Letter from Bangui - a visit to the Ba'aka forest people

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Letter from Bangui - a visit to the Ba-aka forest people

Ruby Diamonde went to the rainforest and heard about how the missionaries ‘civilized’ the people.

My guide, Ekhsan, left his motorbike, and showed me the small path between the trees. At the edge of the village we met some Ba-aka children with no shoes, who were silent and stared at us. The smallest one began to cry. ‘They never see munjus [white people]!’ laughed Ekhsan. A man came towards us. He was short and had wooden cross around his neck.

Most Central Africans (about 80 per cent) say they are Christians. They’re mainly Catholics, from the French colonization of Central African Republic (CAR) at the end of the 19th century. Muslims are 10-15 per cent of the population, but there are not so many now as many Muslims have run away because of the political violence and anti-Muslim groups in the centre and north of CAR.

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Sarah John

But not everyone in CAR is Christian or Muslim; hundreds of thousands of Central Africans are animists. They often bring together parts of Christianity and indigenous (local) worship and celebrations.

A hundred kilometres south of Bangui is an area called the Loubaye. It’s a very large area of rich equatorial rainforest, where not many people go. The Ba-aka forest people live there, hunting animals, collecting food and worshipping their forest god, Kombo.

Central Africans usually say the Ba-aka are ‘pygmies’. This is also from the French missionaries, who really wanted to converting the forest people to Christianity and ‘civilizing’ them. Now, 55 years after the French left CAR, the Loubaye has many foreign Catholic groups. Many missionaries ran away in the most recent violence, as there have even been attacks there in the remote forest.

I really wanted to meet the Ba-aka people, and see the effect of the missionaries. So I went to the Loubaye on a logging truck, and asked Ekhsan to guide me.

The Aka man (Ba-aka is the plural) with the wooden cross round his neck says hello. Ekhsan asks if we can speak to the Chef de village, or local chief.

A few minutes later the Chief came in a red Hawaiian-style shirt. We tell him our names; he is Al-Fons, and he says we’re welcome here.

I ask Al-Fons if missionaries have ever come to this village.

‘They used to come here, the munjus missionaries; but we have not seen them for months now,’ he says.

‘Did you and the other villagers like them coming?’

More villagers sit around us to listen.

‘Some things were good,’ says Al-Fons, ‘they brought medicine, and we need it because we have no clinic near here,’ he says. ‘They brought cooking pots, too. But we are a mixed village – not everyone here is Ba-aka – and the problem was they only gave cooking pots to us Ba-aka. This created problems between us and our neighbours.’ He says the missionaries wanted to build a chapel and a school in the village, but then they stopped coming, and no other outsiders visit now.

I want to ask Al-Fons if the local Ba-aka are Christians, but suddenly the people around us all stand up. Young women and men begin to clap and dance. An older man sits down on a wooden box and starts to drum on it.

Al-Fons smiles. ‘They want to show you our dance!’

Some of the dancers put palm on their heads and others sing. I love the music, but I suddenly feeling very like a munju tourist, especially when Al-Fons shouts, ‘Take photos!’ Beside me, Ekhsan smokes another cigarette.

The man with the cross around his neck sits beside me, and asks if I like the music.

I say yes, and take some photos. Then I ask what he thought of the missionaries, and he looks very happy.

‘They were wonderful!’ he says. ‘They came to civilize us – you can see our lives here. It was good for us when they came with medicine, and cooking pots too.’

‘So, are you a Christian now?’

‘Oh no!’ he smiles. ‘We all worship the forest spirits, and this is our dance to our God, Kombo. But I hope the Christians come back with more medicine, and finish the school.’

Ruby Diamonde is not her real name.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: http://newint.org/columns/letters-from/2014/05/01/letter-from-bangui/ (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).