Tuesday, March 16, 2010


We just got back to Yaounde after a glorious weekend in Kribi, aka the Cancun of Cameroon. Ostensibly, the purpose of the visit was to learn about the Bakola-Bagyeli, known more pejoratively as the "Pygmies" of Southern Cameroon. These groups live in small encampments in the forest and are traditional hunter-gatherers. As it turned out, we did spend a fair amount of time learning about and meeting with the Bakola-Bagyeli, but we also spent a good portion of the weekend playing on the beach and swimming in the delicious warmth of the tropical Atlantic Ocean. It was, in essence, SIT Cameroon's three-day Spring Break.

As for the Pygmies, meeting with them was fascinating. We hiked out into the forest to meet with an encampment made up of 8 Bakola-Bagyeli, led by a chief who picked one of the SIT students to be his future wife. They showed us how they use their spears to hunt bushmeat, most often rats, porcupines, and, if the (scrawny and emaciated) hunting dogs are doing a good job that day, antelope. We learned how they know if there's a snake nearby based on the behavior of birds. We spoke with the leader of RAPID, an NGO that works to integrate Bakola-Bagyeli into society through schooling and building of houses. It was difficult for us, at first, to understand why RAPID was necessary: if the Pygmies are living sustainably on the land, why force them to join modernity and give up their traditional lives? The man explained that modernization has already approached the encampments: the forest is being cut down, preventing them from finding bushmeat as easily; the traditional medicines no longer work against mutating diseases; and the Bakola-Bagyeli want the shoes, clothing, and modern food that they once lived without. During our visit, after what seemed like a pleasant exchange of cultural information, an SIT student asked the chief if he had any questions about American culture. He spoke and the RAPID guy translated that he didn't have any questions but wanted to know why if America was so rich, we couldn't help them buy shoes and clothes. As usual, our meeting was ending with a (totally justified) guilt trip. One student suggested they bring out a plate and perform the Cameroonian tradition of receiving money for dancing and singing. We each gave money (and one student gave cigarettes, always a treat) in exchange for their traditional dancing. There was something sad about seeing a traditional chief, so much more in tune with the land than we can ever hope to be, dancing for us like a circus act, begging for money.

It was a very SIT weekend: having fun with fellow Americans on the beach, all the while discussing the complex issues of tradition and modernity, development and sustainability. Now I'm back in Yaounde, stressing out about my ISP, which looks like it's probably going to be about the role of women in rural polygamy. Always a lot to think about here!


  1. Ab,
    As the old song goes, "How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree?"
    It's not surprising that even the Pygmies would want shoes and clothes, is it? Next, they'll take a liking to TV and indoor plumbing. Who wouldn't? There's a reason people like such things; they make life easier and more interesting (though, except for 24, most of what's on TV doesn't meet that test).
    Glad you had a great time, though. Stay away from the marriage proposals.

  2. Especially since we already have enough short people in our family.

  3. That dance thing is really depressing. Cameroon sounds like a rough place.

  4. I suppose I'm either getting desensitized to it or I just look for the positives in every situation, but I haven't been dwelling on it too much. Every day is such a mixture of depressing and incredible moments. Despite their problems, the Bakola-Bagyeli manage to stay positive - they laughed and smiled throughout our visit. I suppose seeking out the positives is the only thing you can do in such a situation.

    What's more frustrating are the books I'm reading now about how all development efforts, including small NGOs, only cause more damage in the long run. The advice of most of these writers: stay out of the developing world, instead lobbying those within the US to change the system that causes these problems in the first place.

  5. Wonder if importing capitalism, much as the Chinese have done, would work as well in Africa as it has in China. Thousands were starving there just a few years ago and now the place is so successful it's making the rest of the world nervous. Even ossified and corrupt leadership structures can be sidelined by potent economic development. But it also may require an end to tribalism and big expansion in education.