The Mbuti pygmies People

Mbuti Pygmies

The Mbuti pygmies live in the Ituri rain forest near the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) and Uganda. BaMbuti is the name given to the pygmies by their Bantu neigh-bors. It has been noted that the pygmies lost their own language and adopted that of the peoples who live close to them, the Mbuti speaking Bantu languages of the Bira and Mangbetu, and the Efe speaking that of the BaLese.

The Mbuti, including the Efe, who are one of the three main sub-groups of the Mbuti, number around 40,000 in total. The third major group is the Aka pygmies of the Central African Republic and Congo (Brazzaville).

Various pygmy peoples who live in Cen-tral Africa number around 200,000, and are found specifically in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Gabon, and the Central African Republic (the BaTwa are found in Rwanda and Burundi as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo). The pygmy populations appear to have developed on the fringes of the rain forest regions of Central Africa, and physical anthropologists place their origin to be about 20,000 years ago.

The Mbuti and Efe are thought to be long-term occupants of the rain forests due to their extreme short stature of between 142 and 145 centimeters (4.65 and 4.75 feet) for males and 134 and 137 centimeters (4.39 and 4.49 feet) for females, making them “true pygmies”; while others are pygmoids, being taller and more likely to have intermarried with Bantu peoples, such as most likely was the case for the BaTwa of Rwanda, Burundi, and southern Democratic Republic of Congo. It is believed that though hunting techniques improved with the use of nets and snares, the protein intake of the Mbuti and Efe was limited, possibly explaining their short stature.

Two different language groups of the large Niger-Congo phylum slowly pushed south from their core areas, the Bantu and the Ubangian/Adamawa. Both were settled cultivators and both began pushing south over 3,000 years ago. The Ubangian expansion reached its limit by 2,000 years ago, but the Bantu expansion continued following the rivers and streams. The rain forest provided few resources for them and could support only a small popula-tion—rain forest soils are poor and cannot support intensive agriculture.

The Bantu and Ubangian peoples developed a fear of the forest, and for them the forest is full of danger and evil. They kept close to the rivers and did not venture far into the forest, leaving it for the pygmies. The pygmies developed trade relations with the villagers, providing honey, meat, skins, and medicinal plants in exchange for pottery, iron tools and weapons, and agricultural produce. Slowly, village pop-ulations grew and the Bantu expanded fur-ther into the forest, gaining control over the pygmies. Pygmy populations lost their original languages in favor of their domi-nators.

The relationship changed pygmy culture with the adoption of non-pygmy customs such as circumcision. The relation-ship is called Bakpara, which translates as “masters of the pygmies.” A number of Bantu peoples have developed historical relations of domination over the pygmies, and in some societies, such as among the Kuba, pygmies have been incorporated as well into mask societies being represented by faces with large, bulging foreheads or other pygmy physical features.

Though there are few differences between the three main pygmy groups who live in the Ituri forest, it is noted by Turnbull and others that some hunters use nets and snares while others, perhaps more culturally influenced by Bantu neighbors, use bows and arrows (sometimes tipped with poisons) and spears to hunt.The central belief of the Mbuti focuses on Molimo, which is in essence the power of the forest, and the Molimo Feast is done at times of crisis. It concerns men, and women and children stay indoors during the rituals.

Molimo also refers to a usually wooden trumpet that is used to start the singing and dancing associated with the festival. When scholar Colin Turnbull asked his Mbuti hosts what the words of their songs say, they simply replied, “The Forest is Good” (Turnbull, 83).The Mbuti, Efe, and other pygmies have other celebrations, but most of them were introduced by their non-pygmy neighbors, such as initiation/circumcision. The initiation for boys is called nkumbi and is held in the villages with Mbuti boys participating with those from nearby Bantu or Ubangi villages.

It is part of the domination of the Bantu and Ubangi over the pygmies, and boys may also have to suffer having their teeth filed into sharp points in addition to or instead of circum-cision. For girls it is called elima,and once again it is held with Bantu or Ubangi villagers. There are major differences between the attitudes towards a girl’s men-struation; where among the Mbuti it is a gift and cause for joy, but for the Bantu and Ubangi peoples, it is considered dan-gerous, and according to Turnbull, “It is not a happy coming of age” (186–87).

Since the 1960s, the Mbuti, Efe, and others have to deal with the exploitation of the forest for hunting and the search for gold by outsiders. The civil wars in Central Africa have also taken a toll on the Mbuti and the Efe, and in 2003, during the meeting of the United Nations Perma-nent Forum on Indigenous Peoples, Sina-fasi Makelo reported that Mbuti, Efe, and other pygmies are being hunted down, the women raped, and the men killed and eaten by soldiers in the civil wars. These actions were seen as part of the deep prejudice among the non-pygmies who see the Mbuti, Efe, and other pygmies as subhuman.

The cannibalism, in the past, was part of local magic traditions to gain the power of the person eaten and to gain control over the forest spirits. It is widely believed that the pygmies are able to con-trol and use forest spirits and that ability is passed to the persons who eat their flesh. In addition, due to the unstable conditions of the border areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the rampages of militias and army units, “bush meat” or meat from wild animals has become an important source of protein, and, it is argued by those who are trying to end the trade, pygmies are considered by some to be another form of “bush meat.”

International logging companies, many from Malaysia and Europe, are heavily logging the Ituri forest for valuable hard-woods. Not only are the loggers destroy-ing the natural habitat of the pygmies, but in order to be part of the cash-based economies, pygmies work in low-paying jobs for the companies. They have been exposed to diseases brought by the loggers, such as HIV/AIDS as well as other types of contagious diseases. The noise of the logging has driven most of the natural game away, leaving the pygmies little choice but to work for the logging companies. According to a report by the World Rainforest Movement, an Efe elder is quoted as saying, “You will understand why we are called the “People of the Forest” … When the forest dies, we shall die” (

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Bailey, Robert Converse. The Behavioral Ecology of Efe Pygmy Men in the Ituri For-est, Zaire. Ann Arbor: University of Michi-gan, Museum of Anthropology, 1991.

“DRC: Efe Pygmies Deprived of Their Home-land and Their Livelihood.” World Rainfor-est Movement. (accessed Decem-ber 30, 2009).

Duffy, Kevin. Children of the Forest: Africa’s Mbuti Pygmies. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 1995.

Newman, James. The Peopling of Africa: A Geographic Interpretation.NewHaven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.