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Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri Forest
The Mbuti pygmies are a nomadic tribe who inhabit the southern and central portions of the Ituri forest, in the Republic of Congo. They are an ethnocentric and homogenous society whose traditions, gender relations, kinship, social organization have remained unchanged until the last fifty years. The Mbuti tribe is divided into two sub-groups, the Efe and the Mbuti. Currently there are between 20,000 and 50,000 Mbuti people in the Congo (Ojo, 1996). The Mbuti pygmies are hunter-gatherers and have practiced hunting and foraging for thousands of years. Many of the foods they find in hunting and foraging expeditions, especially meat and wild honey, are used as trade items with neighboring tribes like the Bila or Bira people. The Mbuti pygmies are primarily net hunters while the Efe sub-groups of the Mbuti tribe use the bow and arrow. According to Denslow and Padoch (1988) in a typical net hunt, a Mbuti camp may trap and kill as many as 10 animals in comparison to three animals killed in a bow and arrow hunt. Although the Mbuti are an egalitarian culture, males and females have distinctive gender roles. Their social organization, based on kinship bonds, promotes cooperation among the Mbuti community members (Sutton & Anderson, 2010). The Mbuti tribe's traditions and traditional hunter- gatherer way of life are currently at risk due to modern society and colonialism. The Mbuti, long revered by the other Africans for their supernatural hunting abilities, were decimated in the Congo civil war by rebel soldiers who killed and cannibalized them (Watson & Stone, 1995). Without some effort, on the part of the Mbuti people and the Congo government Mbuti culture will cease to exist. An examination of gender relations, kinship, social organization and the impact of modern society and social change are essential in understanding present day Mbuti culture.
The Mbuti pygmies of the Ituri forest are classified as a hunter gatherer society. They derive their foods exclusively from hunting and gathering activities or trading. The Mbuti people are recognized by most indigenous Africans for their superior hunting abilities. According to other African tribes, Mbuti pygmies have supernatural abilities, which they use to track game in the Ituri forest (Sutton & Anderson, 2010). Mbuti hunts are community events. The Mbuti pygmies use either a net or bow and arrow during to capture and kill a wide variety of edible mammals. All of the tribal members including men, women, and children participate in the hunt. The nets, used in hunting are made from the skin of the soudi and ukusa plants. The hunting nets are one meter high and 30 to 100 meters long. During the hunt, a series of multiple nets over one kilometer in length are used to trap the forest animals. During a typical net hunt, the Mbuti men set up a large net in the forest and position themselves along the length of the net. The Mbuti women and children also participate, as drum beaters, to drive the animals into the nets. The men, waiting at the net, usually club or spear the animals before they can escape. The net hunt requires at least 15 to 30 Mbuti people (Denslow & Padoch, 1988). Denslow and Padoch describe the amount of labor necessary for a Mbuti community net hunt:
As most game only gets temporarily tangled in the nets, all of the men of the camp are positioned at intervals along the barrier, ready to spear the trapped animals. Not only does it require many men to secure a one kilometer-long net but someone must still be available to drive the game. (p.122-123)
The Mbuti pygmies hunt and consume 60 varieties of Ituri forest animals. Like other hunter gatherer societies, they practice dietary restrictions. Some foods are labeled kweri, which is the Mbuti word for poison. Foods, which are kweri, are believed to cause disease and are avoided by the Mbuti people. Besides hunting, the Mbuti people also forage for edible plants, insect, snails, larvae, shellfish, vegetables, roots, leaves fruits and wild honey in the Ituri forest (Kent, 1996). Because the food resources in the Ituri forest are abundant, the Mbuti pygmies have a rich and varied diet. There is a saying in the Congo which states, a hungry Mbuti is a lazy Mbuti (Sutton & Anderson, 2010 p. 170). The statement is a testament to the Mbuti skill at hunting and gathering a variety of edible foods in the Ituri forest.
Some of the animal meat from the Mbuti hunt is used for trade with other neighboring tribes, like the Bila, or Bira tribe (Ojo, 1996). Because the Mbuti are not farmers, they must trade with the Bila for agricultural goods, like manioc. In addition, there is a large demand for meat and honey from the neighboring tribes. Because of the demand for meat among the neighboring villages, the resources in the Ituri forest are being depleted. Denslow and Padoch (1988) discuss Mbuti hunting and gathering practices and trade with the neighboring tribes and its impact on the Ituri forest:
Large bands of Mbuti net hunters need large amounts of manioc, plantains, and peanuts to survive… these must be provided by the Bira who in return demand large quantities of meat. Traditions are always hard to change, even though their continuation becomes increasingly difficult and may jeopardize their future existence. (p.125)
In addition, European colonialism has also increased demands for meat. Due to over hunting, the source of the Mbuti's food supply, the Ituri forest, may eventually be stripped of resources. For now, the Mbuti people continue to hunt and forage in the Ituri forest, which is traditional among pygmy peoples in the Congo.
Because the Mbuti pygmies are hunter- gatherers, they are nomadic. They live in small, temporary dome shaped huts made of bark and leaves. They hunt and gather in a region until its resources are reduced, and then move to a different part of the forest. The Mbuti move to a new forest camp every four weeks. Because they are nomadic, they do not value material possessions; instead, they focus on happiness and living a peaceful existence in the forest (Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia Of World Cultures, 1999).
Although Mbuti men and women share many duties in Mbuti daily life, there are traditional divisions of labor based on gender. The relationship between Mbuti men and women is cooperative, which is necessary for survival in the forest. Women traditionally perform the heavy manual labor which is necessary to maintain the Mbuti camp. Women build the Mbuti's temporary bee-hive shaped huts, manufacture clothes, and bark loin cloths, cook, and take care of the children. Both Mbuti men and women participate in hunting. After the hunt, women traditionally prepare and carry the meat back to the camp. In comparison, men club or shoot the animals trapped in the hunting nets, and perform little or no work after the conclusion of the hunt.
Mbuti youth reach sexual maturity at the onset of puberty. There are puberty rituals for Mbuti boys and girls. The elima, an initiation for young girls, signifies the Mbuti female's entry into womanhood. The ritual occurs after the Mbuti female's first menstrual cycle. During the elima rites, young Mbuti women frequently have their first sexual encounter and may later marry the same Mbuti man. After marriage, the Mbuti female traditionally leaves her family's camp and lives with her husband (Watson & Stone, 1995). Traditional gender roles for Mbuti men include hunting, storytelling and conducting initiations (Salopek, 2005). Mbuti men are also expected to initiate the neighboring tribes' young men. When a young Mbuti male reaches puberty he is initiated. During the initiation, young Mbuti males attend a village circumcision school or nkumbi. The boy's initiation lasts three to four months. After the circumcision ceremony, the Mbuti males are allowed to return to their homes (Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia Of World Cultures, 1999).
The Mbuti have a loose social organization with no central leadership. The Mbuti live in bands of 15 to 50 people and have extensive kinship bonds. The Mbuti concept of kinship is relatively fluid. Mbuti families often adopt children from relatives or provide child care for children of friends or distant family members. The Mbuti pygmies are a patrilineal society, and all descent is traced through a common male ancestor. Children are usually named for a member of the father's family. Because the Mbuti pygmies are an ethnocentric and a homogenous society, Mbuti men do not marry women from other African tribes. The Mbuti tribesmen practice monogamy, although some Mbuti have several wives. Mbuti society forbids marraige inside the same clan or camp or to immediate relatives. In addition, men must marry women who are the same age as themselves (Sutton & Anderson, 2010). In Mbuti life, marriage is an exchange of kin among families and is pre-arranged. Typically, a Mbuti man offers a sister, female cousin, or niece to his brother in law for marriage. When a Mbuti woman is married, there is an exchange…[continue]
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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
Mbuti Unmovable: The Mbuti of the Ituri Forest For more than 2,000 years, the world has been aware of the Mbuti (Pygmy) hunter-gatherers that reside in the Ituri Forest of northern Zaire. References have been made to Pygmies that date as far back as Ancient Egypt, with mentions made by Herodotus, Aristotle and Homer (McDonald, 2004). Little however, was known about the daily lives of the Mbuti Pygmies until the 1950's. In