A letter about Mbuti Pygmies, wonderfully crafted
It’s great to hear from you my friend! I am currently about to set out on a holiday in Bermuda. After seven days, I’ll be returning to my usual day job. My wife and I are packing up. All my children have prior commitments sadly so they all declined to come with us. They seem to be just too busy these days. My wife seems to be particularly excited for some reason.
Anyway, I am excited you’ve taken up the opportunity to explore the world. Our planet’s a marvellous place full of adventure and learning. As I can recall from my old experiences, I’m sure you’ll enjoy touring the world as I did! Now for that favour you’ve asked me, I have spent several days pondering over this matter. I’m delighted to be sharing with you what I’ve gathered.
The term “Pygmy” is used to refer to ethnic groups whose average height is unusually low height. To be specific, the Oxford Dictionary lists a Pygmy as being a “member of certain peoples of very short stature in equatorial Africa and parts of SE Asia. Pygmies (e.g. the Mbuti and Twa peoples) are typically nomadic hunter-gatherers with an average male height not above 150 cm (4 ft 11 in. ).” As found in Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, “ it refers to “any of a small people of equatorial Africa ranging under five feet (1.5 meters) in height.” However, I have seen the term used to refer to SE Asian groups too.
The Ituri Rainforest is located in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Central Africa. Here the Mbuti (pronounced em-BOO-tee) Pygmies reside in a vast 60,000 sq km tropical jungle. They are also called the Bambuti. Now before I go into more detail about the Mbuti themselves, I’m going to tell you a bit about recent history and travel. Doing your homework is an absolute must.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) is a Central African country, one of the biggest in the continent of Africa. Its capital city is Kinshasa in the southwest (12,000 kilometres away from Auckland), it has nearly 71 million people and it is officially a French speaking country.
Its recent history has been rather tumultuous. In 1997, the authoritarian ruler Mobutu was overthrown by Kabila in the First Congo War (1996-1997). Soon however, a Second Congo War erupted when Ugandan and Rwandan backed rebels declared war on DR Congo. The result was a war directly involving eight nations and a handful of armed groups. From 1998-2004, 3.9 million people died in the bloodiest war in Africa’s recent history. The wars were caused by a variety of factors. Something that has to be noted is that the turmoil occurring in Rwanda spilled over into DR Congo, causing much chaos. You should do some more reading on the subject.
That’s enough history. Whilst the area is relatively peaceful now compared to the times of war, it’s still a pretty dangerous place. The northeast and eastern areas where the Ituri Rainforest is located are the most dangerous in the country. Lawlessness, insurgency and lack of security are rampant. Rebels are still present in these areas. Another significant cause of worry is disease Watch what you consume and be sure to consult your doctor on matters such as medicine and vaccination. Consult with experts, make all necessary preparations and arrangements and educate yourself. It would also help to bring extra money in case you need to bribe your way out of “situations”. It would also be best to consult with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The governments of NZ, Australia, the USA and Britain have all advised no travel whatsoever to those parts of Congo. Thus you’ll need to be very very cautious.
Right, I believe I’ve cleared that up enough. Now let’s get back to talking about the Mbuti. They are one of the oldest indigenous groups to inhabit their area. A 1958 estimate of their population put their number at 30,000-40,000. The hunter-gatherer Mbuti Pygmies are divided into several sub-groups, each with their own area, language and hunting practices. Each sub-group of Mbuti speak a language of a neighbouring tribe. They don’t have a writing system. Aside from their short stature, the Mbuti are also medium brown in skin tone and have curly-ish hair. Mbuti individuals live in bands of 15-60.
The rainforest they live in is warm, humid and has plentiful rainfall. It is dotted with rivers and lakes. It has a rich range of flora and fauna. The Mbuti have a wide knowledge of the forest and what it holds in store. They’re aware of its pathways, valleys and rivers. The Mbuti hunt with nets, traps and bows and arrows. Bow hunting is manly affair, whilst net hunting is done by both men and women. The men lay out the traps, the women attempt to flush animals out of their hiding spots. Some animals they consume include crabs, shellfish, ants, larvae, snails, pigs, antelopes, monkeys and fishes. The leader of a hunt shares all the meat with his group. Another chief method of obtaining food is foraging. Men and women scout the forest to collect all sorts of vegetation: wild yams, honey, berries, fruits, roots, leaves and cola nuts are some. The Mbuti utilise their hunting skills to trade with Bantu villagers. They exchange their animal and forest products for metal and wooden goods, pots, baskets and other supplies. On a side note, the okapi is a well known threatened animal native to the Ituri Forest.
A band of Mbuti lives in its own village. At the start of the dry season, the band leaves to the forest to settle in a series of temporary camps constructed by the women. This is done to increase the amount of food foraged. These camps are composed of huts, constructed by the women. The huts are made out of forest materials (sticks, leaves etc.) gathered by the men. They are small and circular constructions intended to be temporary. Strong sticks are driven into the ground to form the walls and are kept together with vines. Leaves are also used. A single family lives in a hut. A hearth is placed in the centre of the hut.
Hunting is done in groups; men women and children all participate. Unless it’s bow hunting, everyone joins in. Women are also in charge of cooking, maintaining the huts and fetching water. Both men and women take care of the young.
Descent is usually followed through males, with married couples living where the husband lives. Everyone in a Mbuti band has ties with each other. The Mbuti have no political organizations, no ruling class and little social structure. The highest social unit is the band. Whilst there is a certain leadership when it comes to hunting, there aren’t any single leaders in Mbuti society. Men and women are equals. Issues are discussed and are resolved by consensus, with men and women having equal say. When it comes to offenses and disagreements, if necessary punishment is given and more rarely, banishment. Disputes are usually settled through arguments or mild fighting though.
Central to Mbuti life is the forest. The Mbuti call the forest their protector and provider. They hold the forest to be sacred. Sometimes it is referred to as “mother” or “father”. The Mbuti are characterised as being good-natured and happy people. They are seen to be peaceful, loving to sing songs, dance, tell jokes and tell stories. A major ritual is the molimo. This is done after a very bad event (e.g. a death) to as the Mbuti put it, restore the order or to give thanks to the forest. Food is collected for every hut and in the evening, men dance and sing around a fire. Women and children remain inside closed huts. The molimo is also the name for the trumpet used in the ritual. Usually made out of wood or bamboo, it was also once seen made out of metal drainpipes. The material doesn’t matter though, as long as it makes the desired sound. Young men gather the molimo stored in the trees of the forest and bring them back to camp where it is played. One important part of Mbuti culture is music. Mbuti music is mainly vocal, and has significant cultural and religious meaning. Music may also be performed during hunts. At the end of the letter is an internet link to a sample of Mbuti music.
Another thing of note is a coming of age ritual/ceremony for 9-12 year old pygmy boys called the nkumbi. Here boys are circumcised and they undergo a five month period where they are whipped to toughen them up I suppose. They are also ritually scarred with inicisons. During this period boys learn how to hunt, forage and fend for themselves. Afterwards they return to the village as men.
Mbuti also have barkcloth art. The bark is stripped from trees and pounded by men, with women painting and decorating it with a variety of dyes prepared from roots and plants. The cloth is worn for rituals and religious ceremonies. The art the Mbuti depict is representative of their beliefs. Expressions of the forest and their world. They show that the forest is core to Mbuti life.
Historically, the Mbuti may have been known to the Egyptians. They noted sighting “tree people” in an expedition around 2500 BC. Eventually, knowledge of the Mbuti degraded to the point where they were referred to as flying monsters and such. In the 19th century, travellers rediscovered the Mbuti. Eventual colonisation had an effect on other African groups that were forced to move off their land, into contact with the Mbuti. More recently, villagers started using the Mbuti to hunt for animals to provide them with meat. This is putting pressure on animal food sources. Ironically, the Mbuti have even been hired to cut down their own forest! Some Pygmies have even been treated as slaves by the Bantu. Disease is another factor too.
Aside from the effects migrating villagers have, instability and civil war have taken a toll on the Mbuti way of life. Perhaps unfortunately, the Mbuti have been situated right where the bulk of the region’s bloody wars have been fought. This has caused much turmoil and has forced Mbuti to flee their homes. In recent times, modernisation has also taken precedence over the traditional way of life; external influences pressuring natives to adopt civilised ways. Deforestation, gold mining, conservation and agriculture are affecting the Mbuti’s food sources. The Mbuti have always been discriminated against by their neighbours, being seen as sub-human. Some even believe that eating Pygmies will endow one with powers. There was much violence against Pygmies by virtually all armed groups in the Second Congo War. There have been reports of cannibalism, rape and extermination. Thus, the Mbuti are in grave danger indeed. Ironically, they are contributing to their own demise, which I must admit is tragic indeed. Basically, all their neighbours threaten their way of life in some form or another.
Now that I have gotten that out of the way, I shall describe for you what cultural interaction is. In this context, we are talking about the actions between two or more cultural groupsand what their effects are; their interactions. Throughout history, there have been examples of interaction on a cultural level. The Western colonisation of a great deal of the world is a great example of interaction on a grand scale. Whilst the Mbuti weren’t made to adopt civilised customs back in the colonial days, their more civilsed neighbours (Congolese, etc.) have been pressuring them into adopting their ways. More Pygmies are going to school and learning how to read and write, more Pygmies are adopting the “city” way of life, more are being born in hospitals instead of the traditional huts and so on. As the modern way of life if embraced, the traditional is either retained in some form, or cast aside. The interaction with more civilised Congolese and others has and will continue to change the Mbuti. I must say, this is very unfortunate yet it is inevitable. If nothing is done to preserve this culture, it will merely be a memory from the past.
Well my friend, that’s what I have to share with you. Take time to contemplate visiting the Ituri Rainforest further. This isn’t a light decision. As always, I have been delighted to help out. I’ll be sure to catch up with you during the Americas expedition. You’re travelling to the Amazon Basin near the end of the year are you not? I have something I need to hand over to you personally. My trip is to Peru, in two months. I’ll be expecting to hear from you mate. Best of luck to you on your journey! By the way, I have included images of the Mbuti for your convenience.