The Bayaka also known as the Aka, Biaka, or Babenzele is one of the eleven different pygmy groups that currently dwell in the south-eastern parts of the Congo rainforest–primarily within Congo, Cameroon, Central African Republic, and Gabon. They are a nomadic tribe and are considered one of the earliest Bantu inhabitants of the Congo-Basin. They are believed to have migrated into the tropical forest area more than 30,000 years ago and slowly established regular trading relationships with tropical forest foragers. Most Aka live in remote areas of the warm tropical forest in Central Africa. The Aka people initially referred to themselves as Bisi Ndima which translates to ‘forest peoples’ due to the fundamental importance of the forest to their culture, livelihood and history.
The Bayaka speak the ‘Yaka’ also referred as the Bantu language ‘Diaka’ which is characterized by three tones. Their language often sounds musical. This is because they dramatically change the tones to show different meanings of a word. This is seen in word such as mbongo which can mean cup, a type of bee, or panther. The difference in tone is what sets the meaning apart. Most Aka speak at least two other languages—either Oubanguian or the Bantu language of their village trading partners. They also speak a little bit of Sango, which is the national language in the Central African Republic. Their language is one of the reasons why they are considered great musicians. The Aka also have a reputation as being the best dancers in the Congo and Central African Republic. They are frequently invited to dance at festivals. Aka music is quite distinctive, it has hocketing (tossing back and forth short notes in quick succession), yodelling and polyphonic harmonies. Their intricate polyphonic music has been studied by many ethnomusicologists. Most of the instruments they own were traded from the Bantu people who live on the edge of the rain forest such as music bows, cylindrical drums, hard-zither, lammellaphones, arch harps and flutes. They play and sing during rituals and for healing purposes. Music plays a significant role in most of their lives.
As a society of hunters and gatherers, the Aka developed their culture to meet the forests’ needs and preserve them through subsistence activities. According to the Bayaka, they used to live in villages and farmed. This changed one day, after a woman heard bees in the sky and a group of people decided to go into the forest to see where the bees were heading. They found the bees’ hive and enjoyed the taste of honey. Finding plenty of food in the forest, they decided to live in the forest. The Bayaka were primarily masters at exploiting forest resources through subsistence activities like hunting and gathering. Anthropological evidence categorizes the Aka as remnants of an ancient hunting-gathering culture with similar genetic characteristics, language style, an egalitarian socioeconomic organization, and polyphonic music preferences. The group built temporary huts using bowed tree branches, settling there for some time, and hunting and gathering within the surrounding forest. Men undertook hunting and gathering activities while women assumed home and family duties. Fishing was and remains a vital economic activity within the Baka culture. Men use arrows poisoned with crushed plant material to hunt and fish — an activity taught from a young age. Women’s activities included cultivation of plants, rearing children, and collecting honey from hives. During dry seasons, the Baka migrated deeper into the forest and remained there until the rainy season. The group camped in one site until it was hunted out and moved on to another part of the forest.
The Bayaka believed in different gods but most commonly The Jengi – spirit of the forest who acts as a mediator between the Baka and Komba (Supreme Being). After a successful hunt, a ritual called the Luma is done .The group performs the ritual to worship and praises Jengi with songs and dances of thanksgiving. Similar practices are performed during crucial ceremonies like the right of passage. In the Baka culture, death is a misfortune that represents a spiritual discord. Upon occurrence, the community prays to Jengi while dancing around the corpse for the whole night. After the death ritual known as Mbouamboua, the whole group departs and leaves the corpse behind to flee the curse. Communication with djengi normally takes place through a traditional healer known as ‘Tuma’. He is said to have the ability to understand and translate the supernatural language. Nearly all Aka camps have a traditional healer (nganga). Ngangas cure all forms of diseases, prophesify to help people make decisions, and see game animals deep in the forest while on the hunt. Ngangas gain their wisdom through training and initiation. The Akas also believed that family members do not completely leave this earth after they die. An ancestor’s spirit (edjo) stays around, visits the family, and often asks for things. Many Aka believe in witchcraft, particularly to explain sudden adult deaths.
Socially, the Bayaka tribe is communal, with most decisions made through consensus. They are warm and hospitable. Their relationships are extremely egalitarian and independent. They share everything equally and everyone contributes equally. One distinctive feature about the Bayaka is the men’s relationship with their children. The Aka fathers spend a lot of time in close proximity to their babies than in any other known society. Aka fathers have their infant within arms’ reach throughout the day. The men also actively assist the women, by feeding their children. It is believed that this is thanks to the strong bond between Aka husband and wife. In the course of the day, couples share hunting, food preparation, and social and leisure activities. It is no wonder they have been hailed ‘world’s best dads’.
Concisely, the Bayaka form part of African indigenous tribes with a unique livelihood and culture. Despite the increased influence from cultures like the European culture, most Bayaka populations retain their traditional way of life with practices that date back to the pre-colonial period. However, modern culture hesitantly compels such indigenous groups to disregard their traditional cultural practices. Contemporary activities like deforestation, logging, illegal game hunt, and language indifferences affect the Bayaka population — currently estimated to be between 20,000 to 50,000 people. If the world continues to shrug off the Bayaka and other African indigenous groups, their unique culture remains at risk of being distorted, warped, and eventually forgotten.