Before Farming

If Pygmies could talk

creating indigenous development in equatorial Africa

Before Farming (2011), 2011, (4), 1–23.

Abstract

In this article, I critique two prevailing models of ‘Pygmy’ peoples of equatorial Africa – Pygmies-as-isolated-‘hunter-gatherers’ and Pygmies-as-victims-of-the-powerful – and present an alternative model of Pygmy identity which is based on a set of enduring cultural principles, pays full attention to their relations with wider regional frameworks, and emphasises the agency of social actors. After outlining the cultural principles on which the model is based, I examine how they inform the relation of Baka Pygmies to a contemporary development project in Cameroon. In particular, I explore how local Baka make use of the resources provided by the project to create their own vision of the future. I then present historical evidence from across the region to show that these same cultural principles have informed how Pygmies have made history over the longue durée. Drawing on the insights provided by this ethnographic and historical material, I discuss the implications they have for efforts to create indigenous forms of development for Pygmy peoples and suggest what kinds of development interventions should be undertaken on their behalf at local, national, and international levels. By employing a model of Pygmy identity that is based on fundamental cultural principles and emphasises the exercise of individual agency over time, this article sheds light on the means by which Pygmies have maintained a distinct cultural identity despite millennia of interaction with outsiders. In so doing, it provides insight not only into the problem of Pygmy ‘development,’ but also the question of how Pygmy cultural identity has been reproduced over time.

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Moïse, Robert