Crossroads: social transformation and crisis in an egalitarian society
Cathryn Townsend (University College London)
Paper short abstract:
Elders of a Baka community in Cameroon remember an egalitarian life spent in the forest hunting and gathering. Now an iron mine has opened, a road has arrived, and the old ways are changing. With its capacity to both empower and subject the Baka, the road is part of a deeper social crisis.
Paper long abstract:
Can the advent of a road precipitate a social crisis? Elders of the sedentarized Baka community in Assoumindele, Cameroon, remember a life spent in the forest hunting and gathering. Now an iron mine has opened, a road has come to the village, and the old ways are changing. The demand sharing of goods, a central feature of the previously egalitarian lifestyle, is often replaced by reciprocal exchange or money transactions. Since the road was made in 2008, there has been a burgeoning population and industry in this previously remote region. The state has a greater interest in governing it. An influx of small-scale entrepreneurs have simultaneously introduced the Baka to seductive products and provided new avenues for the Baka to earn money, for example by labouring to provide bushmeat, ivory, and gold. Increasingly forced into convening with state-sanctioned forces of globalisation and integrating into the capitalist economy, the rhetoric of development has been adopted and internalized by the Baka community. They have come to see their former lifestyle as inadequate. This is compounded by stereotyping of their former forest-oriented lifestyle as primitive and bestial by outsiders, leading to a degraded sense of ethnic identity on the part of the Baka. Through the course of my fieldwork between 2011 and 2012, I witnessed gradual diversification of Baka attitudes towards the new road, from euphoria to disillusionment. The expressed ambivalence is symptomatic of a crisis in ethnic identity, amplified by the road's simultaneous capacity to empower and subject the Baka.