Thursday, April 14, 2005

Mixed Feelings in a Pygmy Community

I don’t know much about the pygmy population of Cameroon. But while in Bertoua, I had the opportunity to visit a couple of settlements. They were both located off the side of a main road.

Apparently, the government has begun an official campaign to encourage pygmies to move out of the forests, closer to “civilization” so that they might become “socialized.” I’m not sure this is their true motive; after all, the forests are full of a valuable commodity – lumber. The immense number of logs seen leaving the forest regions has me wondering what is really going on back in the bush.

Pygmies are one of the oldest cultures on earth. They are mostly nomads, practicing traditional hunting and gathering way of life. They often trade resources from the forest with neighboring farming villages. It has been estimated that nearly a quarter of a million pygmies live throughout Central Africa, many of which live in Cameroon’s East province, and also nearer the coast.

The first place we visited was simply a couple of concrete-block buildings. Behind the building sat three traditional pygmy-style huts, made entirely out of banana leaves.

The second location was a small village, with houses on each side of the road, and the beginnings of an elementary school. The chief came in from his farm and greeted us. He had at least five wives, four of whom were carrying newborn infants.

We spoke to the chief awhile. He’d been to Europe once; apparently, the French thought the pygmies made unique novelty acts, so they brought groups of them to “display” their songs and dances years ago. He also mentioned that a Pentecostal preacher used to visit them occasionally on Sunday mornings, but they hadn’t seen him recently.

The chief and his wives were a somber lot. Perhaps they weren’t too excited to see more gawking faces. But they tolerated our picture-taking and question-asking.

They weren’t especially short or tiny. They didn’t seem very healthy. Their clothes were especially dirty and ragged. My overall impression was that of extreme poverty, and a sense of loss. A loss of one’s home and sense of community.

I didn’t feel good about being there, mostly because I sensed that they suspected our presence there. They wondered what our true agenda was. They didn’t even speak French; we had to have an interpreter with us.

As we drove away, one of our Cameroon guides turned and said, “If you were to come back in a month, none of those pygmies would still live here. They’ll move back into the forest before long. It’s their home.”

I sighed. As we drove away down the muddy, red-riveted road, I wondered what the gospel really means to a population like this.