Pygmies

Pygmies Pygmy groups are scattered throughout equatorial Africa, from Cameroon in the west to Zambia in the southeast. In Zaire, there are three main groups of Pygmies: the Tswa in the west, the Twa between Lake Kivu and Lake Tanganyika, and the Mbuti (also referred to as Bambuti or BaMbuti) of the Ituri Forest. According to Schebesta, the author of the earliest reliable reports, only the Mbuti are true Pygmies, i.e., under 150 cm. in height and relatively unmixed with neighboring peoples. The other groups are referred to as Pygmoids, being highly intermixed with other peoples both physically and culturally (Turnbull 1965A: 159-B).

The following summary refers only to the Mbuti Pgymies of the Ituri Forest in Zaire. The Mbuti are located at lat. 0 degrees-3 degrees N and long. 26 degrees-30 degrees E. Their territory is a primary rain forest. The Mbuti have conventionally been divided into three groups, which are distinct from each other linguistically, economically, and geographically.

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Each of the three groups speaks a different language (which corresponds to the language spoken by neighboring villagers), practices different hunting techniques, and is territorially distinct. The Aka speak the Mangbetu language (Sudanic family), hunt primarily with spears, and live in the north. These spear-hunters have not been extensively studied. The Efe speak the Lese language (Sudanic family), are archers, and are located in the east. The Efe were studied by Schebesta. The Sua speak the Bira language (Bantu branch of the Benue-Congo family), hunt with nets, and live to the south. They were studied by Putnam and Turnbull. The most profound difference between the three groups, the linguistic difference, is, according to Turnbull, of recent origin and is purely accidental (Turnbull 1965B 22-23).

Furthermore, in spite of the fact that the three languages are very different, there are enough similarities in intonation to make it possible for Pygmies to recognize, if not comprehend, each other. All of the Pygmies of the Ituri Forest recognize themselves by the term Mbuti, and the only political identity they have is in opposition to the village cultivators. The Mbuti as a whole are clearly distinct from these village neighbors both racially and culturally, and, Turnbull says, the economic differences between the three Mbuti groups mask a basic structural unity (Turnbull 1965B: 22-23). Since there has never been an official demographic census, it is impossible to give an accurate estimate of the total Mbuti population. From discussion with missionaries and administrators and from his own experience, however, Turnbull guessed that the population was approximately 40,000 in 1958 (Turnbull 1965B: 26). The Mbuti live in territorially defined nomadic bands.

The membership of these bands is very fluid. Bands have no formal political structure; there are no chiefs, and there is no council. An informal consensus among old respected men is the basis of decisions affecting the entire camp. In spite of Turnbull’s insistence on basic structural unity, the differences in hunting techniques aqppear to have considerable effect upon the nature of the band organization. Net hunting is a cooperative venture, requiring the cooperation of the whole band, including the women and children. Archery, on the other hand, is primarily a family venture, requiring only two or three men.

The most obvious distinction resulting from the economic differences is that of band size. Archer bands average about 6 huts per band, while net-hunting bands average about 15 huts. The Mbuti maintain relationships with surrounding village cultivators whose languages the Mbuti have adopted. Many accounts indicate that the Mbuti are highly acculturated and have adopted many features of villager lifestyle beyond language, such as the clan system and certain religious observances. Turnbull feels that these features are quite superficial, however. The relationship between the Mbuti and the villagers is maintained on several different levels, centering around trade.

The Pygmies bring the villagers honey and meat in return for plantation products. This economic exchange can occur on several levels: between the band and the village as a whole (capita/chief), between lineage and lineage (lineage elder/Kpara), or between individuals (kare/kare). The first type of relationship does not occur very often, exchanges being more easily conducted on an interpersonal basis. The lineage relationship is hereditary on both sides. The kare brotherhood is established in nkumbi initiations.

In the nkumbi initiation, male villagers and Mbuti are circumcised. The relationship established in the initiation is continued throughout life and centers around economic exchange. The religious life of the Mbuti is not at all clear. Early reports state that they had no religion at all, and later reports dwell on whether or not the Mbuti relationship to the supernatural structurally constitutes religion (usually defined by belief in one supreme being) or magic. In any event, there appear to be two ceremonies of importance, both of which are concerned with resolving crises and returning the band to stability.

The molimo ceremony is performed primarily by men and is associated with singing and the use of a particular type of horn, called the molimo horn. The molimo is particularly associated with death, but it may be performed at any crisis, such as a poor hunting season. The elima ceremony is performed primarily by women and is associated with life-cycle crises of particular concern to women, such as birth, puberty, marriage, and death.