Period: 18 October 2003 - 31  August 2004. Country: Cameroon
(1) The Acquisition and Creation of Plant Knowledge among the Baka Hunter-gatherers in the Cameroonian Rain Forest
HATTORI Shiho  (Division of African Area Studies)
Key Words: Hunter-Gatherers, Baka, Ethnobotany, Acquisition of Plant Knowledge, Creation of Plant Knowledge


Mother holding a child with the belt of charm made from "Kusa" (Manniophyton fulvum Müll. Arg.)

Woman wearing a mat with skin of leafstalks of "ngongo" (Megaphrynium macrostachyum [Benth.] Milne-Redh.)

Boys wearing "Ndele" (Lastreopsis efulensis [Bak.] Tardieu.)for dancing
(2) Recent studies in ethnobotany criticize the validity of “traditional” knowledge systems of plants among a particular ethnic group based on information obtained from only one or a few informants. Informants may belong to different sexes and life stages, and such differences need to be duly considered when collecting the data. The purpose of this study is to examine the process of acquisition of plant knowledge in the society of Baka hunter-gatherers of the Cameroonian rain forest, by analyzing differences in relation to gender and generation, as well as individual differences in plant knowledge. The characteristics of their traditional knowledge system will also be compared with the knowledge acquired from modern school education.

(3)  From November of 2003 to September of 2004, I conducted intensive field research in the area around the village of Malea Ancien in the Boumba-Ngoko District of East Province, Cameroon. (1) I collected 650 plant specimens, with their vernacular names and ethonobotanical information, from an old woman with rich experience and knowledge of the forest. The actual uses of medical plants by this woman were also recorded for about 8 months. The collected plant specimens were identified at the Herbarium in Yaounde and Botanical Garden in Limbe, where I joined the identification process of these specimens with the informants. (2) I interviewed 47 people on 90 species of village and forest plants, and asked them about their vernacular names, way of utilization and the process of knowledge acquisition of these plants. The informants were of different sexes and life stages.

  1. More than 90 percent of the specimens were recognized to be useful as food, material culture, medicine, trading items, ritual objects, toys and so on. 590 specimens were identified at the species level. The informant often utilized the medicinal plants herself and frequently prescribed them to close relatives such as her daughter, son, wife of her son and grandchildren. She rarely utilized them for non-relatives, even if they lived in the same village.
  2. The Baka children (yande; age 4-9) well recognized the plants that they could eat and use as toys. No gender difference was observed during childhood. Adolescent boys and girls (wanjo, sia; age 10-15) obtained plant knowledge for material culture and gradually learned about medicinal plants. The knowledge acquired during this period showed clear gender differences. Boys knew about the plants used for ax handles and spear shafts, whereas girls knew about the plants used for making mats and baskets In addition, the boys had started to talk about magical plants used for hunting success and honey collecting, while the girls knew about those for fish bailing and collecting wild fruits. In adulthood (mbotaki; age 16-35), people had much greater knowledge of medicinal plants if they had a baby. They also said “We learn about a lot of medicinal plants to take care of our children when we have children.” When they reach the life stage of “adults who know all about the forest (kobo; age 36-45),” their knowledge reached a maximum and became stable. Little increase in knowledge was observed from this period to old age (ngbekowa; age 45-). Moreover, it is interesting that there were remarkable individual differences even among people of the same sex and life stage. They have common knowledge about the plants used for food and material culture, but have considerably different knowledge (both in quality and in quantity) about medicinal plants. For example, one man may use a particular plant for headaches, another may use the same plant for stomachaches, while a third may find it useless. These kinds of individual difference are commonly observed in Baka society, suggesting that they may at times “create” medicine based on their personal experiences. Such variations in knowledge may reflect the characteristics of their “egalitarian” society, without a formal education system or other forms of intellectual authority, which would otherwise induce standardization of the knowledge system.

 
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