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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

    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.


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