By Pegue Manga
Dotting the vast expanse of rainforest in the southeast of Cameroon are dome-shaped houses constructed with young tree branches and leaves.
Those who dared to make it to this part of Cameroon in the early 19th century would attest to having seen these structures. These are houses (derogatorily called huts) belonging to Baka pygmies, a diminutive and timid people who live in the Congo Basin rainforest.
Bakas call them mongulu. Mongulus have not been battered by the abrasive effects of time so they have remained for centuries, symbols of Baka pygmies' identity. They are mostly built by women especially during penetration into the forest during hunting expeditions.
"There are big and small mongulus," says Petit Jean Awouma, a Baka pygmy residing in Mambele village, about 800 km away from Yaounde, in the East Province of Cameroon.
Giant leaves, which serve as beds, are placed on the floor inside the mongulu. "We sometime light a fire inside big mongulu to keep it warm," explained Awouma.
The big mongulu is more of a permanent structure that can contain up to 20 people. The small mongulu is a semi-permanent structure that is mostly built to shelter visiting Bakas in times of festivities like the Jengi dance, during farming and gathering of non-timber forest products.
There are many reasons why Bakas stick to mongulus, despite the emergence of bigger and better housing. The first is cultural. "Our parents built these houses a long time ago," says Thomas Lengue, a Baka pygmy in Bomassa, a village overlooking the Sangha River in Congo Brazzaville.
Lengue said some mongulus are constructed solely to prepare hunters for the task ahead.
"Before a hunter sets out to hunt big game like elephants, he stays the night alone in the mongulu. In the morning, a cream made from the bark of a tree called banga mokoulougo (Autranella congolensis) is applied on his body and the mongulu is set on fire.
Should the cream take effect, the hunter will mysteriously disappear to return with a big game, if it doesn't he is consumed by the fire," said Lengue.Mongulus also help distinguish couples from bachelors. Mongulus for bachelors are small with an oval shape porch, while those for married people are bigger with small doors that are always closed when the family is out.
A remarkable character trait in Baka pygmies is the instinct to bolster their security. They hardly get trampled by a charging elephant or spanked by an incensed gorilla. Any sign of danger and the Baka pygmy is behind or on a tree top beyond reach.
Mongulus are said to be more secure and comfortable, many Baka pygmies argue. Are they? I asked Dominique Ngalla, a 50-year-old Baka pygmy farmer/hunter near Lobeke National Park, East Cameroon.
"My son," he said, "I can easily scamper out of this house and take off because the door is always open. In the night I can light a fire inside here and sleep comfortably. Moreover, I have never been attacked while sleeping in a mongulu."
"I can never sleep in a plastic tent while inside the forest," added Awouma. "Mongulu provides comfort and better security. It is warm and easy to build. If all houses were built like mongulus, there would be no talk of deforestation," Awouma stated.
The construction of modern houses with corrugated sheet roofs, tiled floors, electricity and furniture might be the dream of many in today's modern world. Not with the Baka pygmies. Their indifference to the trappings of modernism verges on contempt. With enthusiasm, Dr. Leonard Usongo, WWF Jengi Southeast Forest Programme Coordinator, once bought a mattress and generously it offered to a Baka pygmy friend.
To his surprise, his friend never slept on the mattress in his mongulu, rather, he displayed it in front of his house, like an item on the shelf of a shop.There are signs of change though. Baka pygmies have begun building rectangular houses using wood and leaves. A few of them have corrugated roofs. However, they make sure a mongulu is built near every rectangular shaped house.
Your correspondent asked Lengue what kind of house he now prefers. After hesitating he murmured: "I will choose a modern house because I have been made to understand it is better than our mongulu."
With strong attachment to their culture, it will be extremely difficult if not impossible to persuade Baka pygmies to change their way of life and view of the world.