Baka Festivities

July 7, 2011

The one thing Baka love more than anything else is a good party. The Baka word ‘be’ translates as dance, but in Baka means both song and dance – they make no distinction between the two. I have been enjoying many nights dancing with them, and listening to their traditional polyphonic songs, sometimes getting up in the middle of the night when I was awoken by polyphonic sounds. This type of singing is unique to Central Africa, and polyphonic really means that every individual sings their own tune.  At first this sounded rather disjointed to me, but then I understood the underlying harmony, and joined in to the best of my abilities. To start a Baka dance, the men are called upon to drum, and the women to sing. If either of these isn’t to the others satisfaction, no dance takes place.

A traditional Baka party: Men drumming (here sitting and standing in front of women) and women singing (here standing behing men)

There are many different types of  Baka dance, depending on the event. Whilst I was in the field, one of the old women died.  Nowadays, the Baka bury their dead, holding all-night vigils before and after the burial. The haunting quality of these songs specific to a Baka death rite is something I will never forget.

Vigil for the dead woman before she is buried the next day

Parents constantly try to protect their babies and children from evil spells and illnesses through pastes, ointments or special foods made from plant materials, from leaves and barks. During a funeral rite children are perceived to be particularly vunerable and were being protected in many different ways. The one I found most powerful was rinsing babies and the very small children with a brew made from different leaves and some kind of maggot slush, over the new grave, right after the burial.

Special Protection: Life over death

The Edzengui dance is central to Baka rites. Edzengui is a powerful forest spirit, and when he comes to dance, he is dressed in raphia leaves, and must be guided by male initiates. Women are scared of him and his male power, and must not come into contact with him. Edzengui floats over the ground and dances by circling, sometimes for hours without end.

Male initiates surround Edzengui

 

Baka also have great fun watching music videos. In Nà Pòte, a non-Baka trader recently built a wooden house with generator, and now plays dance videos at any time of day. Baka adolescents are no different from anywhere else in the world, and they love to watch these music videos and imitate the dance moves they see; especially the young men try to be even more cool than the hard guys they see on screen. Often their younger siblings and older relatives join in and it soon becomes one of the many impromptu village parties.

It's party time

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Adjab and Pba nà pòte

June 22, 2011

The two Baka villages where I have been spending the last weeks are called Adjab and Pba nà pòte. They are located in Northern Gabon along the river Ivindo, and it takes roughly a day to get there from the provincial capital Makokou. Often, the Baka live in the same villages as the people they work for, but Adjab is special, in that it is the only village in Gabon with a uniquely Baka population. Pba nà pòte, which lies about 1 hour’s boat ride south of Adjab, has a predominantly Baka population, with some Bakwele living there too, the Bakwele being one of the neighbouring tribes of the Baka in this region.

Looking across Adjab's village square

 

Pba nà pòte in the evening light

Transport to either location is first with a 4WD car, along some of the most adventurous roads in Gabon, and then by ‘pirogue’, a wooden dugout canoe which can be anything in size from a nutshell to a substantial boat. Travel always involves unexpected events, and once my backpack was submerged by water pouring into the boat. Luckily I could use my 400-page Baka dictionary again after drying it in the sun for three days.

Clearing the road of fallen trees is part of the travel arrangements

Baka village dwellings along the Ivindo consist mainly of mud-walled houses, and thus can hardly be distinguished from their neighbours’ villages. The houses normally have two or three rooms, earthen floors, and either palm thatched or tin roofs. The kitchen is in a separate building next to the house, and yes, the house in Baka is called the ‘place of men’, and the kitchen is the ‘place of women’.

In each village, I was given a room where I could string up my hammock with integrated mosquito net (awesome!), and where I slept better than in many other places. You are never alone in a Baka house, and sometimes I shared the space with 11 adults and at least as many children; and, of course, the spiders, termites and other creepy crawlies.

My hammock - in the back room - mystified the Baka, but they appreciated that I didn't have to sleep on the floor

In order to experience life the ‘Baka way’ and to minimise on logistics, I eat what the Baka eat as much as possible. The most important part of their diet today is manioc, better known as cassava or yuca, and originally from Latin America, as a Columbian woman told me recently. Manioc can be prepared in many different ways, but in Gabon, the most common way is to pound the root, and then roll the pulp into a ‘baton’, meaning the manioc is placed in a marantaceae leaf and rolled in tubular form.

Prisca showed me how to roll my first 'baton' of manioc

The second important ingredient to any meal is, of course, meat, if available. A traditional division of labour is still in place, ie the men hunt, and the women prepare. On many occasions, I provided the cartridges for the hunt, which was a strange feeling at first. During all the weeks in the forest I never had any digestive problems, but rather put on weight, because the food tastes great.  I think the secret lies in the fact of fresh produce prepared slowly. One Baka man who has been to France told me he didnt entirely appreciate French cuisine because people missed those extra 15 minutes that make a meal really tasty.

Mamado starts preparing porcupine for dinner

Enough of food – it’s now dinner time in Libreville – and I will be posting more about my experiences in the forest soon.


April 5, 2011

I finally got my visa, so I’m off to the forest again at the end of the week.


Politics and Fishy Stories

February 28, 2011

It’s official: you cannot plan anything or travel the country, if you are waiting on Gabonese authorities, and I still do not have the right papers, and so I have been unable to return to the forest Baka. This however made it possible to start working with Hélène, a Baka woman who lives in Libreville. It has been great fun to learn about her life story, as she was schooled by catholic missionaries, and lives her life in between forest and big city.

Hélène in the archive room of her first school

Being in Libreville has also given me a chance to conduct interviews with people from government bodies, NGOs, and to have countless informal exchanges with taxi drivers and just people out and about. Apart from shedding light on the way ‘pygmies’ are seen in this country, I learned that the Gabonese worry about food scandals and climate change just the way we do. Nearly everybody complains about there no longer being distinct wet and dry seasons, but that it’s all mixed up with new record high and low temperatures; and they don’t like the fact that using chemical fertilizers means traditional foods are now available year-round, but have lost their good taste.

Gabon had its very own ‘coup d’etat’ in January, but luckily it didn’t have any major implications. Nevertheless, especially with the revolutionary movements in Northern Africa, it’s been fascinating to analyse international media coverage from an African perspective. And I have been lucky to discuss all these changes with two very competent people: Tine, a German anthropologist studying modern Gabonese politics for her PhD, and Sam, a researcher and cartographer who works for Brainforest, an NGO which aims to help build a Gabonese society where the environment and the people who live in it are equally valued and protected.

Riding home on a pick-up after a day-out, as we love walking and discussing politics at the same time

One of our topics are the government’s urban development plans for Libreville. This means the same as in many other parts of the world: established local institutions must make way for modern high-rise buildings.  In Libreville this meant losing ‘Boul-Bess’, a nightly street market selling grilled fish, where everybody, rich or poor, local or foreigner, came to eat – Sunday nights are just not the same without it.

Delicious fish dinners at Boul-Bess

Over the last few weeks, I have also better understood the economic, logisitcal and social aspects of having a country like Gabon, which is two thirds the size of Germany, but with roughly the same number of inhabitants as the city of Cologne, ie about 1.5 million, the majority of which live in Libreville. I won’t go into detail, but I hope I can enjoy what’s best about Gabon again soon: the amazing forest and wildlife. Can’t wait to see my first elephant.

What you see here are elephant toe nails


Happy 2011: Forest Wonders

January 18, 2011

2011 started off with fireworks and an inspiring time in the forest. I (finally) managed to spend a longer period with the Baka, and it was amazing to learn about their way of life. Travelling around Gabon was, in general, a very different experience from the first time. Having been here for nearly three months, I have adapted to the climate and culture, know how to handle most situations, and had friends or at least people I knew greeting me at the different stops en route. Arriving in the village was also different, as one of the Baka men, Alain, came to pick me up in town and we travelled to his village with his family and some other Baka men.

The final part of travelling to the village is done in small wooden dug-out canoes

I put up my hamoc in Alain’s house, which I shared with up to 12 others, and so there was always something going on – to enjoy, observe and document. I continued working on a map of the village and collecting genealogical data, which was best when everybody started getting involved. The most exciting thing was going dam fishing with the women, which is a traditional practice during the dry season. The principle is simple: pick a spot in the river; build a damn out of branches and mud; and start moving water out of one area to other side of dam (it would be impossible to do this in the rainy season when there is a strong current and water flow).

Building the dam

Moving the water from one side to the other

The fish hide in the mud, so you start moving the mud, sifting through each small area, catching the fish in the process. That part is not as easy as it sounds, and plenty of slippery fish wriggled free from my hands. Luckily dinner didn’t depend on my skill, and the other women were fast enough to catch them again. The average fish was about 10-15 cm long, and you kill them by (gently) squeezing the sides of the head. It’s not as gruesome as it sounds, and I was chuffed when I actually managed this without letting the fish go. All this was hard physical work, and our catch was equally divided between the women who had taken part in the dam fishing. I ate lots of fresh fish, antilope, and elephant meat whilst in the village, but that night the fish seemed to taste particularly good.

Angelique sharing out the spoils

Walking through the jungle forest, I have also been discovering some of the different plants and saw many animal tracks, but no big animals yet. During my time with the Baka, we danced on two nights. The first time was a mix of ‘traditional’ elements and something I would call ‘Baka capoeira’ which was just so much fun. The second time was with the Baka’s most important spirit: Edzengui. It is common practice that the children prepare Edzengui’s clothes and as a foreigner I was allowed to join in, and I learnt how to make his dress from raffia palm leaves. Baka dance (rituals) are incomplete without the polyphonic singing of the women. This type of music sounds strange to our ears at first, but this unique quality is also mesmerising and I cannot wait to go back and hear and learn more.

A quick photo during preparations for the New Year’s feast

Bread and Bureaucracy

December 15, 2010

I received the wrong type of visa for entering the country as a researcher, so, whilst waiting for questions around the visa irregularity to be solved, I have been discovering more of life in Libreville. Something that can nearly be described as German Bread fell into my arms in the supermarket, and I moved to a new guesthouse run by a truly wonderful American missionary couple, and with wi-fi, which was like a new lease of life, not constantly having to run to internet cafes.

'Purple ladies' from right to left: Alace, wonderful manager of the guest house, Céline, responsible for all things practical around the house, and me, on a study break.

One of the bureaucratic aspects here is that each time I go to Minvoul or Makokou, I need a so-called ‘ordre de mission’, a document which entitles me to be in the area and, in my case, to work with the Baka. I must get this paper signed and stamped by the province’s Governor and Prefect, and several other authorities the last of which is the village chief – and I’m in trouble, if I don’t go through this procedure. In return the authorities including the gendarmerie (police) are responsible for my safety and well-being.

My first Ordre de Mission

Proud stamps from the governor, the prefect, the sub-prefect, and the chef de village

Over the last few weeks, I have had many conversations about my experiences outside of the capital which helped put things into the Gabonese context, and I attended another anthropologists’ viva (oral exam for doctorate). I’ve been to some funky concerts and other cultural performances, such as Annie-Flore Batchiellily, Gabon’s very own politically active singer-songwriter. As I have to get taxis everywhere, I urgently wanted to do some sports, and I have started to go swimming regularly at a local sports club. Here on the equator, the sun sets around six thirty and nightfall is immediate, so I get to swim under the stars by 7pm (19:00 Uhr) – life in the tropics does have its advantages.

One of my favourite places in Libreville 🙂

 

Another thing I have discovered is that Africa really has a different sense of time than we know it in Europe, or even no sense of time at all – bizzarre and challenging at first, but interesting and enjoyable when you start adapting to it. But it’s the festive season in many parts of the world and so I wanted to wish you all a wonderful Christmas and a happy and successful 2011!

My very own little hand-made X-mas tree - complete with 8 different light settings


A White Woman in Rural Gabon

December 2, 2010

One of the things that really struck me during the last few weeks was the difference between Libreville and the jungle forest (la brousse, as people say here in French). It may sound like an obvious fact, but as Gabon is classed as a rich African country, I hadn’t expected the extremely low level of development and lack of infrastructure in the rural North. In the villages, women should worry about 3Cs: children, cooking and collecting firewood; men hunt and get drunk. (Ok, it’s not quite that simple, but it’s pretty close.)

Every village offers the 'catch of the day' from the forest for sale by the roadside

You can buy me for 3 Euros

 

Gabon has no noteworthy tourist industry, so that the main association with white people who go into the ‘brousse’ is that they work for an NGO (Nicht-Regierungs-Organisation) and bring lots of money or other goods into the area. It is part of life here in Gabon to constantly get people asking you for money, even in Libreville, but in the rural areas this was a 24-hour thing, and so very exhausting. There is poverty and a lack of basic medical care and other important things in some places. Both the Baka and their village neighbours have always lived with the idea that the forest provides everything they need, but changing consumption patterns and new technologies mean new needs: batteries don’t grow on trees.

Timber transport on a really good piece of road

After a storm the dirt road was often blocked by big branches which the driver just hacked away with an axe from inside the car

 

The ‘benefit’ of being a white woman in rural Gabon is that you can be sure of undivided male attention, or rather you cannot go anywhere without being chatted up. I found this tiring, and started appreciating the African system of relations, whereby everyone is linked to each other as brother and sister irrespective of actual blood relations. It means people look after me, protect, accompany and help me, and some of the things I achieved during the last weeks would not have been possible without the support I got as ‘petite soeur’ (little sister). For example, the Gabonese Deputy Ambassador in Germany, whose Hotel Comfort I stayed in Oyem, calls me regularly to check on my moves and views on Gabon.

I never leave the house without my umbrella, which provides the best shelter even in the forest

 

All this has sometimes left me wishing for the capacity to simply camouflage my skin colour;  And for all my anthropological friends: Gabon is certainly good to think with… for example, what makes a village chief, local hotels and others hang up these posters…?

 

lovin' it up?