Media @ McGill

"Participatory Video-Making and Indigenous Identity in Sub-Saharan Africa"

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Nicholas Barber, Department of Anthropology

This doctoral research project explores the ways in which marginalized indigenous communities in Cameroon are using media to represent themselves to one another and to outside actors, as well as the ways in which outside actors construct media representations of these communities.

Since March 2013 I have been living with a family in Bertoua, in eastern Cameroon and working with Okani, an indigenous NGO devoted to advancing the rights and representation of Baka indigenous peoples (sometimes grouped with other, related groups under the pejorative label “pygmies”). Video-making is an important aspect of Okani’s activities, serving as a means of fostering communication between distant, difficult-to-access communities, as well as to represent Baka culture, concerns, etc. to government officials, development organizations, and other outside groups and individuals. The production and circulation of videos represents an important way in which indigenous peoples in Cameroon establish claims to land and other resources, increase political visibility, and consolidate claims to “indigeneity” and associated rights.

My research with Okani has been divided into two phases, from March-July 2013 and from September 2013-July 2014. A Media@McGill Arts Graduate Research Fellowship provided financial support for the portion of my research conducted during the period September 2013-April 2014.

As is typical of anthropological research, my primary method of information collection has been participant observation. For the past year I have worked extensively alongside Okani videomakers as they discuss, plan, and execute the filming and distribution of their works in collaboration with other Baka community members. My close and lengthy interaction with the creators and subjects of Baka videos has allowed me to explore the relationship between Baka communities and development NGOs (including Okani), and the role that technology, and mediamaking in particular, plays in these relationships. It has also allowed me to learn about the various ways in which Okani staff and Baka community members conceptualize the purposes and effects of circulating mediated representation of Baka culture, social conditions, etc. to various outside groups and individuals.

In addition to meetings and work in the Okani offices, I have assisted the organization in the execution of a number of projects in indigenous communities across the East and South regions of Cameroon. The primary video-related project with which Okani was engaged during the portion of my research funded by a Media@McGill fellowship involved dubbing indigenous films from around the world into Baka language for community screenings. I assisted Okani staff in recording Baka language tracks for seven short films made as part of the project “Conversations with the Earth: Indigenous Voices on Climate Change”  (, and in organizing screenings and community discussions around the dubbed films. Participating in this process has provided a rich opportunity to learn about the role that mediated images play in Baka conceptualizations of indigenous identity and relations with foreign indigenous communities.

I have also aided Okani as the organization begins an ambitious, EU-funded project aimed at developing legitimate processes for the representation of the Baka in local and national decision-making bodies. This has involved accompanying Okani staff members to a large number of remote villages, providing me with the opportunity to speak with a wide range of indigenous community members regarding their views on economic and social development, political representation, and the role that video-making and other media technologies can play in advancing community goals in these areas.

In addition to my participant observation research with these and other Okani projects, I have also conducted formal and informal interviews with Okani staff, Baka community members, government officials, and development workers; I have accumulated an archive of previous videos made by Okani and other organizations in Baka communities and have begun textual analysis and video elicitation interviews; and I have travelled to previous Okani participatory video project sites in southeast Cameroon to conduct community focus groups with project participants.

My research has also involved “following” Baka videos and video-makers as they travel outside of local communities. To this end, I have attended a number of meetings and conferences in which Baka works were shown and/or discussed. These have included meetings of a national network of development organizations working with “pygmy” communities (RACOPY), a meeting of the national platform on forest management, a meeting of the Network of Indigenous and Local Communities for the Sustainable Management of Forest Ecosystems in Central Africa (REPALEAC), and a training of participatory video practitioners conducted by the British NGO InsightShare (Sept. 30-Oct. 5 in Oxford, UK). Participating in these events has allowed me to engage with the outside audiences for Baka videos, discovering the ways in which these works are effective in transmitting their intended messages, as well as how media fits into a broader context of development activities in indigenous communities.

While the period of my research funded by Media@McGill is now complete, I have elected to extend my time in Cameroon in order to conduct additional participant observation, and interviews. During this time I will also be conducting focus groups to elicit feedback on my initial research findings. In July 2014 I will return to Montreal to begin writing my doctoral dissertation.