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Aka

Aka

PRONUNCIATION: AH-kah

ALTERNATE NAMES: Pygmies; tropical forest foragers; Biaka; Bayaka; Bambenzele

LOCATION: Northern Congo and southern Central African Republic

POPULATION: 30,000

LANGUAGE: Diaka; Bantu (Oubanguian); Sango

RELIGION: Indigenous beliefs

1 INTRODUCTION

In the United States, the Aka are better known as "pygmies." The term "pygmy" refers to a person of short stature (typically under five feet tall) who hunts and gathers and has a strong identity with the tropical forest. It is generally a disrespectful term that emphasizes their physical characteristics. Anthropologists suggest replacing the term temporarily with "tropical forest forager."

The main reason the Aka are short seems to be because of the absence of a dramatic growth spurt during adolescence. This is due to a lack of receptors for a particular growth hormone (IGF-I). Most mammals living in tropical forests are shorter than their savanna (grassland) relatives. This suggests that smaller size may be adaptive to the humid tropical forest.

The Aka are just one of at least ten ethnically and linguistically distinct groups of tropical forest foragers in Central Africa. (Some of these groups are the Aka, Baka, Efe, and Mbuti.) Tropical forest foragers have been living in the tropical forests for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. (Some anthropologists believe they have lived in these rainforests for more than six thousand years.) Consequently, the Aka are the "first citizens" of the Congo and Central African Republic, much like Native Americans are the first citizens of the United States.

The farming peoples of Central Africa moved into the tropical forest area about two thousand years ago and slowly established regular trading relationships with tropical forest foragers. Today, Aka-farmer relations are very complex. They attend each other's funerals, births, and marriages, and they have regular economic exchanges. The farmers see themselves as superior to Aka and talk about "their" Aka. Even though Aka-farmer trading relationships may have lasted for generations, Aka can (and do) leave the relationship any time they feel a "patron" (farmer) is not treating them well.

2 LOCATION

About 30,000 Aka live in the tropical forests of northern Congo and southern Central African Republic. Most Aka live in remote areas of the tropical forest where the population density is less than one person per square mile. Aka women average six live births during their lifetime. One-fifth of Aka children do not live to their first birthday, and close to half die before they reach age fifteen. Infectious and parasitic diseases are the most common causes of death. Due to the high child mortality (death) rate, average life expectancy at birth is only thirty-two years of age. However, if a young person lives to age fifteen, he or she will probably live to age fifty-five or older.

3 LANGUAGE

The Aka speak a Bantu language called Diaka, which is characterized by three tones. The language often sounds musical. Different tones can dramatically change the meaning of a word (for example, mbongo can mean cup, a type of bee, or panther).

Most Aka speak at least two other languageseither the Bantu or Oubanguian language of their village trading partners, and some Sango, the national language in the Central African Republic.

Aka are given personal names a week or so after birth. Personal names have meanings attached to themfor example, Bimba (flea), Madjembe (intestinal worms), Ngunda Oti (without hospitality). In the last case, a boy's mother gave him the name because, at the time of his birth, the boy's father's family did not provide her with much food. Sometimes Aka simply like the sounds of new words and use them as names.

4 FOLKLORE

Aka say that long ago they lived in villages and farmed. However, one day a woman heard bees in the sky and a group of people decided to go into the forest to see where the bees were going. They found the bees' hive and loved the honey. Finding plenty of food in the forest, they decided to stay. This is how Aka describe the origin of their life in the forest.

5 RELIGION

The Aka occupy a large territory, and religious beliefs vary by area. Some Aka believe in bembe, a creator of all living things, but those who believe in bembe indicate that he/she retired soon after creation. Djengi is the most consistently mentioned and is considered to be a powerful and generally helpful forest spirit. Communication with djengi takes place through a traditional healer (or tuma) who has the ability to translate the supernatural language.

Most Aka camps have a traditional healer (nganga). Ngangas cure all forms of illness, see into the future to help people make decisions, and see game animals deep in the forest while on the hunt. Ngangas acquire their knowledge through training and initiation.

Aka also believe that family members do not entirely leave this earth after they die. An ancestor's spirit (edjo) stays around, visits the family, and often wants things. Many Aka believe in witchcraft, especially to explain unexpected adult deaths.

6 MAJOR HOLIDAYS

Aka do not use a numerical calendar, so they do not have specific dates that are celebrated each year. However, there are holidays in the sense that there are days off to relax. Such holidays occur after good hunts or when large game animals, such as an elephant or a wild pig, have been captured. Holidays also occur during the honey, caterpillar, and termite seasons.

7 RITES OF PASSAGE

Aka do not have much in the way of group ritual activities. At birth, parents place protective cords made from forest vines around a baby's neck, wrists, and ankles. These are to protect the baby from bad spirits and help connect him or her to the forest. At five or six years of age, boys are circumcised in a very informal and supportive manner.

During the teenage years, boys and girls get each of their top four incisor (front) teeth filed to a point. Aka believe that pointed teeth make one look more handsome or beautiful. Some Aka, primarily teenage girls, get the bottom four incisors pointed as well. Teenagers bring in new fads from other areas. Current fads include coloring teeth with a purple dye from a forest vine, piercing the nasal septum with a small twig (girls only), and shaving stripes into one's eyebrows.

The only large, group-level ritual occurs at death, when relatives travel long distances and sing and dance for days.

8 RELATIONSHIPS

Aka are very warm and hospitable. Relationships between men and women are extremely egalitarian. Men and women contribute equally to a household's diet, either a husband or wife can initiate divorce, and violence against women is very rare. No cases of rape have been reported.

The Aka are fiercely egalitarian and independent. No individual has the right to force or order another individual to perform an activity against his or her will. Aka have a number of informal methods for maintaining their egalitarianism. First, they practice "prestige avoidance"; no one draws attention to his or her own abilities. Individuals play down their achievements. If a man kills an elephant, he says someone else did all the work and talks about the small size of the elephant. Second, Aka practice rough joking with those who start to accumulate more than they need, do not share, or who act self-important. Third, Aka practice "demand sharing." This means that everyone shares whatever he or she has if someone else asks for it. For example, if someone were asked for the shirt he or she was wearing, the person would give it up, saying he or she really did not need it. This way most material items circulate around the camp.

9 LIVING CONDITIONS

Aka camps consist of twenty-five to thirty-five people living in five to seven dome-shaped houses. Houses are close to each other, and together occupy an area the size of a large living room. Each family has their own house, and everyone in that house sleeps together in the same bed. The house is big enough for one bed and a campfire for warmth during the night. The two or three adolescent boys in the camp share one house (the bachelor pad). Teenage girls each make their own small house. Houses are constructed from saplings and large leaves. Beds are made from logs, animal skins, or leaves.

10 FAMILY LIFE

Aka children grow up in an environment of trust, love, and indulgence. Although the mother is the primary caregiver, Aka fathers provide more care to young children than fathers in many other societies. A typical Aka childhood is free of negative forces and violence. If a child hits another child, the parent will simply move the child to another area. Corporal (physical) punishment of a child who misbehaves seldom occurs. In fact, if a parent hits a child, it is reason enough for the other parent to ask for a divorce.

During the teenage years, same-sex friends are inseparable and go everywhere together. Teenagers often travel to visit relatives and explore territories other than their own, so they may be absent from the camp for long periods. The teenage years are a time of social and sexual exploration.

First marriages occurs between seventeen and twenty-one years of age. Once a man moves his traps and spear into the house of a woman, the two are considered married; there is no formal marriage ceremony. About 25 percent of marriages end in divorce. Divorce takes place by one partner simply moving out of the house. If divorce occurs, children go with the parent they prefer.

11 CLOTHING

The temperature never drops below 21°c (70°f) during the day. Men and women wear loincloths made of commercial fabric obtained in trade with villagers. When Aka visit the village, they put on any Western or "villager" clothes they might have: men wear T-shirts and shorts, and women wear a cloth that they wrap around their waist.

12 FOOD

The Aka know more about the tropical forest than do many botanists and zoologists. They know hundreds of forest plants and animals. However, they live primarily on sixty-three plant species, twenty insect species, honey from eight species of bees, and twenty-eight species of game animals. The Aka collect roots from six species of plants, leaves from eleven species, nuts from seventeen species, and fruits from seventeen species. They collect twelve species of mushrooms, four types of termites, crickets, three types of grubs, and twelve species of caterpillars. The Aka hunt with spears for seven species of large game (primarily hog and elephant), with nets for six species of antelope, with crossbows for eight species of monkeys, and with small snare and net traps for seven species of rat, mongoose, and porcupine.

Although there is enormous diversity in the Aka diet, their favorite game animal by far is porcupine. Honey is another favorite foodthe "candy" of the forest. Caterpillars may be roasted, boiled, or fried and taste like french fries.

13 EDUCATION

Aka do not usually attend formal schools, but they begin learning about hunting and gathering when they are infants. Parents teach babies how to use small, pointed digging sticks, throw small spears, use miniature axes with sharp metal blades, and carry small baskets even before they learn to walk. One-and two-year-olds use knives, axes, and digging sticks. They build play houses and imitate the dances and songs of adult life. By three or four years of age, children can cook themselves a meal on a fire. By age ten, Aka children can live alone in the forest if necessary. By that age they can also identify hundreds of plants and animals and they know all the important survival skills, with the exception of elephant hunting. Aka do not read or write, but they are very interested in acquiring these skills.

14 CULTURAL HERITAGE

The Aka have a reputation as being the best dancers in the Congo and Central African Republic. They are frequently invited to dance at festivals. Aka music is unique; it has yodeling, hocketing (tossing back and forth short notes in quick succession), and polyphonic harmonies.

15 EMPLOYMENT

The Aka are one of the last groups of people on earth to spend most of their days hunting and gathering. The tropical forest is not known for its abundance of wild edible foods. However, it is a land of plenty for the Aka, who have extensive knowledge of the forest. Aka actually work fewer hours per week than do middle-class Americans.

Net hunting is the most important hunting technique. It is unique among hunting techniques in that it focuses on making noise rather than stalking and being quiet. The hunt takes place at night. Families connect long nets to form a semicircle or circle. Men stand in the center of the circle and make noise to wake up and scare antelopes. Women stand by the nets, and tackle and kill antelope caught in the net. Game animals are shared with everyone in camp.

16 SPORTS

Forest people do not play sports in the Western sense. They do, however, learn basic skills through mock hunts and other games. Children play games similar to sports that teach them about group dynamics and personal achievement.

The adults also play a game (more ritual than sport) resembling 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 win, one of them leaves to help out the men and uses a deep male voice to make fun of 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 make fun of the opposition. Then both sides collapse, laughing over the point that neither side gains in beating the other.

17 RECREATION

Aka do not have televisions, radios, books, or electricity. After dark, they sit around fires to socialize, gossip, tell stories (often about gorillas or chimps having affairs with humans), and dance and sing. Dances usually occur about twice a week, but they happen every night during caterpillar season or when hunting is especially good.

18 CRAFTS AND HOBBIES

Aka do not have paper and pencils. Their art often takes the form of body modificationspainting, scarification (decorative scarring), haircuts, and so on. The dark juice from a fruit is used to draw designs on the face and the body that represent the sounds and sights of the forest. Scarification often takes place before a dance. Teenagers get together and cut various designs into their bodies, often around the navel. Aka use razor blades traded from villagers to cut their hair and shave their heads into some very original designstriangles, lightning bolts, caterpillars, and so on.

19 SOCIAL PROBLEMS

The Aka are being affected by the global economy in several ways. European logging companies are building roads and mills to extract mahogany and other hardwood trees (most caterpillars come from these trees). Europeans and Africans are going deeper into the forest to dig for gold and diamonds. Western conservation groups are trying to establish national parks and reserves to save tropical forests, but this means that Aka often lose their lands. In addition, relations are breaking down between the Aka and farmers who have traditionally been their trading partners. The Aka are exploited by both African farmers and European investors. Aka are quiet and self-assured, and they often respond to outside pressures by fleeing deeper into the forest. Aka are not politically organized, nor do they have the literacy skills to try to eliminate these threats to their existence.

20 BIBLIOGRAPHY

Cavalli-Sforza, Luigi Luca, ed. African Pygmies. Orlando, Fla.: Academic Press, 1986

Hewlett, Barry S. "Cultural diversity among African pygmies." In: Cultural Diversity Among Twentieth-Century Foragers. Susan Kent, ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Hewlett, Barry S. Intimate Fathers: The Nature and Context of Paternal-lnfant Care Among Aka Pygmies. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991.

Mark, Joan T. The King of the World in the Land of the Pygmies. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

WEBSITES

World Travel Guide. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/cg/gen.html, 1998.

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aka

aka • abbr. also known as: John Merrick, aka the Elephant Man.

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aka

akaaffray, agley, aka, allay, Angers, A-OK, appellation contrôlée, array, assay, astray, au fait, auto-da-fé, away, aweigh, aye, bay, belay, betray, bey, Bombay, Bordet, boulevardier, bouquet, brae, bray, café au lait, Carné, cassoulet, Cathay, chassé, chevet, chez, chiné, clay, convey, Cray, crème brûlée, crudités, cuvée, cy-pres, day, decay, deejay, dégagé, distinguée, downplay, dray, Dufay, Dushanbe, eh, embay, engagé, essay, everyday, faraway, fay, fey, flay, fray, Frey, fromage frais, gainsay, gay, Gaye, Genet, gilet, glissé, gray, grey, halfway, hay, heigh, hey, hooray, Hubei, Hué, hurray, inveigh, jay, jeunesse dorée, José, Kay, Kaye, Klee, Kray, Lae, lay, lei, Littré, Lough Neagh, lwei, Mae, maguey, Malay, Mallarmé, Mandalay, Marseilles, may, midday, midway, mislay, misplay, Monterrey, Na-Dene, nay, né, née, neigh, Ney, noway, obey, O'Dea, okay, olé, outlay, outplay, outstay, outweigh, oyez, part-way, pay, Pei, per se, pince-nez, play, portray, pray, prey, purvey, qua, Quai d'Orsay, Rae, rangé, ray, re, reflet, relevé, roman-à-clef, Santa Fé, say, sei, Shar Pei, shay, slay, sleigh, sley, spae, spay, Spey, splay, spray, stay, straightaway, straightway, strathspey, stray, Sui, survey, sway, Taipei, Tay, they, today, tokay, Torbay, Tournai, trait, tray, trey, two-way, ukiyo-e, underlay, way, waylay, Wei, weigh, wey, Whangarei, whey, yea

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Aka

Aka

PRONUNCIATION : AH-kah
ALTERNATE NAMES : Pygmies; tropical forest foragers; Biaka; Bayaka; Bambenzele
LOCATION : Tropical forests of southern Central African Republic and northern Congo
POPULATION : 30,000
LANGUAGE : Diaka
RELIGION : Indigenous beliefs
RELATED ARTICLES : Vol 1: Central Africans; Congolese; Efe and Mbuti

INTRODUCTION

In the U.S., the Aka are better known as “ pygmies.” The term pygmy refers to a person of short stature (usually under 1.5 meters [4 ft 9 in]) who hunts and gathers and has a strong identity with the tropical forest. It is generally a derogatory term that emphasizes their physical characteristics. Among Central African farmers, the term carries a connotation of beings closer to animals than to “civilization” (i.e., people who farm), so anthropologists currently use the term tropical forest forager instead. By comparison, in the United States there are the Hopi, Navajo, Lakota, Cheyenne and many other indigenous peoples, but when referring to them as a group, they prefer to be called “Native Americans” rather than “redskins.” In Central Africa, the Aka, Baka, Efe, Mbuti, and other indigenous forest hunter-gatherers have generally been referred to by outsiders as “pygmies.” Researchers suggest replacing the term with “tropical forest foragers” until such time that these forest people become politically organized and decide for themselves what they would like to be called as a group.

Why are the Aka short? Medical exams of children and adults indicate that their health is generally better than that of most peoples in the developing world, so their small stature is not due to lack of food. Aka children's growth is slightly slower than U.S. children's growth (as is the growth of most children in the developing world), but the biggest difference occurs when Aka children reach 14 years of age. Aka do not experience the dramatic growth spurt during the teenage years that is common in most human populations. This diminished adolescent growth is due to a lack of receptors for a particular growth hormone (IGF-I). It is also true that most mammals living in tropical forests are shorter than their savanna relatives (e.g., forest elephants are smaller than savanna elephants), which suggests that smaller size may be adaptive to the humid tropical forest.

The Aka are just one of at least 10 ethnically and linguistically distinct groups of tropical forest foragers (“pygmies”) who occupy the tropical forests throughout Central Africa. Tropical forest foragers have been living in the tropical forests for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Consequently, the Aka are referred to as the “first citizens” of the Central African Republic and Congo (much like Native Americans in the United States).

The farming peoples of Central Africa moved into the tropical forest area about 2,000 years ago and slowly established regular trading relationships with tropical forest foragers. Farmers needed game meat, honey and other forest products, and forest foragers liked the cultivated foods of farmers. Today, Aka-farmer relations are very complex, and they attend each other's funerals, births, and marriages as well as having regular economic exchanges. The farmers see themselves as superior to Aka and talk about “their” Aka. Even though Aka-farmer trading relationships may have lasted for trading generations, Aka can (and do) leave any time they feel a “patron” is not treating them well.

The Aka generally live in areas that do not have roads, but this does not mean they do not know what is going on in the world or that they have not been influenced by colonialism. At the turn of the century, the French colonizers of the Central African Republic and Congo wanted ivory, rubber, and antelope skins, and it was often the Aka who provided these items through their village trading partners. The European desire for antelope skins increased the frequency of net hunting, and the desire for ivory increased the status position of tuma, great elephant hunters who could communicate with the supernatural forest spirits. Because ivory trade is now banned in Central Africa, the position of tuma is not as important as it was 40 years ago.

There are few Aka status positions. There is no chief in the sense of a person commanding ultimate authority, yet there is the kombeti, who is generally more influential in subsistence and camp movement discussions. The nganga is the traditional healer and provides a wide range of services to the community—such as divination on hunts, curing of witchcraft, and herbal healing. The tuma is the great hunter who has often killed several elephants on his own. He leads spear hunts and important hunting and seasonal rituals, and organizes the training of young boys in the men's secret society. The status positions are usually held by males.

The Aka are fiercely egalitarian and independent. No individual has the right to coerce or order another individual to perform an activity against his/her will. Aka have a number of informal non-institutional methods for maintaining their egalitarianism. For instance, they practice prestige avoidance; one does not draw attention to his or her activities. There are certainly exceptional hunters, dancers, and drummers, but individuals do not brag to others about their abilities.

LOCATION AND HOMELAND

About 30,000 Aka live in the tropical forests of southern Central African Republic and northern Congo, generally between 1° and 4°n latitude. Their east and western limits are the Ou-bangui River in the east and the Sangha River, respectively.

Most Aka live in remote areas of the tropical forest where the population density is less than one person per square mile. Aka women average six live births during their lifetime. About 20% of Aka children do not live to their first birthday, and many die before they reach age 15. Infectious and parasitic diseases are the most common causes of death. Approximately half of the population is under age 15, and there are approximately equal numbers of males and females.

LANGUAGE

There are approximately 15 ethnic groups that speak 15 languages and live in association with the approximately 30,000 Aka in the Equatorial region. The Aka language is a distinct Bantu language and classified in the C-10 Bantu language group. It belongs to the Benue-Congo group of the Niger Congo. In addition to their own language the Aka speak the languages of their neighbors.

The Aka speak a Bantu language called diaka, which is characterized by three tones. The language often sounds musical, and different tones can dramatically change the meaning of a word (e.g., mbongo can mean “cup,” “a type of bee”, or “panther”). Most Aka speak at least two other languages—the Bantu or Oubanguian language of their village trading partners and some Sango, the national language in the Central African Republic.

Aka are given personal names a week or so after birth. Personal names have meanings attached to them—for example, Bimba (“flea”), Madjembe (“intestinal worms”), Ngunda Oti (“without hospitality”). In the last case, a boy's mother gave him the name because, at the time of his birth, the boy's father's family did not provide her with much food. Sometimes Aka simply like the sounds of new words and use them as names. For example, Aka now use the following as personal names: Boutros Boutros Ghali, Konvocation (convocation from missionaries), and Bonannee (from “happy new year” in French). Personal names often change as one gets older, or a person may be known by several different names. Names are informal, similar to nicknames in the United States. If someone has a particular physical characteristic, or personality trait (e.g., a person with big ears, a quiet person, someone who is always sick, or a good rat trapper), people start to call the person by that name. There are no last names, but both men and women inherit a clan name from their fathers. Clan names refer to particular plants or animals that have supernatural abilities, and people who belong to a particular clan cannot eat that plant or animal. Trails in the forest are associated with particular clans, and after marriage a couple eventually lives with members of the husband's clan.

In addition to personal and clan names, a person can also be called by a kinship term. In the United States, we are familiar with the kinship terms mother, father, brother, sister, and so on. Aka kinship terms are quite different in that almost everyone in the same generation has the same kinship term. For example, if you were Aka, you would call your natural father, your father's older brother, and the husband of your mother's sister by the same term—tao. You would refer to your brothers and sisters and all of your first cousins by the same term—kadi. You could refer to your grandparents and all your great aunts and great uncles by the same term—koko. If you had children and your brothers and sisters had children, you would use the same kinship term for all of them—mona. So when an Aka parent is asked, “Who are your children?” he or she recites the long list of people who in the United States would be considered nieces and nephews. Aka would feel right at home with the African-American who uses the term bro to refer to any man in the same generation.

FOLKLORE

Aka say that long ago they lived in villages and farmed, but one day a woman heard bees in the sky and a group of people decided to go into the forest to see where they were going. They found the bees' hive, loved the honey and, finding plenty of food in the forest, decided to stay. This is how Aka describe the origin of their life in the forest. In 2003 the oral traditions of the Aka were proclaimed one of the “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

RELIGION

Aka religious beliefs are best characterized by their regional and individual variation rather than by a standardized pattern. The Aka occupy a large territory, and religious beliefs vary by area. Some Aka believe in bembe, a creator of all living things, but those who believe in bembe indicate that he/ she retired soon after creation. Djengi is the most consistently mentioned, powerful, and generally benevolent forest spirit. Djengi has supernatural abilities, but in many ways he/she is not much different from Aka. Djengi, a spirit, can be thought of as another member of the camp whom one sees and shares with on a regular basis. Djengi shares resources with people, people visit and socialize with djengi, and there is a general trust in (if not love for) Djengi. Djengi comes into the camp in the form of a raffia mask and encourages people to have a party and celebrate in the forest spirit. Djengi asks for cigarettes, water, and other items while in camp and likes it when people dance and sing well. Djengi is a spectacular dancer, especially when the Aka are singing well. Communication with djengi takes place through a traditional healer or tuma who has the ability to translate the supernatural language.

Most Aka camps have a traditional healer (nganga). Ngangas cure all forms of illness (e.g., malaria, worms, bad luck, attack by witchcraft); see into the future to help one make decisions about travel, marriage, or friendships; and can see game animals deep in the forest while on the net hunt. The majority of ngangas are part-time and hunt and gather most of the day. Ngangas acquire their knowledge through training and initiation. During initiation, the insides of their eyelids are cut, and medicine is placed in the cuts to help the ngangas see those things most others cannot.

Aka also believe that family members do not entirely leave this earth after they die. An ancestor's spirit (edjo) stays around, visits with the family, and often wants things. (One woman said that the edjo of her father knocked her down while she was walking through the forest.) Many Aka believe in witchcraft (gundu), especially to explain unexpected adult deaths. Witches send poison darts (ndoki) into the body of a victim, and the person eventually dies from the poison unless the nganga can extract the dart, usually by sucking it out. If someone is accused of witchcraft, he/she may have to take a drink made from special roots. The root is believed to have supernatural power so that if a person is guilty, he/she will go into convulsions and possibly die (the root contains strychnine).

Many Aka rituals are linked to hunting and gathering, and Aka engage in a number of individual and group hunting rituals to ensure a successful hunt. To assist hunting efficiency, the net can be ritually washed of bad spirits (kose) or a variety of medicines (bouanga) can be placed on them to increase good luck. The number and types of rituals increase as hunting success decreases.

Many Aka have been contacted by missionaries, but it is difficult for missionaries to convert Aka to Christianity because the Aka move around often, and it is not possible to drive a car to most of their camps. Missionaries generally tell the Aka to stop dancing to djengi, and they are generally the only group that is trying to provide formal education and Western health care to Aka.

MAJOR HOLIDAYS

Aka do not use a numerical calendar, so they do not have specific dates that are celebrated each year, but there are holidays in the sense that there are days off to relax and party. Such holidays occur after good hunts or when large game animals, such as elephant or wild pig, have been captured. Holidays also occur during the honey, caterpillar, and termite seasons.

RITES OF PASSAGE

Aka do not have much in the way of group ritual activities. At birth, parents place protective cords made from forest vines around a baby's neck, wrists, and ankles to provide protection from bad spirits and help connect the newborn to the forest. At five or six years of age, boys are circumcised in a very informal manner. A man who is good at this comes into camp early in the morning, and the boy often runs into the forest. Everyone laughs, eventually the boy comes back, his father holds him, and the whole thing is over in five minutes. Aka are not teased if they cry and there is plenty of social and emotional support.

During the teenage years, boys and girls get their top four incisors pointed. This is done when the teenager feels ready and is conducted in a very informal atmosphere. Aka believe that pointed teeth make one look handsome or more beautiful. Some Aka, primarily teenage girls, get the bottom four incisors pointed as well. Teenagers bring in new fads from other areas. Current fads include coloring teeth with a purple dye from a forest vine, piercing the nasal septum with a small twig (girls only), and shaving stripes into one's eyebrows.

The only large, group-level ritual occurs at death. Relatives travel long distances and sing and dance for days. Camp sizes more than triple during funeral ceremonies. Teenagers go to as many funerals as possible because they are fun, and it is an opportunity to develop relationships with teenagers from other areas.

INTERPERSONAL RELATIONS

There are no formal greetings among the Aka, and people do not say good-bye, in part, because they are likely to see each other again. Aka are very warm and hospitable.

Relationships between men and women are egalitarian: men and women both contribute to the household diet, a husband or wife can initiate divorce, and violence against women is very rare. Women have their own dances and songs in which they ridicule men. Spouses can and do ridicule each other with rather crude joking, including uncomplimentary remarks about the size and shape of a partner's genitals, but for the most part the partner does not pay much attention to such ridicule.

Relations between young and old are also egalitarian in that there is minimal deference towards the elderly. Aka elders are expected to hunt and gather as long as they can, and grandparent-grandchild relations are playful and relaxed.

The Aka are fiercely egalitarian and independent. No individual has the right to coerce or order another individual to perform an activity against his/her will. Even when parents give instructions to their children to collect water or firewood, there are no sanctions if they do not do so. Aka have a number of informal methods for maintaining their egalitarianism. First, they practice prestige avoidance; one does not draw attention to his or her abilities. There are exceptional hunters, dancers, and drummers, but individuals do not brag to others about their abilities. If a man kills an elephant, he says someone else did all the work and talks about the small size of the elephant. Second, Aka practice rough joking with those who start to accumulate, do not share, or who act egotistically. For instance, if a teenager eats most of the honey before returning to camp, others will joke about the size and shape of his genitals. And third, Aka practice “demand sharing.” This means that whatever one has will be given up if requested. If I like the shirt you are wearing, I ask for it and you say you really did not need it. This way most material items circulate around the camp. This is one reason Aka have been slow to take up farming. An Aka who spends three to four months farming must give everything away at harvest time when all the relatives come to visit and request food.

Sharing, cooperation, and autonomy are but a few others of the Aka core values. The community cooperates daily in the net hunt (described in the section on Work), food hunted is shared with members of the camp, and decision-making is the reserved prerogative of the individual; if one is not content with living conditions, one moves to another camp, which is easy and acceptable.

LIVING CONDITIONS

The Aka are extremely poor in terms of Western socioeconomic status and material wealth. They seldom have money and do not attend formal schools because they would be teased by the villagers and do not have money to buy books. They do not obtain Western medical care because they do not have money to purchase medicines, and clinic doctors usually discriminate against them.

Aka camps consist of 25–35 people living in five to seven dome-shaped houses. Houses are close to each other and all of them occupy an area the size of a large living room. Houses are three feet high so one cannot stand up in a house. Each family has their own house and everyone in that house sleeps together in the same bed. The house is big enough for one bed and a campfire for warmth during the night. The two or three adolescent boys in the camp share one house (the bachelor pad) while teenage girls each make their own small house. Houses are made by women, with the exception of the bachelor pads (which are often poorly constructed and leak water all the time), and are constructed from saplings and large leaves. The beds are made from logs, animal skins or leaves.

Aka move their camps about eight times a year and there are daily changes in camp composition as visitors (e.g., relatives, friends, traders) come and go, and members leave to join other camps.

Water sources are generally not contaminated because the Aka do not live in one place very long. Aka do not brush their teeth or use streams for washing. It rains frequently, so Aka simply wash off as they walk through the forest.

FAMILY LIFE

The family (husband, wife, and children) is extremely important as this is the unit of production and reproduction: The family works as an economic unit on the net hunt and in a variety of other subsistence activities (e.g., collecting caterpillars and mushrooms). Additionally, the conjugal family is where most cultural skills are transmitted and acquired. The camp (lango) consists of 1 to 15 nuclear families, but averages around 25 to 35 individuals. Aka children grow up in an environment of trust, love, and indulgence. Infants are held throughout the day (even while sleeping), nursed on demand (four times an hour), and caregivers attend immediately to any fuss or cry. Although Aka are very indulgent and intimate with their infants, they are not a child-focused society. Parents seldom stop activities to pay undivided attention to their children.

Although the mother is the primary caregiver, Aka fathers provide more care to young children than fathers in any other society. Numerous others also help out with infant care. While in camp, infants are held by their mothers less than 40% of the time. Rather, they are transferred to other caregivers an average of seven times per hour, and they have seven different care-givers holding them during a single day.

Aka childhood lacks negative forces and violence. Seldom does one hear a parent tell a child not to touch or do something. If a child hits another child, the parent will simply move the child to another area. Corporal punishment for a child who misbehaves seldom occurs. In fact, if a parent hits a child, it is reason enough for the other parent to ask for divorce.

Generally, it is difficult for parents to get their older children to do much. When older children (7–11 years old) are asked to collect water or firewood, they often simply ignore their parents' requests. Parents may sometimes shout at their children but, more often than not, they simply go and get what they need themselves. During the teenage years, same-sex friends seem to be inseparable—they go everywhere together. Girls collect water, nuts, or fruit together, and boys take trips to the village or go on small game hunts together (hunting mice with small nets is a favorite pastime for boys.) Teenagers often travel to visit relatives and explore territories other than their own, so they may be absent from the camp for long periods.

The teenage years are a time of social and sexual exploration and teenagers are key members of the camp. They provide new and fresh energy to the camp. For example, they bring in new dances from other camps and are often the first to start dancing at night (the adults join in later). They are many times the ones to initiate changes in Aka culture (e.g., nose-piercing, breaking of relationships with villagers). In many ways, Aka parents seem similar to U.S. parents: they complain that teenagers are smoking more and having sex earlier than in the past.

First marriages occur between 17 and 21 years of age. Once a man moves his traps and spear into the house of a woman the two are considered married; there is no formal marriage ceremony. The husband must stay at the camp of his wife for two years or so, or until the first child is born and walking well. After this, “bride service,” the family moves to the camp of the father's brothers. About 25% of marriages end in divorce, the majority of these being first marriages. Divorce takes place by one partner simply moving out of the house. If divorce occurs, children go with the parent they prefer.

CLOTHING

The temperature never drops below 21°C (70°F) during the day. Men and women wear loincloths made of commercial fabric obtained in trade with villagers. When Aka visit the village, they put on any Western or “villager” clothes they might have. Men wear T-shirts and shorts, and women wear a cloth that they wrap around their waist.

FOOD

The Aka know more about the tropical forest than do most botanists and zoologists. The Aka know hundreds of forest plants and animals, but they subsist primarily on some 60 plant species, 20 insect species, honey from 8 species of bees, and around 30 species of game. The Aka collect roots and leaves, nuts, and fruits. They collect mushrooms, termites, crickets, grubs, and caterpillars. The Aka hunt large game (primarily hog and elephant) with spears, antelope with nets, monkeys with crossbows, and rat, mongoose, and porcupine with a variety of small snare and net traps.

Although there is enormous diversity in the Aka diet, their favorite game animal by far is porcupine. Forest porcupines have fat throughout their bodies, and so are very tasty. Honey is another favorite food (the “candy” of the forest) and people spend large parts of the day looking for just a handful of honey. Aka do not hesitate to cut down an entire mahogany tree in order to get a pound of honey from its top.

Aka obtain metal pots, pans, and cooking utensils by trading game meat and other forest products with farmers. Aka do not use plates and utensils to eat. Everyone in a family eats out of two or three shared bowls of food, and they use their hands to eat. A typical meal consists of a bowl with boiled game meat in nut sauce and a bowl of some carbohydrate, usually manioc obtained through trade with farmers. The piece of manioc is picked up with one's fingers and dipped into the meat sauce.

Because the Aka live near the equator, the sun comes up at 6 am and sets at 6 pm throughout the year. Most people get up at sunrise and prepare a hot meal of leftovers from the previous evening meal. Aka then snack throughout the day as they hunt and gather. If they find fruits or nuts, they eat some immediately and save some for back at camp. The largest meal occurs after families have returned from hunting, gathering, and trading—usually at about 7 pm.

EDUCATION

Aka do not usually attend formal schools, but they begin learning about hunting and gathering when they are infants. Parents teach their 8-to-12-month-old infants how to use small, pointed digging sticks, throw small spears, use miniature axes with sharp metal blades, and carry small baskets. One- and two-year-olds use knives, axes, and digging sticks. They build play houses and imitate the dances and songs of adult life. By three or four years of age, children can cook themselves a meal on a fire; by age 10, Aka children can live alone in the forest if necessary. By age 10, they can identify hundreds of plants and animals and know all the important subsistence skills, with the exception of elephant hunting. Aka do not read or write, but they are very interested in acquiring these skills.

Catholic missionaries have started schools for Aka in a few locations, so some Aka speak French.

CULTURAL HERITAGE

The Aka have a reputation as being the best dancers in the Central African Republic and Congo. They are frequently invited to the capital city by the president to dance at national festivals. Aka music is unique; it has yodeling, hocketing, and polyphonic harmonies and is often heard on the national radio station.

WORK

The Aka are one of the last groups of people on earth to spend most of their days hunting and gathering. The tropical forest is not known for its abundance of wild edible foods, but if one has extensive knowledge of the forest it can be a land of plenty. Aka actually work fewer hours per week than do middle-class Americans, although Aka do not clearly distinguish work versus playtime: they regularly play and joke during net hunts and other subsistence activities.

Net hunting is the most important hunting technique, and it is unique among hunting techniques in that it involves the whole family—men, women, and children—and focuses on making noise rather than stalking and being quiet. Each family has a net that measures about 45 meters (150 feet) long and 2.2 meters (4 feet) high. The hunt takes place at night and begins by connecting all the families' nets together so they make a semi-circle or circle around an area about half the size of a football field. Men go to the center of the nets, women stay next to the net, and children go wherever they want. Once a sound is given to start the hunt, the men yell, scream, and pound logs on the ground to make as much noise as possible in order to wake up and scare the antelopes (most of which are nocturnal). If an animal is scared into the net, the nearest woman tackles it, grabs it behind its hind legs, and smashes its head against a nearby tree. If it is a large antelope, other women will assist in tackling and killing it. Game animals are shared with everyone in camp.

Over the course of a year, the Aka spend about 50% of their time hunting, 30% in gathering, and 20% in village work for farmers. The relative importance of hunting and gathering activities fluctuates from season to season. For example, the Aka spend up to 90% of their time net hunting during the dry season (January to May), but during part of the rainy season (August to September) 60% of their time is spent collecting food, especially caterpillars. August is caterpillar season, and caterpillars are eaten at every meal. They can be roasted, boiled, or fried and taste like french fries. Much of the vegetable food in the Aka diet is obtained by trading game meat to farmers for manioc, corn, or other village foods.

SPORTS

Forest people do not play sports in the Western sense. They do, however, learn basic skills through mock hunts and other games. Children play games similar to sports that teach them about group dynamics and personal achievement. Elders teach children the strategies and techniques of hunting by pretending to be animals and 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.

ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION

Aka do not have televisions, radios, or books. They do not have electricity, so after it gets dark they sit around fires to socialize, gossip, tell stories (often about gorillas or chimps having affairs with humans) and dance and sing. Dances usually occur about twice a week, but they are held every night during caterpillar season or when hunting is especially good.

FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES

Aka do not have paper and pencils so their art often takes the form of body modifications—painting, scarification, haircuts, and so on. The dark juice from a fruit is used to draw designs on the face and the body that represent the sounds and sights of the forest. Scarification often takes place before a dance. Teenagers get together and cut various designs into their bodies, often around the navel. Aka use razor blades traded from villagers to cut their hair and shave their heads into some very original designs—triangles, lightning bolts, caterpillars, and so on.

SOCIAL PROBLEMS

Today the Aka continue to be affected by the world economy in several ways. In Bokoka, for instance, the Aka move into the village for part of the dry season, at the expense of missing the best net hunting of the year, to help the farmers with their coffee plantations. The coffee, destined for the European market, is the primary means by which villagers acquire money. Some Aka help villagers hunt elephant for ivory, while other Aka work for lumber companies in the region.

European logging companies are building roads and mills to extract mahogany and other hardwood trees (most caterpillars come from these trees). Europeans and Africans are going deeper into the forest to dig for gold and diamonds. And Western conservation groups are trying to establish national parks and reserves to save tropical forests, but this means that Aka often lose their lands.

The farmers who are the Aka's trading partners are trying to grow more and more cash crops (e.g., coffee) to buy commercial goods (e.g., radios, VCRs), and so they try to get “their” Aka to work in the fields with little or no remuneration. Consequently, traditional trading relations are breaking down and Aka now say that villagers turn into chimpanzees when they die. There is little question that both African farmers and European investors exploit Aka. Aka are quiet and self-assured, and they often respond to outside pressures by fleeing deeper into the forest. Aka are not politically organized, nor do they have the literacy skills to try and mitigate these threats to their existence.

Alcoholism and drugs are not major problems for the Aka, except in logging towns where some Aka are paid for locating hardwoods. Aka, used to immediate consumption of collected or captured foods, do not store for the future. When they are paid for their labor, they spend all their money within a day or two, often on alcohol or cannabis.

Aka do not currently have AIDS, but they know about it from all the deaths among villagers. In the past, Aka seldom had sexual relations with villagers; now they say that if they sleep with a villager, they will die from AIDS. Their hunter-gatherer lifestyle exposes them to blood of jungle fauna, thus they have among the highest rates of seropositivity for Ebola virus in the world.

GENDER ISSUES

Aka male-female relations are extremely egalitarian by cross-cultural standards. Both males and females are regular contributors to the diet. Aka husbands and wives are together often and cooperate in a wide variety of subsistence tasks such as to net hunt, collect caterpillars, termites, honey, fruit, and sometimes fish. But wives are less likely to participate in cross-bow hunting for monkeys and trap-line hunting for medium size game, and never participate in spear hunts for wild pig and elephants. It is also clear that Aka men and women like to be with members of the same sex at least as much as being with their spouses. Men enjoy hunting game together, and women enjoy collecting nuts and fruit away from the men.

The political power and social prestige of Aka women is pronounced, but is not as structurally salient as that of Aka men. Aka men hold all the named positions of status—kombeti, tuma, and nganga—but as mentioned already, these men hold no absolute power. They influence people through their hospitality, persuasiveness, humor, and knowledge, not by their position. Aka women challenge men's authority on a regular basis and are influential actors in all kinds of decision-making. Women participate in decisions about camp movement, extramarital affairs, bad luck on the hunt, and sorcery accusations.

Autonomy within the context of group interdependence is a vital feature of Aka gender relations. Husbands and wives cooperate in a wide range of activities, but there is respect for each other's feelings and peculiarities. Husbands cannot force their wives to come on the hunt, and the wives cannot force their husbands to look for honey. Spouses can and do ridicule each other with rather crude joking (e.g., uncomplimentary remarks about the size and shape of their partner's genitals), but for the most part the partner does not pay much attention to the ridicule. If the couple does not get along, divorce is a matter of one partner simply moving out of the house. While men and women have clearly defined subsistence and social roles, one is not ridiculed for trying a role usually assigned to the other gender. Women carry the nets, spears, and crossbows of the men and men carry the baskets and digging sticks of the women. This sex role flexibility is seen in the different types of net hunt. On most net hunts, men go to the center of the nets and chase the game into the nets while women stand nearby to jump on and kill the captured game. But for social or environmental reasons (getting tired of doing one type of net hunt or trying to capture especially large game) the roles are sometimes reversed, and women go to the center of the nets while men stay next to the net.

Physical violence in general is infrequent and violence against women is especially rare. The lack of violence enhances female autonomy and encourages husband-wife cooperation and trust. Husband-wife conflicts do of course occur but they are usually resolved through talking, rough joking, leaving camp for awhile, or mediated assistance from other camp members.

It is essential to understand Aka gender relations, particularly husband-wife relations, if one is to understand the Aka father-infant relationship. A 2005 UNESCO report named Aka men as the “Best Dads in the World.” Aka fathers have their infant within arms' reach 47% of the time. Husband and wife are together often, know each other exceptionally well, and cooperate on a regular basis in a diversity of tasks. Men and women have distinct tasks, but there are few underlying beliefs that one sex is naturally inclined to perform certain tasks. The capabilities of men and women are very similar, and therefore tasks can be reversed easily. Male and female experiences and socialization are different, but men and women know the tasks of the opposite sex. Women are also valued and respected members of the group. Aka men, however, though are similar to men cross-culturally in that men predominate in the named status positions, only men hunt large game, and polygyny is relatively common. In summary, Aka male-female relations have commonalties with male-female relations cross-culturally, but the Aka are probably as egalitarian as human societies get.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Cavalli-Sforza, Luigi Luca, ed. African Pygmies. Orlando, Fla.: Academic Press, 1986.

Hewlett, Barry S. Intimate Fathers: The Nature and Context of Paternal-lnfant Care Among Aka Pygmies. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991.

———. “Cultural diversity among African pygmies.” In: Cultural Diversity Among Twentieth-Century Foragers. Susan Kent, ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Hewlett, S. Barry and Bonnie L. Hewlett. Ebola, Culture and Politics: The Anthropology of an Emerging Disease (Case Studies on Contemporary Social Issues.). Stamford, CT: Wadsworth Publishing, 2007.

Mark, Joan T. The King of the World in the Land of the Pygmies. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

—revised by M. Njoroge

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