By Josiane Kouagheu
DJIBOT, Cameroon, May 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sporting patchy bruises on her forehead and right cheek, Maria moves gingerly as her four young children chase each other in their pygmie camp on the edge of a forest in eastern Cameroon.
"I spent all night fighting with my husband ... he came home very drunk," Maria told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in the village of Djibot, constantly glancing over her shoulder.
"He asked me for food, which I had not prepared because I had morning sickness," added the expectant mother, who is in her late twenties. "He started to beat me, and I tried to not let myself get pushed around."
Alcoholism is a rapidly growing problem among some 50,000 Baka pygmies - nomadic hunter-gatherers who are usually less than five feet (1.5 metres) tall - living in eastern Cameroon.
Driven from their ancestral lands by logging and mining firms, and conservation efforts to save elephants and gorillas, and pushed into contact and conflict with forest-dwelling Bantu ethnic groups, many of the Baka are turning to alcohol to cope.
Most of the largely-illiterate Baka are living in huts made of leaves, bamboo and mud-baked bricks alongside southeast Cameroon's roads, just outside the protected reserves that they need permits to enter. [nL5N1EW27P]
The women, like Maria, are suffering the most. Many say they are beaten regularly and badly by their drunk husbands, others are wrestling with alcohol abuse themselves, while some have turned blind or even died from drinking home-grown alcohol.
Struggling to adapt to life outside the forest, the Baka's problems of poverty, hunger and alcoholism are only likely to worsen, rights activists say.
"Alcohol abuse is destroying the social fabric of the pygmies," said Barry Abbott of the Cameroon Baptist Convention Health Services, a faith-based healthcare organisation.
"Because of alcohol, instability prevails in couples ... in most relationships, the woman is beaten," added Abbott, who has worked in pygmie camps across Cameroon for more than a decade.
CONCERNS OVER SEX
The Baka are one of the ethnic groups that make up Africa's half a million pygmies, who have long faced discrimination and abuse, from being displayed in human zoos in Europe to enduring enslavement and cannibalism in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
They now find themselves caught in a major battle between conservationists trying to save endangered species and activists campaigning for the rights of tribal people, who are unable to secure rights to land they have depended on for centuries.
Survival International has accused the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) of funding anti-poaching guards, who have killed Baka pygmies with impunity, and supporting the creation of three national parks on Baka land a decade ago without their consent. [nL5N1EW27P]
The Baka say this has left them in a desperate food situation, farming only peanuts and plantain in their camps and risking conflict with guards if they enter the forest to forage for fruit and insects, catch fish and hunt animals to eat.
The WWF in February denied the allegations and told the Thomson Reuters Foundation none of them had been substantiated.
In another camp in south Cameroon, where the Bagyeli pygmies find their land threatened by logging firms, residents said most children were out-of-school and left unsupervised, with some having even started drinking palm wine and sachets of whiskey.
Teenage pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted infections are a major worry for Cameroon's pygmie populations.
"As soon as I told my fiance that I was pregnant, he hid away," said 15-year-old Carrie, staring at the ground while her uncle explained how families were struggling for food, resorting to eating mushrooms and snails, as they were unable to hunt.
Some pygmie girls, from both the south and east of Cameroon, are abducted by traffickers and taken to major cities, where they are forced to work as maids for free or used as sex slaves, said Irene Modos, chairwoman of the Baka Development Committee.
"Many of these girls have returned home to their communities with AIDS and sexually transmitted infections," Modos said.
"MUM IS DRUNK, DAD IS DRUNK"
Several Cameroonian rights groups are working to educate Baka and Bagyeli pygmie communities about the dangers of alcohol abuse, stress the importance of the pygmie women in society, and stop children from falling into the same traps as their parents.
"Last year we went to several pygmie villages, picked up all of the empty alcohol containers, hung them in the air and said: 'look at the number of litres of alcohol you are drinking'," said Messe Venant, who heads Okani, a Baka rights group.
"In some homes, mum is drunk, dad is drunk, and the child goes unheard," Venant added. "It calls for dialogue."
The Foyer Our Lady of the Forest (FONDAF) goes into pygmie camps to enrol young children into local schools, where they first only observe the classes, before learning French and being taught by pygmy teachers in order to bring them up to speed.
"Some end up first in their class," said FONDAF head Johanne Ongbenok. "But we need funding to teach these children better."
Rights groups like Okani want the Cameroon government to let the Baka move back into some national parks to resume their traditional way of life, and for laws to be amended to allow them to hunt and gather in the country's forests.
But such interventions will make little difference to women like Angeline Ndago, a Baka pygmie and mother-of-five who turned blind after drinking homemade alcohol following several alcohol-fuelled rows with her husband.
More than 30 Bakas died in eastern Cameroon at the end of last year after being poisoned by Odontol, a cheap alcoholic drink made of palm wine and sugar, several pygmies said.
"I regret having ever tasted alcohol," Ndago said, holding her baby boy as he cried. "I cannot see. I can not even educate my children, because I am blind," she added.