Gaston Mane, Voice of Baka in Southeast Cameroon
In Cameroon parents spend over FCFA 250,000 (US$500) to provide for school needs, including fees, books and uniforms for each student in a government secondary school every year. But Gaston’s father could not afford it as he eked a living from sewing thatches, hunting and gathering, while his mother raised money from selling baton de manioc (local staple produced from cassava), in order to send him to school.
Of the over 3,000 Baka living in the Ngoyla-Mintom forest block, fewer than 200 are in school. The forest block covers 943,000-ha and represents a corridor linking protected areas in Cameroon, Gabon and the Republic of Congo.
After dropping out of secondary school, Gaston and three other literate Baka youths used the knowledge they acquired to teach other Baka in the villages. Gaston -married and a father of two, started representing his people when he got to secondary school and has since been speaking on their behalf at village meetings, official ceremonies and the Ngoyla Council, where he is a councillor. He is spokesman for the Baka in Ngoyla subdivision. “I try to be the voice of my Baka brethren,” Gaston said. “I bring the problems besetting Baka to the administration, especially the education of Baka children. We lack health facilities, potable water and schools for Baka children.” He said the administration of Cameroon and the majority Bantu people do not recognize Baka chiefs. ”When it comes to sharing benefits from natural resources with Bantus we do not receive a fair share,” Gaston said.
Gaston was among 10 Baka youth trained in 2015 as community relay health agents organised by the local health district in Ngoyla with support from WWF. The agents raise awareness on hygiene and sanitation, HIV/AIDS, family planning and against malaria in Baka communities in Ngoyla.
Baka adapting to changing times
Gaston says Baka are adapting to changing times and moving from essentially hunting and gathering to farming and income generating activities. “Today Baka are engaged in agriculture, fishing and other income generating activities like other people,” he said.
Despite challenges Baka face in asserting their rights to natural resources and education, Gaston says government has made considerable efforts to integrate them in the area of education, establishing birth certificates and national identity cards since 2010.
“At first we did not have birth certificates and ID cards, but the government has been establishing that for us for free,” he said. Gaston would like government to do more to encourage Baka parents to send their children to school so that they too should become important people in the future,” he said.
Besides government efforts, Gaston says international NGOs like WWF have played key role in fostering the welfare of Baka, particularly in education, agriculture and access right to natural resources.