As the dry season approaches, you can hear the sound of axes at work as people make dugout canoes here and there throughout the village. They are preparing to go fishing in the dry season. The wet season in tropical rainforests is long, cold and gloomy. Once it rains, people enter the forest less for fear of falling trees. Meat and fish are sparse during this season, and meals tend to be dull. As this difficult period comes to a close, there is a growing restlessness among the Bakwele people living in the villages along the Dja River, which flows at the border of southeastern Cameroon and the Republic of Congo. Each year, the fathers in the villages - who enjoy fishing and spending time with their families – engage in rivalry as they rebuild their boats (Photo1).
Photo 1: Making a dugout canoe
The Bakwele people live along the Dja River (also known as the Ngoko River) running along the border of southeastern Cameroon and the Republic of Congo (a Congo River tributary) and the Ivindo River along the border of the Gabonese Republic and the Republic of Congo (an Ogooué River tributary). They practice swidden cultivation, but are also known for being good at river fishery. There’s a reason why they spend several weeks to a month making large dugout canoes and going on long fishing trips. The boats carry a full load, with all members of the household - including newborns and expectant mothers - as well as large quantities of farm produce such as plantain bananas and cassava flour, household goods such as pots and pans and bedding, and even chickens and goats (Photo 2). It is a distinctive characteristic of Bakwele fishing to engage in the activity as a family, sometimes even going out for over two months.
Photo 2: Rowing their boat
In terms of African fishermen, those in the Great Lakes Region of East Africa and the savannahs of West Africa are well known. A fishing culture also exists, however, in the tropical rainforest areas, which skillfully uses the ecology of the forests and rivers and is deeply rooted in people’s lives. Characteristic of the fishing activities of forest dwellers is the variety of fishing methods they practice (25 methods among the Bakwele of Cameroon alone) to catch a wide array of fish (over 160 species in the Dja River basin alone) and aquatic animals. Many people actively participate in fishing, and in addition to the fishing practices of adult males in the river mainstream, there are methods that women and children excel at, such as damming small streams flowing into forest areas and draining pools of water in the forest and catching the fish left behind (bailing) (Photo 3).
Photo 3: The author learning to bail out fish
More than anything, the best part of fishing camp is eating all the fish that was not available during the wet season. Any of the fish caught left uneaten is smoked and brought back to the village to distribute among relatives and friends, or is exchanged for money in the town. Thus, the more relatives and friends who join the boat trip, the more fish is eaten and not sold. There are delicate tactics at play on the boat between those who prefer to smoke more fish, and those who prefer to eat them. Ultimately, however, no one is held back from eating the fish (Photo 4).
Photo 4: Food distribution among the large group at fishing camp is a big job
There has been a recent increase in the number of fishermen from northern Cameroon and West Africa going into the tropical rainforest rivers. Many Bakwele people do not have the money to purchase new hooks and nets, and thus borrow funds for their fishing equipment. As they do not care much for the people bringing in thousands of Nigerian-made fish hooks and several hundred meters of gill nets, the Bakwele men remain indifferent to the phenomenon and continue to fish as a family, upholding fishing practices that value communication at fishing camp.
For more information on the fishing activities of the Bakwele people in the tropical rainforests of Cameroon, please refer to the following video clip and references.
I am engaged in anthropological research and do fieldwork on the Baka pygmies (who call themselves “Baka”) in southeastern Cameroon, Africa. The Baka, as with the Mbuti pygmies (in the former Zaire) being researched by Mitsuo Ichikawa (in the ASAFAS), dwell in forests and have, for the most part, a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Among the different pygmy groups, the Aka and Efe are the most recognized, but all have similar lifestyle practices and are believed to form a single cultural group.
2. Research on Baka spirit rituals
My research focuses on the rituals and religion of the Baka people. Not much research has been carried out on the topic of religion among pygmies, leaving plenty of room for inquiry. Among the different pygmy groups, there is belief in supernatural “spirits of the forest” known by the Baka people as “me.” Rituals for the spirits are often performed as part of life in Baka villages (about 50 people in each community). The men of the village form groups to perform the rituals, and using clothing that conceals the identities of the performers, convincingly stage the presence and actions of the spirits, mostly for women and children to enjoy.
These rituals work to ease social tensions among the community and are important in strengthening group unity. I call these “spirit rituals,” and made them the focus of my research. I ask the basic questions of why the Baka people stand by spirit rituals and continue to perform them. That is, what is it that makes the spirit rituals appealing and amusing for the Baka people?
Village landscape The huts that house each nuclear family face each other around an open space, which is often an area where the forest has been cleared. To the left in the photo can be seen the entrance to a njanga, which is a spirit dwelling. This is similar to Shinto shrines, and people are usually not allowed to enter it.
A mongulu under constructionA special hut made of foliage called a “mongulu.” It is the task of women to make these.
3. Ritual performances of the spirits and variations thereof
Intriguingly, the spirits are dressed in an abundant variety of ways.
Catalog of spiritsHere are photographs of some of the Baka spirits.
JengiA Jengi dancing as the villagers sing. The Jengi is regarded dangerous, so women and children do not get close to it.
Emboamboa The Emboamboa is, if anything, a foolish spirit, and the children here are playing with it.
KoseA grass skirt that makes sounds is attached to the hips of the Kose, and it is constantly being rhythmically shaken.
limbolimbo is like the Jengi but smaller. Unlike the Jengi, the dancer inside the costume is on all fours.
4. Spirit characters
I have reproduced cartoons below of character representations of the Jengi and Emboamboa, typical spirits of the Baka people.
The character representation of the Jengi, considered the highest ranking of the spirits, aims to overpower and overwhelm the viewer. By contrast, the Emboamboa is a kind of clown, and the aim of it is to bring about amicable feelings. I have compiled my observations of the “personalities” of these spirits in the paper below. “Kameroon, Shuryosaishumin Baka no Seirei Pafomansu: Toku ni Seirei no kyarakuta Hyogen nitsuite no Kosatsu (The Spirit Performances of the Hunter-Gatherer Baka People of Cameroon: Focused Study of Spirit Character Representations)” in Dobutsu Kokogaku (Animal Archeology), No. 10, 1998, pp. 81-118.
5. Spirit performance and music
It is also believed that the spirits interact with humans through music. They mostly dance to the singing of the women while emerging from and retreating back into the bush behind the village, energetically moving into and away from it.
Village layout and spirit movements
Examples of spirit movements
The spirits have various improvised movements, and spectators are never bored. The women sing enthusiastically to make the spirits dance as they are stimulated by the variety of movements they perform. I am currently preparing my dissertation on the reciprocity between such dance and music in spirit rituals.
In this way, we can observe that the people’s enjoyment of spirit rituals is deepened through the multiple effects of such character representations and music.
6. Spirit ritual diversity and intra-cultural diversity
It is now considered necessary to perform a comparative study of spirit rituals with groups other than the Baka people, such as with the Aka and Mbuti peoples. However, there are many different types of spirits even among the Baka people, which vary even among the Baka villages. Before making inter-cultural comparisons, we need to properly understand the structure of intra-cultural diversity.
I have written two papers from this perspective, based on my study of the social process that gives rise to the diversity of the Baka spirits.
By studying spirit rituals in a wide-reaching survey of 227 villages along a logging road in the survey area, I identified 53 types of spirits, and I came to understand variations in the way they are distributed.
Variations in spirit distribution
While spirits such as the Jengi and Emboamboa introduced above, for example, are common and could be found in more than a hundred of the villages, many of the other spirits were found in only 10 to 20 villages at most, and in many cases, only in a single village. The Baka people have a particular belief that spirits belong to specific individuals, which has a lot to do with the types of spirits that exist and how they are distributed.
Firstly, there is diversification due to many individual Baka people creating new spirits. Many spirits, however, are bought and sold among them, and in this process of exchange, some are favored and propagated far and wide, whereas others are not as popular and disappear. In other words, some spirits “die out.”
When talking about Baka spirits, there is a tendency to focus only on more conspicuous examples such as the Jengi, but to understand the basis for their foundation, there is a need to also consider the countless variety of spirits in the background. There are snatches of reports of the same fluid properties existing even regarding the spirit rituals of other groups such as the Aka and Mbuti, so this is a factor that cannot be ignored in making inter-cultural comparisons.
7. The Future: Is this a dynamic system for the generation of culture?
In considering Baka spirit rituals overall, we can depict a dynamic system that while continuing to produce what is standard, which includes the Jengi, is constantly changing. For the time being, this perspective regards the various types of spirits as being in competition with each other. Thus, in ritual performances, for example, the mechanisms used by spirits to entertain people can perhaps be seen as tools for them to “survive” in people’s hearts. Well-known spirits such as the Jengi can be regarded as ones that, due to some reason or another, enjoy great popularity and are “successful.” However, we cannot know whether a new spirit that the Baka people find more appealing will someday emerge and replace the Jengi. Conversely, perhaps one day (and I hope not), spirits themselves will become extinct, disappearing from people’s hearts due to a sudden environmental change of some sort (e.g. radical modernization or conflict).
Technically, this manner of thinking is similar to evolutionary ecology – that living things of different species make up an ecosystem as a whole as they relate with each other, sometimes competing. Furthermore, we can even say that although there are of course differences between the Baka and the Mbuti spirits, these are probably due to differences in the evolution of their respective ecologies. I may be too enthusiastic, but I sometimes even fantasize whether we can theorize about an “ecological history of culture (?)” based on materials about pygmy spirits.
To do this, there is the issue of a severe lack of research paying heed to the matter of intra-cultural diversity. This is because anthropological research generally tends to focus immediately on diversity between cultures. In the future, there will be a need for a perspective that avoids simple comparisons, and for the study of cultures all around the African continent (not limited to pygmy spirits) and an understanding of each as dynamic in nature.
The man pulled some tobacco leaves out of his pocket. He grew them in the field. He casually placed the leaves on the ashes from the cooking fire. Upon fully drying, they crumbled at the slightest touch. The man placed them in his left palm and used his other hand to crush them carefully. Once reduced to powder, he held it in his left hand. His wife was preparing dinner by the fire, using a big machete to peel the manioc. Neighborhood children were playing with a pot lid, rolling it on its side and mimicking the sound of a car as they chased it. The man’s son sat on a yellow plastic container, watching the world outside go by. Once in a while, he beat the container between his legs with his hands like a drum, unconscious of his action. He trained his eyes straight ahead. There, on a wooden bed frame, sat a certain researcher, who had been scribbling furiously into the little notepad he carried in his hand. Another child approached the man to hand him a scrap of paper. It had been taken from a 10x10-cm notepad, and on it was something written in French. The man took the paper from the child, poured onto it the tobacco leaf powder in his hand, and proceeded to roll it. Upon rolling the paper shut, he placed the cigar in his mouth and lit its end with a piece of firewood. The researcher suddenly raised his head from his notepad, as though regaining consciousness as he became aware of the presence of the cigar. One word at a time, what had been written was slowly being reduced to ashes.
It happened while I was studying the hunter-gatherer Baka people of Cameroon. I always stayed in a tent when I visited their camps. Everyone regarded my tent, which was set up under a tattered roof, as my “mongulu” (the traditional dome-shaped dwelling of the Baka people). Tents are vulnerable to fires, so no flames could be lit nearby, and it always felt “cold.” As a result, it was often attacked by ants (safari ants).
The incident took place before dinner one day. It had rained heavily from about 3 pm, and I was stuck in my tent the whole time. I fell asleep at one point, and when awoke, it was dinnertime. Suddenly, I felt that I was being bitten here and there. It hurt a little bit. My experience told me that it was definitely ants, and I found a few when I checked the inside of the tent. I was relieved that there weren’t many, but then a really terrible scene unfolded outside. The ants there were too numerous to count, and they fully encircled my tent up to a radius of three meters! I didn’t want to be eaten up by ants, so I called out to a Baka woman.
“Meli! Come here! There are ants everywhere!”
She approached the tent, laughing, “Hahaha… How scared this woman is of ants!” But then she suddenly came to a halt.
“Oh! Girl, get out quickly!” Her voice faltered a little.
I couldn’t imagine a good way to do this. “What? How do I get out?”
“Just get out fast!” she repeated. “That’s a lot of ants!”
Grumbling that of course I was aware of this, I got out of the tent as quickly as I could and put my shoes on. I had no choice but to step on the ants to escape this hell.
It was already dark outside. Meli and some women were getting rid of the ants from around my tent using burning firewood. Some girls helped me find the ants that were still on my body – not just in my shoes and pants, but on my back and in my hair, too. They were all over me! I was glad it was a full moon and that all the men had gone drinking. Because of this, I was able to remove all my clothes to check for ants.
Over an hour had passed since I was able to escape ant hell. The area around my tent finally looked safe. I found the courage to go back into the tent and remove all my belongings, thinking that if I didn’t, any ants still there would remain inside as I slept. I asked Meli to kill them for me.
The men began to return to camp. Upon hearing about what happened, they earnestly asked, in a way I had never seen before, “Are you okay? Are the ants all gone now?” They were supposed to be drunk, so I felt a little bit strange as I looked at their worried faces. My anxious feelings were unexpectedly calmed.
The camp returned to normal two hours after I had escaped ant hell. The men were noisy, drunk from having consumed the alcohol that farmers had given them for their work, but the women, including myself, were tired from battling the ants. We ate quietly then went straight to bed.
People often work in the fields early in the morning in the forests of southern Cameroon, when it is cool and they can avoid the harsh sunshine. How much progress they make, however, depends greatly on motivation (they use this same word in French). Clearing the land is a particularly strenuous task for the robust men, as they must cut through secondary forests using only machetes. They often call on friends nearby to help get through the work quickly.
The men called upon to work early in the morning are grumpy. The person asking for help thus hands them small bags to provide “motivation.” The bags are like those sold in candy stores that contain powdered juice, but they hold something different. Each contains about 30 cc of whisky. The men do not hesitate to take the bag, and drink the whisky in one or two gulps. Most of the time, there is no breakfast, so the drink first thing in the morning warms the body in no time, and they are immediately enthusiastic, and remain this way as they head to work. There are, of course, some people who become too affected by the alcohol and run out of steam (myself in particular), but at the very least, the whiskey fosters motivation during the first stage of the job.
The region is strong in cacao production, and people nearby are called to join in the important work of extracting cacao beans during harvest season in the same way that they are when it is time to clear the forest. There is no distinction between whether people join in for the work or for the motivation, because they drink while they work. The scene of them drinking and singing presents another world from the hard work it takes to get to that point in harvesting the cacao. (*1)
A drink is also enjoyed at the end of a day’s work. The men often go hunting, and they all use traps. Some even set up over 100 traps deep in the forest, checking them two or three times a week. It can take several hours just to do this, so quite a few people set up places off the forest trail where palm wine can be enjoyed. Palm wine is a low-alcohol beverage made by the natural fermentation of sap from the oil palm. Oil palms grow in various places and its seed is collected to make cooking oil. When the time comes, it is cut to make palm wine and the sap trickling from it is collected and fermented. One oil palm can render two to three liters of palm wine a day. It is generally collected twice a day, in the mornings and evenings, but some people collect the morning’s portion in the evening, calculating their post-work drink into it. Indeed, palm wine after a walk in the forest is especially delicious, and definitely soothes one’s thirst. Palm wine is also popular among women, who have no problem accepting it even if it is a gift brought home after an unsuccessful hunting trip. Indeed, it would be more dangerous to forget to bring the wine home.
I myself often partake in palm wine during trap-checking trips with friends. Palm wine does not, however, always work to satiate thirst and cure fatigue. Once, while we were out checking traps, someone drank our wine without permission, and the drink we had been looking forward to enjoying at the end of the day’s work was no longer there. Our fatigue multiplied and anger welled up inside. Unable to contain this anger, I returned to the village and headed for a house selling local liquor made from cassava and corn. This was our drink in times of desperation. Bringing motivation to work can be quite difficult.
This essay was supposed to be about work, but it has somehow managed to deviate. Perhaps the topics of work and the joys of motivation before and after it are inseparable. One should not look forward to motivation too much, but at the same time, one cannot work without having something to look forward to.
It’s almost time to have that well-earned drink, everyone!
- 1: We of course cannot ignore the reports of child labor being used to harvest cacao in places such as Cote d’Ivoire, and I do not intend to simplistically state that cacao harvesting is fun. Cacao is produced in southern Cameroon through family-run operations and in a different political and historical context to the various countries of West Africa such as Cote d’Ivoire. (For more about child labor, refer to publications such as Carol Off’s Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the dark side of the world's most seductive sweet (Random House of Canada, 2006).
- 2: Traps made of wire are banned in Cameroon, but as many people have no choice but to depend on meat as a source of protein and part of their cash income, I cannot advocate this completely.