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Last Updated: Sunday, 7 May 2006, 09:33 GMT 10:33 UK
Forest pygmies heed spirit world
The spirit of the forest remains an important force for Cameroon's pygmy people, even though traditional ways are changing, reports Naomi Wellings of the BBC World Service Heart and Soul programme.

Chief Arweh Richard
Chief Arweh Richard says he can speak to the pygmy god, Agengi
In the dense forest of southern Cameroon, Chief Arweh Richard is the final arbiter for his extended family of around 70 people.

Every evening he watches affectionately as the young men play football together in front of the camp, and he sometimes joins in, too.

He helps his wife Gabba as she prepares the evening meal of bushmeat and boiled cassava.

Rather than ruling from an obviously elevated position, the chief seems to understand how inter-connected these people are, both with each other, and with their physical surroundings.

Pygmies are among the few remaining hunter-gatherer peoples in Africa.

Force

But whereas some pygmies hunt with a spear or with arrows, Chief Arweh and his fellow men set traps which they regularly inspect.

Much of the religious ceremony which traditionally preceded hunting continues, in spite of the fact that their approach is less dangerous now.

You can take the pygmy man out of the forest, but you can't take the forest out of the pygmy man
Chief Arweh Richard
Part of that ceremony involves the rite of a wife praying for her husband's safety, as she smears some ground bark on to his forehead.

The forest is to be respected - it is not simply a resource, it's seen as a force which has sustained generations of pygmies.

The force within the forest is called Agengi, the god of pygmies everywhere.

Whether they are in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, or here in Cameroon, Chief Arweh tells me they can come to the forest and call out to Agengi and he will reply to them.

There are different reasons why people might want to do that.

Power

While I was staying in the village, the chief was frustrated that his other role as the settlement's traditional healer was these days being neglected.

"People don't come for healing any more," he said.

Chief Arweh Richard (l) and his son Yamma (r) mix herbs for traditional medicine
Chief Arweh Richard (L) and his son Yamma use herbs to make traditional medicine
"I used to have lots of people coming for medicine and my treatment. I was well known for healing people the doctors couldn't."

But in visiting the forest and calling out to Agengi - making loud whooping noises - Chief Arweh and his father Antoine and son Yamma, believe they connect with their god.

After they have made their call, a startling clapping sound seems to come out of the leaves all around us.

This, I'm told, is Agengi and simply being with him means that some of his power rubs off on you.

Later in the week, when Chief Arweh receives two visitors seeking traditional remedies for their families' illnesses, he tells me Agengi has heard his cry and given him back his role in the community.

Chief Arweh recognises that the forest not only provides for its people physically with creatures and plants for food, but its god determines their health and well-being in every way.

This symbiotic relationship between the forest surroundings and the forest dwellers, is summed up in a popular phrase the chief told me: "You can take the pygmy man out of the forest, but you can't take the forest out of the pygmy man."

Naomi Wellings's research in Cameroon was made possible by a bursary from the Onassis Trust.

You can listen to her programme at the link below:




SEE ALSO
DR Congo pygmies 'exterminated'
06 Jul 04 |  Africa
Pygmies' bushmeat trade woe
02 Sep 03 |  Science/Nature

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