ALTERNATE NAMES: Pygmies; tropical forest foragers; Biaka; Bayaka; Bambenzele
LOCATION: Northern Congo and southern Central African Republic
LANGUAGE: Diaka; Bantu (Oubanguian); Sango
RELIGION: Indigenous beliefs
In the United States, the Aka are better known as "pygmies." The term "pygmy" refers to a person of short stature (typically under five feet tall) who hunts and gathers and has a strong identity with the tropical forest. It is generally a disrespectful term that emphasizes their physical characteristics. Anthropologists suggest replacing the term temporarily with "tropical forest forager."
The main reason the Aka are short seems to be because of the absence of a dramatic growth spurt during adolescence. This is due to a lack of receptors for a particular growth hormone (IGF-I). Most mammals living in tropical forests are shorter than their savanna (grassland) relatives. This suggests that smaller size may be adaptive to the humid tropical forest.
The Aka are just one of at least ten ethnically and linguistically distinct groups of tropical forest foragers in Central Africa. (Some of these groups are the Aka, Baka, Efe, and Mbuti.) Tropical forest foragers have been living in the tropical forests for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. (Some anthropologists believe they have lived in these rainforests for more than six thousand years.) Consequently, the Aka are the "first citizens" of the Congo and Central African Republic, much like Native Americans are the first citizens of the United States.
The farming peoples of Central Africa moved into the tropical forest area about two thousand years ago and slowly established regular trading relationships with tropical forest foragers. Today, Aka-farmer relations are very complex. They attend each other's funerals, births, and marriages, and they have regular economic exchanges. The farmers see themselves as superior to Aka and talk about "their" Aka. Even though Aka-farmer trading relationships may have lasted for generations, Aka can (and do) leave the relationship any time they feel a "patron" (farmer) is not treating them well.
About 30,000 Aka live in the tropical forests of northern Congo and southern Central African Republic. Most Aka live in remote areas of the tropical forest where the population density is less than one person per square mile. Aka women average six live births during their lifetime. One-fifth of Aka children do not live to their first birthday, and close to half die before they reach age fifteen. Infectious and parasitic diseases are the most common causes of death. Due to the high child mortality (death) rate, average life expectancy at birth is only thirty-two years of age. However, if a young person lives to age fifteen, he or she will probably live to age fifty-five or older.
The Aka speak a Bantu language called Diaka, which is characterized by three tones. The language often sounds musical. Different tones can dramatically change the meaning of a word (for example, mbongo can mean cup, a type of bee, or panther).
Most Aka speak at least two other languages—either the Bantu or Oubanguian language of their village trading partners, and some Sango, the national language in the Central African Republic.
Aka are given personal names a week or so after birth. Personal names have meanings attached to them—for example, Bimba (flea), Madjembe (intestinal worms), Ngunda Oti (without hospitality). In the last case, a boy's mother gave him the name because, at the time of his birth, the boy's father's family did not provide her with much food. Sometimes Aka simply like the sounds of new words and use them as names.
Aka say that long ago they lived in villages and farmed. However, one day a woman heard bees in the sky and a group of people decided to go into the forest to see where the bees were going. They found the bees' hive and loved the honey. Finding plenty of food in the forest, they decided to stay. This is how Aka describe the origin of their life in the forest.
The Aka occupy a large territory, and religious beliefs vary by area. Some Aka believe in bembe , a creator of all living things, but those who believe in bembe indicate that he/she retired soon after creation. Djengi is the most consistently mentioned and is considered to be a powerful and generally helpful forest spirit. Communication with djengi takes place through a traditional healer (or tuma) who has the ability to translate the supernatural language.
Most Aka camps have a traditional healer (nganga). Ngangas cure all forms of illness, see into the future to help people make decisions, and see game animals deep in the forest while on the hunt. Ngangas acquire their knowledge through training and initiation.
Aka also believe that family members do not entirely leave this earth after they die. An ancestor's spirit (edjo) stays around, visits the family, and often wants things. Many Aka believe in witchcraft, especially to explain unexpected adult deaths.
Aka do not use a numerical calendar, so they do not have specific dates that are celebrated each year. However, there are holidays in the sense that there are days off to relax. Such holidays occur after good hunts or when large game animals, such as an elephant or a wild pig, have been captured. Holidays also occur during the honey, caterpillar, and termite seasons.
Aka do not have much in the way of group ritual activities. At birth, parents place protective cords made from forest vines around a baby's neck, wrists, and ankles. These are to protect the baby from bad spirits and help connect him or her to the forest. At five or six years of age, boys are circumcised in a very informal and supportive manner.
During the teenage years, boys and girls get each of their top four incisor (front) teeth filed to a point. Aka believe that pointed teeth make one look more handsome or beautiful. Some Aka, primarily teenage girls, get the bottom four incisors pointed as well. Teenagers bring in new fads from other areas. Current fads include coloring teeth with a purple dye from a forest vine, piercing the nasal septum with a small twig (girls only), and shaving stripes into one's eyebrows.
The only large, group-level ritual occurs at death, when relatives travel long distances and sing and dance for days.
Aka are very warm and hospitable. Relationships between men and women are extremely egalitarian. Men and women contribute equally to a household's diet, either a husband or wife can initiate divorce, and violence against women is very rare. No cases of rape have been reported.
The Aka are fiercely egalitarian and independent. No individual has the right to force or order another individual to perform an activity against his or her will. Aka have a number of informal methods for maintaining their egalitarianism. First, they practice "prestige avoidance"; no one draws attention to his or her own abilities. Individuals play down their achievements. If a man kills an elephant, he says someone else did all the work and talks about the small size of the elephant. Second, Aka practice rough joking with those who start to accumulate more than they need, do not share, or who act self-important. Third, Aka practice "demand sharing." This means that everyone shares whatever he or she has if someone else asks for it. For example, if someone were asked for the shirt he or she was wearing, the person would give it up, saying he or she really did not need it. This way most material items circulate around the camp.
Aka camps consist of twenty-five to thirty-five people living in five to seven dome-shaped houses. Houses are close to each other, and together occupy an area the size of a large living room. Each family has their own house, and everyone in that house sleeps together in the same bed. The house is big enough for one bed and a campfire for warmth during the night. The two or three adolescent boys in the camp share one house (the bachelor pad). Teenage girls each make their own small house. Houses are constructed from saplings and large leaves. Beds are made from logs, animal skins, or leaves.
Aka children grow up in an environment of trust, love, and indulgence. Although the mother is the primary caregiver, Aka fathers provide more care to young children than fathers in many other societies. A typical Aka childhood is free of negative forces and violence. If a child hits another child, the parent will simply move the child to another area. Corporal (physical) punishment of a child who misbehaves seldom occurs. In fact, if a parent hits a child, it is reason enough for the other parent to ask for a divorce.
During the teenage years, same-sex friends are inseparable and go everywhere together. Teenagers often travel to visit relatives and explore territories other than their own, so they may be absent from the camp for long periods. The teenage years are a time of social and sexual exploration.
First marriages occurs between seventeen and twenty-one years of age. Once a man moves his traps and spear into the house of a woman, the two are considered married; there is no formal marriage ceremony. About 25 percent of marriages end in divorce. Divorce takes place by one partner simply moving out of the house. If divorce occurs, children go with the parent they prefer.
The temperature never drops below 21° C (70° F ) during the day. Men and women wear loincloths made of commercial fabric obtained in trade with villagers. When Aka visit the village, they put on any Western or "villager" clothes they might have: men wear T-shirts and shorts, and women wear a cloth that they wrap around their waist.
The Aka know more about the tropical forest than do many botanists and zoologists. They know hundreds of forest plants and animals. However, they live primarily on sixty-three plant species, twenty insect species, honey from eight species of bees, and twenty-eight species of game animals. The Aka collect roots from six species of plants, leaves from eleven species, nuts from seventeen species, and fruits from seventeen species. They collect twelve species of mushrooms, four types of termites, crickets, three types of grubs, and twelve species of caterpillars. The Aka hunt with spears for seven species of large game (primarily hog and elephant), with nets for six species of antelope, with crossbows for eight species of monkeys, and with small snare and net traps for seven species of rat, mongoose, and porcupine.
Although there is enormous diversity in the Aka diet, their favorite game animal by far is porcupine. Honey is another favorite food—the "candy" of the forest. Caterpillars may be roasted, boiled, or fried and taste like french fries.
Aka do not usually attend formal schools, but they begin learning about hunting and gathering when they are infants. Parents teach babies how to use small, pointed digging sticks, throw small spears, use miniature axes with sharp metal blades, and carry small baskets even before they learn to walk. One-and two-year-olds use knives, axes, and digging sticks. They build play houses and imitate the dances and songs of adult life. By three or four years of age, children can cook themselves a meal on a fire. By age ten, Aka children can live alone in the forest if necessary. By that age they can also identify hundreds of plants and animals and they know all the important survival skills, with the exception of elephant hunting. Aka do not read or write, but they are very interested in acquiring these skills.
The Aka have a reputation as being the best dancers in the Congo and Central African Republic. They are frequently invited to dance at festivals. Aka music is unique; it has yodeling, hocketing (tossing back and forth short notes in quick succession), and polyphonic harmonies.
The Aka are one of the last groups of people on earth to spend most of their days hunting and gathering. The tropical forest is not known for its abundance of wild edible foods. However, it is a land of plenty for the Aka, who have extensive knowledge of the forest. Aka actually work fewer hours per week than do middle-class Americans.
Net hunting is the most important hunting technique. It is unique among hunting techniques in that it focuses on making noise rather than stalking and being quiet. The hunt takes place at night. Families connect long nets to form a semicircle or circle. Men stand in the center of the circle and make noise to wake up and scare antelopes. Women stand by the nets, and tackle and kill antelope caught in the net. Game animals are shared with everyone in camp.
Forest people do not play sports in the Western sense. They do, however, learn basic skills through mock hunts and other games. Children play games similar to sports that teach them about group dynamics and personal achievement.
The adults also play a game (more ritual than sport) resembling tug-of-war. The purpose is to remind the community that cooperation can solve conflicts between the sexes. The tug-of-war begins with all the men on one side and the women on the other. If the women begin to win, one of them leaves to help out the men and uses a deep male voice to make fun of manhood. As the men begin to win, one of them joins the women and mocks them in high-pitched tones. The battle continues in this way until the participants have switched sides and have had an opportunity to both help and make fun of the opposition. Then both sides collapse, laughing over the point that neither side gains in beating the other.
Aka do not have televisions, radios, books, or electricity. After dark, they sit around fires to socialize, gossip, tell stories (often about gorillas or chimps having affairs with humans), and dance and sing. Dances usually occur about twice a week, but they happen every night during caterpillar season or when hunting is especially good.
Aka do not have paper and pencils. Their art often takes the form of body modifications—painting, scarification (decorative scarring), haircuts, and so on. The dark juice from a fruit is used to draw designs on the face and the body that represent the sounds and sights of the forest. Scarification often takes place before a dance. Teenagers get together and cut various designs into their bodies, often around the navel. Aka use razor blades traded from villagers to cut their hair and shave their heads into some very original designs—triangles, lightning bolts, caterpillars, and so on.
The Aka are being affected by the global economy in several ways. European logging companies are building roads and mills to extract mahogany and other hardwood trees (most caterpillars come from these trees). Europeans and Africans are going deeper into the forest to dig for gold and diamonds. Western conservation groups are trying to establish national parks and reserves to save tropical forests, but this means that Aka often lose their lands. In addition, relations are breaking down between the Aka and farmers who have traditionally been their trading partners. The Aka are exploited by both African farmers and European investors. Aka are quiet and self-assured, and they often respond to outside pressures by fleeing deeper into the forest. Aka are not politically organized, nor do they have the literacy skills to try to eliminate these threats to their existence.
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Hewlett, Barry S. Intimate Fathers: The Nature and Context of Paternal-lnfant Care Among Aka Pygmies. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991.
Mark, Joan T. The King of the World in the Land of the Pygmies. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.
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