Pygmy Religions

views updated


PYGMY RELIGIONS . African Pygmies comprise a variety of ethnic groups who dwell as hunter-gatherers in the rain forest of central Africa. Because they live as nomads in a demanding and inaccessible environment, few serious studies have been done on them. Most studies of Pygmy life have been concerned with how they relate to the history of religions. According to Wilhelm Schmidt (18681954), an ordained priest and ethnologist interested in the origin of religion, the Pygmy peoples represented humanity in its childhood; they were a living equivalent of one of the earliest stages of human culture. Since early evidence seemed to indicate the existence of monotheistic belief in primitive societies, Schmidt engaged his colleagues to explore Pygmy religious life. Hence, for years the Pygmies were studied by Catholic missionaries seeking to support the idea that monotheism (rather than animism or fetishism) was the earliest form of religion.

This article discusses three Pygmy groups that are better known through fieldwork: the Aka, located in the southern region of the Central African Republic; the Baka of eastern Cameroon; and the Mbuti of the Ituri rain forest of Zaire. Other more sedentary and less documented groups such as the Gyeli of western Cameroon and the Twa of central Zaire and Rwanda are not included.

Aka Pygmies

According to Aka cosmology, a creator god named Bembe made the world, including the sky, earth, forest, and animals. He then fashioned the first male and female couple, Tole and Ngolobanzo. He later added a younger brother, Tonzanga. Bembe gave all worldly knowledge and goods to Tonzanga, but Tole subsequently stole them from his brother to ensure the survival of the family as a totality. Because of this theft, Bembe withdrew into the sky where he now lives without paying further attention to the world he created.

The primary twin couple, Tole and Ngolobanzo, gave birth to two children whose union later engendered the rest of humanity. Since that time, the three original beings created by Bembe have continued to live in a parallel world that represents the ideal to which human society should conform. The ghosts of human beings (edio ) live in the forest where they lead an endless existence under the rule of humanity's two ancestral spirits, Ezengi and Ziakpokpo. Ghosts are neutral toward human beings and act either benevolently or malevolently depending on how well humans treat one another and whether they show respect for the ghosts themselves. However, it is believed that those areas outside the forest (forest edge, villages, and rivers) are inhabited by foreign malign spirits. In Aka thought, the village is a nonhuman (bad) world, the forest a realm of ghosts, and the campsite the only fully human realm.

The forest is impregnated with vital principles; from these, either by initiation or by inheritance, an individual may appropriate the spiritual power (kulu ) that will assist him by blessing his various endeavors. However, malign spirits (kose ) are attracted by malevolence and slander among human beings. The evil that individuals may wish upon each other is the cause of human misfortune because it provokes the wrath of the spirits.

Aka religious rituals fall into two types: large festivals that concern the entire community and small rites undertaken for more private purposes. All Aka rituals relate to three fundamental functions: propitiation of supernatural powers (ghosts or the forest god Ezengi) so as to bring about abundance and fertility; divination of the cause of disorder or the likely result of a prospective action; and the propitiation of irritated spirits, whether they are ancestor ghosts during a period of social conflict or shortage or animal spirits after a murder (the death of an animal during a hunt).

Rituals are performed before undertaking a journey. In Aka thought (which relies upon the juxtaposition of camp, village, and forest with all their other associated values), any passage from one world to the next is potentially dangerous and requires ritual action. While every adult male may be in contact with certain familiar spirits, it is the function of various specialists (an elder, chief hunter, or diviner-healer) to meet major spirits such as Ezengi or the elephant spirit.

The Aka obtain most of their food by hunting, and insofar as it is a highly dangerous activity with unpredictable results, it is surrounded by rites of various natures: rites of individual and collective propitiation, rites of divination, rites thanking the ghosts with offerings, and a rite of collective expiation vis-à-vis the game spirit. A period of successive hunting failures calls for a divination and propitiation ceremony that includes the appearance of ghosts in the form of leaf masks. When men are absent on extended hunting forays, women perform particular songs and dances asking not only that the men come back with large amounts of game but also explicitly asking for the resumption of sexual relations.

The value the Aka place on human fertility and human life in general is even more apparent in the Mokondi ceremony, a large festival devoted to Ezengi. During Mokondi, a figure wearing a raffia-cloth mask dances inside a throng of people who are segregated by sex into concentric circles. The ceremony is performed every night for an entire month to mark the settlement of a new camp after the death of a community member. It is intended to restore the welfare of the community by obtaining the benevolence and protection of the supreme being.

The last salient Aka ritual is connected with honey gathering. Mobandi, an annual rite linked to the flowering of a particular tree, is a collective purification ritual that involves flagellation; by gently beating their bodies with leafy boughs, the Aka hope to expel malign forces (kose ) from the community. Moreover, as honey stands as a sexual symbol for the Aka, the Mobandi ritual corresponds to the periodic regeneration of the world.

Baka Pygmies

Certain religious conceptions held by the Baka are similar to those of the Aka. Several terms are also employed by both groups but are used to designate different aspects of their religious life. According to Baka cosmology, the god Komba created the world and all its creatures. He is part of a divine family that includes his sisters, a culture hero named Waito, and various offspring. In this complicated mythology, all of these creatures function as a many-faceted hermaphroditic entity that is self-engendering and productive of all humanity, including Pygmies as well as tall Africans.

Waito, who stole from Komba such goods as game and fire for the benefit of humanity, is the figure who introduced women and sexuality into human culture. Komba, on the other hand, brought death into the world. While Komba remains distant in the sky, it is his spirit, Ezengi, who gives Baka youths knowledge of the world and of social existence during initiation ceremonies. Ezengi protects humans and rules over their death and rebirth as ghosts in the forest. Communication with either the forest god Ezengi or the ghosts is the concern of a specialist (the diviner-healer), or of initiated adult males during the collective dances, and is achieved by means of songs, charms, offerings, or at times, with a fire.

The function of ritual among the Baka is akin to that of the Aka: prediction of the future, propitiation of the spirits so as to ensure a successful hunt, restoration of normal life after times of trouble, and procurement of Ezengi's continued benevolence toward the community. Before beginning on a spear hunt for large game, a divination session will be performed, followed by a women's ritual that includes yodeling and dances to entice the animals. A death requires two ceremonies. The night the death occurs, a masked spirit (symbol of life against death) performs a dance, insulting the audience and making obscene jokes. Following the burial, the deceased soul dances in the camp but is then chased off with firebrands and driven into the forest. Once the campsite is deserted, a large festival begins in order to restore the normal existence of the community. At this point, Ezengi appears in the form of a raffia mask. Because women are not allowed to participate, each family is represented in the ritual by an adult male. The ceremony, involving a large number of people, is also the culmination of the initiation of pubescent boys that generally lasts for several weeks. Through such pervasive participation, this ritual, which is marked by the collective singing of polyphonic songs, provides an occasion to reaffirm group unity after a serious crisis.

Mbuti Pygmies

The Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri rain forest are the most well known of the various Pygmy ethnic groups. According to Paul Schebesta, the Mbuti believe that God created the universe (that is, the forest) and all its creatures and forces. God then retired into the sky, ending his participation in earthly affairs. The first human, a culture hero named Tore, became god of the forest; he gave the Mbuti both fire and death and is seen as the source of game, honey, and protection. Essentially a benevolent god, Tore is thought to be particularly offended by evil. According to this version of the story, both humans and animals are endowed with vital forces (megbe ). Furthermore, it is believed that the shadow of a deceased human becomes a forest spirit, part of an invisible people who mediate between humans and the forest god Tore.

Colin Turnbull (1965) disagrees with this account of Mbuti cosmology. According to him, there is no creator god; instead, the Mbuti worship God as a living benevolent being personified by the forest. To them, God is the forest. Turnbull also diverges from Schebesta's account of the mediating forest spirits, for he views the Mbuti as a practical people who have a direct relationship with the forest as sacred being.

The Mbuti Pygmies lack both ritual specialists and divination practices. Communication with the forest is achieved through fire and smoke, offerings, whistles, wooden trumpets, and polyphonic songs. As with the Aka and the Baka, rituals surround hunting, honey gathering, food shortages, puberty, and death.

The onset of puberty in women is celebrated by an initiation festival known as Elima. At the time of the first menstruation, a girl goes into seclusion together with all her young friends. Staying in the Elima hut for several weeks, the girls receive instruction concerning motherhood and various ritual responsibilities from a respected older female relative. They are also taught how to sing the songs of adult women. Elima also functions as a means for choosing a mate.

Although Elima functions as an initiation into adult life for both girls and boys, there is a separate initiation rite, known as Nkumbi, exclusively for males. During Nkumbi, the Mbuti boys are circumcised together with the young males of the neighboring peoples who live in fixed agricultural settlements outside the forest. Nkumbi is primarily a way for the Mbuti boys to gain status in village society, but it also works to cement ties between the Mbuti and their village neighbors.

The first killing of game marks a further initiation rite for young Mbuti men. Until he has accomplished this, a young man is not allowed to participate in the most important Mbuti ritual, Molimo, which takes place after a crisis in the community (usually a death) and lasts for an entire month. The Mbuti believe that because God is benevolent, death or similiar misfortunes cannot occur unless the forest has fallen asleep. Hence, the purpose of the Molimo is to wake up the forest with songs and to thereby restore the normal life of the community. During this rite God sings through a wooden trumpet with the whole community. The Molimo fire is kindled each day by taking embers from the hearth of each family, emphasizing the collective nature of the celebration. As a reaction to crisis and a means of seeking the regeneration of the world through polyphonic song, Molimo represents a perfect form of communication with the spiritual world.

See Also

Schmidt, Wilhelm.


On the Aka, the basic reference is the Encyclopédie des Pygmées Aka: Techniques, langage et société des chasseurs-cueilleurs de la forêt centrafricaine, edited by Serge Bahuchet and Jacqueline M. C. Thomas (Paris, 1981). Volume 1, Les Pygmées Aka (1983), and volume 2, Dictionnaire Aka-Français (1981), of the projected fifteen volumes have already appeared. See also Bahuchet's Les Pygmées Aka et la forêt centrafricaine (Paris, 1985), which presents detailed chapters on the Aka worldview and Aka rituals. On the Baka, see Robert Brisson and Daniel Boursier's Petit dictionnaire Baka-français (Douala, Cameroon, 1979) and Brisson's Contes des Pygmées Baka du Sud-Cameroun, 4 vols. (Douala, Cameroon, 19811984). On the Mbuti, see Paul Schebesta's Die Bambuti-Pygmäen vom Ituri, vol. 3, Die Religion (Brussels, Belgium, 1938), and his Les Pygmées du Congo Belge (Brussels, Belgium, 1957); the documentation in these two works is rich but is notably difficult to use because data from various sources are mixed. Colin Turnbull's The Forest People: A Study of the Pygmies of the Congo (New York, 1961) is an intimate account of daily life and ritual among the Mbuti. Two other works by Turnbull deserve attention: The Mbuti Pygmies: An Ethnographic Survey (New York, 1965) and Wayward Servants: The Two Worlds of the African Pygmies (New York, 1965). The first is a valuable synthesis of previous work, including that of Schebesta, and the second, despite its materialistic emphasis, is a classic study of the Ituri peoples.

In the study of the history of religions, Wilhelm Schmidt's Die Stellung der Pygmäenvölker in der Entwicklungsgeschichte des Menschen (Stuttgart, Germany, 1910) remains useful. Although dated, Schmidt's work provides interesting insights into the evolutionary school of religious analysis.

For ritual music, the following recordings can be recommended: Simha Arom's Anthologie de la musique des Pygmées Aka (Paris, 1978), Simha Arom and Patrick Renaud's Baka Pygmy Music (Cameroon) (Paris, 1977), and Colin Turnbull and Francis S. Chapman's The Pygmies of the Ituri Forest (New York, 1958).

New Sources

Abega, Severin Cecile. Pygmess Baka: Le droit à la difference. Yaounde, Cameroon, 1998.

Bailey, Robert Converse. The Behavioral Ecology of Efe Pygmy Men in the Ituri Forest, Zaire. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1991.

Ballif, Noël. Les Pygmées de la grande forêt. Paris, 1992.

Biesbrouck, Karen, Stefan Elders, and Gerda Rossel. Central African Hunter-Gatherers in a Multidisciplinary Perspective: Challenging Elusiveness. Leiden, Netherlands, 1999.

Brisson, Robert. Mythologie des Pygmées Baka (Sud Cameroun): Mythologie et contes. Paris, 1999.

Duffy, Kevin. Children of the Forest. New York, 1984.

Hewlett, Barry S. Intimate Fathers: The Nature and Context of Aka Pygmy Paternal Infant Care. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1991.

Kent, Susan, ed. Cultural Diversity among Twentieth-Century Foragers: An African Perspective. New York, 1996.

Mark, Joan T. The King of the World in the Land of the Pygmies. Lincoln, Neb., 1995.

Meurant, Georges, and Robert Farris Thompson. Mbuti Design: Paintings by Pygmy Women of the Ituri Forest. New York, 1996.

Turnbull, Colin M. The Mbuti Pygmies: Change and Adaptation. New York, 1983.

Serge Bahuchet (1987)

Jacqueline M. C. Thomas (1987)

Revised Bibliography