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The Mbuti Pygmies Of The Ituri Forest

Essay, Research Paper

In this paper, I have selected to alluminate the BaMbuti Pygmies of the Ituri Forest. They are located in Central Africa, in the northeast corner of the Belgium Congo. The Mbuti-a reciprocal economic band-hunt wild animals, fish, and gather fruits, and vegetables, in their cool and damp rain forest. The Pygmies, also referrred as the Forest People, consume much of their goods, and exchange the rest with their neighboring villagers.

In addition to focussing on the previous, I will also touch upon the Pygmies domestic life style, and their political and religious systems.

The Pygmies are believed to be the first inhabitants of the Ituri Forest. Records dating back to the sixth Dynasty in Egypt, verify the Pygmies long existance in the tropical rain forest. Due to its location in Central Africa, the Ituri Forest receives an annual precipitation of sixty to eighty inches. The climate is generally hot, and at times cool from violent rain storms. The Ituri Forest stretches about two hundred miles across, and four hundred miles in lenght. It contains an abundance of wild animals, fresh rivers, and numerous types of fruits, vegetable, and plant roots. To the Mbuti…the forest is a father a mother…and like a fatther or mother it gives them everything they need…food, clothing, shelter, warmth and affection…One may not relay with the Pygmies feelings towards the forest, but one can surely comprehend as to why they uphold it with such esteem. For so long as the forest is undistubed, the Pygmies can continue to live and enjoy all of the goods that the Ituri Forest offers.

Although the forest provides the Mbuti with all their needs, they are times when hunting becomes a difficult task. This often occurs, when the normal life in the forest is disrupted by the Pygmies neighboring villagers. The villagers whom are cultivators, clear away land enableling them to plant their crops. Unfortunately, the cutting of trees and the after burning, scares away many of the game from the surrounding area. In such instances, the Mbuti may go into the villages and obtain food. The villagers acknowledge their invasion of the Mbuti land, and in return, they provide the Pygmies with occasional meals. In the eyes of the Mbuti…the village is merely another source of food-acquired by another form of hunting…for if the villagers do not give of their free will, the Pygmies are not above rading the plantations and stealing what they want…The Pygmies are not always free loading, for they also engage in an informal exchange system with the villagers. Meat being the primary source of trade, is welcomed by the villagers, for it supplements their otherwise large vegetarian diet. In return for game, the Pygmies are given metal tools, rice beans, cassava, corn, and other cultivated products which are grown by the villagers. In addition to exchanging forest goods, the Mbuti also exchange their services. For instance: The villagers have to clear away trees and shrubs to plant their crops. Consequently, they are left with a shortage of sapling to build their homes, and leaves to cover their roofs. The Mbuti, taking advantage of the villagers fear to enter the forest, easily provide this vital service in exchange for crops. Furthermore, when villagers are overwhelmed with work, the Pygmies supply additional labor in the plantations. Further attributing to threir economic exchange. The exchange syster that is maintained between the Pygmies and villagers, relies heavily on the accomodation of the Mbuti Pygmies. The Pygmies exchange their goods or sevices with the villagers, and return to the forest when it sutis their purpose. Turnbull, author of the Forest People, concludes, “Dependency of the Mbuti on the villages for food or metal is minimal, and it expressed better in terms of convenience than of necessity.”

The villagers often left stranded, and in need of Pygmies labor, could not embark on physical force to maintain them. Instead, the villagers deviced ways to attract and keep the Mbuti in the village for longer periods of time. These attemps include the creation of a myth that there was a heredetary relationship between individual Pygmies and families, and individual Negros and families. Another such attempt is to allow the Pygmy boys to participate in the Nkumbi Initiation. “Of all the ways in which the villagers attempt to assert some kind of control over the BaMbuti, the one which is more significant, and which was consider to be the most effective and binding is that of subjecting Pygmy boys to the village initiation, known as the Nkumbi”

The purpose of the Knkumbi is for the boys, between the ages of eight and twelve, to be fitted for adult life. The initation begins with the shaving of the head, followed by the boys cimcumcisions. AAterwards, the boys are made to sing and dance, and later they are allowed to rest. The Kkumbi Initiation lasts approximately two to three months. boys are secluded and thought about sex, tribal songs, and they are prepared mentally and physically for adul life. the above is accomplished through a series of straneous physical tests, and mental harassment. The villagers believe, whenever a person is initiated, they are bound thereafter by all the laws of the tribe. Furthermore, the initiation ensures the continutity between the past, present and future life of the tribe; and between the village ancestors.

Conversely, the Pygmies feel no such ties with the villagers. For their sole purpose of participating in the Nkumbi Initiation, is to secure adult status while in the village. Just as the Pygmies are outside the village, they leave behind all the foreing customs that have practice withn…the same boys who have been walking freely among the men of the village, as men, went straight back to their mothers…they became children once more and were accorded none of the privileges of the adult forest Pygmy…

Once in the Ituri Forest, the Pygmies carry out their own customs. Such customs include, bethrotal, adoption, sister exchange marriages, monogamous marriages, and in rare intances, polygymous marriages. The latter being an accepted union, but only occurs in a limitted extent. In such cases, the wives have separate huts.

In sister exchange marriages, the family who is loosing a female must be compensated with another. This pertains to any female, no matter how distantly related they may be to the bridc. For the Pygmies regard any female or male,of the same age group, as sister and brothers. If an exchange does not occur, the marrying female receives no status or security. To the Pygmies, it is of utmost importance to maintaint heir preferred sister exchange marriages. “To them a woman is more than a mere producer of wealth; she is an essential partner in the economy”. but, before the preceding marriages can take place a couple must be engaged.

To become bethrothed, a Mbuti must first offer his prospective in-laws a large antelope. This comes to be proof of his ability to provide for his wife and future children. Afterwards, the engaged couple may live together. Although, the marriage is not considered final until a child has been born, and prooven that it has come to stay. The Pygmies consider a child to be prooven to stay, after three or more days of living. Then, and only then, a child is named.

In instances where families have many children, and another household has little or non, or separation has been caused by a divorce, or death, adoption of children may take place. Children are given to relatives, or to any family member of the band which is in need of one.

In addition to sharing children among their Pygmy members, the Mbuti also share their parents wealth which is inherited along sex lines. That is, girls inherit from the mother side, and boys inherit from the father side. Items that may be inherited consist of hunting nets, bow and arrows, and spears on the male side. the females may inherit gathering baskets, or cooking utensils. In cases where parents pass away before the children reach maturity, the brother on the father’s side, or the sister on the mother’s side may inherit their belongings. The siblings may also inherit any position that was occupied by the deceased. In comparison to other societies of Africa, the Mbuti’s inheritance is relatively small. Therefore, it is unnecessary for the Pygmies to maintain a complex kinship system.

More pertinent than kinship, are the nomadic bands which the Pygmies form. The bands are composed of eight or more nuclear families which cross-cuts all kinship ties. due to much uncompatability among kinsmen for hunting purposes, the Mbuti have chosen to keep an open inerchanging with other bands. If the bands were maintained through kinship, it would disrupt the Mbuti’s balanced and productive economic system. Thus, it is preferable and more productive to arrange the bands through Pygmy members and not kinsmen. In addition, as Turnbulll remarks, “It would be a disadvantage, as the conposition of any band is constantly changing and the classic linieage system would fragment it into opposing sections that would have no structural validity”.

The Mbuti main economy is derived from hunting the wild game of the Ituri forest. The hunt is held daily, except for rainy days or when the Pygmies go into the villages. At dawn, the women prepare breakfast while the men put their nets together. After the meal has been cooked, the women put the food in the center of the camp for all to share. When everyone has eaten, they set out for the hunt. In the hunt, each person plays an important part. The men form a semi circle over the bushes with their nets. boys either stay with their father or scatter around the nets in hopes of catching any animal that escapes. The women also form a semi circle opposite the men along with girls. When the men give the signal, the women and girls begin to beath the bushes with branches and making loud sounds. Whenever an animal falls into the net, it is immediately killed with a spear. The dead game belongs to the owner of the net in which it was caught. The men take out the game and it is give to the wife of the net owner. Later the game is distributed in the camp, unless it is too large. In such intances, the animal is fivided among the Pygmies spontaneously.

For the Mbuti women, the hunt is not the only function in which they take an active part outside of their domestic domain. In addition, the women-more often than men-fish, collect wild fruits, roots, insects, larvae, lizards, and honey as a seconday means of economic subsistance. The forest with its abundance of goods, more than supplies the Pygmies with enough to maintain a balance diet. “the Pygmies regard the forest as the source of all goods, of plenty, safety and good health”. With all that the forest provides, it is clear to see why the Mbuti regard the forest as a place of refuge. for the Pygmies have manage to survived in the Ituri Forest for thousands of years.

The Pygmies could not have endured in the Iture Forest, had they not maintained a co-operative political system. Their political power is not concetrated in any parituclar kin group. It is divided into different fields in which several adults are given recognition. For instance: If a discussion arises concerning the hunt, younger men and women tend to have more say in these matters. Since they are younger and more capable of hunting than other band members. If deliberating concerns gathering, young women alone settle any disputes which may arise. “Co-operation is the key to Pygmy society: you can expect it and you can demand it, and you have to give it”. With the Mbuti Pygmies, collaboration among band groups is a must.

Although the Mbuti rely chiefly on teamwork, there is an individual institutionalized role called the Clown. The Clown helps in maintaining harmony and social order between band groups. To occupy such a role, an individual must be good at hunting, young, and very often unmarried. The Clown must have the ability to single out the cause of a dispute, and accept the blame upon himself. He than laughs it off along with dancing and singing. For the Mbuti “Ridicule, a powerful deterrent, is consciously used to prevent or put an end to disputes if reasons fail”.

Another position of individual authority, is the Headman. He must be capable of dealing with any disputes which may occur within the village. The headman has to have a taste for many of the goods which the villagers give for carring out the role. In return, the Headman sees that the villagers receive meat as a token for their gifts.

In conjuction with the institutionalized authorities, the Pygmies also maintain two religious insititions. They are the Molino, “Dance of Death”, and the Elima, “Dance of Life”.

The Elima, is the coming of the girls menstrual period and passage into womanhood. Girls are secluded in a special hut, where they are taught the arts and crafts of motherhood, and special Elima songs. “For; the Pygmies the Elima; is one of the happiest, most joyful occasions in their lives”. Young men from all around, come to pay respects to the girls who are participating in the festival. The Elima is also the rightful passage for a girl to take a husband…when a yound Pygmy girl begins to flower into maturity, and blood comes for the first time, it comes to ther as a gift, received with gratitude and rejoicing…rejoicing that the girl is now a potential mother…

Conversely, the Molino is not a time for rejoicing. it is a time of departure from someone who has passed away, many illneses within the band, or a period of poor hunting. The men gather nightly at the central fireplace where they dance, eat, and sing songs to the forest. The Pygmies sing to the forest in order for it to restore the right balance; for the Pygmies regard the forest as a benovelent diety. They..acknowledge and accept the facts of life and death as both being, equally, the gift of their god…In addition to the singing, a trumpet is used during the “Death Molino”. The Molino may last anywhere from a few weeks to several months. Both the Molino and Elima serve in reinforcing the belief and practices of how Pygmies should interact with each other.

In essence, the Mbuti Pygmies are an egalitarian society which maintain a good balanced life in the Ituri Forest. No one goe hungry. For a person who does not have, another who does will surely give. I have reseached the Mbuti way of life, both in the forest and villagege context. Of all their practices, I have found that the distribution of child care among all the females of a band, to be a major difference from our society. Unlike our so called advanced stratified society, the Pygmies do not leave their children without adult supervision. to the Mbuti, the forest is the life giver and the life taker. They do not perceive a life without it. This view is also expressed by Turnbull, as I quote. “The Forest is our home, when we leave the forest, or when the forest dies, we shall die. We are the people of the forest”.

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