Efe and Mbuti

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Efe and Mbuti

PRONUNCIATION: AY-fay and mm-BOO-tee
LOCATION: Ituri forest in northeast Democratic Republic of the Congo (former Zaire)
POPULATION: Approximately 35,000
LANGUAGE: Bambuti languages
RELIGION: Traditional tribal beliefs


Researchers believe that hunters and gatherers have lived in the rainforests of central Africa for more than 6,000 years. Because of their relative isolation, misconceptions about them abound. Their small stature has led to the use of the term “pygmy,” and in some instances they are mistakenly referred to as dwarfs. Indeed, some of their African neighbors thought of them (and still do) as less than human.

The name pygmy itself inadequately describes these peoples, as it emphasizes physical size to the detriment of other characteristics. Pygmies are indeed short of stature: men are about four and half feet tall and women are about an inch shorter. More importantly, however, pygmies are forest dwellers who share cultural traits with similar peoples living in the forests of equatorial Africa. They have a unique culture, set of values, and lifestyle that are all undergoing great change. Their adaptation to change may teach other cultures how to cope with radical disruptions to their societies.

In many respects, pygmies represent the antithesis of modernity. Just 30 years ago they possessed only the bare essentials for their livelihoods. They did not seek to create surpluses in goods, and they had no use for money. Government was simple: decisions for a particular band were made by common consent, and dissenters were free to leave and join another community if they wished. The forest, their “mother,” had the capacity to supply their every need.

Traditional values of interdependence and sociality are being replaced by independence and individuality. Today, under environmental challenges and pressures to acculturate, pygmy society is changing rapidly. Political rebellions in the Ituri area following Congolese independence in 1960 hastened some of these changes. But efforts by former President Mobutu's government to remove pygmies from their forest habitat and to assimilate them into Congolese society wreaked the greatest physical and social havoc on them. The experiment with “emancipation” nearly drove them to extinction and had to be called off.

Since 1997, pygmy survival has been threatened further by wars, which have drawn as many as eight countries into conflict in Eastern Congo. Of the more than five million people that have died of war-related and humanitarian causes in the east, thousands have been pygmies. They have been the primary victims of the scramble for ‘conflict' and ‘blood' diamonds, gold, and other resources. By 2008, peace in the forested region was not yet guaranteed, as major armed groups had yet to disarm.

In spite of the political and natural threats to their survival, pygmies have proven resilient to adversity. They currently engage in more sustained and deeper contacts than before with African village communities on the fringes of the forest. A long-time student of the Mbuti pygmies, Colin Turnbull, believes that should the equatorial forest be destroyed, the pygmy devotion to “forestness” will help them adapt “and find a new source of sanctity in the here and now.” Turnbull feels that by studying the pygmies, Western populations can learn to re-think what is “backward” and what is “advanced.” Seeing how the pygmies adapt to change may help us reassess our own social contexts.


Pygmy peoples live in scattered groups throughout the equatorial band of Africa, primarily in an area within five degrees on either side of the equator. However, pygmy units range as far north and west as Benin and as far east as the Great Lakes of the Rift Valley. This discussion focuses on the groups of the Ituri forest in northeast Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), including the Efe and their close relations to the south. Although they differ by language and hunting strategies, they share a core culture. Collectively, the Efe and three other groups of the Ituri are called the Bambuti. While there are as many as 35,000 Bambuti, researchers estimate that no more than 20,000 pure-blooded Bambuti remain in the world.

The Bambuti live within a 130,000-sq-km (50,000-sq-mi) tract of the huge 648,000-sq-km (250,000-sq-mi) Ituri forest. The Ituri lies on the equator in the northeastern part of the Congo River basin, between 0° to 3°n, and 27° to 30°e. Elevations in this area range from 700 to 1,000 m (2,300 to 3,300 ft). The terrain is rolling, covered by primary rainforest. Trees reach heights of 30–60 m (100–200 ft) before their canopies spread out, allowing only filtered sunlight to reach the understory below. In areas where the forest has been cleared and allowed to grow back, thick tangled underbrush impedes movement. Rain falls nearly every afternoon except during the dry season of January and February. Many small streams only a few miles apart run continuously, and several large, fast rivers intersect the forest. Temperatures are fairly constant, ranging from 20°C (70°F) at night to highs of 27°C (80°F) during the day, unless the sky is overcast.

The pygmy populations of the Ituri occupy specific territories within the forest, and they generally do not hunt or gather on another's territory. Each unit also trades with various African ethnic groups (referred to as “Negroes” or “villagers”) living on the fringes of the forest. Although not the most numerous, the Efe occupy the largest territory across the northern and eastern parts of the Ituri. Their trading partners are the Sudanic-speaking Mamvu and Walese Africans. Pygmies trade forest products such as honey, meat, rattan, and thatch leaves in exchange for the Walese's plantains (see Interpersonal Relations ).


Sustained contact with African groups over long periods has all but led to the extinction of Bambuti languages. Nevertheless, researchers distinguish three linguistic groups that speak dialects of three major African languages. Some tonal patterns remain as well. Efe pygmies have retained their language to a recognizable extent.


Pygmies anthropomorphize animals, meaning that they give forest animals attributes of people. Certain animals represent clans, sexes, and individuals and they become very real people. Both pygmies and their village hosts have invented stories about these animals, and they assign special attributes to Mr. Turtle, Mr. Gray Antelope, or Mr. Chimpanzee. For example, Mr. Turtle is a wise and tricky individual, whereas the smallest antelope is king of the beasts. Animal stories thus serve to teach about human behavior and relationships.


Religion in pygmy life increasingly reflects borrowings from neighboring African groups. The Bambuti attribute the wealth and goodness of the forest to Muungu, a high deity, the greatest of forest gods, who supplies all of their needs. The forest is like a mother and father to them, providing food, clothing, shelter, warmth, and affection. Pygmies believe in totemic spirits (sitana), who live in rock piles, hollow trees, and holes in the ground, and they stay clear of these places if possible. They also believe in a water animal called nyama ya mai in Swahili, who is responsible for any serious water mishaps. If someone drowns or a canoe tips over, they will say the water animal did it. If sickness strikes that cannot be cured by pygmy remedies, pygmies will seek treatment from a village witch doctor to suck out “disease objects” with herbs or by cupping with animal horns.

Pygmies also practice certain magical rituals called anjo to help control the weather and enhance hunting. Their main concern is to delay rain and storms until the hunt is over. For example, the Efe may burn leaves of the wild pepper plant to stop storms. Other weather superstitions have to do with picking certain flowers or dropping stones into streams, which they see as causes of rain. Before hunting, Bambuti groups light fires in the morning during hunting season to “warm the forest” for good luck. Efe women sometimes light smoky fires at mid-day to keep the weather clear for hunting. Mbuti children light smoky fires to purify the hunters who will cause bloodshed in the sacred forest. Pygmies tie the leaves of the species that their prey enjoys on their bows, and they sometimes burn these leaves and rub the ashes on their bodies. When dividing the catch, the elder cuts a small piece off of the heart of an animal and tosses it into the forest for good luck.

The most important ritual ceremony is the molimo, which is held whenever hunting becomes unproductive or a special problem demands resolution within the band. Traditionally, this ritual was very secret and kept hidden from women and children, although more recently the molimo has been performed in villages. The ceremony begins with a long, mournful cry from the forest, goes to a birdcall, then to a growl, and back to a birdcall again. The men at the campfire answer the call, which is made with a wooden trumpet, but represents the voice of the forest. After the main ceremony is over, the women and children join the men, circling the campfire in one direction, while the men circle in the other. The ceremony may last several days, until it is felt that the molimo has answered their request.


Holidays hold little meaning for the Bambuti other than as opportunities for parties. The end of Nkumbi, the honey feast dance, and other ceremonial activities may be thought of as traditional pygmy holidays (seeRites of Passage andCultural Heritage ).


The Bambuti have gradually been assimilating village rituals, but birth in pygmy society is treated without any ritual. In former times, girls went through initiation, the elima, but this practice has fallen away. Boys increasingly attend a village circumcision school (nkumbi), which is held every three or four years depending on the number of boys between the ages of 9 and 14 who are ready for circumcision. The boys leave their parents for several months and live in close association with the village boys, who are their hosts. They learn the secrets and are circumcised together. At the end of the ceremonies, their parents come to dance and get drunk with the village boys' parents. Thus, each group of boys belongs to an age-grade, much as American high school students identify with their graduating class or college students identify with a fraternity. When strangers meet, they ask, “What class do you belong to?” Because each class acquires a name from a significant event during its initiation, they reply, “I'm a hurricane,” or “I'm a great army worm,” or something similar. These ceremonies bond boys of the same age together and also cement relationships between villagers and pygmies.

Marriage takes place soon after puberty, leaving little time for courtship. Nevertheless, at puberty, youthful chivalry at the hunt gets publicized, and much flirtation back in the camps occurs. Inter-band visits offer occasions for youth to get acquainted and to engage in marital prospecting.

When a Mbuti dies, members of the deceased's family mourn by covering themselves with white clay. The women organize weeping and wailing sessions, which last for several days. Funerals also offer occasions for wine drinking. Once a wake is over, the band usually moves camp.


Pygmies place great importance on respect for each other, and children learn this early. In principle, children of the same age group remain on equal footing throughout their lives and call each other apua'i. Their games teach them to be social, interdependent, and synergistic in problem-solving. Evening campfires offer adults daily opportunities to discuss and resolve disputes. Anyone who speaks from the center of the camp must be listened to. Members of a band gang up on wayward members to enforce rules and maintain harmony in the group. Individuals and families visit other pygmy camps for months at a time to socialize with family members and to prospect for marriage. These visits break up the monotony of daily life.

Relations between the Bambuti and villagers are also very important. Researchers have disagreed on whether this relationship is essentially dependent, independent, or interdependent. The first view sees pygmies as vassals of the villager overlords. The second sees them as fully independent if they so choose because the forest supplies them with everything they need. Contact with villagers offers an agreeable change of pace, but is voluntary and temporary. The third view finds a mutual interdependence between pygmies and villagers with neither side holding an advantage. Each has something the other wants and needs.

Villager-Pygmy relationships are based on the claim of villages to about 100 square miles of forest. Villagers thus act as hosts to pygmy families living within their territory. Each supplies the other with necessities the other is unable to get on his own. For the pygmy in pre-colonial days, this included scouting in the forest for enemies of a village. A visitor to a village will often see bunches of plantains lying on the ground waiting to be picked up by pygmies at their convenience. The relationship is interfamilial and is inherited on both sides from father to son. If a pygmy leaves a villager to ally with someone else, it is regarded as “divorce.” In former times, inter-village warfare sometimes erupted when villagers attempted to woo pygmies away from each other.


Living conditions have deteriorated dramatically since 1998 due to the fighting. Traditionally, material comfort, wealth, and security were the least of the pygmies' concerns. They trusted the forest to provide their needs, which, by most standards, were extremely minimal. The Bambuti needed spears, bows and arrows, and nets for hunting; pots to cook in; huts to sleep under; and loin cloths to wear. They traded forest products to villagers for items difficult to obtain such as salt, knives, and metal tips for their weapons. However, at the dawn of the 21st century, the forest people were very much engaged in a struggle for survival.

Pygmy settlements are rustic, temporary camps situated within 50 yards of a stream suitable for drinking. Their igloo-shaped huts have open doors. Huts are made of bent saplings that form a frame onto which large mongongo leaves are tied. Mats or leaves generally serve as beds and cooking is done on open fires near the huts. People simply relieve themselves in the forest near the camp.

After one to three months in one place, animals, fruit, and honey become scarce, and the stench of refuse and human waste becomes unbearable. The community packs up and moves to another site, but never to an abandoned camp site. The women pack their pots, axes, and whatever they own into baskets, which they strap to their backs; babies travel on top of the packs. The men carry their weapons, elephant spears, and bows and arrows.

From April to June, if the rainy season is particularly severe, preventing hunting, widespread hunger may sometimes occur, as it did in 1980. People's resistance to infectious diseases lowers, and conflicts over food are more frequent. When pygmies fall ill, they treat themselves with medicinal herbs and bark. They give each other enemas for diarrhea and intestinal disorders, which are frequent. Dysentery is common; pneumonia is less common, but deadly. Pygmies are quite resistant to disease overall, and the most frequent cause of premature death is falling from trees or being hit by a falling tree limb during a storm. Pygmies go everywhere on foot and cover great distances in little time. Their size allows them to pass under low limbs and tangles. Villagers and other outsiders seem very clumsy in the forest by comparison. The Bambuti use their hands to grasp branches and remove fallen clutter and tangles from trails as they go, tossing dead wood into the nearby understory. The noise created by this tactic also serves to mislead and distract game during a hunt.

National Park set-asides like that of Kahuzi-Biega in South Kivu pose new threats to way of life. Bambuti increasingly live near or alongside a forest area they can no longer access because it has been designated as a protected area or a national park. In one case, Pygmies confined to living on an island in miserable circumstances have complained that they are dying of hunger while they are not allowed to fish, which is one of their traditional sources of food.


Family life among the Bambuti is much different from that in the West. The Bambuti learn the value of interdependence and sociality as children. Children call all women in the camp Ema (mother) because they are all mothers to pygmy children. Nursing goes on long after a child can walk and talk, and mothers often swap and adopt children of their sisters and close friends.

Efe pygmies live in small camps of fewer than 50 residents. Mbuti pygmy camps usually have two to three times as many people because net-hunting requires communal participation. Individual households are nuclear families (endu) consisting of a husband, a wife, and their children. Families are patrilineal, meaning that they trace their lineage through the male line to a common male ancestor. Pygmies are exogamous and may not marry anyone to whom they know they are related.

Marriages are exchanges between families. Mutual affection and chivalry can play a part, but generally a man offers a sister, niece, or cousin to his wife's brother or male relative. Divorce is common, and if a marriage does not last, this often also causes the divorce of the couple who arranged the marriage. A woman often initiates divorce simply by packing her things (including small children) and moving back to her family's camp. If she has boys, they return to their father when they are old enough to hunt. The typical marriage is monogamous because pygmy women are scarce.


Villagers like to joke that when they first encountered pygmies, the pygmies wore no clothes at all. Pygmies deny this and insist that they have always worn loin cloths. Traditional cloth is made from the inner bark of vines. Men generally process it, which involves pounding, wetting, and working it until it is soft and pliable. Acculturation has increased the use of cotton fabrics in pygmy dress. Used clothing has also become more common. The Bambuti enhance their appearance by scarification (scarring) on the face. Some women also wear bead necklaces. Both men and women improve their appearance by filing their teeth to a point.


The Efe diet is seasonal depending on the rains. From late June to mid-September, honey, fruits, and nuts are most abundant in the forest. At this time, pygmies move their camps into the forest, but they return to the villages often to trade for peanuts, plantains, and other foods. By late September, rivers have overflowed, and forest conditions are extremely wet for hunting. The Efe move back to the edge of the forest, where the women help with village gardens while the men hunt. During the dry months up to February, men spend time helping villagers clear garden areas, while women assist with rice harvesting. In February and March, the forest has dried sufficiently to permit good hunting conditions. The Efe move back into the forest and then emerge again in April or May to forage in abandoned gardens for cassava and sweet potato tubers. Pygmies feel obliged to hand over all honey and elephant meat to their hosts, but they will eat all they can first. They do not store or preserve game.

Pygmies typically eat two to three meals a day, one in the morning before the hunt, possibly one at noon, and one in the late afternoon after the hunt. They enjoy many forest delicacies, ranging from pangolins (an armadillo-like animal) to reptiles and insects. They have a favorite recipe for fried caterpillars. They wrap a caterpillar in a piece of leaf and place it next to the fire. Toasting it as one would a marshmallow, it is then dropped into a pot of boiling palm oil and cooked. When finished, the caterpillars look something like fried shrimp.

Food taboos are associated with clan, sex, or individuals. Pygmy clans identify with animals that performed a kind deed or may have helped an ancestor through a crisis. They make these animals their totems and are not allowed to hunt, eat, or even be around them. If they encounter one in the forest, they will run the other way. For men, the taboo will usually be a species of a hunted animal such as an antelope or monkey; for women, the totem is usually a slow-moving animal such as a porcupine or snake. Women and children may eat frogs and toads, but men abstain from these. Chimpanzees and leopards are rarely hunted and eaten, and they may be totems for some clans. The totems are not their ancestors, but they do represent very real people. To violate the taboo would bring sickness, misfortune, and even death. To respect it binds the clan members sharing the totem, even though they may be separated by great distances.


The Bambuti have evaded formal education. In camp, children learn basic skills, such as tree-climbing, before they walk. Boys practice shooting bows and arrows at the age of three. As they grow older, boys accompany men on the hunt, while girls learn to gather food, cook, and make huts. This basic education is complete by the age of six or seven.


The Bambuti have not developed a written literature and do not create graphic arts. Perhaps their most important cultural legacy is their sense of family, their community reliance, and their belief in the forest. Some pygmies are accomplished storytellers and tell folktales about forest spirits and legends about ancestors. Pygmies enjoy singing and dancing, especially on moonlit nights. They stamp on the ground or on hollow logs and, if they can, they borrow drums from their villager hosts.

One of the gayest and happiest dances occurs during the honey feast. Pygmies celebrate the honey dance after days of feasting on honey. Women form an inner ring and circle around a bonfire, while men form an outer ring and circle in the opposite direction. The men pretend to seek honey and come near the women. The women play the role of bees, humming and droning. They pick up burning branches from the fire, with which they menace the men to remind them of the dangers of bee stings.


Formerly, pygmies worked just enough to supply their basic needs. Principally the men hunted and the women gathered. When they had surpluses, they traded them for articles and food from African villagers. The forest products they traded were generally meat, honey, fruits, and building materials. In exchange, they received plantains, yams, corn, cloth, and iron tools. Women also tended villager gardens and men occasionally helped villagers clear land. While the Bambuti continue to trade, today they are more concerned with having cash, so they seek surpluses in their hunting and have become more competitive with each other. The unfortunate reality, however, is that exposure to villagers has increased their visibility and therefore their vulnerability to exploitation by combatants, who rape the women and utilize the men as free labor.

Hunting and gathering still form the core of the Bambuti's livelihood in the forest. Mbuti hunting is a group affair done with nets. Each net is owned by one to four men, and a minimum of seven nets are required for a successful hunt. Women and children scream, shout, and beat bushes to frighten animals toward the nets, which are strung over bushes about four feet high. The animals become entangled in the nets behind which the men are hiding. Once netted, large game such as hogs, bushbucks, and an occasional okapi must be killed with spears. The Efe men often hunt alone either for monkeys with poison-tipped arrows or for duikers, small African antelope, by perching in fruiting trees. They obtain the poison from the juice of the kilabo plant. A mere scratch with this poison can cause death.


Forest people do not play sports in the Western sense. They do, however, learn basic skills through mock hunts and other games. For example, every camp has a designated play area for children next to streams (bopi) that is off limits to adults. Here children play games similar to sports that teach them about group dynamics and personal achievement. Of similar importance, the elders teach children the strategies and techniques of hunting by pretending to be animals and by showing children how to drive them into a piece of old net.

The adults also play a game (more ritual than sport) resembling our tug-of-war. The purpose is to remind the community that cooperation can solve conflicts between the sexes. The tug-of-war begins with all the men on one side and the women on the other. If the women begin to prevail, one of them leaves to help out the men and assumes a deep male voice to ridicule manhood. As the men begin to win, one of them joins the women and mocks them in high-pitched tones. The battle continues in this way until the participants have switched sides and have had an opportunity to both help and ridicule the opposition. Then both sides collapse, laughing over the point that neither side gains in beating the other.


The Ituri forest is one of the world's last refuges from cinemas, televisions, videos, IPODs and internet. The Bambuti relax after a day's hunt by sitting on home-made four-legged stools in front of their huts, talking and smoking. Conversation may be directed at everybody or may be between two people, but it is audible to all. People talk about what they did that day or what they are going to do the next. They may joke about someone's clumsiness, and they often get up in the night to urinate or smoke and continue their conversations. Pygmies also celebrate a good hunt, especially an elephant kill, with feasting and dancing. An elephant kill is an act of courage, and they know the meat and ivory will trade well.

When they move to village outskirts, pygmies socialize with villagers while bartering their game. On moonlit nights, they stay late to drink wine and dance. The pygmies put on outlandish performances to entertain villagers in exchange for beverages. A few elderly men stay behind in the camp to smoke hashish and stand guard against thieves.


Pygmies have little time and interest for crafts and hobbies. If they need a tool such as a mortar and pestle to prepare food or medicine, they often wheedle it from their villager hosts. Pygmies fashion their own nets from lianas (vines) and make belt pouches, baskets, and mats from grasses. They craft stools and chairs from sticks and branches.


Prior to independence, pygmies remained outside the mainstream of society and politics. An internal system of camp debate and consensus allowed every adult to express his or her opinion. No chief or formal council imposed rules. Instead, an informal oligarchy of leaders led decision-making and maintenance of law and order.

However, post-independence wars, nation-building, and national park set-asides have disrupted customary ways. Logging, illegal mining, road-building, and commerce have further eroded the isolation of the forest peoples. Indeed, the plunder and smuggling of coltan into Rwanda has wreaked havoc on the environment and has been the cause of many pygmy deaths in Ituri. Ironically, coltan is a natural resource for chips used in cell phones, computers and other electronics. Pygmy values, beliefs, and way of life are increasingly jeopardized by uncontrolled illegal exploitation of resources for which they have no use.

Even more devastating to the pygmies is the presence of various armed groups all of which have exploited the forest people as cheap (or free) labor, raped pygmy women, and retaliated against pygmy communities for allegedly cooperating with enemy groups. The armies and militias have used them as hunters and guides for their special knowledge of forest trails. In addition to rape, one human rights group found evidence of mass killings and cannibalism by armed combatants against the forest people. Sexual exploitation has resulted in a high rate of gonorrhea among Bambuti, which researchers believe accounts for a low birth rate among pygmy women.


Pygmy society is relatively egalitarian for its lack of the typical gender issues stemming from societal discrimination, marginalization of girls, unfair inheritance laws, disputed abortion rights, and workplace inequality. The critical role women play in survival no doubt accounts for this consideration. However, one of the forest people's key gender problems is inter-clan disputes over women and children. Pygmies lose about 14% of their women to marriage with villagers. Reciprocal marriage exchanges are therefore difficult to fulfill because families often have uneven numbers of females. Patricians and younger males harass, capture, and come into armed conflict with each other over “sister exchange.” Thus, many males must live well past puberty while waiting for a wife. These bachelors can cause serious problems when they tryst with married women or with girls in their endogamous clan.


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Bailey, Robert C. and N. R. Peacock. “Efe Pygmies of Northeast Zaire: Subsistence Strategies in the Ituri Forest.” In Mary H. Pulford, ed., Peoples of the Ituri. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1993..

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———. The Mbuti Pygmies: Change and Adaptation. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983.

—by R. Groelsema