Mbuti Unmovable The Mbuti of the Ituri essay

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  • Subject: Family and Marriage
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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 an effort to find the values of goodness in the world post World War II, the public became interested in an isolated people who seemed far freer and more egalitarian than most self described "civilized societies (McDonald, 2004).The Mbuti are part of a larger group of forest dwellers referred to as the Bambuti. According to the most recent statistics, there are reportedly less than 20,000 pure blood Bambuti remaining in the world (Turnbull, 1998).

The Mbuti are described as the least influenced by extraneous cultures; preserving their traditions, culture, beliefs, and ability to navigate and survive in the Ituri Forest (Watson & Stone, 1995). The Mbuti have been able to develop a system of agriculturally-based bartering that has served to increase their viability and ensured continued survival. There are a number of pressures to acculturate as well as environmental challenges facing the Mbuti group. The collective is purportedly being replaced with more ideas and practices of individuality and independence (Turnbull, 1998). There are natural and political threats to the environment; specifically deforestation, and political wrangling. However, the Mbuti are intrinsically linked to the forest they inhabit; "the forest is everything" (Watson & Stone, 1995). The Mbuti group posses a unique set of customs, values, traditions, and beliefs that have withstood the test of time, but are currently undergoing progressive change. Their ability to adapt to these changes may be a way to teach other cultures the necessary coping mechanisms to adapt to disruptions in their own environments.

I. Primary mode of sustenance

The Mbuti are preeminent hunter gatherers, and because of their physical stature, are able to navigate the dense forest with great ease. The Mbuti, for generations, have hunted as a group to kill ground game. They are highly skilled experts and have demonstrated proven ability to master the environment in which they live. Certain rituals are adhered to prior to each hunt consisting of the group setting a ritual fire at the base of a tree; first to appease the forest which they highly respect, and as a way of requesting the forest assist them in a successful hunt. As a part of the ritual, each hunter passes through the smoke generated from the fire as a way of cleansing himself before beginning the hunt. Subsequent to the cleansing ritual, the hunt is initiated. All members of the group participate in the hunt. The women and children create a boisterous semi-circle, generating noise that drives game into the awaiting nets of the hunters. The Mbuti nets, typically made from nkusa vines, are masterfully crafted and highly prized. The lines of nets are strategically hung throughout the forest floor; and; may measure close to two hundred meters in length. As an added measure of good luck, guinea fowl feathers or seeds are often interspersed throughout the netting.

A. Net hunting is believed to have particularly important implications for efficient foraging, organization and the division of labor. In the ethnographic record, net hunting as displayed by the Mbuti involve a communal workforce; which is seen as more economically efficient at procuring prey vs. isolated hunting efforts (Adovasio, Soffer, & Klima,1996; Pringle, 1998; Soffer, 2000; Driver, 1990; Foibis, 1978 and Hayden, 1981).The Mbuti men carry spears and wait by the nets, quickly killing any captured game. The youth of the tribe are frequently armed with bows and arrows and act as "longshots" for any animal that escapes. The youth are also highly skilled at capturing escaped animals with their bare hands.

B. The most highly sought after game for the Mbuti group is the dulker; a small forest dwelling antelope. Six species of dulker inhabit the Ituri forest, and range in size from the blue dulker which is little more than one foot high to the yellow backed dulker that measures three times as tall. The Mbuti utilize every facet of the animal; using the skin for quivers and drums, and the horns for medicinal containers. Although the forest is also inhabited by elephants, and at one time was the most prize game, killing elephants is illegal. In addition to trapping ground game, the men of the Mbuti frequently hunt solo or in small groups for monkeys and birds. This kind of hunting is done with slingshots and bow and arrow. The Mbuti men must be able to effectively and efficiently master both styles of hunting; the stealth required for singular hunts, as well as the collaborative effort required for group excursions. The Mbuti recognize hunting as a primary factor in their survival. However, they also respect the balance of nature as evidenced by their willingness and tradition of relocating their indigenous camps on a regular basis, so as to not deplete any given area of its natural agricultural and animal resources.

C. It is not uncommon, subsequent to a successful hunt, for the men of the group to engage in tobacco or marijuana smoking. Although marijuana smoking is illegal, both tobacco and marijuana grow prolifically in the forest and are freely traded between groups. The Mbuti cannot be categorized as purely agrarian or foragers. It is true the Mbuti live in small groups, working together in a more egalitarian stylized community; however, the gender specific work roles characteristic of classic foragers is absent from the Mbuti tradition. Moreover, there are no expressed rules about how the spoils of the hunt are divided amongst group members based on biological or cultural opines. Because food is plentiful in the Ituri forest, there is no need for seasonal game migration (Searles & Lee, 2002).

II. Culture Kinships

The Mbuti are known to live in small groups of several nomadic households, loosely organized as one extended family. All family members live in family huts surrounding the community fire. The huts are quickly and easily erected and are regarded as temporary housing. The domed frame is made from saplings interwoven into a patchwork with large heart shaped mongongo leaves. Strands and vines hold the entire structure together. Although simple in structure, the integrity of the domed huts withstands torrential and frequent rains in the forest. As previously indicated, in order to avoid overexploitation, the Mbuti relocate their extended family every three to four weeks. Because of the abundance of food sources, the Mbuti have no need to for future food storage.

The frequent migrations of the group serve a dual purpose, in that it allows group members to the opportunity to join other groups. This group selection process serves to quall, diffuse or avert disagreements amongst group members. As there is no ruling lineage and system of 'class' based hierarchy, there is no larger political or social unit than the group. Age is the only factor that denotes seniority or highly respected status. The lack of perceived rigid structure provides the Mbuti personal and social flexibility that has proven essential to the groups' survival.

A. Children are taught from a very early age to respecting members of the group. Because of the lack of hierarchy within the Mbuti group, children of the same age group are on "equal footing" throughout their lives and are frequently collectively referred to as "opua'i." The activities the children involve themselves in are an informal process that teaches socialization and interdependence which are very important values within the group (Pulford, 1993).

B. Evening campfires are a very important component Mbuti life. When a group member wants to be heard, they stand in the center nearest the fire. If there are disagreements or discrepancies within the group, members of a band collectively address the wayward member to enforce group rules and re-establish group cohesiveness and harmony (Turnbull, 1962).

C. Another important aspect of the culture is the relationships between groups and the villagers that are a part of the forest periphery. There is disagreement amongst researchers as to whether this village group relationship is essentially interdependent, dependent, or independent (Pulford, 1993). Some see the relationship between the villagers and the Bambuti as beholding to the village overlords; while others see the relationship more as fully independent because of the forest dwellers and villagers ability to exchange goods and services by choice; voluntarily and temporarily. Still others see the relationship between the two as more interdependent in that neither side has a decided advantage over the other, and each has something the other can benefit from.

III. Beliefs and Values

According to group historians, religion amongst the groups in the Ituri forest is increasingly reflective of those of neighboring African groups. The Bambuti are said to believe that goodness and the wealth of the forest emanates from Muungu, the highest…

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