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Indigenous Africans Struggle With Traditions, Modern Life

While indigenous people from central African countries attended a meeting in Cameroon to promote their respective traditions, languages and cultures, Yaounde is taking measures to bring formal education to the nomadic Mbororos and Pygmies.

The Ngoimo Baka pygmy community lives deep in the tropical forest of eastern Cameroon. The natural environment is their only source of livelihood.

Every evening, villagers assemble at their chief's courtyard to listen to stories and roast meat caught nearby. This day, chief Bengoula Ngimno tells them the government of Cameroon has instructed that all of their children be sent to school.

Map of Cameroon
Map of Cameroon

Angoula David, a 58-year-old father of four, says he will only obey if the chief assures them that their traditional values kept by their ancestors will be upheld.

David says he wants to be assured their own traditions, in which children do hunting and farming to assist their parents, and the new type of education the government is bringing can coexist. He says the community has to maintain how their parents taught them in the forest before accepting anything new.

Pygmy students

During a break at the government primary school in Bindzi, a village about 30 kilometers northeast of Ngoimo. Thirty of the 1,500 pupils here are Baka pygmy children.

Batoula Roger, the school's head teacher, says it was not easy convincing their parents to send the children to school.

Roger says when he started at the school six years ago, there were no Baka Pygmy children. He says he met with parents, trying to educate them on the importance of sending their children to school.

The effort paid off, he says, with the 30 indigenous children now enrolled at the school.

Among the pygmy children is 9-year-old Bakola Lili, who can now read and write a bit of French, says she would like to become a teacher.

Aissatou Ibrahim, who represented another group of indigenous people, the Mbororos, at the meeting in Yaounde, says dreams like Bakola's may not come to pass because most of the children live secluded lives.

"Indigenous people live far from other communities and so this makes it difficult for them to have access to schools. You know indigenous people need a lot of land to carry out their activities, cattle ranching, hunting and so on. We need this land. This is the land that defines us as indigenous people, so we need all those things besides us so that we can fully enjoy our rights as citizens of the country," Ibrahim says.

Sarah Burka, a researcher of indigenous people in central Africa, says poverty also hampers their education.

“Sending a child to school and making them stay in school demands a lot of sacrifices for parents, you know, perhaps they can go into the forest and do their traditional activities, and so they don’t see a lot of the benefits of these sacrifices," Burka says.

Programs for indigenous children

Burka says one of the resolutions taken in Yaounde is that there is a need for special programs that can encourage indigenous children to stay in school.

“Among the recommendations are, first and foremost, using the Baka language in school. There is endless literature and information that confirms that the best way for students to learn is to learn first in their local language," she says.

"Also adapting the school calendar to the Baka traditional calendar, this means not teaching around January and December ,for instance, that involves students going with their parents and spending weeks in the forest. ... And also adapting teaching methods to Baka culture, using examples from the forest and their way of life," Burka adds.

Sari Njango, a spokesperson for indigenous people in central Africa, says during the meeting they also agreed to educate African leaders to know and respect the rights of tribal groups.

"All African leaders and people consider every African as indigenous, but the African Union has defined certain characteristics which are peculiar to people who are called indigenous," Njango says.

"Their means of life is totally dependent on natural resources. When something happens to natural resources they means of livelihood is destroyed and they [their] lives are totally shattered. The are a minority and they are highly marginalized politically and socially. They are perceived as backward and primitive people, I think it is not the best way to think about human beings," he adds.

The United Nations says that there are approximately 370 million indigenous people in 90 countries, with 70 percent of that population living in Asia.