PRONUNCIATION: AY-fay and mm-BOO-tee
ALTERNATE NAMES: Bambuti
LOCATION: Ituri forest in northeast Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire)
LANGUAGE: Bambuti languages
RELIGION: Traditional tribal beliefs
Researchers believe that pygmy peoples have lived in the rainforests of central Africa for more than 6000 years. The term "pygmy" refers to a person of short stature (typically under 5 feet, or 1.5 meters, tall) who hunts and gathers and has a strong identity with the tropical forest. It is generally a disrespectful term that emphasizes physical characteristics. Anthropologists suggest replacing the term with "tropical forest forager." These forest dwellers have a unique culture, set of values, and lifestyle that are all undergoing great change. Their adaptation to change may teach other cultures how to cope with radical disruptions to their societies.
In many respects, tropical forest foragers represent the opposite of modernity. In the 1960s, they possessed only the bare essentials for their livelihoods. They did not seek to create extra in goods for profit and they had no use for money. Government was simple; decisions were made by common consent, and those who disagreed were free to leave and join another community if they wished. The forest, their "mother," had the capacity to supply their every need.
Traditional values of interdependence and communality (good of the whole group) are being replaced by independence and individuality. Today, under environmental challenges and pressures to acculturate (fit in to the dominant culture), their society is changing rapidly. In spite of political and natural threats to their survival, tropical forest foragers have not given in to outside pressures yet.
Tropical forest foragers live in scattered groups throughout the equatorial band of Africa. This discussion focuses on the groups of the Ituri forest in northeast Democratic Republic of the Congo (DROC, formerly Zaire), including the Efe and their close relations to the south, the Mbuti. Although they have certain differences in language and hunting strategies, all of these peoples share a core culture. Collectively, the groups of the Ituri are called the Bambuti. Researchers estimate that no more than twenty thousand pure-blooded Bambuti remain in the world.
The terrain of northeast DROC is rolling, covered by rainforest. In areas where the forest has been cleared and allowed to grow back, thick, tangled underbrush makes movement difficult. Rain falls nearly every afternoon except during the "dry" season of January and February.
Sustained contact with African groups over long periods has all but led to the extinction of Bambuti languages. Nevertheless, researchers distinguish three linguistic groups who speak dialects of three major African languages. Some tonal patterns remain as well. The Efe have retained their language to a recognizable extent.
Tropical forest foragers believe that animals have the characteristics of people. Certain animals represent clans, sexes, and individuals, and they become very real people. Both forest dwellers and their village hosts have invented stories about these animals. They assign special characteristics to Mr. Turtle, Mr. Gray Antelope, or Mr. Chimpanzee. For example, Mr. Turtle is a wise and tricky individual, whereas the smallest antelope is king of the beasts. Animal stories thus serve to teach about human behavior and relationships.
Religion in the lives of tropical forest foragers increasingly reflects borrowings from neighboring African groups. The Bambuti believe the wealth and goodness of the forest comes from Muungu, a high deity, the greatest of forest gods, who fills all their needs. Tropical forest foragers believe in totemic spirits (sitana) —animals whose spirits and characteristics represent the group's unity. They also believe in a water animal, called nyama ya mai in Swahili, who is responsible for any serious water accidents.
Tropical forest foragers also practice magical rituals called anjo to help control the weather and improve hunting. Their main concern is to delay rain and storms until the hunt is over. The most important ritual ceremony is the molimo. It is held whenever hunting becomes unproductive or a special problem demands a solution.
Holidays hold little meaning for the Bambuti other than as opportunities for parties. The end of Nkumbi, the honey feast dance, and other ceremonial activities may be thought of as traditional holidays for tropical forest foragers.
In former times, girls went through initiation, the elima, but this practice has fallen away. Boys increasingly attend a village circumcision school (nkumbi), which is held every three or four years. The boys leave their parents for several months and live in close association with the village boys, who are their hosts. They are circumcised together. Thus, each group of boys belongs to an age-grade, much as American high school students identify with their graduating class. When strangers meet, they ask, "What class do you belong to?" Because each class acquires a name from a significant event during its initiation, they reply, "I'm a hurricane," or "I'm a great army worm," or something similar.
Marriage takes place soon after puberty, leaving little time for courtship. Nevertheless, at puberty, youthful deeds at the hunt get publicized, and much flirtation occurs back in the camps.
Tropical forest foragers place great importance on respect for each other, and children learn this early. In principle, children of the same age group remain on equal footing throughout their lives and call each other apua'i. Their games teach them to be social and interdependent in solving problems.
Evening campfires offer adults daily opportunities to discuss and resolve disputes. Anyone who speaks from the center of the camp must be listened to. Members of a band gang up on wayward members to enforce rules and maintain harmony in the group. Individuals and families visit the camps of other tropical forest foragers for months at a time to socialize with family members and to look for marriage partners. These visits break up the monotony of daily life.
Relations between the Bambuti and villagers are also very important. Researchers disagree on whether this relationship is essentially dependent, independent, or interdependent. The first view sees tropical forest foragers as slaves of the villager overlords. The second sees them as fully independent if they so choose because the forest supplies them with everything they need; contact with villagers offers an agreeable change of pace but is voluntary and temporary. The third view finds a mutual interdependence between forest dwellers and villagers, with neither side holding an advantage; each has something the other wants and needs.
Traditionally, material comfort, wealth, and security are the least of the concerns of forest dwellers. They trust the forest to provide their needs, which are extremely minimal. The Bambuti need spears, bows and arrows, and nets for hunting; pots to cook in; huts to sleep under; and loincloths to wear. They trade forest products to villagers for items difficult to obtain such as salt, knives, and metal tips for their weapons.
Settlements are rustic, temporary camps situated within fifty yards (forty-five meters) of a stream suitable for drinking. Their igloo-shaped huts have open doors. Huts are made of bent saplings that form a frame onto which large mongongo leaves are tied. Mats or leaves generally serve as beds, and cooking is done on open fires near the huts. People simply relieve themselves in the forest near the camp.
After one to three months in one place, animals, fruit, and honey become scarce, and the smell of garbage and human waste becomes unbearable. The community packs up and moves to a new site.
Family life among tropical forest foragers is much different from that in the West. As previously mentioned, the Bambuti learn the value of interdependence and communality (living as part of a group) as children. Children call all women in the camp Ema (mother). Nursing goes on long after a child can walk and talk. Mothers often swap and adopt children of their sisters and close friends.
The Efe live in small camps of fewer than fifty residents. Mbuti camps usually have two to three times as many people because net-hunting, which the Mbuti practice, requires communal participation. Individual households are nuclear families (endu) consisting of a husband, a wife, and their children. Families are patrilineal, meaning they trace their lineage through the male line to a common male ancestor.
Marriages are exchanges between families. Mutual affection can play a part. However, generally a man offers a sister, niece, or cousin to his wife's brother or male relative. Divorce is common. A women often initiates divorce simply by packing her things (including small children) and moving back to her family's camp. If she has boys, they return to their father when they are old enough to hunt. The typical marriage is monogamous because women are scarce.
Tropical forest foragers wear loincloths. Traditional cloth is made from the inner bark of vines. Men generally process the cloth, which involves pounding, wetting, and working it until it is soft and pliable. Western influence has increased the use of cotton fabrics.
The Bambuti enhance their appearance by scarification (scarring) on the face. Some women also wear bead necklaces. Both men and women file their teeth to a point, which is thought to improve their appearance.
The Efe diet is seasonal depending on the rains, which determine hunting and gardening productivity. Typical crops include rice, cassava, and sweet potatoes. The Efe also gather honey, fruits, and nuts in the forest. Peanuts, plantains, and other foods are acquired through trade with villagers. Tropical forest foragers enjoy many forest delicacies, ranging from pangolins (an armadillo-like animal) to reptiles and insects.
Food taboos are associated with clan, sex, or individuals. Clans identify with animals that performed a kind deed or may have helped an ancestor through a crisis. They make these animals their totems and are not allowed to hunt, eat, or even be around them.
The Bambuti have avoided formal education. In camp, children learn basic skills, such as tree-climbing, before they walk. Boys practice shooting bows and arrows at the age of three. As they grow older, boys accompany men on the hunt. Girls learn to gather food, cook, and make huts. This basic education is complete by the age of six or seven.
The Bambuti have not developed a written literature and do not create visual arts. Perhaps their most important cultural legacy is their sense of family, their community reliance, and their belief in the forest. Some tropical forest foragers are accomplished storytellers and tell folktales about forest spirits and legends about ancestors. They enjoy singing and dancing, especially on moonlit nights. They stamp on the ground or on hollow logs. If they can, they borrow drums from their villager hosts.
One of the gayest and happiest dances occurs during the honey feast. Forest dwellers celebrate the honey dance after days of feasting on honey. Women form an inner ring and circle around a bonfire, while men form an outer ring and circle in the opposite direction. The men pretend to seek honey and come near the women. The women play the role of bees, humming and droning. They pick up burning branches from the fire, with which they threaten the men to remind them of the dangers of bee stings.
Formerly, tropical forest foragers worked just enough to supply their basic needs. Men hunted and women gathered. When they had extras, they traded them for articles and food from African villagers. The forest products they traded were generally meat, honey, fruits, and building materials. In exchange, they received plantains, yams, corn, cloth, and iron tools. Women also tended villagers' gardens, and men occasionally helped villagers clear land. While the Bambuti continue to trade, today they are more concerned with having cash. They therefore hope to get more meat than they need in their hunting. They have become more competitive with each other so that they can sell their extra meat to get cash.
Hunting and gathering still form the core of the Bambuti's livelihood in the forest. Mbuti hunting is a group affair done with nets. The Efe men often hunt alone, either for monkeys with poison-tipped arrows, or for duikers, small African antelope, by perching in fruiting trees (which the duikers graze on).
Forest people do not play sports in the Western sense. They do, however, learn basic skills through mock hunts and other games. Every camp has a designated play area for children next to streams (bopi) that is off-limits to adults. Here children play games similar to sports that teach them about group dynamics and personal achievement. Of similar importance, the elders teach children the strategies and techniques of hunting by pretending to be animals and by showing children how to drive them into a piece of old net.
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 assumes 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 ridicule the opposition. Then both sides collapse, laughing over the point that neither side gains in beating the other.
The Ituri forest is one of the world's last refuges from cinemas, televisions, and videos. The Bambuti relax after a day's hunt by sitting on homemade four-legged stools in front of their huts, talking and smoking. Tropical forest foragers also celebrate a good hunt—especially an elephant kill—with feasting and dancing. An elephant kill is an act of courage, and they know the meat and ivory will trade well.
When they move to village outskirts, tropical forest foragers socialize with villagers while trading their meat. On moonlit nights, they stay late to drink wine and dance. They put on outrageous performances to entertain villagers in exchange for beverages. A few elderly men stay behind in the camp to smoke hashish (a drug) and stand guard against thieves.
Tropical forest foragers have little time and interest for crafts and hobbies. If they need a tool, they often beg to borrow it from their villager hosts. Tropical forest foragers fashion their own nets from lianas (vines), and make belt pouches, baskets, and mats from grasses. They make stools and chairs from sticks and branches.
One of the forest people's key social problems is interclan disputes over women and children. Tropical forest foragers lose about 14 percent of their women to marriage with villagers. Reciprocal marriage exchanges are therefore difficult to fulfill because families often have uneven numbers of females. Men harass, capture, and come into armed conflict with each other over "sister exchange."
Prior to independence, tropical forest foragers remained outside the mainstream of society and politics. An internal system of camp debate and consensus allowed every adult to express his or her opinion. No chief or formal council imposed rules. However, postindependence wars and nation-building drives have disrupted customary ways. Recent timber-cutting, mining, road-building, and commerce have further eroded the isolation of the forest peoples. Their values, beliefs, and way of life are in transition, causing much social instability.
Pulford, Mary H., ed. Peoples of the Ituri. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1993.
Turnbull, Colin M. The Forest People. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962.
Turnbull, Colin M. The Mbuti Pygmies: Change and Adaptation. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983.
World Travel Guide. [Online] http://www.wtgonline.com/country/zr/gen.html , 1998.