dry season, the Baka women fish by damming up the river. Fishing is the theme of many Baka tales. Using branches and mud the women seal the river and slow its flow. As we can see in the documentary, this is a very playful time for the women. Next they empty out the water. As they work we can hear them sing too in the documentary. The women then begin catching the fish. Catfish is a big catch. The shrimps which burrow in the silt are not spared either.
The Baka have found a bee hive on a tree. The tree is however not safe to climb since its stem is rotten and hollow. The Baka decide to cut the tree down to obtain the honey at any cost. They sharpen their axes and begin working. They sing the Bambadu, a song from the savanna. Soon the tree falls down. The tree-cutters celebrate in song. Meanwhile the women are playing their games in the water. As we can see in the documentary, they have turned their containers over the water and are beating them as though they are drums. Some strike the water with bare hands. The music of the pygmy women is not like any other.
The hole containing the bee hive has been opened. It’s filled with stingless bee honey. There are different types of honey. The sweat bee honey is produced by the trigona bee which does not sting. The sweat bee honey is found in small pot like combs. The Baka as we can see in the documentary reach for the honey from the hive using bare hands. Sweat bee honey is very bitter and is a true delicacy for the Baka.
The Baka rarely sing in the village. They need the setting of the forest to fully express their adventurous lives. They need the birds to answer back, and the insects to sing along. The spirits don’t like the villages either, they come alive in the trees. The life of the Baka is an uninterrupted song. Through songs they communicate to the forest and to the spirits of their ancestors. They ask their ancestral spirits for just about everything, from good health to abundant food. Unfortunately, this according to the narrator of this documentary will soon be history. Baka youth do not want to continue living like their parents who were illiterate and were exploited. They listen to new music and no longer sing to the spirits. Instead, evangelists have imposed simpler Christian songs.
In the forest the leaves have a wide use. The Baka use them for utensils in practically every meal. In the documentary we can see them taking soup using rolled up leaves. When it rains the leaves become umbrellas and of course the same leaves are used to make houses. The Baka lives are as flexible as this leaves. Sometimes the Baka’s dances can be very sensual. For this they wear special sisal skirts.
Every year men die trying to gather honey. To steal form this hive, Mongochi waited until midday when most of the worker bees had gone to look for nectar. We can see Mongochi testing the strength of the stem using his machete. He can tell the shape of the hive from the sound made by the machete. He then climbs the tree. As we see in the documentary, he takes careful steps; one wrong move could see him fall down 50 meters. The women wait below the tree. Once up, Mongochi smokes out the bees. He then reaches for the honey using his bare hand. Some bees sting him but as evident in the documentary, Mongochi does not as much as flinch. The Baka also love the wax of the honey. They suck the honey direct from it. The men below the tree have woven a basket using vines and leaves. This basket is used to carry the honey combs and is only used once. Among the Baka honey symbolizes the relationship between men and women. Offering a woman honey is the first step towards a more intimate relationship.
When they have had the honey, the pygmies return to their village. They dance and sing and play. The pygmy’s songs are more than just songs. They express an intense spirituality in constant communion with the forest. It’s a miracle if this group will be survived. If their music dies off, the worldwide community of man will be a poor folk.

One comment

  1. I am a South African Sangoma i need more knowledge about African traditional healing please invite and see..i am Dr Dlamini ..i am also a Medical Orthotist and Prosthetist….

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