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The Baka Pygmies are small indigenous people, considered the descendants of the ancient peoples of the Great Lakes: Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. The word Pygmy is sometimes considered as being pejorative.

They are hunter-gatherers and live in small semi-nomadic communities in the forests of Central and West Africa, close to the Atlantic Ocean.

The Baka constitute a society with evolved moral values, based on an egalitarian system, family relationships, and age. The men and the women are equal, the social life is based on mutual respect.

The head of the family’s role falls to the oldest person, who has to guarantee social and economic equality and the respect of the values.

The Pygmies are good at practicing contact with the spirits, divination in fire, and witchcraft. The healer possesses deep botanical and spiritual knowledge.

Baka men

The Baka believe that everyone posseses of an invisible body, a breath, a shadow, an image, and a spirit. After death, the body, the breath, and the shadow disappear, and the soul becames free and leaves for a better place, where it lives a similar life.

They believe in life after death.

For the Baka, everything in nature has a soul and a material existence. The forest, to which they belong, is represented as a kind of divinity to be respected. The forest is considered to be their father and mother, the very first source of life.

When a person dies, his spirit leaves the body but stays close to the camp for a while. Later, the soul may return to help or to trouble the community.

The spirits make sure that the group is running smoothly. The disturbances related to hunting or epidemics are often considered punishments from the spirits because of the bad behavior of the living.

Often, they don’t consider death as a natural phenomenon. Multiple causes may cause it, such as witchcraft or disputes. A child may die because his mother walked in damp places, and a man could die because he neglects his wife or is responsible for adultery.

As everywhere in Africa, the music and the dance accompany the funeral ceremonies. Through the songs, they seek to restore the harmony upset by death. The spirit remains hidden in the forest and observes if the family performs the ceremonies correctly.

To maintain a good future relationship with the deceased’s soul, they organize a mourning period and several nights of storytelling and dance. All the funerary rituals are meant to help the spirit easily find its way to the afterlife.

Baka couple in front of their home
Baka woman and child

The widow (or the widower) has to take precautions to ensure that the spirit does not return to disturb the others. That explains why she puts white kaolin or charcoal around his eyes, those of children and close relatives. The death of a child generates a lot of fear. They practice specific rituals to protect the other children.

When a Baka dies, they cry and show their sadness. They immediately inform the other members of the group, in the forest.

The first night, all the inhabitants of the village bring their sleeping mats and their fires, and gather near the house of the deceased, for a night vigil, outside the house. The older ones tell traditional myths and stories until morning.

Like the natives of the Torres Strait, they invite a masked jester, who «plays the fool» and performs a funny dance called «the jester’s dance». The goal of this performance is to forget, for a moment, their grief and bring joy to the forest.

The following nights they dance and sing. Like the Yorubas and the Fons, who practice the Egoun rite to bring back the dead among the living, the Baka think that the spirits of the forest, those of the first ancestors, manifest themselves during these nights through the dancer’s bodies (those men are initiated).

The body is washed by the relatives, wrapped in the usual clothes, then rolled up in a woven carpet or a sheet. Later they deposit the body in a tomb (the face-up, the head uncovered), dug behind his house or in the forest.

Over the tomb, they pile logs, bark, and soil to prevent the animals from eating the body. The participants take a hand full of earth, spit in it, like a final blessing, and throw it over the grave.

Depending on the region, they can also place the body at the bottom of a tree, then cover it with leaves or simply burn it. Another practice consists in putting the body inside his house, then crushing down the house on the body. The camp is displaced, the corpse is left to dissolve in the earth.

Baka women and children

These ceremonies happen without lamentations, prayers, or invocations.

The burial site remains anonymous. Those who dig the tomb and carry the body are considered impure. At the end of the ceremony, they have to purify themselves in the river. As compensation, the deceased’s mother has to offer them several gifts (for example: chickens, spears, or bags).

Baka men in the forest

Two or three days after the funeral, the immediate family practices a purification ritual that symbolizes the separation from the deceased.

To accomplish that ritual, they have to wash in the river. On the way down to the water, the deceased’s elder sister puts crushed bark in a pack of leaves and adds saliva. After someone has washed, the sister takes a handful of bark and puts it on each head.

Thus the impurities created by direct contact with the dead are carried away by the current.

Thus each man receives a stick to symbolize a spear, a carpet, a forked branch to represent the axe that extracts the honey from a tree, and other hunting weapons.

The women receive leaves, firewood, or food as they must continue to prepare the food, build the cabins, and to support the other family members.

The very old people or the young children are buried early in the morning. The children are not allowed to attend the funeral of an elderly.

Sources:

(https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baka)

Robert Paris, Pygmées et Bushmen, chasseurs-cueilleurs nomades au stade du communisme primitif

(https://www.matierevolution.fr)

Champolion Miache Evina, Femme-bâtisseuse du Mongulu chez les Bakas (Afrique équatoriale) : socio-anthropologie et esthétique comparée de l’imaginaire 

(https://journals.openedition.org)

Kathleen Higgens, Ritual and Symbolin Baka Life History

(https://anthrosource.onlinelibrary.wiley)

Jean-François Dortier, Le pape et les Pygmées. À la recherche de la religion première

(https://www.scienceshumaines.com)

Susanne Fürniss, Diversité et convergence des musique pygmées

Yves Leonard, The Baka: A people between two worlds

(https://www.collectionscanada)

Spiritualité Autochtone