It is thought that the forest imbues the semen of a married man with its own vital essence. In this way, Mosko argues, the children born of married unions are products of "the joyful intermingling of several simultaneous influences of mother, father, and forest" (899).
The forest is not only the source of the individual's sense of identity, but also defines the communal sense of identity as well. Bands see themselves as spheres within the larger sphere of the forest, and see all communal activity as reflections of the larger relationship between the band and the forest. The great sphere of the forest provides a powerful kinship-type relationship between bands as well. While biological kinship bonds between Mbuti bands are common, they are not largely recognized as the primary unifying force among bands. Instead, Mbuti consider the common lineage of the forest to be the most significant binding principle among the various bands; this common "kinship" trumps any other organizing principle and acts as a powerful unifying and pacifying force (Ibid.).
Because the Mbuti consider themselves to be literal "children of the Forest," modern environmental and political changes constitute as severe threat not only to their livelihood, but to their cultural sense of self as well. Increased logging in the Ituri forest has led to sharp decrease in game, plant resources, and territory for the Mbuti. The decrease in forest habitat, combined with the increase in demand for meat from Bila villagers and outside meat traders, has led to the overexploitation of game and rapidly declining animal populations in the forest. The pressure of dwindling territories and declining meat supply has led to a new dynamic within the Mbuti culture that did not exist previously: economic competition and conflict between bands (Hart, 1978). This competitive tension, combined with the threatened state of the forest that binds them physically and ideologically, has begun to fray the unified identity of the Mbuti and strain the rituals and practices that have historically maintained a peaceful and cooperative society.
The Mbuti have also suffered from the involvement of outside forces in their culture, both historically and more recently. Because of their small stature and primitive technologies, the Mbuti Pygmies have long been a source of both fascination and ridicule among Westerners. In the early 20th century, Pygmies were brought to England by British colonialists and sent on a touring circuit as novelties. They were even promoted as the "missing link" between apes and humans. While this idea was soon debunked scientifically, the concept of the Mbuti Pygmy as sub-human to strong root in the Western psyche, and also among the Westernizing nations on the African continent.
While this attitude initially had little effect on the Mbuti themselves, the civil war that raged in the Congo region in the late 20th century brought the concept of the Pygmies as sub-human to a grotesque level. With resources in the region strained by war and trade crippled by the unrest, both warring factions began hunting the Mbuti themselves for meat (Sutton and Anderson, 2010). This atrocious mass act of cannibalism went largely unnoticed by the outside world until 2003, when a representative from the Mbuti testified before the United Nations Committee on Indigenous Peoples about the killings and other violence perpetrated against the tribe. In 2004, the BBC reported large scale murder, rape, and cannibalism of the Mbuti by warring parties, and labeled the situation an act of genocide and extermination.
As a result of the UN's subsequent investigation and intervention, and partly due to the quieting of civil unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo, much of the violence against the Mbuti has subsided. However, the cultural scars of the experience have severely altered the social landscape both within the Mbuti society and between the Mbuti and neighboring tribes. The experience of large-scale violence has damaged their view of human nature as essentially benevolent, and has created a deep sense of distrust between the Mbuti and outsiders who used to be pivotal to their trade relations (Ibid.). The fact that this violence occurred within the sphere of the forest can only have called into question their strong faith in and reliance on the protection of their symbolic parent.
The steady disappearance of their environment, their resources, and their philosophical worldview has endangered the Mbuti both physically and culturally. Their historic place in the Western imagination as a half-mythological novelty has hampered the outside world's acknowledgement of their plight. Only their small band size and their ability to quickly adapt have allowed them to subsist despite these difficulties. However, even if they survive physically, the disappearance of the forest may be a lethal blow to their culture considering the defining role it plays in their sense of cultural identity.
In order to protect and maintain this ancient culture with its unique vision of humanity, nature, and society, steps must be taken quickly to regulate the deforestion of the Ituri forest and to conserve the market culture of the area. More importantly, however, Western scholarship and media must take steps to reformulate the image of the Pygmy in the public mind. Publicizing their intrinsic democratic tendencies, respect for the environment, and sophisticated methods of promoting peace and stability may be the key to creating an image of the Mbuti as relevant and valuable member of the world community.
Hart, J. (1978). From Subsistence to Market: A case study of the Mbuti net hunters. Human Ecology, 6(3), 325-353.
Ichikawa, M. (1987). Food restrictions of the Mbuti Pygmies, Eastern Zaire. African Study Monographs, Supplementary Issue 6, 97-121.
Mosko, M. (1987). The Symbols of 'Forest': A structural analysis of Mbuti culture and social organization. American Anthropologies, 89(4), 896-913.
Sutton, M. & Anderson, E. (2010). Introduction to Cultural Ecology. Lanham, MD: AltaMira…