A Day in Africa: The Mbuti Pygmies and the Itari Rain Forest

English: Mbuti pygmies with Osa Johnson explor...

English: Mbuti pygmies with Osa Johnson explorer. Español: Pigmeos mbuti con exploradora Osa Johnson. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The American theatres and movies paint the scene of a rainforest as a primitive place that is less than appealing for the laid back life of ease found in a domesticated life. On the screen from the comfort of our living room television set we have watched a scantly clothed man called Tarzan, along with his female companion Jane and their faithful chimpanzee; Cheetah.

The American people sat captivated watching them swing from limb to limb, chased by leopards, lions and vicious tigers; frightening for those whose only experience with animals of the wild has been during visits to the local zoo.  In the dense bush of the Congo Rainforest of Africa we can see people of a different kind, small people, little people who survive the wilds of jungle life; hunters and gathers of a strange land. These people are known as pygmies; a description given because of their less than average height, but even though short of stature they are rulers of jungle life; the Mbuti or Bambuti band.

Home is definitely where the heart is, because a connection in kinship ties is found in the forest where the family is oriented. In his article, “The Symbols of  Forest” Mosko denotes that the tribal unit is “kinless” being that all concerning the lives of the people are attached to the forest. He says, “Crucial features of Mbuti kinship, economics, politics, and religion are all linked together by and through it. Indeed, the Forest is to the Mbuti as it might well appear to us: no less than “the one standard by which all deeds and thoughts are judged” (Turnbull 1961:125) (Mosko, (1987)., pp. 898; Para. 2, 3) There is also description given of a family universal where there is father, mother, friend or sibling and a lover; all tying in with the view the Mbuti have of themselves as a family unit. The forest then is the Mother who keeps, protects them, and with whom they are closest, their friend, their sister, and lover to all people; they are one.

Although the band is known to be of patrilineal heritage they are in fact a blended community, because there seems to be no emphasis paid to actual biological ties with the family system; bilateral connection order is: “All members of the band are thus amua’i (“sisters”) or apua’i (“brothers”), ema (“mothers”) or epa (“fathers”), tate (“grandmothers”) or tata (“grandfathers”), or miki (“children”),” (Mosko , (1987)., , pp. 903; Para. 2). This view adds flavor to a more simplified view for family meals and activities of leisure; thus one gets a perception of a great family gathering.

In the foraging community when describing techniques of the hunt Turnbull states that the men are the most skilled of the group; lying in wake to ambush their prey seems to be most pertinent. He says, “archers; they do not know the net hunt and seldom practice the communal beat ranks the ambush as most important.” “This method of hunting is used by the older men who no longer are able to track game successfully. They lie in wait and imitate the call of the game, attracting it until it is within range of their iron-tipped arrows,” (Turnbull, 1965, pp. 898; Para. 7)where the bow and arrow being the most effective weapon of choice for bringing in the kill. The methods used are planned and deliberate as the author says that a group of five or six men, along with dogs are used to track their prey. “When the dog puts up game, the hunters all stand rigid, bows flexed, ready to shoot if the animal passes their way. Sometimes the animal is killed by the dog; sometimes it escapes or is only wounded and must be pursued.” (Turnbull, 1965, pp. 172, 173; Para. 1). The game hunted are: elephant with the spear, monkeys, chimpanzee, and wild boar with the bow and arrow; it is noted also these meats are delightful additives to a fine meal along with some other animals and birds. Their meats add about 30 percent to their overall diet (Turnbull,  1965, pp. 174; Para. 2).

The women are the choice pick for gathering efforts where most of the diet is vegetarian. Information tells us that when there is no meat brought to the table that the food gathered by the women is needed to provide nourishment for the families; their contribution to the meal being about 70 percent of all subsistence. “Trading is also used to gather additional food items among the women and the neighboring villages where they get plantains, sweet potatoes, and peanuts in exchange for meats. The forest supplies the other portions of their food substance in the form of roots, vegetables, fruits, nuts, edible fungi, snails and grubs; as well as a small amounts of fish which concludes a healthy diet”(Turnbull, 1965, pp. 174; Para.1, 2).

A typical day after the gather and hunt continues as family time reveals a wife and mother taking care of her children. The author says that it is normal for her to “take all the children with her as she goes about gathering firewood and other material needed to build or repair their family’s hut, and that it is her responsibility to do so. She carries the smallest child on her back or hip while the other older children follow or play near the hut. The father is seen sitting out by the fire as it is also near the front of the hut; and he is either doing man stuff or watching guarding the food for his wife. At dinner the family takes dinner together with the exception of dad and the older boys sitting a little apart from the females.” Turnbull states that the separation during mealtime is more of a habit adopted from the villagers than that passed down through lineage. (Turnbull, 1965, pp.177; Para. 1, 2).

The rearing of the children is a matter between husband and wife, but it seems to be a cause of concern and conflict among the married partners; children are expected to mind, obey and respect both parents. An example was given of an incident where the father and son got into an argument and the son threatened harm to his father with his bow and arrow. This behavior causes great concern to the structure of the band’s unity, and when incidents like this one happen then all become involved and the offender is asked to leave the group along with his entire family; insolent behavior is not acceptable in the band (Turnbull, 1965, pp. 177; Para. 3).

As the children reach the adolescence stage of life they begin to separate, but not in the sense of leaving the family as would be expected; in this context we see that “the boys leave to be with the fellows of their lineage while the adolescent females cleave more to their mothers like never before; there is no formal training for either sex during this time. Puberty for the boys is a time of good-byes as they leave their mothers and go off to learn the hunt, because there is really nothing more for their mothers to teach them; but she still does prepare his meals from time to time. The boys organize hunts of small game near the camp which consists of small rodents, while the girls practice and develop being flirtatious; thus preparing themselves for married life” (Turnbull, 1965, pp. 179; Para. 1, 2).

As with most cultures, the Mbuti have a belief system. Male members of the band are participants in a ritual that takes place every six years. “The Nkumbi is a rite to passage ceremony given for those males in puberty and the villagers. The transition from boyhood to manhood where the boys are led out to a designated camp far from the forest. A conical hut is built that has two sides; one side is for the participants and the other side of the hut is for the elders who watch the boys and train them. The candidates are taken to the operator who yields the knife used to remove their foreskin. Surprisingly, some of the more courageous boys are allowed to stand, but others are forced and held down. Food is prepared and brought to the camp by the boys’ mothers, but they are cut off from any contact with them which might be viewed as comforting” (Turnbull, 1965, pp. 179; Para.3-8).

The Elima Puberty Festival is a rite of passage which takes place when menstruation for the Mbuti females begins; however, “both male and females participate in this event. Female members and their friends or “sisters” of the same age are taken out to a special hut; called the elima hut where they invite other females in neighboring bands to participant in the event. Supervision is provided by the “mother and father of the elima” whose presence is to keep a watchful eye out since this festival is a prelude to marriage.” (Mosko, (1987), pp. 907; Para. 3-6). The act of and initiation into loving making is the way to determine who marries and who doesn’t in this event; therefore we see compatible couples participate in shared, mutual loving making.  Supervision by the mother and father of the elima is necessary to ensure that no one who isn’t supposed to be there takes part in the sacred event. The outcome of the event being that someone is eligible for marriage (Mosko,  (1987)., pp. 907; Para. 3-6).

Finally, in light of what one can see thus far concerning mutual unity and oneness with the forest, and the provision of mother, lover, and friend to the people; the question arises as to where are the activities for leisure or the release from pressures of life in an otherwise tranquil existence? The answers to these questions are found by some in the form of drink, stimulants and even narcotics which are found on the “villagers’ plantations. Products like tobacco, bangi (or hemp), its counterpart from the forest plant medeaka, and the kola nut; as well as palm wine and banana wines” (Turnbull, 1965, pp. 175; Para. 1).  We can see that the minds of the Mbuti are carried away by the evil of such vices.  A picture unravels of a people being taken advantage of by those they see as friends, because the effects of drugs are kind to no one; no one is immune. The fog of abuse looms ominously as the rulers of the forest are described as weak vessels: “The Pygmies covet, as we all would, the aluminum pots, cigarettes, and manufactured clothing carried by Congo’s bicycle caravans. Yet in exchange, loads of timber, wild meat, and gold are streaming out of their forest home along the same tracks-a bonanza of raw materials swindled from the Pygmies by unscrupulous shopkeepers and middlemen. Moreover, the tiny hunters’ ancient bonds of trade with local farmers–a quasi-feudal system that swaps Mbuti field labor and forest products for food crops and metal tools-are becoming frayed. “They are easy to cheat,” a roadside merchant says of the Pygmies along the way. “Like children.” (Salopek, Paul, 2005). A result being the tranquility of the forest and its people held hostage by the grip of sin comes as no surprise as America watches another day for the Mbuti come to a close; a not so happy ending between two lovers, the Mbuti and the rainforest they call home.


Mosko, Mark S. (1987), “The Symbols of  Forest”: A Structural Analysis of Mbuti Culture and Social Organization

Watch: Mbuti Pygmies: The Forest is Everything


4 thoughts on “A Day in Africa: The Mbuti Pygmies and the Itari Rain Forest

  1. Pingback: The Bird of the Most Beautiful Song « the story behind the faces

  2. Pingback: Trucos y Consejos para ir de Camping

  3. we will all stand at the judgment with the pygmies. those who hate their child like culture, are also likely to hate the child like culture of the kingdom of God.

    in this I make no judgement. he just merely an observation.

    By His Grace

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