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Groups of Pygmies in Equatorial Africa

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Pygmy groups are scattered throughout equatorial Africa, from Cameroon

in the west to Zambia in the southeast. In Zaire, there are three

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main groups of Pygmies: the Tswa in the west, the Twa between Lake

Kivu and Lake Tanganyika, and the Mbuti (also referred to as Bambuti

or BaMbuti) of the Ituri Forest. According to Schebesta, the author

of the earliest reliable reports, only the Mbuti are true Pygmies,

i.e., under 150 cm. in height and relatively unmixed with neighboring

peoples. The other groups are referred to as “Pygmoids,” being highly

intermixed with other peoples both physically and culturally (Turnbull

1965A: 159-B). The following summary refers only to the Mbuti Pgymies

The Mbuti are located at lat. 0 degrees-3 degrees N and long. 26 degrees-30

degrees E. Their territory is a primary rain forest. The Mbuti have

conventionally been divided into three groups, which are distinct

from each other linguistically, economically, and geographically.

Each of the three groups speaks a different language (which corresponds

to the language spoken by neighboring villagers), practices different

hunting techniques, and is territorially distinct.

The Aka speak the

Mangbetu language (Sudanic family), hunt primarily with spears, and

live in the north. These spear-hunters have not been extensively studied.

The Efe speak the Lese language (Sudanic family), are archers, and

are located in the east. The Efe were studied by Schebesta. The Sua

speak the Bira language (Bantu branch of the Benue-Congo family),

hunt with nets, and live to the south. They were studied by Putnam

The most profound difference between the three groups, the linguistic

difference, is, according to Turnbull, of recent origin and is purely

“accidental” (Turnbull 1965B 22-23). Furthermore, in spite of the

fact that the three languages are very different, there are enough

similarities in intonation to make it possible for Pygmies to recognize,

All of the Pygmies of the Ituri Forest recognize themselves by the

term Mbuti, and the only political identity they have is in opposition

to the village cultivators. The Mbuti as a whole are clearly distinct

from these village neighbors both racially and culturally, and, Turnbull

says, the economic differences between the three Mbuti groups mask

a basic “structural unity” (Turnbull 1965B: 22-23).

Since there has never been an official demographic census, it is impossible

to give an accurate estimate of the total Mbuti population. From discussion

with missionaries and administrators and from his own experience,

however, Turnbull guessed that the population was approximately 40,000

The Mbuti live in territorially defined nomadic bands. The membership

of these bands is very fluid. Bands have no formal political structure;

there are no chiefs, and there is no council. An informal consensus

among old respected men is the basis of decisions affecting the entire

In spite of Turnbull’s insistence on “basic structural unity,” the

differences in hunting techniques aqppear to have considerable effect

upon the nature of the band organization. Net hunting is a cooperative

venture, requiring the cooperation of the whole band, including the

women and children. Archery, on the other hand, is primarily a family

venture, requiring only two or three men. The most obvious distinction

resulting from the economic differences is that of band size. Archer

bands average about 6 huts per band, while net-hunting bands average

The Mbuti maintain relationships with surrounding village cultivators

whose languages the Mbuti have adopted. Many accounts indicate that

the Mbuti are highly acculturated and have adopted many features of

villager lifestyle beyond language, such as the clan system and certain

religious observances. Turnbull feels that these features are quite

The relationship between the Mbuti and the villagers is maintained

on several different levels, centering around trade. The Pygmies bring

the villagers honey and meat in return for plantation products. This

economic exchange can occur on several levels: between the band and

the village as a whole (capita/chief), between lineage and lineage

(lineage elder/Kpara), or between individuals (kare/kare). The first

type of relationship does not occur very often, exchanges being more

easily conducted on an interpersonal basis. The lineage relationship

is hereditary on both sides. The kare brotherhood is established in

nkumbi initiations. In the nkumbi initiation, male villagers and Mbuti

are circumcised. The relationship established in the initiation is

continued throughout life and centers around economic exchange.

The religious life of the Mbuti is not at all clear. Early reports

state that they had no religion at all, and later reports dwell on

whether or not the Mbuti relationship to the supernatural structurally

constitutes “religion” (usually defined by belief in one supreme being)

or “magic.” In any event, there appear to be two ceremonies of importance,

both of which are concerned with resolving crises and returning the

band to stability. The molimo ceremony is performed primarily by men

and is associated with singing and the use of a particular type of

horn, called the molimo horn. The molimo is particularly associated

with death, but it may be performed at any crisis, such as a poor

hunting season. The elima ceremony is performed primarily by women

and is associated with life-cycle crises of particular concern to

women, such as birth, puberty, marriage, and death.


Cite this Groups of Pygmies in Equatorial Africa

Groups of Pygmies in Equatorial Africa. (2018, Sep 28). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/groups-of-pygmies-in-equatorial-africa/

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