The forest spirits who hunt honey

As unbelievable as it seems to me, I’m now in the final 4 weeks of my PhD fieldwork.

Technically, anthropology fieldwork is supposed to be around 1 year long. I’ve now been conducting mine in Cameroon for two and a half years, though I was blocked in London for several months during peak Covid (which my Cameroonian friends found difficult to relate to). Fortunately, this drawn-out process is viewed positively by my department – to really understand the people you’re living with you cannot rush in and out. I’ve heard of some anthropology PhD students taking 10 years to finish their research!

So, being in the final 4 weeks feels like something quite special.

I’m doing some interviews in the capital Yaoundé to understand and compare the ways all the different people who live or work in the area relate to the forest. It’s one forest, but it’s seen in a hundred different ways. How can this feed into the best ways to protect the forest and the dwindling animal populations?

During my final stay in the indigenous Baka village in which I’ve been living for almost eight months, I discovered a array of incredible cultural beliefs. I wondered, after spending so long there and becoming great friends with several people, why I had not come across these beliefs before. But I think a combination of improving my Baka language ability and being in the right place at the right time opened these up. The Baka are well-known for keeping their secrets, simply reproducing for outsiders the same surface-level stereotypes that they know outsiders will want to hear. Gaining enough trust to engage in far deeper conversations has been a central part of my time here, although I have not (yet) been initiated into a Baka ritual association, unlocking the spiritual heart of the Baka.

I could write about many of these beliefs, but there’s mosquitos buzzing around my feet and I need to get to the garí breakfast stall before she closes. So I’ll stick to one.

The Baka believe that the creator god Komba made the forest for them to hunt, fish, and forage. Wild forest honey is considered the ultimate gift of the forest; it’s not only unimaginably delicious, but also an effective medicine that their ancestors have used deep into the human past. During a honey hunting trip with my great friends, the expert honey hunter Mbita, the esteemed Tuma hunter Ama, and the powerful healer Mangombe, we stopped in the middle of the path. ‘Listen’, said Mbita. I noticed that everyone but me was transfixed on a cavity high up a Bossó tree. When I asked what it was, they erupted into a round of laughter. For them it was so obvious – they could hear the bees talking and flying in and out of the nest. I couldn’t see or hear anything! ‘Màndò‘ Ama explained to me is the name the Baka use for this movement of bees, one of many words to describe in great detail every aspect of a bee’s life.

Mbita shares the honey with us using ngongo leaves, scooping it out from the hive with a special leaf bundle they call dingbe-lingbe. These were dandù stingless bees so we didn’t have to worry about any stings, except from the multitude of every other stinging and biting insect around us that isn’t so courteous.

Knowing that the Baka share their forest food with many other of the forest’s inhabitants, including honey badgers and honeyguides who will come and lap up the remaining honey and wax, I ask Olinga, a boy back at the village, if animals will come to the honey site tonight, ‘Yes and forest spirits too’ he says. I knew that forest spirits, powerful beings which inhabit the forest but come to the village for important rituals such as initiation of youths or to dance at a death ceremony, are said to feast on the various foods of the forest – particularly elephant meat and wild yams.

The powerful Baka forest spirit Ejengi, appearing in the camp to dance

But I did not expect what the elder Mangombe told me next: ‘bo na beleo will also eat the honey! They like dandù a lot!’. I knew that bo na beleo translated to ‘people of the forest’, but I didn’t understand what this had to do with the forest spirits. So I sat and asked more questions, finally understanding that bo na beleo actually referred to the spirits of deceased ancestors. When Baka die, he explained to me, their spirits leave their bodies and walk the forest. So, I asked him, you too will become bo na beleo? ‘Yes, and as a spirit I will walk a lot!’.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this is how despite walking the forest, bo na beleo are very much an active part of people’s lives. ‘They can come to you in dreams’, Mangombe said, ‘where they hand you a leaf packet. The next day you will find animals or honey’. What the leaf packet contains, I don’t know. But clearly it serves to bring decedents luck. His wife also told me that bo na beleo come to her in dreams to show her important medicines in the forest. The anthropologist Daou Joiris documented the belief of bo na beleo (though not in name) through her research with Baka in east Cameroon, finding that these ancestral spirits may help their descendants to become powerful leaders of forest spirit initiation groups. Deceased ancestors may well be physically gone, but they certainly do not abandon their descendants.

Joiris noted that is often the case if people are doing ‘good things’, such as contributing to the success of a hunt because it will benefit everybody. In this sense, good things essentially means sharing properly. Doing good things in life also affects the character of your spirit – bo na beleo can be a negative force if in life the person behaved badly.

These sorts of judgement appear similar to the ideology of karma or the Christian belief of judgement day. The latter is no surprise as this Baka community, akin to perhaps every other, has been exposed to determined efforts by Christian and Catholic missionaries to replace traditional belief systems with that of the church. This disturbing transformation has certainly been at least partially successful, and Baka traditions have to a degree been erased, rendering it now difficult to establish to what extent current beliefs are actually Baka at all. Mangombe continued to say that eventually bo na beleo will face Komba, with those behaving well sent to paradise, and others ending up in the fire. Clearly missionaries have had a say here.

Despite all the outside influences, the belief of bo na beleo remains, and it serves as an extraordinarily strong connection to the forest. The Baka are often spoken of as the people of the forest in public discourse in Cameroon and abroad because of their reliance on forest foods and medicines. But bo na beleo represent a binding to the forest which transcends any of this. Even after death, the Baka walk the forest. As bo na beleo they walk along with the powerful tutelary forest spirits, satisfying their taste for honey.

Reference: Daou Joiris, 1993. Baka pygmy hunting rituals in southern Cameroon: How to walk side by side with the elephant. Civilisations, 41